Fighting a losing battle

11th February 2005 at 00:00
A hands-on history project that revisits the Battle of Culloden is giving pupils a new insight into their country's bloody past. Su Clark reports

It is 1746, and the last attempt by the Stuart kings to regain the thrones of Scotland and England is about to descend into the bloody Battle of Culloden. Raw recruits from Auchertyre Primary School in Kyle, on the mainland near Skye, have been transported back 258 years to the barren, cold Drumossie moor, not far from Inverness. It is here that the battle will take place.

The role call of the children - Grant, Gordon, MacDonald, MacKenzie and many more - re-echoes many of the names of the clansmen who raised the standard under the Stuarts, otherwise known as Jacobites, on April 16 of that year.

As they gather under the steely gaze of Roderick Chisholm, a Jacobite and son of the Chisholm clan's chief, most of the pupils are well aware that the proceedings will end in bitter defeat. The battle is perhaps the most famous in Scottish history, and nearly all pupils in Scotland will have heard of it by the time they are 10. On the battlefield, Scots died by the thousand, but it is what followed that made the event infamous.

The Red Coat commander, the Duke of Cumberland, determined to break the power of the clans, and many who fought were later hunted down and killed.

Families were evicted from their homes, and lands confiscated from the clans. Wearing tartan, playing bagpipes and speaking Gaelic were all banned. Known as "the Butcher", Cumberland crushed the old Highland way of life once and for all.

The last battle to be fought on British soil, Culloden stirs the emotions like few others. It has become a crucial part of history, and features in environmental studies from five to 14. But the notion that this was simply a case of Scots against English is wrong.

This lively re-enactment day organised by National Trust Scotland dispels any myths on this matter.

"We look at the battle from both sides - from the viewpoint of the Highlanders who fought with Bonnie Prince Charlie and from that of the Red Coats loyal to the government in London," says Roderick Chisholm, alias Mike Newcomen, from the Alba Adventure Company, which has teamed up with NTS to bring history alive for visiting pupils.

"We show children how many Scots were on the side of the Red Coats, and we explain why so many other people stayed at home rather than give their support to Bonnie Prince Charlie."

Pupils are marched around by Roderick, who is dressed in traditional Highland garb with plaid cast across his shoulder. He recounts the gory details of the day as he experienced them. They are taken into the hospital cottage, deep in bloody bandages, and given a tour of the graveyard. After that, they get to dress up in garb similar to Roderick's, and learn how the traditional "kilt" was fastened and what weapons were used against the Red Coats' guns. Before the end, Roderick will ask one of the pupils (in this case 10-year-old Jamie McArdle) to carry a secret letter to his brother, a Red Coat captain based at Fort George on the coast.

After lunch, the children are bussed a few miles up to the coast to meet that brother, James Chisholm, aka Mike's colleague Robert Ballantyre.

Sue Mackenzie, NTS education officer for the Highlands and Islands, says:

"It was common for the clans to send men to fight on both sides so that they didn't lose their land afterwards. The story of Roderick and James Chisholm is true, and James actually found his brother's body on the moor after the battle."

James then recounts the battle from his viewpoint, reinforcing the lesson of the morning in a way that makes it real to the Year 6 and 7 pupils. This time, pupils dress up as government soldiers. Near the end of James's session, after four hours steeped in the past, the pupils are still animated. There is no end to their questions, which give James a chance to explain the relationships between him and his brother, his clan and the Stuart dynasty, the Scots and the British government.

Their class teacher, Jeff Berry, says: "You can see in their faces how much they enjoy it. Coming here before doing the classwork will make it much easier to teach. I'll be able to move the learning on much quicker."

Some children betray their loyalties by calling Roderick's side "ours", but others admit that they would rather be on the winning side. "It's good getting to dress up, though," says Fraser McGlennon, who was transformed into a highlander. Isabel MacKenzie, who was Bonnie Prince Charlie for a while, agrees.

Culloden was more than just a battle, and the aftermath is what makes it so poignant to Scots. Yet, rather than flood the children with too much information at once, NTS has restricted the field of study on visits to Culloden and Fort George so that they focus on what happened to both sides during the battle. To explain what came afterwards and why it is so important in British history, NTS has linked up with education theatre group Meanbh-chuileag. The group visits the school a week or so later to give a follow-up performance that explores the impact of the 1745 uprising and Culloden on Gaelic culture.

Trips to Culloden and Fort George (plus theatre performance): pound;4 per pupil. There are spaces for two schools per day with dates available on March 78, May 34 and June 13. For more details contact National Trust Scotland: telephone: 01463 790607

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