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  • Ettienne LeFebre

Culloden Battlefield Visitor Center: Bringing a Scottish Battlefield's History To Life

This post is part of a series of case studies investigating innovation in historic site interpretation. The case studies explore new technologies, advanced approaches to storytelling, community engagement, and multi-sensory experiential learning. Research and writing for the series was completed by Ettienne LeFebre during her 2023 summer internship with Groundwork, with contributions and oversight by Gretchen Hilyard Boyce.


Culloden Battlefield, located on a moor near Inverness, Scotland, is the site of the 1746 Battle for Scottish independence, the final battle of the eighteenth century Jacobite uprising against the British. The battlefield cultural landscape is managed by the National Trust for Scotland to memorialize the battle and the over 2,000 Jacobite’s killed at the site. From the types and distribution of vegetation, to the flags erected to visualize the Jacobite and British frontlines, the Culloden Battlefield prioritizes the physical integrity of the landscape as the center of its interpretation.


The Culloden historic site also prioritizes an immersive visitor experience, as evidenced by the development of their 2006 self-guided audio tour, which utilized GPS technology to trigger audio tracks at specific points in the outdoor battlefield tour. In 2008, the Culloden Battlefield continued their immersive programming by opening a new Culloden Battlefield Visitor Center, which contains interpretive exhibits and artifacts that aid visitors in contextualizing the Battle of Culloden. The National Trust for Scotland selected Hoskins Architects to design the new building, which is a sleek, low-lying steel framed building, mainly clad in local and salvaged stone. Not only is the Visitor Center visually striking, it contains an exhibition of interactive displays that educate visitors on the Battle of Culloden while also being technologically focused and engaging.


National Trust for Scotland, “Culloden Battlefield Visitor Centre,” https://artuk.org/visit/venues/national-trust-for-scotland-culloden-battlefield-visitor-centre-7249.

The main feature of the visitor center is a 360-degree theater where a film reenacting the battle is played for visitors, recreating the chaos and bloodshed that occurred at the site. Visitors approach the theater via a long, dark hallway filled with artifacts from Jacobites and British soldiers. As one approaches the door to the theater, the hallway gets darker and the climate control turns the area cold and damp, emulating the weather conditions that contributed to the Jacobite’s demise on the swampy moor. The film is a recreated scene of the battle without narration, and offers visitors an immersive visual and auditory experience that places them in the middle of the moor to witness the historic brutality and intensity of the battle. While plaques and tour guides can also convey this information to visitors, the film experience surrounds the visitors with the sounds and visuals from the battle. This is exceptionally effective in conveying not just the historical information to visitors, but also the emotional weight of the important battle in Scottish history. The film is graphic and brutal, and some visitors have been known to leave the theater in tears. Although such experiences can be jarring for some visitors, the film serves as an interpretive tool that ensures the emotional weight of the site stays with visitors long after the film. Walking onto the battlefield after seeing the film helps visitors better understand why the place is important to the story of the fight for Scottish independence that continues to this day and should be preserved.


National Trust for Scotland, “Culloden Battlefield Visitor Center Battle Theatre,” https://www.scotlandinspires.co.uk/inverness-shire/culloden-battlefield-visitor-centre/.

Another immersive interpretive tool at the visitor center is the interactive battle map. The map is projected on a screen on a sleek rectangular table, displaying an aerial view of the position of the Jacobite and British troops on the battlefield. The battle map is not a static image, but displays the movement of the troops and loss of life during the battle. The battlefield map narration explains to visitors the big picture story of the battle, including the challenges of the outnumbered Jacobite troops and the side flank attack by the British, which was a turning point in the conflict. While the battle theater puts visitors in the midst of the brutal fighting, the battle map provides a birds eye view to show how outnumbered the Jacobites were, the sheer number of those who died, and the success of the British troops’ movements. The battle map is another example of immersive storytelling by the stewards of Culloden.


Secret Scotland, “Culloden Battlefield Visitor Center Battle Table and map, https://www.secret-scotland.com/place/culloden-battlefield.

The battle theater and battle map are both interpretive tools at the Culloden Battlefield Visitor Center that immerse visitors in the history of the cultural landscape through sensory experience, including visuals and audio. While a tour of the moor itself provides valuable historical information on the battle, one cannot understand the brutality of the battle today by walking across the empty landscape. Both of these exhibits help visitors contextualize the events and emotional impact of the battle and ensure that when they set foot on the moor, they better understand the meaning of the battle. These tools offer a new type of living history experience that technologically immerses visitors in the history themselves, creating a more authentic and impactful interpretive experience that could be emulated at numerous historic sites



About the Author

Ettienne LeFebre is currently completing her Master’s degree in Public History at Sacramento State University, with a focus in historic preservation and cultural resources management. Her research centers around the diversification of historic resources, increasing public interest and engagement at historic sites, and the preservation of intangible heritage. She specializes in California and Southwestern U.S. history, and aims to preserve historic resources related to the complex and diverse histories of these regions for the benefit of contemporary communities. In her free time she enjoys hiking along the American River, reading, creative writing, and exploring Sacramento’s incredible food scene.


References


Archello. “Culloden Battlefield Visitor Centre.” Accessed July 20, 2023. https://archello.com/project/culloden-battlefield-visitor-centre.


ArtUK. “National Trust for Scotland, Culloden Battlefield & Visitor Centre.” Accessed July 20, 2023. https://artuk.org/visit/venues/national-trust-for-scotland-culloden-battlefield-visitor-centre-7249.


Hoskins Architects. “ Culloden Battlefield Visitor Centre.” Accessed July 20, 2023. https://www.hoskinsarchitects.com/en/projects/arts-heritage/culloden-battlefield-visitor-centre.


Pfiefer, Tom, Paul Savage, and Bronwen Robinson. “Managing the Culloden Battlefield Invisible Mobile Guidance Experience.” MUCS (2009): 1-7.


Ralph Applelbaum Associates. “Culloden Visitor Centre at Culloden Battlefield.” Accessed July 20, 2023. https://raai.com/project/culloden-visitor-centre-at-culloden-battlefield/.


Scotland Inspires. “Culloden Battlefield Visitor Centre.” Accessed July 20, 2023. https://www.scotlandinspires.co.uk/inverness-shire/culloden-battlefield-visitor-centre/.


Secret Scotland. “Culloden Battlefield Tour Information.” Accessed July 20, 2023. https://www.secret-scotland.com/place/culloden-battlefield.


Visit Inverness Loch Ness. “Culloden Battlefield and Visitor Centre.” Accessed July 20, 2023. https://www.visitinvernesslochness.com/listings/culloden-battlefield-and-visitor-centre.



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