The Meaning of Culloden and Radicalizing the Roots Course

First of all, I’ll be offering the course Radicalizing the Roots: Decolonizing Scottish Heritage and Deconstructing Whiteness through Gaelic Lenses again, starting on May 13th. The effects of the pandemic have restricted the amount of time I have available to teach, but I’m trying to make time to offer these courses, especially because I know that a lot of people are asking important, probing questions about the meaning of Scottish history and heritage, and how it intersects with a number of issues like social justice in the present day.

Secondly, I’m honored to be featured for an interview on Sunday 18th April commemorating the 275th anniversary of the Battle of Culloden, the first in a series of discussions about the intersections between Scottish history and social justice concerns of the present. The talk, entitled “Bury My Heart at Culloden” after a long article I wrote some years ago, is being organized by Sgoil Gàidhlig Bhaile an Taigh Mhòir of Baltimore and will explore the ripple effects of that fateful day both in Scotland and North America.

Culloden Moor (National Trust for Scotland)

So, what should or could we make of the Battle of Culloden in terms of Scottish history and culture? Any major historical episode, such as the Jacobite Rising of 1745 and its conclusion on the Battle of Culloden, will be complex and open to a number of different interpretative lenses – but that does not of course mean that all interpretations are equally valid or useful from some point of view.

Scholars have made various totalizing claims about the ’45: that it was an inter-dynastic power struggle, or a civil war, or a conflict between the “Old World” and modernity, or a religious war, or the fool-hardy dream of a vain prince. While all of these and other ideas offer potential ways of approaching the events, what’s often missing is the fact that the backbone of the Jacobite army was comprised of Scottish Gaels who had their own perspective on the matter, which is evident in song and story that persists to the present day, even though it’s often ignored.

Take, for example, the response of the Gaelic activist group Misneachd in response to an exhibition in 2017 at the National Museums of Scotland about Jacobitism:

“This is cultural appropriation and English language colonisation of our history. The museum is attempting to make money and raise its profile internationally from a history completely interlinked with the language of the Highlands. Even now, we sing the Gaelic songs composed at that time and tell the tales connected with the events. Gaelic, and the Gaelic peoples of the Highlands as a minority population, still suffer from the consequences of Culloden. One of the main difficulties faced by Gaelic speakers is their compatriots’ lack of understanding of how strong the link is between Gaelic and the important events in our history. If we present our history without any reference to the important part Gaelic played in it, it is little wonder some Scots still don’t understand that Gaelic has relevance in Scotland today.”

The Scotsman 24 June 2017

That’s only four years ago, and the pattern of neglect persists. It’s as though “qualified” people either don’t know that there are ample sources of information about what Gaels thought about the movement or they don’t think that their opinions are worth examining and taking seriously. Because, after all, they were just primitive rustics whose way of life was doomed to extinction, right? That seems to be the prevailing attitude, just as it was about the other natives who had to be conquered for modernity to prevail … but I digress.

So, what do the Gaelic sources tell us? Here are the main themes (which I’ve explored in the book Warriors of the Word as well as in other books and articles).

First, Gaels experienced a siege mentality, seeing the anglophone world hemming them in and persecuting them for being different. The Jacobite Risings focused their energies in opposition to those who were disenfranchising them and gave them an heroic role to play in changing the tide – or so they hoped. It is little wonder that one of the motivational stories told in Gaelic concerned a prophecy that a messianic figure would return to Scotland and lead the Gaels into battle and restore their status in the country (an idea I’ve explored in this article). Messianic hopes are often the sign of desperation, and the prophecy explicitly reflects the Gaels’ self-consciousness of their marginalization in the nation they founded.

Second, the Jacobite Risings were framed through ethnic lenses, as a conflict between the Gaelic world and the English world. This is not a claim that the actual ethnicity of every person on each side was a literal match, only that there was a perceived approximate alignment between ethnic and political allegiance. Just as in all of the “Indian Wars” across North America there were always native scouts and soldiers in the U.S. government ranks, so were there Highland soldiers fighting in the Hanoverian ranks – but that did not change the overall tenor of Gaelic perceptions of the meaning of the conflict. And you can see that ethnic coloring in practically all of the Gaelic sources.

Thirdly, the defeat of Culloden was seen (rightly) as a watershed in Highland society. This is remarked upon in many Gaelic sources. It is not because of the number of soldiers that lost their lives in the battle, but because “the whole weight of the Government, for a number of years, was employed to dissolve every tie between the chief and the clan …” as Ramsay of Ochtertyre remarked. In other words, an intensive and sustained campaign to break Gaelic society and assimilate it from the top down was carried out, informed by, and informing, colonial efforts elsewhere in the Empire.

These are some of the issues I’ll be discussing briefly on Sunday, and some of those to be explored in greater detail by participants in the Radicalizing the Roots course I’ll be leading in coming weeks.

P.S. By the way, the above comments are only about Gaelic perceptions of the events as articulated in a great many songs and stories composed by men and women across the Highlands. I am not implying that these perceptions were realities in literal historical terms, or that Highland support of the Jacobite cause was the best thing to do, or that Gaels would have benefited from a Jacobite victory. It is merely to relay and make sense of these experiences from a Gaelic point of view.

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