Taking the hint
- The King’s Jaunt: George IV in Scotland, 1822 by John Prebble
Collins, 399 pp, £15.00, November 1988, ISBN 0 00 215404 8
During my own tartan phase (c. 1939-1943), when my parents used to dress me up in Highland costume for special occasions such as the family banquet on Christmas Eve, the visit to the Sick Children’s Hospital to hear the King’s speech through the PA on Christmas afternoon, and visits to wealthy patients of my father’s some way up the twin river valleys from Aberdeen, I might well have run away screaming, tearing off my Graham of Montrose kilt and matching trews (tartan underpants), the blue-green Harris-tweed jacket and waistcoat with staghorn buttons, the bottle-green Balmoral stockings and tooled black brogues and seal-fur sporran, had I been able (aged nine) to find out from such a book as this latest work of John Prebble’s that all these tartans were nothing but hype: a stunt devised chiefly by Scott to make George IV’s visit to Edinburgh in August 1822 as splendiferous as possible. In his anonymous shilling pamphlet ‘HINTS addressed to the INHABITANTS OF EDINBURGH AND OTHERS in prospect of HIS MAJESTY’S VISIT by an Old Citizen’, Scott dubbed a principal event of the visit (the dance at the Assembly Rooms in George Street) a ‘Highland Ball’ and warned all citizens that ‘no Gentleman is to be allowed to appear in any thing but the ancient Highland costume’ – ‘this noblest of all British costumes’. George himself turned up in a field-marshal’s coat and blue pantaloons, plus the riding boots he had worn at a military parade in the morning, and he left after a couple of hours: the dances played by Nathaniel Gow the fiddler’s band at once ‘became less Highland and more fashionable’. Perhaps the corpulent King had been appalled by his own image in the mirror before the levee at Holyrood, when he had worn ‘full Highland dress’, described by the painter David Wilkie as kilt and hose ‘with a kind of flesh-coloured pantaloons underneath’ and by a Lowland laird as ‘the Royal Tartan Highland dress with buff-coloured trowsers like flesh to imitate his Royal knees, and little bits of Tartan stocking like other Highlanders halfway up his legs’.
The whole thing was an expensive farce. In the opinion of one of the few recorded sceptics among the ranks of huzza’ing sycophants (a Perthshire gentleman who had recently been acquitted of killing Boswell’s son in a duel), ‘Sir Walter had ridiculously made us appear a nation of Highlanders, and the bagpipe and the tartan was the order of the day.’ Not only of that day but of the six generations since, as I found to my boyish embarrassment forty years ago. The irony of it all is bottomless. The dress of the people in the Highlands and Islands, a belted tweed plaid, had been forbidden by Act of Parliament after Culloden in 1746 – after Butcher Cumberland’s search-and-destroy missions had almost wiped out the civilisation of Gaelic Scotland. Its men had been cut to bits, its women raped, its houses great and little dismantled, its cattle butchered, its language banned, its orchards rooted out, its manuscript and printed texts burnt on bonfires. This was the most drastic event in Britain since the Black Death and is described with unbearable force in Prebble’s previous book Culloden (1961). But now – in the aftermath of the anti-Revolutionary wars in which great droves of Highlandmen had died of disease and injury (they made up 3 per cent of the British population and supplied 38 per cent of its infantry, as Prebble’s Mutiny recorded in 1975) – the culture of clans and chiefs and warriors, of tartans and castles, of blackcock plumes and skirling bagpipes, was suddenly a Good Thing: harmless and colourful.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 11 No. 3 · 2 February 1989
David Craig has taken time off in reviewing (LRB, 5 January) John Prebble’s The King’s Jaunt on the visit of George IV to Scotland in 1822 to register indignation that I should have written of the Napier Report of 1884 that it needs to be handled with care and detachment. What I wrote was that two Royal Commission Reports need such an approach, the 1835 Municipal Corporations Report and the Napier Report. Of course all documentation calls for care and detachment, but these two reports particularly do so, that on the Corporations because it is so obviously slanted and the Napier Report because it gives a warning to that effect. The Commission’s words in its introduction were: ‘Many of the allegations of oppression and suffering with which these pages are loaded would not bear a searching analysis. Under such scrutiny they would be found erroneous as to time and place, to persons, to extent, and misconstrued as to intention. It does not follow, however, that because these narratives are incorrect in detail, they are incorrect in colour or in kind.’ In other words, the facts as reported were often wrong, but the stories truly represented the type of thing that had happened. It seemed a pity that David Craig should feel he has to go much further and make a stand for the absolute reliability of personal reminiscence and folk memory.
Historians, in my view rightly, regard all memoir type of evidence, whether produced in oral or written form, with considerable suspicion. So do lawyers. Time distorts our memories of past events, particularly if the events were ones engendering strong feelings. Subsequent interpreting and reorganising leads to inaccuracy. Strong emotion not only may distort events but can also cast an unjustified glow of ease and contentment over the period before the events. The contradictions in the evidence produced for the Napier Commission are typical of the distortion that can occur. Memories that are transferred from one generation to another, becoming thus folk memory, are even more likely to be bent in the process than are the first-hand ones. Yet memoirs and recollections can have a vividness and immediacy which cannot be found elsewhere, as well as, sometimes, a distinguished literary form. They must not be ignored: where possible corroboration should be found. In any case, care is needed, as part of the normal caution of historians. David Craig does not seem to like this, but he will find, when he works on his book on the Clearances, that some degree of care has to be exercised on all material of this type. As an example, where does he get the idea that the use of Gaelic was banned after the Forty-Five? Would this be an example of folk memory?
Ormiston, East Lothian
David Craig writes: I notice that in reply to my criticism of her view of the Highland Clearances Rosalind Mitchison doesn’t defend the phrases of hers that I disputed: namely, that the 19th-century burnings of crofters’ houses were a ‘cliché’, ‘in some instances untrue’, and ‘heavy with myth’. What else can these words mean but that the crofters’ stories about the burnings tend to be untrue? To make her case she has to attribute to me a view I don’t hold: namely, that oral evidence is ‘absolutely reliable’. What I wrote was: ‘Perhaps we should trust eye-witnesses at least until they have been proved wrong.’ I based this on, for example, a major case in Eric Richards’s History of the Highland Clearances where oral atrocity stories about the South Uist and Barra clearances in the summer of 1851 were shown to agree with official and newspaper evidence; on James Hunter’s conclusion in The Making of the Crofting Community on ‘the general accuracy of oral tradition about the clearances of the 1840s and 1850s as recorded in the four volumes of evidence to the Napier Commission’; on the oral testimony I have been gathering in the Highlands and the Canadian Maritimes, verified against other kinds of record; and on my growing sense of how seriously ‘folk memory’ is misrepresented by its detractors. To take another sort of example: stories about eviction often say that the youngest member of the family carried the tongs, or the sieve. Yet a professional historian living in the Highlands recently opined to me that this was merely a ‘folk-tale motif’ and, as such, poor evidence. It is evidence I have gathered myself, mostly recently in respect of evictions from Aith, Shetland Mainland, and Aberscross, Sutherland, and I can find no grounds for doubting it. First, the tongs was indispensable for managing the peats in the fire, which had to be kept burning permanently (until the landlord’s thugs put it out for ever at the eviction, often by pouring basins of milk onto it). Second, it was obviously small and light enough for a very young person to carry. Thirdly, ‘it had its ritual significance for when the bride was brought home, her husband handed her the tongs as a symbol that he made her the mistress of his house’ (I.F. Grant, Highland Folkways, 1961). Fourthly, we have striking contemporary newspaper evidence of how valuable the sieve was: when cleared people from Strathnaver, Sutherland, revisited their home townships 65 years later, in 1884, the oldest member carried a sieve whose rim she specially valued because it had been made from Strathnaver wood. From all this I infer, first, that this ‘folk-tale motif’ is worth trusting until it is proved wrong; and secondly, that tongs and sieve were so centrally important to those families, both practically and as emblems, that they would certainly have been cherished during the clearances and were unlikely to be talked loosely about (or ‘bent’, as Rosalind Mitchison puts it) when the families retold their crucial experiences in later years. But she is right to pick up my slip about the banning of Gaelic. What I should have written, of course, was not ‘its language [was] banned, its orchards rooted out,’ etc, but ‘its dress and music were banned,’ etc. The attempt to ban Gaelic was made, not by legislators, but by estate managers like the Duchess of Sutherland’s James Loch, and by teachers in hundreds of Highland schools until quite recently.