The Battle of Culloden comes alive at the new visitor centre, which opened last month. Jean McLeish took her life in her hands and went along with some local pupils
There is a date in Scottish history that pupils at one Highland school are always expected to remember. When the new multi-million pound Culloden Visitor and Exhibition Centre had its official opening last month, pupils from Culloden Academy were among the first to check it out.
This is the 262nd anniversary of Culloden, the culmination of the Jacobite rebellion on April 16, 1746, and the last full-scale battle fought on British soil. There were 1,250 Jacobites and 50 of the government forces killed in less than an hour.
Several hundred people attended the formal opening. The place was awash with tartan - some 18th-century style worn by re-enactors and Living History presenters, others wearing their kilts for the occasion.
The National Trust for Scotland's newly-built centre aims to ditch the fiction and propaganda which has grown up around the battle and get to the facts. It has been designed with dedicated contemporary educational facilities, for children who have grown up surrounded by sophisticated technology.
As Shonaigh Macpherson, chairman of the National Trust for Scotland, says: "Too many still believe that the battle at Culloden was between Highlanders and Lowlanders or between Scotland and England. It was far more complex than that - part of a series of international conflicts throughout the 18th century in continental Europe and beyond.
"Within the Highlands itself, it not only saw clan fight clan, but divisions within families."
The opening ceremony reflects this, performed by two schoolboys whose ancestors fought at Culloden. Cradlehall Primary pupil Philip Nicol's ancestors were three brothers: "William fought for the Redcoats and the other two were Jacobites," Philip, 7, from Inverness explains. Scott Hay, 11, from Alvie Primary at Kincraig, discovered his ancestor William Hay fought with the Jacobites. The boys won a competition to find children whose ancestors fought at Culloden and their names are now on the commemorative plaque.
A key element at this new centre is a battle immersion film, where the viewer stands in the middle of the approaching opposing armies, experiencing the unfolding action on four surrounding screens. It has a PG rating and the pupils from Culloden Academy watch it twice. They would have watched it several times more if the minibus hadn't been leaving to go back to school.
Their drama teacher, Katie Van Exan, watched it four times on an earlier visit. "From the drama perspective, it's fantastically done. It's very, very simple but very effective. It's very gory also," she whispers, as the pipes fade and an icy wind whistles across the desolate battlefield all around us.
"I liked how they did it from four angles. It felt like you were in the middle of it," says 12-year-old Sophie Caulfield. "It was really good how they did it. I didn't think it was that gory, apart from the bit where he got his head blown off."
The director, Craig Collinson, is here for the opening celebrations and will be pleased by their reaction. "I've been an enthusiast since I was a wee boy. My dad brought me here when I was about seven or eight, and it coincided with me doing the Jacobites at primary school," says Mr Collinson.
"That was at Hunter's Tryst in Edinburgh and it was a Mrs Rosie, who has now sadly passed away, who taught me about the Jacobites," he says. "When I heard about this project I just thought, 'I have to make this,'" he smiles.
Mrs Rosie's teaching won the day, his team's pitch was successful and last year re-enactors from across the UK and Europe braved sub-zero temperatures on Lauder Common in the Borders to recreate the carnage of Culloden. There is talk of a film of Bannockburn, perhaps another of Mrs Rosie's specialities.
The Culloden Academy first years are testing out an interactive campaign table, which shows what was happening in 1745 in the run-up to the battle. They like this. "It's interactive, it's good, but some instructions as to how it works would be helpful," someone pipes up. If they're struggling, heaven help anyone over 12.
But if they struggled to get started, they've certainly grasped what's going on, with the Hanoverians in the red ships and the Jacobite army in the blue ships. "A couple of the Redcoat troops are in the Highlands, keeping an eye on the clans, and there are Jacobites coming over from France to Scotland to help. And right now the Jacobites have reached Derby, but that's as far as they got and they're about to be pushed back until 1746, when they fight the battle of Culloden," says 12-year-old Eilidh Urquhart, like a seasoned military campaigner.
The exhibition is also character-led and follows the experiences of people on both sides, through recordings of their stories.
"The trust did quite a lot of research, we found letters people wrote at the time, their personal accounts, and these have been used as dramatisations," explains Nicole Deufel, the learning manager.
There are several programmes for visiting schools and they can have visits tailored to their needs, with guided tours of the battlefield. There is a private learning suite for their use and space for children to eat packed lunches.
All information and the dramatised recordings are in Gaelic as well as English, and drama teacher Katie Van Exan is delighted at this, because her husband teaches Gaelic at Culloden Academy.
"I was saying, 'You've got to get yourself here', because the whole museum is also in Gaelic, as well as the outside bit where you go on the battlefield and you listen to the headphones - they have an option for Gaelic in that. It's a huge resource to anyone that's learning Gaelic locally, in terms of not only the curriculum, but the interest of the story and how it affects people around here," says Ms Van Exan.
Her pupils are impressed and give a positive verdict as they head for the minibus. "This is really good fun," says James Whitelegg, 13.
His pal Rory Carson says: "It's much better than the other one and I really enjoyed it. It's more interesting for children, because rather than just a picture of what the battle was like, it's got technology that quite a lot of children would like."