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Visitors to ‘take part’ in Battle of Culloden at £7m reality centre

A £7 MILLION overhaul of the visitor centre at Culloden will allow the public to experience the drama and fear of taking part in the historic 18th century battle.

In a “battlefield immersion area”, made possible by a theatre with floor-to-ceiling screens on both sides, visitors will be thrust into the middle of a Jacobite charge and the government troops’ response.

The public will be asked to assume one of several characters in the battle and follow their fate – as they do at the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC.

Research by the US company masterminding the changes has led to the battle lines being redrawn at the site. The exhibits will put a new emphasis on the post-battle Highland Clearances and massacres, dubbed the “ethnic cleansing” of the day by some historians. They will stress that the battle was not just the Highlanders against the Redcoats, and plans are afoot for a memorial marking recently discovered graves of government soldiers who died.

It’s about engaging people personally with the battle, and leaving the battle as more than just visitors

The exhibition designer is Ralph Applebaum Associates, of New York, which designed Bill Clinton’s £100 million presidential library which opened last month in Little Rock, Arkansas. The architect is the award- winning Glasgow firm Gareth Hoskins which designed the new architectural exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The two companies are also working together on plans for the £70 million refit of the Royal Museum of Scotland.

The Culloden exhibition will borrow from Mr Applebaum’s experience designing the Holocaust Museum. There, visitors are assigned the identity passports of people who lived, or died, in the concentration camps. At Culloden, they might be assigned to Ensign William Horne, who carried a standard into battle at the age of 14, or to Ann Leith, a woman who helped wounded Jacobites. Personal digital assistants will help them track their characters’ fate.

“It’s about engaging people personally with the battle, and leaving the battle as more than just visitors,” Mr Applebaum said.

The “battlefield immersion area” will use live-action footage, sound, smell, “and even a bit of sleet if we can be innovative enough,” said Alexander Bennett, of the National Trust of Scotland. “This will only last six minutes, because we feel this will be an emotional experience for people, and we will have to give them a warning.”

The project has been in the works since 1999 and is set to open in 2007, as part of the Highland Year of Culture. Planning permission is expected early in the new year.

There is a perception that it was a match between Scotland and England, which it wasn’t

The existing visitor centre draws 85,000 people a year and archeological excavation has shown it was actually built on the government lines in the battle. On 16 April, 1746, a government army of about 9,000, under William, Duke of Cumberland, crushed about 6,000 Jacobite rebels, led by Prince Charles Edward Stuart. Cannon tore charging ranks of Highlanders to pieces on the boggy Culloden Moor.

“The actual battle lasted an hour,” said Mr Applebaum. “It has filled books and millions of hours of conversations and talking about what it really meant for the trajectory of Scottish nationalism and the Scottish experience. You could compare it to the Somme and Verdun and Gettysburg, in the emotional sense of the intersection of great events.”

The executions and killings after the battle are a matter of record, as are the bans on Highland dress and bagpipes. But, to this day, historians are divided on how far it was a driving force for the Highland Clearances.

“There is a perception that it was a match between Scotland and England, which it wasn’t; it was the British government fighting the Jacobite cause,” said Mr Bennett. “It was two dynasties fighting, King George and King James, wishing to ascend to the throne.

“In the period following the battle, there was the rout of the Highland clans, atrocities – some call it genocide, ethnic cleansing. It was ruthless. It’s never really been touched upon in any exhibition before.”

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