Biting back at the Jacobites
The 250th anniversary of the Forty-Five sees some challenging new interpretations. Sean Lang reports.
It would be hard to improve on the account of the demise of the Jacobite uprising given in the classic 1965 drama documentary Culloden, which used modern documentary techniques, including an off-camera interviewer, to convey the immediacy of the battle itself and the brutal repression that followed it. But nothing daunted, the BBC and Channel 4 are both marking the 250th anniversary of the "Forty-Five" with series for schools.
BBC Scotland's Year of the Prince, which links up with a software package, Jacobites The Lost Succession, proclaims itself a radical new interpretation, discarding the heather-hopping heroism of Bonnie Prince Charlie to show the conflict of 1745 for what it really was: a Scottish civil war. And so, in part, it does. The bubbly presenter, aptly named Marsali Stewart, explains why the two sides were fighting, and draws useful parallels with modern civil wars in Bosnia and Rwanda.
Not only were there more Scots at Culloden fighting for King George than for Prince Charles Edward, but families of highlanders, lowlanders, Catholics and Protestants were all split down the middle.
Clear maps show how much of the highlands remained loyal to the Hanoverians (not that it did them much good in the ethnic cleansing that followed Culloden), and how General Wade's network of military roads penetrated the highlands, part of which survives more prosaically today as the A9.
Crucially, the Jacobites did not attract the vital support in England that their leader, Charles Edward, was hoping to find. And at Derby he was persuaded by his advisers to turn back, although contrary to the scene shown in the series, this did not happen in the cafeteria of a motorway service station.
This challenge to traditional perceptions is both welcome and generally effectively presented; so why on earth does the series undermine its whole point with an extended dramatic saga of the most hackneyed romantic kind? Handsome, wounded Jacobite (did he betray his comrades?) is nursed in secret by the comely Jacobite daughter of the local magistrate, who wrings his hands over the nasty English punishments he must impose on captured rebels.
Enter villainous redcoat Captain Maxwell, fresh from gunning down Jacobite women and children (watch out for a fitting end to him by episode five), who billets himself and his men in the magistrate's house where hidden Jacobites now outnumber residents by three to one and are ruining the flower beds. This could make a gripping one-off drama, but after three episodes of interminable conversation about the state of the highlands, I heard a desperate voice yelling out to Captain Maxwell "They're all in the barn!" and realised it was mine.
A more serious problem with The Year of the Prince is the way it plays about with chronology. The drama takes place after Culloden, but the explanatory bits take the story from 1688.
Channel 4's The Jacobites leaps about even more. It begins with a manic guide, who looks old enough to know better, thrusting his face into the camera in the manner of the late Sid Vicious and announcing that he's going to find out about some people called Jacobites and we're coming with him whether we like it or not.
It gets worse. In each programme he meets a character from 1745: a girl from a Jacobite clan, a highland warrior, an English soldier and a strong anti-Jacobite minister's wife from Glasgow. Mark what follows. He then takes them for a walk, not through the past but through the present.
The Jacobite girl visits a fish-processing plant and interviews the manager, the highlander chats with customers in a posh tartan shop (not a word to show that those so-called clan tartans are 19th-century fabrications), the redcoat drops in on the modern army, the minister's wife meets a woman priest. Even if you enjoy the increasingly desperate jokes, can any teacher afford the time that ticks by with so little historical detail? This is serious, given these characters' considerable potential for historical investigation. Ironically, this comes out better through the excellent teachers' booklet which accompanies the series, with good source materials as well as photocopiable worksheets.
You can supplement it with Iain Rose's attractive and clearly-written book for primary children which accompanies the BBC series. But for film material, neither series comes near the 1965 classic, though Channel 4 has the nerve to include fleeting snatches of it. Let's hope the BBC repeats it for the anniversary.