While Inverness is a charming town deserving of a day of exploring, some of the best attractions of the highlands can be found in the countryside around it, from the legends of Loch Ness to the distilleries on the whisky trail. For all you fellow history buffs out there, there’s one thing not to miss while in Inverness. Culloden Moor lies approximately fifteen minutes to the southwest of the city, and is home to one of the most prominent battles in Scottish history. And hidden in the countryside nearby are Clava Cairn, a Bronze Age circular chamber tomb surrounded by standing stones. If you’re a fan of Outlander, you’re probably familiar with both.
But even if you’re not a fan of television programming that features Scottish brogues and hot men in kilts (weird, but I digress) – Culloden Moor and Clava Cairn are well worth an afternoon! They’re both easy to reach by car, and if you don’t have access to one of those, the public bus will get you to Culloden Battlefield. The bus (No. 5 towards Croy) picks up at Falcon Square across from Marks and Spencer. Then from Culloden, you can hike down to Clava Cairn. It will take around forty-five minutes each way, but the beautiful countryside makes it worth the stroll.
A Brief History – Jacobitism
There was a movement throughout Great Britain known as Jacobitism, which aimed to restore the Roman Catholic Stuart King to the throne. After King James II was deposed in 1688, the Stuart line lived in exile and occasionally made efforts to regain the throne. There was arguably no place intertwined with the Jacobite movement more than the Scottish highlands. Jacobite risings occurred in 1689, 1715, 1719, and 1745, where the movement ended on the battlefield of Culloden.
A Brief History – Bonnie Prince Charlie
The resurrection of the Jacobite movement in 1745 wanted to see Prince Charles Edward Stuart (best known as Bonnie Prince Charlie) take the throne. He led a rebellion backed by the French and landed in Scotland, ready to raise an army – one that consisted of many highland clans. Charles stationed himself at the Palace of Holyrood in Edinburgh.
A Brief History – The Battle of Culloden
In 1745, the highlander army celebrated a success against the British at the Battle of Prestonpans. They began to march towards London, but decided to return to Scotland at the last minute. As they marched north, the Jacobites continued their success, winning the Battle of Falkirk Muir. But the rebellion met its match when they collided with the Duke of Cumberland’s army on Culloden Moor on April 16, 1746.
Visit the moor and you’ll quickly see why it made a terrible battlefield. The land is flat, open, and boggy. Troops were completely exposed and the ground was uneven. Though the highlander army was lauded for their aggressive military tactics, they were armed only with swords while the British had canons and gunfire. Despite advice not to advance, Charles led an exhausted army into battle that morning. The Jacobites stood little chance. Nearly 2,000 Jacobites died on the battlefield, while the British forces lost a mere 300.
After this final confrontation, Charles abandoned the cause and went into hiding. He eventually escaped Scotland with the help of Flora MacDonald, who disguised him as her maid and helped him cross ‘over the sea to Skye’. On the Isle of Skye, he caught passage back to France. Charles never returned to Scotland, and he didn’t pursue the Jacobite cause again.
Today, Culloden Moor is open to visitors. There is a museum that’s worth paying entrance to if you’re interested in the history. Alternatively, you can just visit the battlefield for free. Walking through the museum, although I already knew some of the story, taught me more and set me in the mood for wandering the battlefield. I don’t know what it is about this story – if it’s the resilience of the highlanders or the hopelessness of their cause – but it moves me.
At the end of the museum, you’ll exit onto the battlefield itself. The sprawling openness of it will have you picturing two armies colliding. There are monuments to those who lost their lives on the battlefield, and stones to mark the mass graves of the clansmen. It’s a harrowing and beautiful place to walk through, but such an important part of Scottish history.
The Walk to the Cairn
Since it was such a lovely day in the highlands (and, primarily, because I didn’t have a car), I decided that I would walk from Culloden down to Clava Cairn. It wasn’t a short walk, but it was beautiful. I passed farms and sheep came to say hello as I passed. Eventually I came to the woods, and the road lead down a hill and over a river. In the distance, the Culloden Viaduct stretched across the horizon. As I near the cairn, a sign advertised highland coos further down the road. A farmer waved. Wild gorse bloomed and I found myself singing as I walked. It was the perfect highland stroll.
Eventually, I reached Clava Cairn. Nestled in the Culloden countryside, Clava is a Bronze Age cemetery complex. It’s made up of three Bronze Age ring cairns, as well as kerb cairns and standing stones. These date back about 4,000 years.
The three ring cairns were used around 2000 BC. Then, around a thousand years later, the complex was used once again and a kerb cairn and other monuments were built. The cairns are surrounded by standing stones – the ones said to have inspired the stones from Outlander, due to their proximity to Inverness and Culloden Moor. But time-travel aside, the place has an air of ancient magic to it. Whether from the ancient Celtic or Nordic tradition or something more, who’s to say?
What are your favorite day trips from Inverness?