Thursday, August 06, 2015

Clashing Cultures

I watched episode nine of the Outlander TV series last night... where Jamie takes his belt to Claire for her disobedience: "You've done wrong to all the men and you must suffer for it". She then twice makes him promise, at the point of a dirk, never to do such a thing again. This tension between cultures is one of the charms of the books and Diana Gabaldon has put her finger on an enduring issue.

For Claire, an intelligent liberated woman of the 20th century, such barbarity is unacceptable, indeed contemptible. But, stripped of modern ethical standards, clan society in the 18th century worked pretty well, and Claire was operating in a cultural vacuum (her culture had not yet been born!).

The episode put me in mind of  Alistair Moffat's comments in his excellent book on Hadrian's Wall, on the relative barbarism of Romans and the invaded, artistic but illiterate Celts, "In AD 105 the Emperor Trajan sent 50,000 captives back to Rome to be butchered by gladiators for the amusement of spectators... very civilised".

Where a culture has superior military power, it somehow believes that its values are superior to those who are less developed, less able to defend themselves.

In 1919 the Aliab Dinka of Southern Sudan, naked, spear-carrying cattle herders were not paying their taxes and, when confronted, had the temerity to outwit the government forces and kill the provincial governor. The Lewis gun equipped punitive expedition burned villages and drove off 7000 cattle, sold to fund the occupying force. Who were the Barbarians?

Moffat also writes of the aftermath of Queen Boudica's rebellion, "Paullinus scoured the countryside for fugitives, allies, or even neutrals... smoke rose on every horizon as the soldiers punished southern Britain for daring to rebel". The same man dealt with the island of Anglesey, "In the days after the battle the killing went on: Paullinus ordered his men to cut down the sacred groves of oak trees on Mona, and as far as possible extirpate the cult of the druids".

The extirpation of a cult was more or less exactly what the Duke of Cumberland had in mind with his brutal and indiscriminate suppression of the Highlands in 1746. The violence and sense of superiority of the British Army of the day is only a little exaggerated in the TV series.

That was 270 years ago. But the conviction that more developed cultures are superior (and should be imposed) still endures.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Gallipoli 1915 and Culloden 1746

My adopted town of Hawick remembers its dead. In May I visited the Gallipoli peninsular, scene of a disastrous campaign in 1915, where there is a marble shield to the Hawick fallen. 86 Hawick men lost their lives on 12 July 1915 and each year there is a service of remembrance here. Today, the centenary, there was an expanded ceremony; each of the 86 names was read out, the Last Post sounded: They shall not grow old as we that are left grow old... 

The Hawick men were from 4th Battalion, Kings Own Scottish Borderers. They were ordered to take a non existent line of trenches and ended up milling around in the open under heavy machine gun and artillery fire. Only two officers ended the day uninjured; seventy men from a unit of about 700 were fit for duty next day.

There are many heart wrenching tales from Gallipoli. Many are scarcely believable accounts of sheltering for days in the baking sun behind rotting bodies (a ready breeding ground for millions of flies). But the story that particularly caught my attention was that of Brigadier Scott Moncrieff. At the Battle of Gully Ravine, he watched his men being cut to pieces as they attacked into Turkish machine gun fire. He was ordered to attack again and felt he had no choice but to be at the head of his men. He led them 'over the top' and was hit in the head by a bullet. The attack failed.

The grave of Brigadier Scott Moncrieff
It reminded me of Cameron of Lochiel ('The Gentle Lochiel') at the Battle of Culloden in 1746; he was a polyglot, expert forester and much respected clan chief. He must have known that, after the failure of the night attack, the situation at Culloden was hopeless. But all the same he bounded across that moor in his powdered wig, brandishing a broadsword, endeavouring to engage the British Army.

But Lochiel did not reach the government front line as his legs caught the grapeshot of their cannons; he was carried back to his home at Achnacarry and escaped to France where he died.

Cameron of Lochiel (1700 - 1748)
Both men willingly put themselves in certain mortal danger in a battle they knew would be lost, leading their men in the full knowledge that it was probably all in vain. It was their duty. Better to die a hero than live a coward.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Scotland says 'No'. But now that you're listening...

So what should those outside these shores make of our Independence Referendum?

In short, the 'No' vote won but we are now in a much better position  - with more devolution on the way - than we were a month ago.

Much passion has been generated and it has sadly left some bitter divisions. In my personal view, this was a wasted opportunity: we were asked to vote on a general principle (which would be binding) without any knowledge (or rather with two totally conflicting opinions) as to what the balance sheet of an independent Scotland would look like. A 'Yes' vote would have been an enormous leap of faith.

The vast majority in the UK is very relieved. It did at one stage seem quite possible that the votes of two million people in Scotland could break up the 300 year old United Kingdom, (pop. 64 million). Any UK government will think carefully about a future referendum.

The good news is that Scotland has put down a marker. We want more devolution and we want it soon.

This genie will not be going back into its box. Many people are distraught. They feel betrayed by the majority. In their hearts they cannot accept this decision. Expectations have been raised.

Alan Little, the BBC Scotland correspondent makes some very good points...
  • Almost all the mainstream media (including Scottish media) were hostile to independence.
  • The banks would move to London. 
  • The financial services industry would collapse. 
  • Mortgage payments would rise. 
  • Scotland would have to get in the queue behind Kosovo for EU membership. 
  • The oil is running out.
  • No one knew what currency we would use.
  • Supermarkets prices would go up. 
And still 45% voted 'Yes'!!


Well, its mostly the fault of the Romans. For three hundred years the Celtic tribes in the north were walled off from their southern neighbours who began to favour baths, wine and a trip to the amphitheatre over the traditional Celtic entertainments of warfare, feasting and song. And because these southerners became so soft they were easy meat for the Angles,Saxons and Danes who imported a different language and a different culture. Two kingdoms were born.

Joining them together was a success.We defeated Napoleon, built the Empire, suffered together in two World Wars, built post-war prosperity and the welfare state. But now we are both part of Europe and subject to its laws ('independence' is a relative, not an absolute, concept nowadays). Scotland's coal, steel and shipbuilding is now worked out. Now, more than ever, the centre of gravity is in London. There isn't really a joint project any more. We feel different.

It hasn't helped, over the years, that the English regularly beat us on the battlefield (as well as on the rugby pitch). It hasn't helped that English Victorians who bought Scottish castles and estates, tended to treat the locals as serfs. It hasn't helped that successive Prime Ministers - Douglas Home, Heath and Callaghan - have promised more devolution than they have delivered. But mostly it's because we feel different.

Unscrambling the constitution,  - which is now what is needed - will be very tricky. I'm not going into that now. But, despite the infighting, we are a lot better off now than we were a month ago.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Come home to Scotland!

How lucky we are in Scotland to have a colourful and vibrant clan culture to underpin our tourism industry! But are we looking after our Diaspora?...making it easy for folk to find and enjoy the experiences that they seek?

Yesterday I was at the very successful 'Bannockburn Live'. An effective 'battle performance', great music and good local food were marred only by some rain and a wee problem with traffic management. The clan tents were busy, especially when Robert the Bruce himself was doing the rounds.

Tomorrow I am at a meeting to discuss how to 'develop the potential of clan tourism in Scotland'. So, as I mow the grass, my mind inevitably turns to what can be learned from 'Bannockburn Live' and how we can build on it...

Correcting my un-straight lines, I conclude that Highland Games elsewhere are in many cases grander affairs than here in Scotland, but an event such as 'Bannockburn Live' or a Scottish Highland Games offers a 'Rooted Authenticity'. This may come from some or all of the following...
  • A historic setting - castle, battlefield, iconic venue such as Holyrood Park, or somewhere that resonates in clan history.
  • Clan events before or afterwards, and/or the opportunity to tour remote clan lands, seek out family heritage - or visit popular attractions.
  • What surrounds the event - people, architecture, whisky, music. An American friend who was at the event yesterday evening has uploaded a video of a music session in a local pub commenting " Just another reason I love Scotland!!!"
  • Meeting native Scots of the same name. This may seem trivial to us in Scotland, but after 12 years of running tours with an ancestral theme, I know it is not.
  • Our funny Scottish ways: local people with impenetrable accents enthusing about ...something, the Atholl Highlanders, Lonach Highlanders, nobility, Royalty.
Atholl Highlanders
There's a bit to think on there - and I'd be very grateful for any feedback, especially from those in far off places. Have I got this more or less right? 

If so, the way we get the message out and make all this more accessible is a longer discussion.

Maybe we should be doing more events like 'Bannockburn Live'? There are Highland Games and Gatherings all over north and central Scotland and this year the Highland Tattoo at Fort George. What about something to celebrate Border clans and families during the Common Riding season with participation by cornets/callants? Bannockburn again perhaps? Or a massive 700th anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath in 2020?

Finally, I was chatting to this man in the beer tent yesterday. Clearly a passionate Scot.
Where does he come from?


Food for thought...
maybe another beer...

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Rewriting the Battle of Bannockburn

I am Edward II of England, facing King Robert of Scotland, played by the Chief Guide at the Bannockburn Centre. It was an interesting encounter: I led my cavalry straight into his foul calthrop trap but he was so keen to protect his king (yes, it's a bit like chess) that I outnumbered him in various encounters. Then he gleefully pointed out that whilst I had lots of archers and cavalry left, I had no infantry with which to relieve Stirling Castle - which had to be done by midsummer's day to comply with a gentlemanly deal done with the Scots by the castle's governor, Sir Philip Mowbray. (The Russians may have a similar plan in eastern Ukraine although as yet no date has been set).

Of course in 1314 it was a Scottish victory, indeed it was our last 'home win' against England and the encounter will be replayed on 28 and 29 June at Bannockburn this year, a 700th anniversary celebration.

I enjoyed the new attraction and all the fun of 3D glasses with the effects of knights galloping past a mere arm's length away. The talking figures of various characters in the battle are excellent in every detail - don't miss any of these. But the much hyped war game is, I think, overambitious. It's designed for 30 players, each with a division or two to command, and an understandable need for quick decision-making so that the battle does not take all day. Commentary and advice from staff is essential to make some sense of it all. It's great to see hi-tech options being embraced, but I wonder how much each learned about the actual course of the battle...

The seeds of this conflict were sown by the untimely death of King Alexander III of Scotland, whose only heir, his granddaughter Margaret, died on her way back home from Norway. Edward I of England ruthlessly exploited the resulting power vacuum and took Scotland under his control. The Scottish victory at Bannockburn was a game-changer and in this year of the referendum on Scotland's independence it is understandably cited as a source of national pride and patriotism. Conveniently forgotten is that the Scottish solution to the problem of King Alexander's death was to make a good marriage for his heir, Margaret the 'Maid of Norway'. The intended bridegroom?... none other than the future Edward II of England.