Culloden Visitor Centre – Modern architecture meets contested heritage

Culloden Banner 3This is the first of two articles on Battlefield Heritage Centres. Opened during Scotland’s Year of Highland Culture in 2007 and designed by Hoskins Architects, the Culloden Visitor Centre in Scotland is a large and recent, bespoke heritage destination in Inverness-shire located adjacent to the eponymous battlefield where on 16 April 1746, the Jacobite forces of Charles Edward Stuart were decisively defeated by loyalist troops commanded by William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland Two hundred and seventy years on in 2016 heritage aspects surrounding the Jacobite Risings in Britain are still contested. The consequences of this conflict for the many ordinary people in the highlands of Scotland were profound and long-lasting and are still with us today for example in calls for Scottish independence and land reform which remain hotly debated political issues. It’s therefore interesting to look at how this turning point in British history has been portrayed by the Scottish National Trust on the site where it occurred. The exhibition begins with a gallery explaining the political background of the Jacobite rising in 1745 and offers at its end an audio experience of the “Derby Council” the point at which the Jacobite army, having marched from Scotland down into middle England turn around and fall back to Scotland and the arguments that led to this action. There is further audio experience reflecting the “Night March” undertaken by the Jacobite army and this then leads onto a gallery looking at the protagonists immediately before the Battle of Culloden and their relative preparedness. There is a “Battle Immersion Theatre” and following this a “Battle Exploration Zone” where one can see original and reproduction artefacts, clothing and weapons from the battle itself and talk to staff demonstrating the use of some of them. 

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Digital heritage interpretation is certainly present here in a number of forms, most successfully at two points in this process, at the beginning and the end of the walk-through experience in projection mapping displays. The first tracks geographically the course of events of “the ’45” over Britain and its surrounding seas, the movement of forces and their relative numbers. The second, and much larger installation within the “Battle Exploration Zone” does the same for the course of the battle of Culloden itself, showing the lines of combatants as individuals in a birds-eye-view. These exhibits convey the facts of events as they occurred, in what could be at times a somewhat noisy and distracting environment but one which none-the-less has attractions for most age groups. The interiors of all of these galleries are quite dark, with very little or no natural light. While this may be a necessary expedient for conservation of the artefacts and some of the digital displays it does detach one from the architecture of the building and the historical landscape setting in which it rests.Culloden Banner 1

This changes when you emerge from the “Battlefield Exploration Zone and pass through glazed doors to the outside to view the “field.” Here you can turn around and examine the building itself, a long low structure recumbent in the landscape with long timber screen walls visually and physically separating the approach, car park and public entrance to the building from the battlefield. The design plays upon perspective, distance and lines, lines of battle, lines of sight, building lines and lines of barriers. A most successful aspect of this modern architecture is the use of traditional building materials, particularly stone, from the paving inside the building to the walls outside. It has a tactility and well-crafted precision which gives every indication that it’s going to weather well over the coming years and improve with age.

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This is a deliberate architectural palette of materials which echoes an important location only experienced when you do go outside. Huddled down at the end of a long screen wall about two hundred meters north from the main building is a 19th century rebuiding of one of the few inhabited structures that existed on the site in 1746, Old Leanach Cottage. Originally it was a turf walled bothy but after falling into ruin was rebuilt by Duncan Forbes the landowner in the 1880’s as part of his memorialisation of the battle site. What now exists is a cottage with reasonably authentic heather thatch and un-rendered, random rubble stonework walls.  It’s here that you begin to feel the reality of the events surrounding the Battle of Culloden, its authenticity, survival and resonance with today, not least because having emerged from the somewhat artificial environment of the exhibition you can see the Scotland of today, the distant hills of Wester-Ross and Sutherland behind the cottage to the north, with (on the day we visited) rolling clouds in a big sky above. The contrast is welcome.

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Going back into the exhibition building, the final gallery is the most poignant. It treats the aftermath of the battle, the long-term consequences for the victors and vanquished. On show are a few of the looted spoils from the defeated Jacobite baggage train, portraits of the two leaders in later life, a copy of the exiled Charles Edward Stuart’s death mask (there is another bronze version in Inverness Museum) along with prints of and texts about the harrowing of the highlanders which followed in the months and years after the battle. All of these and the other artefacts in this gallery focus the mind on the real cost of conflict, ideology and allegiance, themes which still have a contemporary relevance. Overall the visitor receives a reasonably balanced view of the competing factors which impelled the protagonists in the courses of action which they took, but it is clear that the tone of the exhibition is one of a battle (and a way of life) lost by the Jacobites rather than a battle won by the Scots Hanoverian forces. Having said this, although there were “winners” and “losers” – the exhibition does well to leave the visitor with the intuition that neither come out of the sorry business with any laudable moral compass. On the 270th anniversary of the Battle of Culloden The Scottish National Trust are to be commended for the handling of this difficult subject on this beautiful countryside site with a modern building and an ambitious exhibition which I am sure will continue to evolve to reflect new insights and the changing frames of reference of a modern world.

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About Douglas Cawthorne

Reader in Digital Heritage at De Montfort University.
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