The Young Pretender rides again

19th April 1996 at 01:00
The marking this week of the 250th anniversary of Culloden has at least got southerners discussing Scottish history. Interpretations of the last major conflict in British soil differ, with even basic facts in dispute. In a leader on Monday, The Times firmly stated that "more Scots fought for Butcher Cumberland than Bonnie Prince Charlie". But last week's Times Higher Education Supplement contained a review in which such an assertion is described as a "chestnut". With no apologies to mixed metaphors the reviewer goes on to say that it has been "regularly refuted and as regularly springs to life, like another head on the hydra".

If the 1745 Jacobite rising was mainly a Scottish civil war, then the defeat of the clans at Culloden can be read as the culmination of the centuries-old struggle by Lowlanders to subjugate the Highlands and show up their society as out of date and doomed to distinction, with or without the Clearances.

But if, despite Charles Edward Stuart's failure to advance beyond Derby, there was deep-seated support for his family's cause outwith the Highlands then the rising has to be seen as a British civil war instigated in part by the long-running conflict with France for European hegemony. In that case the Highlanders' participation, actively supported (as the latest research shows) by thousands of Lowland Scots was not necessarily a despairing last gesture from a doomed culture.

The debate should not be regarded as arcane. It coincides with a revival of Highland life, most evident in the rapid growth of Inverness and satellite communities like Culloden itself but also predicated on the fact that new technologies do not demand proximity to London. If a Highlands university emerges by the end of the century, it will be in response to the new culture of its area, although no doubt it will encourage teaching and research into history, traditions and language.

The relationship between different parts of the United Kingdom, Highlands and Lowlands as well as Scotland and England, is worth studying in the light of the 1745 rising, when a third of the Scottish population still lived north of the Great Glen. There is more to be gained from such a study than from facile comment on how Culloden relates to contemporary Scottish nationalism. Like Braveheart, the rout on Drummossie Muir and the subsequent massacres have little to tell about present-day political structures and relationships.

Still, the debates provoked by cinema portrayals of history and by juicy anniversaries give point to the study of the past in a way which is neither anglocentric nor xenophobic but which in schools and universities demands adequate time and resources.

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