the shadow of culloden part 2. the fate of fraser prisoners

“Pursue and Hunt these Vermin amongst their lurking hills” – the Duke of Cumberland

In the months after Culloden, the ordinary Highlanders – soldiers and non-combatants alike – were not yet seen as an asset by the occupying forces. Unlike their land and animals. ‘We are all accounted rebels now’ lamented one Invernessian, who had remained loyal to the British state. Cumberland’s use of the word vermin to describe the people is so loaded to our ears. It makes everyone sub-human.

If they are not human, but ‘vermin, they have no human rights. You eradicate vermin. For me, that word recalls those obscene Nazi propaganda films where plagues of rats ran across the screen, while a vilely reasonable voiceover explained the effect of the German Jews on the German nation, prior to attacking them. Cumberland seemed to be going for pest control post-Culloden style.

‘I find them a more stubborn and villainous set of wretches than I imagined would exist,’ Cumberland remarked thoughtfully. It was taking much longer than he wanted. He had assumed he would be in and out in weeks. He needed to return to Flanders, where the Hanoverian George II had involved his British territories in the European War of the Austrian Succession.

No refuge under a pitiless sky

About Sarah

I am a writer, broadcaster, blogger and vlogger, wife, mother, granny and carer. We live in the Highlands of Scotland and London.

In the year after Culloden, you can see how the government tried to end the uprising. Its actions answered questions like, how do you make a lasting peace? And, what relationship the victors seek with the defeated in the longer term. The solutions, then and now can look quite haphazard. As if the victors are reacting to a situation on the ground that is so volatile, it seems their response is not very structured.

Apart from the innocent bystanders in the clans, what about those who were guilty of rising in arms against the government – the actual Fraser rebels. Some ordinary soldiers and officers survived the battle but not the mopping up process on the battlefield itself.

Nero’s Entertainment

Take, for example, the famous case of John Fraser, an officer in Lovat’s regiment. He survived the battle. He survived the random bayoneting of the wounded on the battlefield, which killed his commanding officer, Charles Fraser of Inverallochy.

John must have thought he was in the clear. Until, a cart trundled up. Government soldiers threw him onto it, with other wounded men. They were taken into a wood, lined up and shot from a distance of about 10 feet. Those who survived were then clubbed to death with the other end of the musket. Astonishingly, John Fraser survived! He lost one eye. His cheekbone was smashed, and he had the battle wounds to recover from. But he lived to recall this war crime.

When someone wrote about it five years later, they called for a government enquiry into these ‘Neronian atrocities’. He was comparing what happened in some places in the Highlands to the bloodbaths of the mad Roman emperor, Nero. And calling them ‘atrocities.’  Cumberland was astonished by the Jacobites’ tenacity.

Prison Hulk 1800

The prisoners they did not try to kill, were herded into the Gaelic church, at the harbour end of Church Street, hastily commandeered for a prison. There ‘were a great number of wounded prisoners who were stripped naked and left to die of their wounds…Many expired in the utmost agonies.’ Some wounded were taken into the church graveyard, put up against the wall and shot. They pushed hundreds of men into it and locked the door.

One Jacobite officer, a surgeon, had his instruments taken away in case he tried to heal anyone. The guards forbad him, on pain of death, to treat any of the stripped and wounded men. They were kept for trials to gather evidence against Lord Lovat, whom they caught at the beginning of June, 1746. Many who might condemn Lovat died here, while they waited to be summoned to a hearing.

The alternative makeshift jails were the prison ships that lay at anchor out in the middle of the harbour – one with the pretty name, Jean; the other the Liberty and Property.

The Hanoverians had to tow them far enough out into the firth for the town not to be troubled by the smell from it. It grew more rank by the day, despite the sweet salt sea air blowing through.

The Muster Roll book for the Jacobite army lists Frasers captured and executed for treason, or transported to slavery in Barbados. Where their fate is known, 70% of those in the hulks died in them. The remaining 30% were transported as slaves to Barbados. I don’t know the mortality rate on the journey, or who survived more than two years on the sugar plantations.

When the day came to bring in the prisoners for examination at the hearings to gather evidence for the trial of Lord Lovat, the reason for the foul reek became clear. The officer in charge of bringing them in was rowed out to the hulks.

‘What a scene opened to my eyes and nose all at once; the wounded festering in their gore and blood; some dead bodies quite covered over with piss and dirt, the living standing to the middle in it’

He ordered the opening of the hold to haul out a few witnesses. But, ‘what a scene opened to my eyes and nose all at once; the wounded festering in their gore and blood; some dead bodies quite covered over with piss and dirt, the living standing to the middle in it.’ Up to their waists in shit, urine and decomposing bodies, the men stared ahead, like men half sucked into the grave and hell, half in life. The officer regretted condoning the use of these ships for this purpose. These ships had received 157 prisoners. 49 came ashore alive. They were too wretched to be witnesses to anything except the horror of their experience.

All of them were paralysed with ‘terror and confusion … they seemed quite unfit for being talked with on any business, especially on what concerned Lord Lovat, as they boggled and were affrighted at his name’

They were too traumatised or simply uncomprehending – since they had no English. They were transported, killed, transferred or released. For a great old-style docudrama from 1964, click link Culloden 

Apart from physically attacking the people and their land, the government’s recognition of the problem posed to Britain by the semi-autonomous Gaelic-speaking society of the clans, emerged in legislative measures against clanship.

The ‘Act for the Abolition and Proscription of the Highland Dress’ spelled it out. Wearing the ‘plaid, philabeg, or little kilt, Trowse, Shoulders belts, or any part whatsoever of what peculiarly belongs to the Highland garb’ was forbidden. This included ‘tartan or party-coloured stuff’. The Act became law in 1746. Highlanders from all sides deeply resented it. Distinctive Highland dress was no nineteenth century invention.

The penalty for breaking this law was to be ‘imprisoned for six months for the first offence’ and ‘transported for seven years’ for re-offending. If this is not another attempt to ‘extinguish cultural particularity’ for political ends, what is? Some differences between 1746 and 2017 may be of degree not kind?

The music of the bagpipe was banned, and the Gaelic language, and, understandably, the bearing of arms.

Leading historian Allan MacInnes used the word ‘genocide’, to describe the pacification of the Highlands in the late 1740s. The equally eminent Murray Pittock took issue with him. He thought the actions not systematic enough, and prefers the term ‘ethnic cleansing’, thinking it reflects the random nature of the atrocities. It was not policy, but reaction to events on the  ground. I’m aware that making historical comparisons is often contentious and inadequate, but may offer insights into motives and events.   Rebellions were as messy then as now.

1 Comment

  1. Christine Z Jessop

    This brings tears to my eyes! I walked the Culloden Battlefield 6 years ago and I hold a particular reverence for what was suffered there and after…as I am related to the Fraser Clan. Is there any way to find out how old John Fraser (mentioned above) was when he fought and survived Culloden? There is a John Fraser in my genealogy who would have been alive then!


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