Diary

Tom Nairn

On 16 April, the anniversary of the Battle of Culloden:

The air was clear and bracing, the sun bright, and the whole country breathing of Spring. The pleasantness of the season, joined to the interesting associations connected with the day, drew vast crowds of persons to the field of Culloden. Most of the teachers in town indulged their pupils with a holiday and groups of little wanderers might be seen in all directions spreading over the moor, or sitting by the graves of the slain ... Others, more advanced in years, were intent on hunting rabbits (and) parties in carriages, gigs and carts were frequently arriving; and altogether these could scarcely be less, in the middle of the day, than three thousand persons on the moor. The scene was highly animated and striking, a vivid contrast to the usual quietude of that large, sombre tableland, the solitary scene of battle.

So said the Inverness Courier in 1846, on the 100th commemoration. This year there seemed to be upwards of five thousand persons – ‘the size of the Jacobite army under Prince Charles Edward Stuart’, noted the Scotsman’s reporter – assembled on the tableland for the 250th birthday. Around 10 a.m. the queue of motor carriages stretched back down into Inverness. After a dry winter the sombre morass was a lot more walkable than usual. No rabbit-hunters, but a south wind again breathed of spring and the scene was even more animated than last century. More kilts and plaids were on display than at any time since 1746 itself.

A podium had been set up by the National Trust Visitors Centre, from which the crowds were addressed by Sir Donald Cameron of Lochiel, a descendant of the clan chief who had his feet shot from under him in 1746. This was the usual story: a battle between an old way of life and the new; hence hopeless and worthy of tears alone (descendants of both sides at one in grief); and in addition fought at the wrong time and place. He referred to the latter as ‘Culoaden’, in the received pronunciation now confined to Scottish clan chiefs. Afterwards wreaths were laid at the main memorial cairn, with blessings in Gaelic and English and laments piped in the background. People continued to wander thoughtfully about from one clan grave to another while the present Stuart claimant to the throne, Michael James Alexander, was being interviewed by BBC Scotland. He is a gentle Belgian socialist who once worked as a waiter in Edinburgh but has taken up PR. ‘I felt it was important to attend,’ he told the cameras. ‘Ethnic cleansing was carried out after Culloden and it is continuing today.’

Nothing different was likely to be said about the battle. Each new generation has always misapplied its own platitudes and got the respectful hearing required at funerals. The interesting question is why they go on doing so with such fervour, as if the war was still going on: unlike most great battles, Culloden continues violently in people’s minds. Among Scots the deepest layer of the ‘deep emotion’ figuring in the laments lies in the quick, not the dead. As the American historian Daniel Szechi observed in his study of the war’s European context, The Jacobites: Britain and Europe 1688-1788, most histories of it have been ‘What-ifs ...’ to a degree rarely found elsewhere.

Unrequited resentment is the source of this propensity, not romantic self-indulgence or nostalgia standing in for nationhood. Since Walter Scott’s time the wound has been bandaged up in kitsch, of course. But the dressings have become so famously elaborate only because the cut went so deep.

Will it ever be healed? Perhaps, but not in Britain. That is, not within the old British polity which at that time and place confirmed its day in history. As we wandered up and down the battlefield paths I kept being drawn to the extraordinary wider view. Drummossie Moor itself is notoriously dark and somehow accidental, a stained terrain vague which careful restoration has rendered ever more ominous. Theatrical grandeur lies all about, however, in a vast arena stretching from Mount Eagle and Easter Ross in the north, across the Moray Firth to the escalating foothills of Grampian in the south. The Culloden drama was on that scale. It was an event of world importance, one of whose side-effects happened to be the severance of something vital in Scottish nationality. Having occurred, that was of no great importance to anyone else. But it was bound to fester in the victim, who ever afterwards has been unable to avoid recontesting the event in memory.

Popular recollection of the 18th century is clouded by Successions. Few can recall from their history classes why the War of the Spanish Succession or that of the Austrian Succession (1740-48) was so important, or remember much about the 1756-63 follow-up, the Seven Years War, which established British domination of overseas colonisation. Charles Edward Stuart’s attempt on the British throne would be better called the War of the British Succession (1745-6). It was only a single episode, but a crucial one. After it the precarious 1688 state and its raw Hanoverian dynasty stood confirmed in office, and the historical mainstream flowed in a direction answering their interests. Had Culloden gone the other way, then the French could have won the long war. Although there were few French soldiers in the Jacobite lines in 1746, the important defeat was that of the Ancien Régime. Colonisation, Enlightenment, the rise of capitalism (etc) would still have happened; but with French client-states in London and Edinburgh, their historical imprint could have been very different.

The Duke of Cumberland’s victory became ‘inevitable’ only in retrospect, a triumph of propaganda rather than arms. The Scots (including a great number of Lowland Scots) were not sure at the time which direction was more favourable for their country. In a funny way they remain unsure to this day. Presbyterian blustering often covers up the doubts: no one can be as utterly British as a frightened Scot. Try mentioning Thatcher or Portillo, though, and see the vapouring turn to instant fog. There were about 1500 cars in the National Trust carpark last week, permitting a quick impressionistic survey of today’s car-sticker war. Plenty of SCO badges (with and without European star-circle, Saltire optional), a steep rise in ALBA and no doubt whatever as to the winner: ECOSSE.

Unionists have always underscored those divisions of Scottish opinion so manifest at Culloden. This was no Scotland-England battle (it is concluded) since Scots fought for both sides: then as now incapable of agreeing among themselves. Since serious nationalism is unattainable by a divided country, they are safer staying British. It is perfectly true, if banal, that Jacobitism was no nationalist movement. In 1745 there was no nationalist movement anywhere in the world. ‘Nationalism’ in this modern sense was only prefigured thirty years later by the American Revolution, then forced into fuller existence twenty years after that by the French Revolution.

The real point, of course, is what effect those events had (or might have had) on such later developments. As Murray Pittock has pointed out in The Myth of the Jacobite Clans, as the title suggests a combative study, there was a much stronger Lowland and Episcopalian presence in the Rising than the Unionist tradition allows. This alone does not make the Jacobites into precursors of the SNP. What it does suggest is that, had they been successful (or even lasted longer), a quite different foundation might have been left for a national movement. Future generations would then have inherited a sense of achievement, of Scotland’s having once made a difference or tipped the scales of the larger power struggle. That different sense might then have endured even if the new Stuart Restoration had been short-lived or (as Walter Scott feared) brought further disastrous revolts upon the British Isles.

As it is, we know what has actually been inherited: that psychology of hopelessness which British accusation (and self-accusation) so ably perpetuates – a sense of exasperated and apolitical futility, the very thing which makes Scots unable to forget the defeat and explains this style of remembrancing. ‘What-if’ re-enactments are also rehearsals, and have their sense in the present. Useless to point out it was not ‘their’ defeat in the requisite national sense. The fact is it became their defeat in precisely that sense, because the legacy was sufficiently widespread, ruinous and debilitating to be (as it were) nationalised in retrospect. Culloden is not mere Romanticism: rather. Romantic cult status was a way of coping with Culloden. Modern national consciousness is always forged from what went before, out of actions intended otherwise, accidents, conflicts that might have ended differently, and personalities like Charles Edward who in their own time meant something now forgotten.

After his speech Lochiel opened the Trust’s new exhibition ‘The Swords and the Sorrows’. Housed in the Visitors Centre’s small study-room, it is a display of the cutlery used at Culloden and resembles the poorly-lit equipment-store of a butcher’s shop. The labels were quite hard to read in the reverential murk as thousands shuffled slowly past dirks, claymores, muskets and the amazing detail of basket-handled swords. How many knew that dried fish-skin (especially ray-skin) was the preferred wrapping for gentlemen’s sword-hilts?

Obsession with the repulsive details of blasting and carvery is another thing which has tended to distract people from what the battle was about. It plays too large a part in Peter Watkins’s great pacifist film Culloden (1964), screened again by BBC2 for the anniversary. This showed how unworthily 1996 television treated the occasion: Scottish Television took refuge in song and the BBC dug up a ‘classic’ of 32 years ago. However, BBC Scotland at least made decent amends with a couple of more modest documentaries, one of them devoted to Watkins and how Culloden got made. ‘British television has gone steadily downhill since then,’ Watkins remarked bitterly from where he now lives, in Lithuania. On the night of the 16th the BBC’s Kirsty Wark also chaired a lively and forward-looking debate from Lennoxlove House in Haddington.

The Lennoxlove arguments illustrated another traditional emphasis which, irreproachable in itself, may still have a distracting effect. This is the preoccupation with the post-1746 destruction of clannic culture and Gaelic tradition: the true meaning of the calamity then has to do with the fate of Gaeldom and ‘patriarchal society’, rather than that of political Scotland or imperial Britain. But these days nobody will deny the frightfulness of the aftermath. That’s the trouble: all stand too readily poised to misdescribe and deplore ‘ethnic cleansing’. Indeed latter-day apologists of Britishness have become effusive with their non-denials. Yes, what an utterly ghastly business it was, insisted Peter Hitchens of the Daily Express at Lennoxlove: totally unjustifiable. Upright as a dragoon throughout the discussion, he couldn’t help looking disarmingly like Rick Mayall’s Nick B’stard from The New Statesman. ‘But’ (the concluding salvo) it was in everyone’s best interests none the less, that Johnny Foreigner be foiled on Culloden Moor. Even when so thoroughly overstepped, a mark may still indicate the true direction of Progress.

The contrary to Hitchens’s Whig rhetoric has become frank endorsement of Johnny Foreigner. Both the Gaeltacht and Scotland would have been far better off if Jacobitism had won the battle, if the Prince had then returned to England and (as in his original plan) met up with an invading French army. Geordie, William Augustus and their sleazebags would have fled back to Hanover. As in Central Europe in 1989, no one would, within the twinkling of an eye, have had any good at all to say of their damnably corrupt, bullying and philistine regime. Paralysed by the mythology of Mother Parliament and Protestant Progress, even nationalist-minded Scots have long found it difficult intellectually to concede this logical alternative: a less-Protestant, non-Westminsterial development along political lines closer to Europe’s mainland norm. Instead, they have tended to take refuge in an over-emotional closet. Unable either to stomach or to dismiss the Express line, they have fallen backwards into a prickly protective hedge of unreason.

Yet today it is suddenly easier. Though one wouldn’t have known it at the ceremonies, part of the hedge has collapsed. Later in that same TV debate, Labour MP George Galloway and Alex Salmond of the SNP exited the closet together, agreeing that quite possibly things would have been better that way. ‘Johnny Foreigner’ has turned from frog to Europe, and Prince Téarlach has come back again to his own, by a wholly unexpected route. After two and a half centuries a cure may be in sight. Hanover’s day is almost over at last. Beyond it there is no Britain in that old sense. I wish Blair would stop wasting our time and digging his own grave by trying to kiss it back into life. Europe, Great Britain, No Surrender Protestantism, Union and Parliament: all already changed utterly in meaning. A calmer rereading of Culloden is one signal of this shift.