Thursday, 18 May 2017


One must-see tourist attraction near Inverness is the site where the Battle of Culloden was fought in 1746, the chaotic, brief, and bloody last gasp of the Jacobite rebellion on these islands, and epicentre of the subsequent suppression of the Highland way of life. There is an excellent visitor centre at Culloden, run by National Trust for Scotland, and we took advantage of their excellent and informative guided tour. If you're ever there I recommend you do the same, as battlefields are rarely eloquent places, and our guide's script was a well-balanced, nuanced account of the affair, taking pains to counter the over-romantic and simple-minded view of the battle as essentially a Scotland v. England match played out with swords, muskets, and artillery.

Now, I have direct Scottish ancestry on the male side traceable well back into the 18th century, and bear one of the surnames that figure in accounts of the battle and its aftermath. But, as Borderers and Edinburgh artisans, I strongly doubt that any ancestor of mine fought on the Jacobite side. In fact, the then Chisholm clan chief, although a Jacobite supporter with one son leading a smallish contingent of Highlanders, also had another two sons fighting as captains in the Duke of Cumberland's army. That's certainly one way to end up on the winning side, and he was far from alone in this canny calculation.

The "clan" thing is complicated, but essentially tribal and feudal, and most of us having a clan surname are descendants of dirt-poor tenants with no more relation to the clan aristocracy than, say, Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to the US Congress. The picture at Culloden is further complicated by the distinctions between Highland and Lowland Scotland. Quite apart from the fact a great many Scots rejected the Stewart claim on the British throne, and certainly had no desire for a Catholic monarchy, it's hard to imagine the likes of David Hume or Adam Smith charging through the boggy heather waving a broadsword. We're talking about 1745, not 1545.

Although initiated by the writing of Walter Scott, it was the Victorian 19th century that saw the great revival of interest in the tartan-swathed romance of the Highlands, as safely distant in time by then as the Wild West was from Hollywood, and most of the memorialising at Culloden was done well over a hundred years after the event. Following the actual battle, most of the 2000 Jacobite casualties were stripped and tossed indiscriminately into two mass graves. The various, clan-specific memorial stones – so solemnly visited by overseas bearers of those same surnames – are a pious fantasy, erected in 1881, at the same time as the large memorial cairn. I rather liked the ones engraved with "Mixed Clans", however, which pretty much describes what lies underneath all of them.

In 1964, when I was ten and still at primary school, the BBC aired Peter Watkins' remarkable docudrama about Culloden, presented as if modern TV journalists had been documenting the battle, complete with shaky handheld footage, and interviews with participants, in the main played by non-professional actors. I was allowed by my parents to watch it, and it was very powerful, and rather shocking, especially the scenes of Cumberland's army brutally "mopping up" the Jacobite wounded with bayonet and sword after the battle. It was the first time I had been made acutely aware of our (frankly, rather spurious) "Scottishness", and for a while it became an important part of my identity, especially the heady sense of tragic destiny that it endowed.

I even wrote to the clan chief – the wonderfully named Chisholm of Chisholm, who kindly wrote back – but eventually came to a more realistic assessment of my place in the scheme of things when I discovered that very same clan chief's ancestors had forcibly evicted 10,000 of "our" clansmen from "his" land in the early 19th century Highland Clearances, in order to raise sheep. Virtually all of those Canadians, Australians, and Americans with Scottish surnames who visit Culloden and buy the appropriate tartan souvenirs in the knick-knack shops of  Inverness and Edinburgh are descended from similarly involuntary exiles, and have inherited not some precious, unbreakable bond of kinship but what is, in effect, just one step away from a slave-name. But, as I say, the clan thing is complicated, and romance will trump reality every time.

But, talking of romance, part of the bloody and vindictive aftermath of Culloden was the hunting down of Jacobite rebels and the extirpation of any remnant of Jacobite sympathy, including a ban on the wearing of Highland dress or the speaking of Gaelic. Set against the backdrop of this brutality is the story of the Seven Men of Glenmoriston, Jacobites who lived as outlaws, raiding and taking bloody vengeance on government soldiers and sympathisers, and eventually escorting the Young Pretender, a.k.a. Bonnie Prince Charlie, safely across the Highlands to his cross-dressed escape to Skye with Flora MacDonald, and thence to France, never to return. As it happens, three of the seven were named Chisholm, but don't be looking at me, your honour, do you think I can be herding all these sheep wearing a damned Highland kilt? As if! Three cheers for King George, says I, and may his flocks increase! Slàinte mhòr! Oops, sorry, I mean: Your very good health, sir!

It is a good story, though, and has the makings of a great film, a mix of Kidnapped! and the James-Younger Gang. In fact, the parallels between ex-Jacobite outlaws and ex-Confederate outlaws are quite striking, sharing as they do the story arc of violated pride, proceeding through scofflaw retribution and fast-living, to a doomed ending on the gallows, followed by the later myth-making. And if all this also prompts memories of the Skye Boat Song ("Speed, bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing..."), do bear in mind that those stirring lyrics were written by an Englishman from Hertfordshire in 1884, to a tune collected on Skye in the 1870s. It seems that not only do the victors get to write the history, they also get to make the romantic myths about the losers, once they're safely dead and buried in the past. But, as the journalist says in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend".


Gavin McL said...

I grew up on the edge of the fields where the Battle of Prestonpans was fought at the beginning of the '45 rising and i'd often kick around the mud at the edge of the fields with my mates hoping to find a bullet or some such relic of the battle and any bit of metal we found was carefully examined to see if it could possibly be from the battle. You may be surprised to learn that we found nothing of any significance. Carefully examined much of Scottish history leaves little to be proud of and as you hint the Scots legacy in the new world isn't much better. About the only thing they really got right was education - the drive to make sure everybody could read the bible meant that the Carlyles, Burns's and Hogg's of this world were heard

Mike C. said...


You're right about the education -- it's ironic that the '45 coincides with the golden days of the Scottish Enlightenment. I keep meaning to research this (as in, read a book), as whatever they were doing worked. I think I've mentioned in this blog before that a cousin of an ancestor was Walter Chisholm, one of those "peasant poets" that filled the pages of the "People's Friend" and similar outlets. Despite being a shepherd and dying at 21 he made it into the Dictionary of National Biography. How someone like that learned to read and write, never mind compose passable verse, is intriguing.