Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Lament of Culloden

As fields go, it's nondescript. Other than having an amazing view of snow capped mountains and Moray Firth, Culloden Moor is pretty stark and bleak. Grass grows and haphazard angles, kinda like a really bad haircut. The ground is thick with briars and chunky patches of uneven dirt. Not easy trodding this field.

We arrived en mass on a bus from Culloden House. We were a colorful lot...plaids and tartans of every color imaginable, kilts, hose, flashes, swords, dirks, bonnets, waist coats and stoles. Lighting from the coach we looked, I'm sure, like we belonged on a movie set. Yet when we stepped down from the bus the sight was like none I've ever seen. 

I felt just like I landed in a scene out of Rob Roy. 

I was escorted by my Scottish friends from the coach, where we slowly made our way past the modern day visitor center to the small pathways leading to the center of Culloden Moor for the Annual Commemoration of Culloden.  We were surrounded by hundreds of people carrying flags of various sorts. As I listened, it was pointed out to me who the groups were..Clan Fraser, Na Fir Dilias, Clan McCloud, Clan Cameron, and of course, A Circle of Gentlemen.  

Looking up I spotted flags rising high against the blue sky. The flags were either red or blue and scattered over the field- I was told later that the red flags represented the British position on the day of battle in 1746, and the blue flags represented the Scottish clans and their positions. I'm no military strategist but even I could see the challenge of the positions of the Scottish clans. 

The Well of the Dead
"Many people think Culloden was about the British and the Scots. It wasn't you know"...Alasdair spoke quietly as we walked, explaining to this sassanach what wasn't quite obvious, given the flags. "It was a civil war, it was also Scot against Scot." 

The accounts of the battle of Culloden are, like any battle, compelling and complex, and open to some interpretation as the years pass. Yes it was Scottish lowlanders against the Highlanders. Yes it was the British against the Jacobites. Yes it was Bonnie Prince Charlie against the Duke of Cumberland. It was all of that. But it was more. It was the last decisive, full scale battle fought on British soil and the last battle of the Jacobites. A little known fact by most sassanach's is that on that day the Jacobites were also joined by men from France, Ireland and yes, England. It was a battle of ideals and passions and all battles are. 

The actual battle lasted only an hour. The results of Culloden, though, produced waves and waves of consequenses that would surpass geography and culture and even time, as was evident on this day. As a result of this battle clans would be dismantled. Tartans outlawed. Families banned from their land. Families divided. And laments held over 200 years later. 

It is said we study history so as not to repeat it. So as not to make the same mistakes. All of the Scots standing on this field this day are too keenly aware of not just what is behind them here, but what is before them as well. The battle for independence from England has not stalled. It has just been moved from the soggy moor to the political halls. Scots will have a choice to vote whether to join the United States and Ireland as sovereign nations in the year 2014. So the battle continues.

Alasdair was right. It remains a civil war of sorts - it is still Scot against Scot. The people are still divided. My quite conversations later back at Culloden house is a testiment to that. Not all attendees to this celebratory day are in favor of full independence. They are still empassioned patriots and love their country, they are just not convinced it is the best thing for Scotland. 

Well, you have until 2014 to decide.

In the meantime, there is much to be learned from that sad, sorry day in April of 1746.  

I asked Alasdair to bring me back to Culloden moor the next day. It was a grey, cold day with only a few people scattered about. As we walked the paths of the moor we talked about that battle. 

"If I understand what happened, Culloden's tragedy and the loss of over 1,200 clansman that day and the subsequent deaths by "The Butcher" rests also at the feet of a very young Charles Stuart, who listened to bad advice to continue with the battle, even knowing the odds were against them."


"Explain to me, then, why Scotsmen today hold him in such high esteem when in actuality he failed them?" I thought it a fair question, and he didn't seem offended or surprised. 

"Well, he did take bad advice. Highlanders fight better in the hills"...Alasdair pointed to the surrounding hills..."he was advised by Lord George Murray to wait and take the battle to the hills. But he didn't listen to this, he instead listened to other advisors."

Our conversation continued - about the Prince, his eventual flight out of Scotland to France, military strategy and the passion for independence. I was the student that day - and was lucky enough to be standing on the battlefield with an empassioned Scottish patriot and scholar of history.

Prince Charles Edwart Stuart "Bonnie Prince Charlie"

One cannot stand on a battlefield and remain unchanged. I learned this when I stood at Gettysburg last summer. And though not a Scot, I felt it when I stood on Culloden Moor. I've a small slice of that cold air and bitter wind in my blood now. I've visions of faces and stones and fields. I've a soft spot for a young Prince and a love for the people of Scotland who continue the battle to this day. 

I'm back home now. But I can close my eyes and still see it. Yes, I really was at Culloden. I really stood on that sacred ground. And I've mud on my boots as proof.