Taking the hint

David Craig

  • 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.

‘We are THE CLAN, our King is THE CHIEF’ (Scott, ‘Hints’). And so the tartans were invented, all those diced tweeds in scarlet and yellow, blue and green and black, with their entirely bogus link to the tribal names of Highland Scotland, described by the Lord Lyon King of Arms as ‘humbug’ and by Lt-Col. M. M. Haldane in the most closely-argued study of the matter as a ‘myth’. I owe this information to the Highlander magazine for August, published from Chicago and itself partly a catalogue of clannish goodies: Clan Crest rubber stamps, Clan Crest mugs, clan plaques, banners (sleeve or grommets), claymores (full size, $119), hose, kilts, jewellery and shortbread, not forgetting a US Marines tartan tie ($12.50, bearing the motto ‘Semper Fi’). As a writer remarks in the Proceedings of the Scottish Tartans Society (whether sadly or sarkily I cannot tell), the tartans nowadays ‘are but the insignia of Clan Societies and Associations’. These include the Clan Donald. Helped by a seven-figure subsidy from the DuPont Corporation of America, it has restored part of the Gothic castle and stables at Armadale on Skye – built at the expense of Lord Macdonald in the 19th century – as a heritage centre: part shrine, part retail outlet. And we are expected to be grateful that this has created 14 jobs. But it is at least possible that if the Macdonalds had spent their fortune not on mega-follies but on wise management of the crofting lands in Sleat and North Uist – if they had seen to the building of piers and drainage and turnpikes and cottage housing instead of authorising their managers to drive out the peasant folk and turn over their best arable and grazing ground to sheep and deer – then there might be less need for the great-grandchildren of the evicted to put on bogus-tartan sashes and sell farmed salmon and ‘handicrafts’ to visitors from Chicago – or Aberdeen.

The man who has done far and away the most to help us see the genocidal tragedy behind the flummery is John Prebble, a militant historian in the line from Donald MacLeod, the stonemason from Strathnaver, author of Gloomy memories (1841); Alexander MacKenzie the journalist, whose Highland Clearances (1883) is still to be found in one of its many forms in thousands of crofters’ living-rooms; James Cameron the Kirkcaldy publisher, whose The Old and the New Highlands (1912) brought the terrible epic up to the time of the sporting estates, the Crofters’ War, and the Crofters’ Act of 1886; and Tom Johnston, first Labour Secretary of State for Scotland, planner of hydro-electricity for the Highlands and (long before that, in his fearless youth) author of Our Noble Families (1923), which showed the demobbed men after the Great War exactly how their forebears had been expropriated. Of course the Highlanders knew already. Their grandfathers and grandmothers had told them. The ‘secret history’ of great atrocities (the firebombing of Dresden, the Holocaust, the genocide of the Amerindians) is not even a secret from schoolchildren, fed though they are on the self-censored and sanitised work of academics who identify with the Establishment and cover up its crimes, for whatever careerist or Freudian motives of their own.

James Hunter, author of the classic Making of the Crofting Community (1976), has credited Prebble with ‘giving us back our history’. In a sense, we always had it. As Paine wrote in The Rights of Man, ‘though you may keep a people ignorant, you cannot make them ignorant.’ Precisely what was done to the people and the roof timbers, the cattle and the ploughlands, of Sutherland and Ross, the Uists and Mull and Skye and Barra, has remained as a matter of burning fact in those places to this day. When Prebble’s chief works, Culloden, The Highland Clearances (1963), Glencoe (1966) and Mutiny, first appeared, their function was more to tell the Lowlands, and the wider world, how the Gaelic-speaking people were burnt out, clubbed, pressganged, and bundled into the emigrant ships, than to inform the people who already knew how their grand- or great-grand-parents had been left in a charred ruin licking oatmeal dust from the floor or seen the thatch begin to burn above their heads while the young men were still overseas with the Duchess’s regiment. But it is a strength and a tonic when a person of talent from another culture sets down the unveiled facts. People in the Highlands now say, ‘This is all new – we never had anything like this before,’ as they point out the new monument to Donald MacLeod on the left bank of the Naver, facing across to his native township of Rossal, razed in 1816, now a preserved green enclave within a Forestry Commission spread of spruces: or the cairn on the east side of Raasay, off Skye, which carries Sorley MacLean’s poem ‘Hallaig’ engraved on metal in both Gaelic and English, with its imagery of the nailed and boarded window and Time the deer who ‘sniffs at the grassgrown ruined homes’; or the inscribed and coloured display in the museum at Farr on the north coast of Sutherland, made by children at the school, which sets down scrupulously the facts of the clearance – the landlord’s difficulties as well as his cruelties.

If Prebble had not written with the seemingly eye-witness vividness and novelistic flow of which he’s a master, his books would never have carried into the bookshelves of ordinary houses or onto the spinners in the village shops. But ‘only the best is good enough for the workers’ and all his storyteller’s colour would have been worthless had he not been able to give evidence for each splash and stroke. One excellent academic historian of the Clearances, Eric Richards, has credited Prebble with ‘a sound knowledge of important and frequently neglected sources’. He then objects to ‘leaps of the imagination – he invests elusive and obscure people with emotions, thoughts and feelings for which he possesses little or no direct evidence.’ Prebble’s prose may sound like this. If he knows the weather was sleety at dawn over Culloden, he credits the soldiers with discomfort and foreboding. If he knows that an estate factor wrote a letter complaining to his boss about poachers, he infers that the man was peeved. But he is invariably, and I mean invariably, as close as can be to documentary sources. These themselves are not gospel, as Prebble well knows. He goes out of his way to reserve that Donald MacLeod was ‘a born journalist with an abundant share of the faults and virtues of his craft’; and he draws the reader’s attention to objections that have been made to the crofters’ evidence before the Napier Commission of 1882-3 – that extraordinary chronicle of the hardships and grievances of a people.

However scientific we are, our use of evidence is partly a matter of whom we are inclined to trust. Richards himself probably feels that he is leaning to the side of the crofters when he says that ‘the poor, the powerless and the illiterate leave very little residue of their lives amongst which a historian may seek material for their reconstruction.’ In practice, I believe, this belittles the power of those people and their culture to speak up and be heard. It is uncomfortably close to the bizarre mistake of another scholar, J.M. Bumsted, who wrote in The People’s Clearance (1982): ‘Attempting to deal with the motivations of a population which largely lacked the skills of writing and the ability of fluent self-expression is no easy task’ (my italics). Need we labour to demolish this absurdity? Yes, probably we do, since a formidable academic lobby has now attempted to ‘redress the balance’ by making out that the village-burnings were a myth, the sufferings on the emigrant ships no worse than average for their time, and in any case the life of the Highlanders before 1800 was nasty, brutish and short. In particular, their testimony to the Napier Commission must be used with ‘care and detachment’ – unlike, apparently, the many other items in the bibliography of Rosalind Mitchison’s History of Scotland (1970, 1982) which are by civil servants and experts and therefore incapable of bias. Of course we must be alert and swallow nothing without due care. But when the scholars do manage to verify the eye-witness (suspect, emotive, biased) stories against the official (reliable, dispassionate, objective) record, it is striking how trustworthy the words of the victim-participants turn out to be. For example, in the summer of 1851, according to eye-witnesses, 1700 people were evicted from South Uist and Barra, chased by police, truncheoned, handcuffed, dragged along the ground by estate goons, ridden down by a Presbyterian minister on horseback. Richards says: ‘these descriptions are melodramatic and sensational.’ He then checks them against a Canadian newspaper, a petition sworn by 71 islanders, and reports by the Chief Immigration Officer of Quebec. He concludes that these documents give ‘considerable if not complete corroboration’ to the folk version of the events. Perhaps we should trust eye-witnesses at least until they are proved wrong – instead of assuming that illiterate people can’t express themselves?

The same applies to eviction by fire, which people considered so grievous and typical that they called 1814 bliadhna an losgaidh, the year of the burnings. Rosalind Mitchison calls this a ‘cliché’, ‘in some specific instances ... untrue’, and ‘heavy with myth’. This summer I sat in a new house in Sollas, North Uist (cleared in 1849), and listened as a crofter, Murdo McCuish, told me what he had heard from his grandmother, who was 11 at the clearance and 91 when she died:

They got as much of the furniture out as they could, but they knew that they wouldn’t have time to get the loom out, so they were just going to leave the loom in and cut the tweed out of the loom. But the next thing they knew, they had fired the thatch, and it was so dry the sparks were coming in through the thatch, and they had to evacuate the house. The loom and the tweed were burnt in the house.

In the autumn a retired shepherd, Leslie Bowran, from Vagastie north of Lairg, passed on to me what his grandmother had been told by her grandmother about the clearance of Lettaidh in Strathfleet:

She remembered being woken by her mother and taken to the window, and she looked out into the darkness and saw a red glow in the hills opposite. She asked what it was, and her mother said in a grim voice, ‘They are putting fire to Lettaidh. The people have been put out.’ The child was frightened, naturally enough, especially since they had relatives in Lettaidh themselves, but she was reassured when her mother told her it would not happen to her house, because the men were still there. All the men from Lettaidh had been recruited by the Sutherland estate factors, to go to fight in the wars.

Yes indeed, those people had fluent self-expression! They were eloquent in the media of story, oral memoir, song, sermon, poem, lament and curse. To disregard what they have to tell us in their own ways, whether in 1882 or today, is just another case of what Edward Thompson has called ‘the enormous condescension of posterity’.

In The King’s Jaunt Prebble keys his immediate subject into the contemporary reality of the Highlands by means of epigraphs, mainly from Napier evidence, some from the lairds and their managers. This contrast is drily effective, but it might have been better if he had spared us some of the gargantuan spectacle of ostrich plumes and velvet, stewed carp and turtle soup, and spent a little more of his scornful and precise prose on the significance of the orgy: its excess, its artifice, but above all the frighteningly two-faced character of a celebration whose style was parasitic on the very culture then being rooted up. All too many Scotsfolk wanted to acquire an exotic national glamour while conniving at the ruin of the Gaelic society from which they derived the trappings. The Jaunt was a freak show: as Carlyle remarked of Scott’s whole picture of history, ‘Scotland herself was not there.’ No writer has brought us nearer than Prebble to Scottish actualities and it would be wonderful if, while he is still in his prime (he is only 73), he could now turn to the most neglected great subject in our history, the Land War of the 1870s and 80s. Only James Hunter and Iain Fraser Grigor (in Mightier Than a Lord, 1979) have written about it in detail. It seethes with the energies of a people fighting back against three generations of oppression, and Prebble’s powers would surely take on a new lease in the face of a subject which was not entirely without glory in the true sense of gains won by and for the people as a whole.