This review first appeared on the Historical Novel Society’s webpage.
Trevor Royle, Little, Brown, 2016, £25, hb, 409pp, 9781408704011
My brother-in-law is a mild-mannered man, who wore a grey suit every day to work. We’d go on weekend outings around lowland Scotland, ending in a cosy pub. At Culloden Moor, though, he was suffused with anger, striding up and down gesticulating wildly as he relived every turn of the battle. It was easy to imagine him in clan tartan, claymore high, screaming defiance as he charged into the wall of lead from Cumberland’s muskets.
The battle that ended Bonnie Prince Charlie’s hopes in 1746 had consequences that exploded like a firework across Europe, North America, and India. Trevor Royle paints a fascinating picture, tracing the effects of the Jacobite defeat and the careers of the men on both sides of the battle lines across the next 50 years. He clearly shows how that battle set forces loose which shaped the British Empire, made the French defeat in the Seven Years War inevitable, and so set up the necessary conditions for the American Revolution to succeed. It changed the world.
In parts, the book is not an easy read. Cumberland’s sobriquet as the Butcher of Culloden was earned after the battle, with the brutal suppression of the clan system in the Scottish Highlands – his soldiers had orders “to drive the cattle, burn the ploughs, and destroy what you can”. There are parallels with the way Native Americans were treated whilst the British and French forces were jockeying for ownership of North America, and of course their retaliation isn’t for the faint-hearted either.
My brother-in-law’s ire at a battle lost three centuries ago sparked my curiosity enough to ask for this book. I expected a blow-by-blow account of the battle. I got much, much more than I bargained for – a much broader appreciation of a formative period in world history. I shall have to buy my brother-in-law a copy; I’m keeping mine!