By the end of the 18th century, Inverness, the capital of the Highlands, attracted wealthy families from all over the Highlands to settle and enjoy the balls, assemblies and pleasures found in a metropolitan city.
A ring of mansions and fine houses sprang up around in the neighborhood of Inverness. The finest of the country houses still survives, Culloden House, an exquisite Georgian mansion set in open parkland.
But the existing house, already over 200 years old, is not the first house to stand on the site. Originally it was a 16th century Jacobean castle and parts of the house date back to this time.
Early on various owners claimed Culloden as their home ranging from the family of the first Stuart King, Robert II, to the chieftain of the Macintosh clan.
In 1625 Duncan Forbes purchased Culloden from the Macintosh chieftain and the Forbes family began their nearly 300 year history with it. Descended from the Forbes of Tolquhoun on his father’s side, and of the Keiths, Earls Marischal on his mother’s, he was a clear example of a wealthy urban merchant leaving trade to set his family up as land owners and lairds.
The Forbes were known for their lavish lifestyle and generous hospitality. The 4th Laird of Culloden’s nickname “Bumper John” cames from his fondness for French wines. Around 1730, the author of the book Letters from A Gentleman in the North of Scotland writes about Bumper John:
“There lives in a house or castle called Culloden, a gentleman whose hospitality is almost without bounds. It is the custom of that house, at the first visit or introduction, to take up your freedom cracking his nut (as he terms it), that is a coconut shell, which holds a pint filled with champagne, or such other sort of wine as you shall choose. You may guess that few go away sober at any time; and for the greatest part of his guests, in that conclusion, they cannot go at all. A hogshead of fine claret was kept in the hall, so that guests or even passer-bys could refresh themselves with a pint of claret.”
It was the most famous Forbes of all, another Duncan, who inherited the lands from his older brother, Bumper John, and moved into Culloden House.
Duncan was Lord Chief Justice of Scotland at the time of the ’45 Uprising. As staunch Presbyterians, the family had suffered during earlier Jacobite uprisings, including having the house occupied and plundered by Viscount Dundee in 1688.
Wise and persuasive, Duncan convinced some powerful Highland chiefs not to join the ’45 uprising. Sir Walter Scott described Duncan as the “distinguished Scotsman who by his efforts saved the Hanoverian throne”.
Duncan, however, was appalled by the aftermath of the battle and urged George II not to inflict harsh punishment on the Highlanders. But George II was shaken by the rebellion and not in the mood to listen. He angrily responded to Duncan’s pleas by withholding payment of funds owned Duncan by the crown, nearly ruining his fortune.
Duncan died a few years after the battle, it is said, of a broken heart.
It was left to later Forbes to rebuild the family fortune and create the beautiful house we know today.
Duncan’s son John was able, slowly, to rebuild the family’s fortunes. These efforts were crowned when his son Arthur married an English heiress, Miss Sarah Stratton, from Kent. They had now the means to renovate Culloden House into a fine new house.
Their plan was for a house designed in a manner made fashionable by Robert Adam, the pre-eminent architect of this time.
As typical with Adam make-overs, the plan was to keep the main house walls intact but remove the outer castle fortifications. Indeed, lasting peace in the Highlands following the Battle of Culloden meant Culloden’s defensive surround walls were no longer necessary.
Fortunately for the Forbes, Robert Adam and his family were commissioned by King George II to design and build Ft. George located just six miles away.
Extant letters show that Robert Adam was a friend and houseguest at Culloden House during this period. His influence in Culloden’s 1770’s renovation can be seen in the elegant Palladian architecture, the light and airy interiors, and the Adam plaster reliefs and fireplaces.
They succeeded in creating what has been described as “one of the most attractive small country houses of its period in Scotland”.
Bonnie Prince Charlie
More than two centuries ago, amid the Jacobite uprising, Bonnie Prince Charlie requisitioned Culloden House as his lodging and battlefield headquarters.
He lived here, on and off, including the two nights prior to the battle.
Charles was hoping to win back the throne for his father, the son of the last Stuart king. He was opposed by his cousin, the Duke of Cumberland, who was fighting to keep the throne for his father, George II.
Both were 25 years old.
Charles was out-gunned and outnumbered. He escaped but the Scots way of life was henceforth altered. It was the end of an era and never again was a pitched battle fought on British soil.
Culloden is a site which changed more than the history of Scotland. It has been estimated that there are some 20 million people of Scots descent living in other countries as a result of the huge diaspora as the aftermath of this one battle.
The battle site became a place of pilgrimage for millions of Scots, both in Scotland as well as those scattered abroad. The most recognizable feature, a 20 foot memorial cairn built in honor of the fallen by Duncan Forbes, 8th Laird of Culloden, became a focal point for battlefield visitors.
Today the 180 acre moor is held in perpetuity for the nation by the National Trust of Scotland.
Culloden House therefore stands out a symbol, both of Scotland’s past, and her present. Its name and situation are redolent of a turbulent and romantic history, its present that of a welcoming Scotland, welcoming to her sons and daughters making the pilgrimage back home, providing the finest of accommodation within a superbly historic setting.