Visiting Culloden Battlefield

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I recently visited the site of the Battle of Culloden, the final battle of the 1745-46 Jacobite rebellion against the British government and Hanoverian dynasty.  Located a few miles east of Inverness, I had long appreciated the importance of this location, having studied the rebellion both at school and at university.  Here – so the narrative goes – the Jacobite Highlanders engaged in a valiant last stand against the British redcoat army, who had pursued them north from their advances into England the previous year.  It marked the end of Charles Stuart’s, or Bonnie Prince Charlies’s, rebellion, and the end of a fifty-year-long attempt to restore the Stuart dynasty to the British throne.  The Jacobite defeat also led to a government campaign to pacify the Highlands, dismantling the clan system of governance and suppressing Highland culture through banning clan tartans and suppressing the use of the Gaelic language.

So, a very important moment in Scottish history.  For a site which was essentially left over two centuries as a field full of mass graves, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  However the visitor centre, opened in 2007, does an expert job of providing the historical background for the battle.  There are the standard museum displays showing Jacobite- and Hanoverian-branded items, 18th-century weapons, clothing and so on, annotated by boards chronologically detailing the events of the rebellion.  These are interspersed with more visual illustrations of the conflict, including an animated map showing the movement of armies throughout the eight-month insurrection, an instalment which particularly appealed to me.  Perhaps the best design decision was to display the opposing narratives of each army on either side of the wall, combining primary sources from soldiers with the wider historical context.  At the end of this rather traditional museum experience, although expertly put together, we entered a room with video footage of a battle re-enactment projected on all four walls.  With surround-sound, it felt as though we were in the centre of the battle itself.  We watched and listened as the armies lined up against one another, began to fire cannons, and finally as the Jacobites charged into the slaughter.

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Afterwards, we were able to explore the battlefield itself, guided by useful – if temperamental – audio headsets.  These were helpful as it’s difficult to appreciate how the field would have looked during the battle, a problem worsened by the fact that the battle site was simply a random field neither side had particularly chosen.  I had always imagined a grander setting for the end of the rebellion.  We followed paths cut through the field, including two particularly long paths along the army lines, giving a sense of how many people fought in the field that day (15,000 in all).  These were annotated by flags to illustrate the distance between the opposing forces as they lined against one another.

The most shocking and, for me, unexpected feature of the battlefield were the mass graves.  I hadn’t realised the bodies, overwhelmingly Jacobite (about 1,500 compared to 50 on the government side) had been buried on the battlefield itself.  I was touched to discover that they been buried by clan; at least the governing army awarded them that final respect.  These would have remained anonymous mounds had it not been for the local landowner Duncan Forbes who, in 1881, placed stones marking the clan buried in each grave.  Somewhat amusingly, a stone described these graves as marking the brave Highland soldiers who had fought against the ‘English’, despite many clans having actually fought on the government side, most notably the Campbells.  I found it interesting how Forbes, perhaps along with many of his Victorian contemporaries, had chosen to remember the battle.  Through a celtic romanticist prism, the battle may have appeared as a final showdown between English/British modernity and Scottish traditionalism.

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By Shadowgate, via Wikimedia Commons.

In fact, the conflict had even less nationalistic undertones than I had been led to believe.  After seizing Edinburgh, Prince Charles was urged by several nobles to reconvene the Scottish Parliament, abolished in 1707, and to consolidate Jacobite control over Scotland.  Charles, however, had no interest in such an action and instead pushed southward into England.  While there were undoubtedly elements of conflict between Scottish and English identity, it seemed to me that the most useful means of framing the uprising is a dynastic power-struggle precipitated by political disagreement over the role of the monarchy, with the British government favouring a Whiggish, constitutional view, and the Jacobites arguing in favour of the divine right of kings.  It’s fascinating how many different historical angles can be applied to the conflict.  The role of the clans and their relationships with the state must also be considered: did the uprising constitute the final assertion of the dominance of the British state and the end of clan sovereignty?

I would highly recommend a visit to the Culloden battlefield to anyone that finds themselves in the Inverness area.  It would be of interest to both avid historians and the less knowledgeable alike, bringing to life this crucially important episode of Scottish history.

 

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Goodbye, Nelson Mandela

President Bill Clinton with Nelson Mandela, Ju...

I’ve just read the news that Nelson Mandela has died, at the fine age of 95, and felt a very bizarre flood of emotions.  We’ve seen this sad day coming through numerous reports of the former South African president’s ill health, yet I never considered just how much it would hit me – and, I’m sure, the entire world – when his time was finally up.  Almost like a form of personal grief but for a man I’ve never met.  I’m sure part of this is due to the not wholly undeserved hero-worship which has built up around Mandela in recent years, though I’m certain I would consider him a personal hero regardless of his image in the media.

From my studies of South Africa in Advanced Higher History last year I became enthralled by his consistent courage opposing Apartheid; but, I would argue, this is not what made Mandela special.  History is littered with freedom-fighters who fought for and won their causes.  Why Mandela stands above these people and became such a shining figure in human history is that, after decades of persecution and oppression by the hideous Apartheid regime, he forgave.  Under his presidency there was no retribution or revenge of the like which has torn many other African nations apart following the horrors of colonialism; the groundbreaking policy of truth and reconciliation he oversaw, though not undeserving of criticism, in my opinion saved South Africa from the brink of what must have seemed an inevitable, bloody civil war.  I’m loath to deify anyone but there’s no word for Mandela’s capacity to forgive other than superhuman.

I hope this example can continue to inspire South Africans – and, indeed, the world – long after he’s gone.  I’m aware there were fears that Mandela served as a symbolic father figure holding the nation together but I’m confident that his legacy can go on if we have the courage to not give in to the temptation to seek revenge and intolerance.  Quotes from the great man will be flying around all over the place right now but one which particularly speaks to me is:

“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

Farewell, Madiba.  All across the world you will be mourned and, most importantly, you will be remembered.

A Brush with Nationalism

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As I mark two weeks of living in Edinburgh I finally have something to  post!  I’m planning to write a summary of my ever-growing experiences at some point, but as I walked through the bustling crowd of today’s independence march I knew this post would have to take priority.  Also, I apologise for the quality of the pictures – I only had my phone with me and I later realised that I left my USB connector back at Shetland, so I had to take second photos with my other camera.  Not the most efficient method…

activityI was only able to briefly witness the initial gathering before the march to Calton Hill, which seems to have become a focal point for Scottish nationalism, as I was due to attend an ‘activism training day’ (I love Edinburgh).  Even so, with the march in a semi-formed state, this was still the most significant political event I have ever witnessed.  Flags were waved, some in frantic excitement, others rippling gently in the wind; whistles blew all round, often by children too young to understand the politics but clearly enjoying the carnival atmosphere; and bagpipes filled the air.  I once wrote about a fictional demonstration – which is, admittedly, a completely different context to here – and I’m glad I at least got the tone right.  Such joy, hope; visions and dreams were palpable through the crowd.  Whether these are justified is a different matter, yet almost didn’t seem important at that moment.  This march created an idyllic vision; cold reality can come later.

greensI was also struck by the vast variety of groups coalescing into this unlikely alliance.  I was most excited to see the Scottish Green Party who had a section in the crowd, though I was too shy to say hello.  In addition I came across the Scottish National Party, the ‘Radical Independence’ group, the Socialist Worker newspaper, the Scottish Socialist Party and even a ‘Christians for socialists independence group’.  Some single-issue organisations were there too, including anti-Trident pressure groups.  I think I even saw some Catalan flags, perhaps as a bid for pan-European solidarity.  Yes, a quick Google search tells me this was the Estelada, a flag used by Catalan nationalists.  I wonder if Saltires have even flown in Barcelona, then?

policeWhat is most impressive about my experience of the march is how peaceful and ordered it was.  This feels that it should go without saying, yet my studies of history indicate time and time again this isn’t the case.  For a movement so at odds with the interests of the ruling elite to be granted such freedom must be virtually unprecedented in the majority of human history.  There was a notable police presence* but even this seemed relatively relaxed, their prime concern being to prevent overcrowding.  There wasn’t even a hint of violent tension, which again would have been unimaginable for most comparable political movements in history.

I continue to be impressed by the optimistic vision advocated by the pro-independence cause.  Whether there’s reason to be optimistic is up for debate, but I can’t imagine anywhere near a similar atmosphere at a unionist march (do these even occur?).  I wouldn’t say this brief brush has changed my view of the debate but it has made it seem all the more real and, certainly, all the more exciting.  I am thrilled to be spending the next year here at a time of such debate and political activity.

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“What do we want?”
“INDEPENDENCE!”
“When do we want it?”
“NOW!”

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A lonely union flag despairs.

Related articles:

*I’m aware of section 76 of the Counter Terrorism Act 2008, which brings into doubt the legality of photographing police officers.  Since I’m neither directly or indirectly helping terrorists by the publication of these photographs I know I’m acting perfectly within the law, but it’s unfortunate we must worry about such things in the first place.

Exam Results!

I received my exam results today – my last ever encounter with the Scottish Qualifications Authority.  It will be like losing a difficult and demanding friend, but one who has stuck with me throughout many difficulties.  Anyway, I had the crazy idea of filming myself discovering the results on camera, which you can watch here.

I’ll now just pass you onto a couple of links I promised to upload a while back:

English dissertation: http://www.writerscafe.org/writing/BlueMeltwater/1218339/
History dissertation: http://www.writerscafe.org/writing/BlueMeltwater/1218347/
The British Revolutionhttp://www.writerscafe.org/writing/BlueMeltwater/1218366/
The Lightning Strike: http://www.writerscafe.org/writing/BlueMeltwater/1218368/

What Do Adults Do With Their Lives?

So, four weeks ago today I left school.  I had feared that an unfillable void would consume my life for the following three months until I left for university in September (Edinburgh, to do English Literature and History – extremely exciting!).  Such a void didn’t immediately come to pass due to a couple of social events in the first week and then being involved with a great play.  However, in the week since that play finished I have found myself at kind of a loose end and I realised that I have no idea what one is meant to do with the rest of their life after they finish school.

Ideally, upon entering this adult world an individual would find a job.  In the last few months I’ve applied for a handful of jobs and asked in a multitude of local businesses if they were in need of temporary staff.  Of these, one turned me down (Boots, because I failed the online test – apparently stating men and women should ignore gender labels on perfume and arguing that make-up is pointless makes me undesirable?), and the rest simply didn’t get back to me.  Of these, I found out that one wasn’t hiring temporary staff so I’m hoping that’s the reason for the rest – I can’t really blame the national youth unemployment of rate of 20% because we’re generally lucky with low unemployment in the area I live.  So, yeah.  I’ve kept my eye out for vacancies but I’m starting to think there’s really no point getting a job for two months only to then move 300 miles away.  Instead, I’m planning to volunteer.  I’ve applied to the local credit union who will hopefully take me on but failing that I might stalk the charity shops.

As a result of this unemployment, I really have entered a mild state of panic as to what adult life actually entails.  Even with a job, unless it’s a dream job – which is unlikely – I’m envisaging adult life as a constant struggle for fulfillment.  I’m sure it isn’t, but I’m allowed my adolescent moment of terror for adulthood, right? (If not, how else do you explain The Catcher in the Rye’s popularity?  Certainly isn’t its groundbreaking narrative!).  For the remaining two months I’m planning to piece together various idea to try to fill up time.  Make crépes, travel to the northernmost point of the country, write a novel/dragged out short story, make more crépes… Oh, and I’m getting a piece of work published in an anthology at the beginning of September (probably)!

Well, I’m sure I’ll have more to do which interests me once I arrive in Edinburgh.  Museums, libraries, societies, the parliament, studying… Ahh… Also, I was wondering whether I should start making ‘vlogs’ when I get there.  My reasoning is that there will be so many visuals of my new life I’ll want to show off which words alone won’t be able to do justice.  I’m not that great a speaker, but perhaps vlogging would actually help with that?  Anyway, I’d put them onto my Youtube account if I do decide to go with that.

Stay tuned!

The Problem with English Lessons

I’ve been reading a brief of UK Education Secretary Michael Gove’s planned changes to the GCSE system in England.  This doesn’t affect Scotland (which is introducing its own controversial changes to education) but it is still fascinating for me to read.  Some aspects I’ve always been opposed to, such as the emphasis on external examinations as a means of assessment.  I’ve always been in favour of coursework for a couple of reasons.  Firstly, I do not believe that one bad experience during the exam should invalidate a whole year of work; and secondly, it’s totally unrepresentative of the kind of work people will face in adulthood (when will someone ever have to write a detailed essay in 45 minutes with no reference material?).

But I’m digressing.  What shocked me was that, for the subjects I have a claim to – English and History – the proposals to the actual course sound almost decent.  In English, the BBC put emphasis on how pupils will have to read ‘whole books’ or ‘whole Shakespeare plays’, rather than the ‘chunks’ they can get away with now.  This would be a very good change.  No wonder pupils resent English and reading so much when they’re forced to learn plots, characters, arcs, themes etc. without having had the opportunity to enjoy the piece.  I still remember my absolute horror of my Higher English teacher skimming through Macbeth, murmuring “No, you don’t need this bit, um… A major character dies here but that’s not very important…”  Sure, pupils can opt to read the whole text themselves – as I did – but realistically, with the stresses of exams, not many books are going to be read that year.

Another problem with English lessons is the uniform way in which we are taught to do it.  Formulas are driven into us (STAR = Statement, Text, Analysis, Relate) which becomes the basic way in which we construct essays; creative writing is seemingly judged not on innovation but on the number of metaphors used and the ability to follow a standard narrative.  Then, once we reached Advanced Higher level, our teachers were surprised at how rigid our approaches initially were.  I think in my case this was a particular problem because our school made Higher English mandatory for all students, so teachers were faced* with classes of pupils who loathe the subject.  Which is why they understandably react with simplification and the abhorrent STAR system.

As for history, there will supposedly be a greater focus on essays for GCSE level, which I also think is a good thing.  Answering questions is alright as an introduction to the subject, but teaching pupils to construct reasoned, developed arguments as early as you can is not a bad thing in my opinion.  That said, it’s incredibly difficult to do just that during exam conditions and, although a good idea on its own, will most likely exacerbate the problem of focusing entirely on exams.  I’m also not too keen on a move away from ‘World History’; the Scotland-centric curriculum I’ve had to put up with, as much as I enjoyed them, became rather repetitive.

Make no mistake, I think Michael Gove is making a terrible Education Secretary – I’ve lost count of the number of times I have heard a news headline: “Teachers vote of no confidence in Gove” – and I’m extremely glad he has no power over education here in Scotland.  Yet, some elements of education do need reform.

*Using past tense still feels incredibly weird.

Advanced Higher English Exam!

Yesterday I sat the second exam of the May 2013 Block: Advanced Higher English.  We only do one essay in the exam due to having submitted a creative writing folio (both will be published online on the 6th August 2013… And one might even end up in a paperback anthology a little later!).  The writers we’ve studied over the year are William Shakespeare (Othello and Antony and Cleopatra) and Carol Ann Duffy (16 plays – I can’t bear to name them all).  Duffy was always meant to be my back-up question, so I went for Shakespeare when the question looked possible:

“Iago and Octavius Caesar are each, in their own ways, obsessed with power.”
Keeping this assertion in mind, compare the role and function of Iago in  Othello with the role and function of Octavius Caesar in Antony and Cleopatra.
(30 marks)

I know that looks like an easy question – and it was – but I struggled with it.  Sounds silly, but I hadn’t expected to be asked explicitly about the antagonists.  I had the knowledge to draw together an answer but not the time to properly plan and bring all the evidence I needed together (I expect the examiner will be amused by my desperate scribblings on the front page; if not amused, then at the very least they might pity me).  Looking back, I did essentially answer the question, which always helps, but I did so in such a clumsy and digressive way that I don’t expect to have done fantastically.  Hopefully enough to have passed, but…

Still, the exam only constitutes 30% of the overall grade, and I don’t need it for anything besides pride – since I’m doing English Literature at university, I feel that I really aught to be handling this.

Coming soon: Geography and RMPS Higher!  Then freedom and boredom (and probably more interesting blogs as a result).