Culloden Culloden Culloden Culloden


  •  - U.K.
  •  - BBC TV
  •  - 1964
  •  - 1 hr 15 mins


This was the first of my two films made for the BBC. Late in 1962 I was engaged as an assistant producer for its newly established Channel 2, and some eighteen months later, after I had worked as an assistant to the producer Stephen Hearst on several of his documentaries, Huw Wheldon, then Head of the Documentary Film Department, gave me the opportunity and a small budget to produce a film on the Battle of Culloden. The idea for this project had its genesis with friends from ‘Playcraft’ suggesting that I read the excellent study by John Prebble, entitled Culloden - which was to become the main foundation for my film.

The Battle of Culloden, which took place on April 16, 1746, was the last battle fought on British soil. Some months earlier Prince Charles Edward Stuart (‘Bonne Prince Charlie’), son of James Edward, the Catholic Pretender to the British throne, had landed in Scotland, raised a ragged but tough-spirited Jacobite army from amongst the Gaelic-speaking Highland clans, and marched as far south as Derby before having to retreat back to the Highlands. He was pursued into Scotland by a powerful force of 9,000 redcoats under the command of William Augustus, the Duke of Cumberland, strengthened by Protestant Scot Lowlanders and several Highland clans loyal to King George II. Outside Inverness, on the bleak, rain-swept Culloden Moor, nearly 1,000 of Charlie’s army, made up of 5,000 weak and starving Highlanders, were slaughtered by the Royal Army, who lost 50 men. The Highlanders finally broke and fled. Approximately 1,000 more of them were killed in subsequent weeks of hounding by British troops, during what became known as the “rape” of the Highlands, and which led to the destruction of the Gaelic clan culture and to the deportations, known as the ‘Highland Clearances’, during the following century.


This was the 1960s, and the US army was ‘pacifying’ the Vietnam highlands. I wanted to draw a parallel between these events and what had happened in our own UK Highlands two centuries earlier, including because our knowledge of what took place after ‘Culloden’ was basically limited to an exotic image of ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’ on the label of a Drambuie whiskey bottle. Secondly, I wanted to break through the conventional use of professional actors in historical melodramas, with the comfortable avoidance of reality that these provide, and to use amateurs - ordinary people - in a reconstruction of their own history. Many of the people portraying the Highland army in our film were direct descendants of those who had been killed on the Culloden Moor.


‘Culloden’ was filmed in August 1964, near Inverness, with an all-amateur cast from London and the Scottish Lowlands playing the royalist forces, and people from Inverness in the clan army. With photographer Dick Bush, recordists John Gatland and Hou Hanks, make-up artist Ann Brodie, battle co-ordinator Derek Ware, film editor Michael Bradsell, and with the help of friends and actors from ‘Playcraft’ in Canterbury, we made and edited our film as though it was happening in front of news cameras, and deliberately reminiscent of scenes from Vietnam which were appearing on TV at that time.


‘Culloden’ was first screened by the BBC on December 15, 1964, and - with the possible exception of ‘Edvard Munch’ - remains the only film I have produced which has been broadly accepted in the UK. Its use of amateurs, mobile camera, “you-are-there” style, were seen as a breakthrough for TV documentary, paralleling advances being made at the BBC by Ken Loach, and by Ken Russell and other filmmakers.

‘... an artistic triumph for its maker’ (The Scotsman)

‘One of the bravest documentaries I can remember’ (The Sun)

‘An unforgettable experiment ... new and adventurous in technique’ (The Guardian)

‘... a breakthrough ...’ (The Observer)

‘Almost compulsively viewable’ (The Times)

‘... it worked brilliantly ...’ (Daily Mail)

‘... a sadistic and revolting programme’ (Birmingham Evening Mail)

‘The result was so unexpectedly convincing it gave me quite a shock. I have no hesitation in raving about it, even to the extent of muttering: breakthrough.’ (Observer Weekend Review)

© Peter Watkins 2024