The Tales we Tell Oorsells
We begin wi ane o the maist sexy an excitin o aa Scotland’s historical eras, an potentially the ane wi greatest relevance tae the political an cultural clash o the day; the era o the Jacobites.
The Jacobites are the subject o a “major new exhibition” at National Museums Scotland. Afore we howk through the exhibition itsel, lets mind oorsels o the Jacobite movement. Jacobitism is kent by sic a title fir its patron King Jamie, the coupit king o Scotland an England, the victim o a parliamentary conspiracy an coup organised by Westminster.
Owre the furst 20 an mair years o this new regime, resistance wasnae hard tae thole fir the croon. Fowk wernae owre fond o King Jamie. Bonnie Dundee, John Claverhouse led a wee risin o Hielan men in 1689 efter raisin the King’s stannart at the tap o Dundee Law, but pairtly due tae the unpopularity o that mannie, the risin neer took aff, an it deid a deeth when Claverhouse himsel deed at Killiecrankie. There wis a stooshie at an Irish burn caaed the Boyne, but it came tae nocht.
Houaniver, anither event in the furst years o the new century wid fair shoogle Scottish society, an gar the ordinary fowk poor oot their hooses an tak airms in rebellion: The Acts o Union wi England.
Scotland turnt itsel tapsalteerie wi anger, the ordinary fowk raged agin this Union. Thon’s weel documentit an we needna rak owre auld coals here. Riots broke oot in Embra, Glasgae, aawye. Mass resentment wis felt keenly through ilka layer o Scots society, fae cobbler an fermer tae peasent an priest. The reason this widespreid violence didnae kick oan intae a full-bluidit rebellion is this; we didnae hae ae figure nor movement tae rally roon.
Jacobitism saw its chance. The son coupit King Jamie, King James VIII, hud been bidin in France, haudin aff on invasion till they saw a hopfu moment. He an his follaers ettled tae capture the zeitgeist o anti-union dissaffection. They selt theirsels tae the Scots as the ainly gait tae ging doon tae reclaim independence fae England. Ilka message back tae Scotland fae the exiled coort in France argued “gie us a haun tae unseat the usurpers o the throne an we’ll mak Scotland free an prosperous again. A soveriegn parliament, a braw trade deal wi the colonies, preferential treatment. A Scots dowp oan a Scots throne aince mair.”
This message activatit the population o Scotland. In 1715, the biggest o aa the Jacobite risins took place. Some historians reckon mair nor 50% o ilka man, woman an bairn in Scotland, fae Stornoway tae Lerwick tae Hawick, wis insnarlt wi the rebellion, either as sodger o supplier or camp-follaer. Scotland hud neer been in sic complete uproar.
This multi-cultural Jacobite force whummelt the British at Sherramuir, but the owre-muckle, unweildy airmy o unpeyed fermers soon wearied o hingin aboot waitin fir action, an daundered aff hame tae see tae the hairst.
The mair famous risin in 1745 wi Bonnie Prince Charlie at its heid wis unco smaa comparitively. Less than ten thoosan fowk were oot wi him. Yet this smaa airmy still gaithert itsel thegither fae across the hail nation an succesfully invaded as far sooth as Derby, ainly a hunner miles fae London.
This isnae the tale telt by National Museums Scotland (NMS). They yaise the auld-farrant history fae the tap-doon approach. Their tale is aa aboot the high heid yins, wi nary a
thocht fir the tide o humaity that cairted them aroon.
Ye walk in tae the exhibition space and richt fae the stert ye ken the score; there’s a muckle romantic portrait o “Bonnie Prince Chairlie”, pentit in 1892, a hunner year an mair efter his deeth. The soontrack pleyin through the speakers owreheid? The Skye Boat Sang. A mair insipid sang its gey hard tae imagine. Screivit in the eighteen hunners by an English baronet, it has naethin tae dae wi Scotland, nor wi Jacobitism. Insteid, like pentin, it’s a privileged, romantic view o Jacobitism.
This furst impression is worth dwellin a bitty langer oan. Tae wale this sang fae oot the lave o Jacobite balladry, the NMS hud tae owrelook ane o the richest kists o folk music an sang onywhaur in Europe. Jacobites were no ainly commemorated in sang efter their efforts, but they themselves screivit sangs as recruitment agents an merchin anthems. The Brits fir their pairt pit sangs thegither anaa. Ilk ane o them wouldae been mair worthy than the anodine pish they waled.
But the NMS didnae yaise Johnnie Cope, screivit in the Lothians efter the battle o Prestonpans, nor Killiecrankie, screivit by Rabbie Burns an expanded by James Hogg, nor ony ither o the wheen o braw Scottish sangs in Scots an Gaelic that wid tell us anent the Jacobites fae oor ain perspective.
They yaised a sang screivit in braid English, by a cheil wha hud naethin ataa tae dae wi Jacobitism nor Scotland. This sets the alienatit, Anglicised tone fir the exhibition.
Front an centre o ilka chaumer’s exhibits are aye the concerns an interests o the rulin elite. They are; legitimacy o succession, material wealth an personal comportement. As ye ging through the chaumers ye finn weel-wrocht artistically presentit faimly-trees. The NMS ettles tae explain that Bonnie Prince Chairlie is actually kythed fae the same ancestry
as oor incumbent monarch, an that like the mony serpent-heids o Medussa, aa these rulers grow fae the same source.
This bourgeois worship o the deid in ae chaumer is follaed by a bourgeois worship o material culture in the neist. Ae hail chaumer is dedicatit tae the wappins o the Jacobite sodgers. There’s a seriously bonnie blunderbus burnished tae a high gleam. There’s quaichs linkit by legend tae the Bonnie Prince, an ane o the dandiest tartan ootfits ye’ll eer clap een on. These bonnie artefacts are presented as bluidless objects d’art, an no the wappins o wir recent relations wha, presumably, deed at British hauns at Culloden fechtin fir Scotland’s independence. Ae Scot does manage to mak his wirds heard but: a Claymore hings in a case, its hilt is inscreivit wi the wirds “Prosperty tae Scotland an nae union”. The weeest glisk intae the thochts o the fechtin men.
Ye’re nae mair nor haufwye roon the exhbition afore a few tthochts stert loupin up at ye.
Whaur are the Women? Literally the ainly lassies in the exhibition up tae that pynt hud been mentioned due tae the bairns they’d kythed or wha they’d marriet. Women are presentit as haein nae agency at aa in the movement. This auld-farrant view wis couped ontae the midden o faus history some years syne by the crackin book Damn Rebel Bitches: The Women of the ‘45 by historian Maggie Craig. As Maggie hersel says “Women gave money and hospitality, acted as spies and raised men for the Jacobite Army. They tended
the wounded and hid fugitives from the Redcoats.”
This exclusion is damagin tae the nesit generation o Scottish females. The exhibition wis hoachin wi young lassies wi their faimlies. They wilnae hae seen onythin tae suggets that they theirsels could dae somethin worthy o the history books. History à la NMS is still HIS-story, a masculine narrative.
Whaur are the gaels? This maun be a central question when assessin the effectivenss o the exhibition at tellin us wir ain tales. The 1745 risin wis stertit oot in the western islands. Prince Chairlie cam owre fae France wi gey few provisions an essentially nae men nor gowd at aa. He hud tae strike like a bolt o fireflaucht intae the thrang o gaelic lairds, an stir a rebellion intae bein. Whit did he dae tae get them oan side? Whit arguments were pit afore the crofters an tacksmen, whit cultural pressure wis brocht tae bear? Hou wis this intrusion unnerstood by the guid fowk o the western isles that were awa tae gie thoosans o their best brawest laddies tae the cause?
In a wee “minorities neuk”, a dark chaumer, a sad film pleys an a gaelic wifie sings a doolsome sang. A wee laminate gies an owresettin o the Gaelic, an lets ye ken that the wifie singin is that scunnert acause o the men the war’s tane fae her.
Gaelic history is aye gien in the same wye: loss, heartache, deeth.
Whaur are the teuchters? It wis yir east coast toons, likes o Brechin, Huntly, Forres, that pit forth thoosans o men tae fecht, wha produced innumerable sangs an poems, tunes an laments in a great ootpourin o culture, wha experienced their finest moment in thae years o Jacobitism. These same airts sairly lack a strang identity the day. A national exhibition that gied them their deserved credit could’ve been a shot in the airm fir their confidence.
Whaur are the Gaelic an Scots leids? As ye’d expect fae an institution that doensae spikk either leid, they arnae there in ony meaningfu sense. This exclusion robs the day’s spikkers o a connection wi the history o their tongue an culture.
It isnae hard tae see the subtext. The narrative o the gaeltacht as telt by the official historians, NMS includit, is ane o failure an obsolescence. The narrative o women is a life o tholin hardship. As fir the teuchters, they micht as weel no exist. Whaur the fuck even is Huntly?
When ye reach the final chaumer the reason fir aa this distortit narrative is revealed. There’s anither set o displays stappit fu wi siller this an burnished that. Set ahint them is a weel-
lichtit portrait o Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth I/II.
Ablow this is a wee caption: “lent to the NMS by Her Majesty the Queen”. A quick keek at a puckle ither displays, an ye see that in fact the croon hae gied a fair wheen o the artefacts oan display tae the NMS.
This is a conflict o interest in the maist compromisin wye. Ye cannae tell the tale o a risin, wha’s twin aims were the topplin o the union an the removal o its illigitimate usurpin monarchy, yaisin artefacts lent tae ye by the victors o that conflict.
There are some successes here: the displays o material culture are captivatin tae bairns an adults alike, an licht in fowk an interest in the Jacobites that itherwise micht hae neer been lichtit. The displays are weel-wrocht an o international quality. That lets fowk ken that the Jacobites are at least worth takkin tent o, an that Scotland has a history worth investigation. This airticle an mony ither debates wouldnae hae been provoked wioot the NMS ettlin tae tell the tale at aa.
But fundamentally, the exhibition is a failure.
Jacobitism maun be a tale o Scotland’s potential, o the might o oor communities an the strength o oor culture. Nae just anither opportunity fir the rulin class tae let us ken wha’s really in chairge.
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