IT’S one of the most well-known battles in Scottish history. But the experts behind a new archaeological investigation there say we don’t really know it at all.

Detailed investigations have been taking place at the site of the Battle of Culloden all week. The findings are set to add new detail to the story of the famous fight and could help defeat bids to build new housing, it is claimed. “We don’t know what we thought we did,” says Raoul Curtis-Machin, operations manager at the National Trust for Scotland (NTS) Culloden Battlefield and Visitor Centre. “An awful lot of myths are out there.”

Charles Edward Stuart’s Jacobite rebels met government forces here in 1746, their famous Highland charge faltering on the bleak moorland close to Inverness. The clash was the last of the ‘45 rising and killed off attempts to reinstate a Stuart monarch, with “Young Pretender” Charlie living out the rest of his life in Europe. It also led to the loss of an estimated 1600 lives, all but 100 were Jacobites who fell at the hands of the Duke of Cumberland’s well-equipped troops. The military leader was the youngest son of King George II and while he was known to supporters as Sweet William, his actions also earned him the nickname Butcher.

An enduring mythology has sprung up around the battle, one of Scotland v England, Catholics v Protestants. All of that, Curtis-Machin says, is “nonsense”.

“We tend to be a bit of a political football,” he tells the Sunday National. “It’s very tricky.

“The myths are repeated so often that they become accepted as fact. There were lots of Scots and English on both sides, and people from other places – it was a European power play.

“Our guides spend the first 10 minutes of every tour mythbusting. We tread a very careful path trying to be as balanced as possible. It’s a multi-faceted, complex story.”

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Trying to look back through 275 years is just as complicated. The excavation work covers areas never before opened up by investigators, and is paid for by Culloden’s Fighting Fund. Test pits were made near the visitor centre’s access road, behind the space where the second line of government troops lined up in April 1746, while digital and drone photography has been taken to produce 3D models of the Culloden monument, clan gravestones and other markers including the Cumberland Stone boulder where the Duke is said to have eaten on the battle day.

Artefacts including a musket ball, buckles and horseshoes have been found, while several hundred yards of the all-but-disappeared main road in the battlefield may have been rediscovered. It’s long been understood that boggy ground on what was then known as Drumossie Muir hampered the Jacobites’ famed Highland charge, but work on soils has now helped determine more about what happened.

Military historian Professor Christopher Duffy, a leading Culloden scholar, says there’s been a “major advance in the understanding of the battle”. “We are getting into things in a lot more detail than they have ever been before,” he says.

“It was never really pinned down. Our major conclusion so far has been the area where the government army was able to firm up using firm, steady open ground. This allowed them to withstand the Jacobite charge and have success against them. We are so encouraged by the progress.”

What’s to come, Duffy says, includes the piecing together of what individual commanders could see on that day, something which will “lead to a lot more detailed analysis of the decisions that were taken”.

NTS archaeologist Derek Alexander says it’s providing “tangible evidence” that will enhance our understanding of the pivotal fight. “The landscape is key,” he says.

“We hope this is the start of a longer-term series of excavations and investigations. We have got to keep busting the myths and retelling them to the best of our knowledge.”

For Curtis-Machin, it’s as much about the future as the past. NTS owns around one third of the battlefield and has been fighting against planning applications in the vicinity, including housing and a holiday park. All have proven controversial, with campaigners urging tighter restrictions to safeguard this site of national interest.

The more forensic detail he can give the local council, he says, the better he can protect the land where so many fell.

“It’s really very important to me,” Curtis-Machin says. “It’s one thing to say the battlefield was much larger and you could be threatening its integrity, but if we have got historical evidence then we have a far more powerful conversation with potential developers and the council.

“Everybody wants to protect Culloden,” he goes on, “but these planning applications are still getting through.

“For me to protect this site, I want to know exactly where the battle was fought. The main source of physical landscape information that we have relied on was General Roy’s military survey of 1747-50.

The other maps were very rough, with nothing really in terms of features or any type of scale, nothing that would indicate exactly why the MacDonalds got bogged down, for example.

“The accounts describe the battle in a lot of detail but even then there are uncertainties.

“We haven’t got a definitive story which marries this tricky physical terrain with the battle events, but we are now getting very close.”