Joseph Boyden begins The Orenda with an allusion to the lost world of Huronia that is suggestive of a certain insight proposed in John Crowley’s Aegypt sequence: the world was not always what it has since become. Huronia, the land of the Wendat nation, has since vanished, along with their magic ties to orenda, the life force the suffuses all things, living and dead. Whether The Orenda is a historical fantasy is debatable–there are magic tricks, dream prophesies, and prayers and libations of all kinds, though none or very few unexplainable by science. However, The Orenda is certainly a historical novel, and therefore invested in showing us a forgotten world and time.
Before the arrival of the crows–the Jesuit missionaries who first called First Nations magic unclean–the Wendat had a power that the Christian European world could not comprehend. This is what the Jesuit priest Père Christophe discovers while living away from the security of the settlement of Kebec, behind a Wendat palisade deep in the woods. This ‘primitive’ village is the primal setting of the Canadian consciousness, at least according to Margaret Atwood in her 1970s book Survival, and thus promises to be a gripping Canadian epic.
The first heart-stopping sequence sets the tone for the rest of the novel with the brutal slaughter of the family of a young girl. Snow Falls witnesses her father sing his death song as his skull is bashed in by a club and he falls, arms outstretched and blood pooling around his head. The man who committed the murder is Fox, brother of Bird, who is a respected war chief of the local Wendat village. Bird is at war with the Haudenosaunee, who soon pursue him to avenge Snow Fall’s capture. As the war party trudges away through the snow, Christophe carries Snow Falls to safety and tries to win her trust. Despite her rebellion, he sees her father, splayed in the same shape as he fell when he died, in the silver crucifix around the Jesuit’s neck. It is implied that she believes her father’s orenda has come to rest in the crucifix. This belief in the orenda is what defines her people as different from Christophe’s.
‘Orenda’ is the closest word the Wendat have for ‘soul,’ though it also implies ‘power’ and is a mystical force that unites not only humans, but all things–trees, animals, stones. You could also say the orenda is like ‘the Force’ in Star Wars, which borrows ideas from world religion, or Polynesian ‘mana.’ The difference between Christian soul and Huron orenda proves to be a vast gap that must be bridged if Christophe is to save the ‘savage’ Wendat from what he sees as the demons of Satan.
Though we see Bird and his brother Fox engaged in committing horrific violence within the first few chapters, we later see them at home in their longhouses with their families. We grow to see these characters as heroes defending their traditional way of life. Though in one sense, Christophe–or Christophe Crow, as the Wendat call him–is the antagonist of this novel, the reader cannot help but feel sympathy for him and admiration for his intelligence and bravery. Snow Falls naturally draws our sympathy as we see her grow from a scared Haudenosaunee orphan into a grown Wendat woman who may one day become a seer.
The Orenda is a novel composed of various heroes who come together as antagonists to each other, because of their cultural differences. Even the enemy who we rarely see, the Haudenosaunee, Bird describes as being not so different from the Wendat. But if every character has a good orenda, then what happens to ruin the magic that the Wendat once had?
Joseph Boyden poses the question of who’s responsible with a beautifully structured tragedy. Is it Bird’s adoption of Snow Falls that begins the war that will see the end of his world? Is it the disease the Jesuits bring with them? Is it Christophe Crow’s clumsiness? Or was it just a few bad harvests? Boyden sows the seeds of the end in the beginning, as the Wendat sow the seeds of the three sisters–squash, corn, and beans–each spring to be harvested–or burned–in the fall.
At times The Orenda causes you to remember the present social troubles of First Nations by glimpsing the birth of the patterns of destruction that have assailed them ever since. You see alcohol, suicide, physical and sexual abuse, and the way of regarding First Nations as “savage” that eventually results in the formation of Residential Schools. All that bloody and painful history has its origins in the fatal story that involves Bird, Snow Falls, and Christophe Crow.
Even before I began to read The Orenda, I expected it to be a defining epic of Canadian history, an absolute must-read. I also expected it be similar to the movie Blackrobe. Indeed, several scenes in The Orenda appear to have been either inspired by Blackrobe, or the source material it has in common with it: The Jesuit Relations. But The Orenda goes deeper in describing the ripples the Jesuits caused in Canadian history. The past and future are present, says Aataentsic the Sky Woman.
I saw Blackrobe once in high school at the same time as I studied–too briefly, perhaps–the civilization of First Nations before and during European contact. I remember learning about all the anthropological points between distinguishing the Algonquins and Iroquois, the genocidal wars the Iroquois won with Dutch muskets, and then New France’s reaction, or rather inaction, regarding the wars. Our schools spend too little time teaching about First Nations history. But The Orenda can satisfy your curiosity about any blank spots in your mental timeline. I personally find the old-school map included in the hardcover edition and the references to Huronia and Kebec (instead of Quebec) work wonderfully at alienating Quebecois readers who are familiar with their country/province so that they can be carried into the perspective of those who lived during that time.
The Orenda is part of Joseph Boyden’s saga of the Bird family, and the first prequel. Certainly the first to go back so early in the history of the family. I have read Through Black Spruce before, a tale of a comatose bushplane pilot (named Bird) who remembers how he dealt with a gang of drug dealers in Northern Ontario while his daughter speaks to him while he recovers in hospital from a crash, recalling her own journey to find her sister. It has the same stark, affecting style as The Orenda and it explores some of the social issues in First Nations communities–issues that we now know go back to the seventeenth century. Three Day Road is another in the saga, a book I may pick up in the future.
The Orenda won Canada Reads in 2014, was a Governor General’s Literary Awards finalist, and made the longlist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. The Orenda‘s orenda is strong. Read it.
Unreliable narrators have a way of turning up in the most recent short stories I have drafted, so, in the interest of attaching this idea to historical fantasy, here is my blog post of this week:
In my Honours thesis, I drew attention to the conflict posed by fusing the historical novel with the fantasy novel. If, as Tolkien argues, fantasy relies on eucatastrophe, then a historical fantasy must incorporate a happy ending to catastrophic historical events. Imposing happy endings on history inevitably draws attention to the fact that our histories of time are actually narratives—and that these narratives are shaped by our own desires, or fantasies.
Building off these ideas, I take a broad view of the term “historical fantasy.” It refers to more than simply a genre, but to a phenomenon—how all narratives of the past reflect our own desires. History itself is a fantasy, a mode of desire.
No one can retell the past in a complete, objective way. A corollary: whoever writes an account of the past can never be free of bias, no matter how scientifically they approach their tale-telling. After all, science is itself only one way of viewing the world. Culture and religion form other ways.
Since historical narratives can never be trusted to remain objective, it follows that to some extent all historians are unreliable. Not everything about the past can ever be known and even if we were capable of learning all the facts, the way we retell the past will carry a certain bias. It may never be possible to escape being an unreliable narrator. They are no longer the psychologically diseased and murderous viewpoint characters of an Edgar Allan Poe tale or a Robert Browning dramatic monologue. They are each of us.
Perhaps this is the reason why I have been drawn to unreliable narrators as a way to tell a historical fantasy story. If all narratives are unreliable, the possibility for them to be retold in a counter-factual way is a constant danger even for the most thorough historian. But if the character (re)telling the story is a drunken fool, an egomaniac, the unimpeachable emperor of a totalitarian nation, or a witch threatened with torture if she does not confess, then facts are all the more likely to become warped in radical ways. Occasionally—in the case of the witch—these distortions will be outright denials of consensus reality and of physics itself.
Hence you have a “fantasy” (being an imaginative trip of desire and wonder) that is “historical” (having happened, or claimed to have happened, in history).
When an entire nation is being subjected by a foreign will (like in Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay), be it another empire, race, or class, the cultural and economic pressures mounted on the people’s backs drive them to cherish their own identities. They become involved in retelling their nation’s history to keep their identities alive. During these tumultuous times, desires to modify the past emerge in the oppressed people, who glorify legends of the “Golden Age.” Hence the Saxon-dominated Britons and Welsh developed legends about the historical King Arthur, who was of their blood. And Geoffrey of Monmouth told a pro-Welsh tale to the later Norman conquerors in The History of the Kings of Britain. There are thousands of non-Eurocentric examples out there. If only I knew them all, I could try to list them.
Meanwhile, the dominators create their own stories to solidify their claim to the conquered land. The ideologies of conqueror and conquered vie for the status of having the “correct” interpretation of events. And you know what they say about history being written by the victors. The idea of “historical fantasy,” on the other hand, is subversive because it reveals that both sides of the argument are ultimately inaccurate or at least incomplete. Both versions of history are myths: each side may define its own identity, but it also avows the destruction or overturn of the other side.
Faced with these quandaries, no telling of history can be liberated from the conditions of history itself. In a sense, all history is therefore a fantasy. Catastrophe and eucatastrophe are two sides of viewing history, one no less legitimate than the other. A war may not always end happily, but in the end, the result is not outright catastrophe. A great man’s tragic death at the hand of assassins (the great Shakespearean tragedy Julius Caesar) is hardly the end of the world. Life goes on. Time goes on, and on, making the pain and happiness seem microscopic after the immense stretch of years, decades, centuries.
Humanity was not meant to see such long stretches of time. We are mortal and must make as much sense of eternity as we can in the short time we have to live. So we turn to the past in order to draw meaning from it. Faced with the nearly impossible task of finding a direct link to our ultimate origins, we inevitably imagine history. And doing so we necessarily tell a lie about history.
Yet those who tell such lies should not incur blame. We are human and we must live. We must tell stories. Faced with the objectivity of history, we might go insane seeing a meaningless space devoid of all human understanding. Our survival and spiritual well-being depends on having fantasies about history.
I conclude therefore that I may have been drawn to unreliable narrators because I realized that it so happens that all narrators are unreliable, no matter how confidently they may speak. Storytellers recognize that humanity needs narratives in order to survive. Fiction and falsehoods become more wholesome than the truth they are supposed to be detracting from: a disturbing thought. Is it better to lie? Or worse, perhaps all we can ever do is lie, since the truth remains forever indefinite.
Whatever the result of these sceptical musings may be, we may yet have one truth in which to take refuge: though a work of fiction may lie, it can still contain a glimpse of a deeper understanding of human nature. That is something mere history can never find.
In the end, the real story of the unreliable narrator is his own.
On the cover of Patrick Lane’s Witness, a poetry collection of his most powerful verse, there is a picture of a barn owl staring at you with those wide-set eyes that are so effective at seeing in the dark. This owl is the perfect metaphor for a poet who does just that. Despite the darkness of mortality, alcoholism, and a brutal family history, Lane’s speakers perceive the beauty that underlies violence and the unspeakable.
Lane’s father was an alcoholic who was murdered seemingly at random by a man pointing a rifle through a store window. His brother, another poet of the notorious Lane family, committed suicide. He was also divorced–all this over a few years in the 1970s. As a result, Patrick Lane fell deeper into his own dependence of alcohol. Finally, after marrying his wife Lorna Crozier, he found his healing through the act of gardening, adopting his body to the cyclical rhythm of nature.
Lane’s poetry reflects his alcoholic past and the ultimately redemptive power of nature. His poems shock you with their violence, to “leave you not just shaken, but shaking,” as the Vancouver Sun remarks. From the first poem “For Ten Years,” we encounter dead birds, the merciless season of winter, and the pain of divorce. Though it may be tempting to say that birds are a symbol of beauty and innocence in Lane’s poetry, it would be almost immoral to ascribe the term “symbol” to the sudden violence of a bird hitting a window and perishing, “his beak … a crust of ice / that melted as you breathed.” Lane’s poetic breath can do nothing to prevent this bird’s death. His is an anti-academic philosophy that resists complicated interpretations: his poems just are. They breathe and then they die.
Invoking Canadian landscape and wildlife in almost every poem, Lane feeds off natural imagery. But he also includes heart-rending reflections on his relationship with his father in “The Killer” and “Fathers and Sons.” When I studied Lane at McGill, my professor Robert Lecker told us how his last class had cried upon reading the latter poem. Other poems such as “The Changing Room” and “The War” express the implicit codes of silence the govern relationships between men, while others like “The Happy Little Towns” describe gaping, bloody wounds and the attempt to suture them and heal.
Given the sobering power of his verse, I thought Witness could provide a fine introduction to poetry book reviews on my blog. Though it is not the normal fare of fantasy novels up for review, I wish to remind my readers of my abiding interest in Canadian literature.
Since each poem in Witness resists attempts at interpretation, I thought Lane would be a fine poet to introduce yourselves to, if you are not the sort to read poetry. It will likely change how you think of poetry and beauty itself. I would only advise a quick word of caution that some of the poems contain violence and perverse sexuality. Of course, the violence if part of the deal with Lane: how he causes you to see the beauty in violence. Not in a Quentin Tarantino way, but in a way that accepts that violence resists style, yet strives to demonstrate the more bitter, complex beauty behind brutality. If this understanding of beauty shakes your values, then be prepared to be “shaking.”
Every once in a while, two events in your life happen simultaneously and in their juxtaposition, a humorous situation appears in your imagination. I had just finished reading Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Fionavar Tapestry and started a job as a salesman. Anyone familiar with the myth of King Arthur, especially as retold by Kay, and the cliches of the sales pitch will find the following short story’s concept amusing.
“We’ll sell you a High King, and if he is ever damaged or killed in battle, just send him back to Avalon, and we’ll return him. That’s our eternal guarantee.”
Morgan le Fay of Camlann Marketing, the sales branch of Avalon Enterprises, smiled with her pearl teeth at the customer, a prophet with a white beard by the name of Merlynn. They were sitting at a stone table in the middle of her grove, while she spun her webs and charms.
“I see,” said Merlynn, arching his eyebrows. “And when would that be?”
“There will be a prophecy in the end. He’ll wait on the island for when he is needed once again. Now,” she said, opening her illuminated codex. “Let me show you the wide variety of saviours Avalon Enterprises has in its collection of Worthies.”
Merlynn nodded and pressed his forefinger above his eye, to furrow his brow. Morgan le Fay was always troublesome, but when she’d asked for him to listen to her presentation, for the sake of the nation he could not have refused. Uther was dead and Wales needed a king. He listened to her litany of saviours, as she pointed to a picture of a warrior in bronze armour.
“Hector of Troy,” she said. “Customers like him, because he is strong, agile, and versatile for mostly every occasion. However, he is not stronger than Achilles. He’s perfect as a strongman, but his temper makes him poor for politics, which means you might want King David. He killed the giant Goliath with a slingshot when he was only a young man, and thereafter ruled as a great king. However, he was not resistant to the sin of adultery with Bathsheba, which means you might need Godfrey of Bouillon. A French crusader sworn to the ideals of chivalry, he took Jerusalem from the Saracens and ruled as king, although he refused the title. However, though a virtuous knight, he was not the ruler of a kingdom that endured, which means you might need Frederick Barbarossa …”
“The German makes are never quite as good,” said Merlynn, shaking his head sadly. “And I don’t see this country moving in that direction.”
“That’s all right,” said Morgan le Fay, lending him another pearl smile. “Besides, maybe what this land needs is another sort of king. Not an Alexander the Great, but perhaps a Christ, a Buddha, or a Gandhi?”
“Gandhi?” asked Merlynn. He closed his eyes and focused on the name. Threads of time, centuries of civilization, wove themselves through his synapses and he tasted the future. “Not the violent type of man, I see. But it’s my impression that all these saviours have some fatal defect or another. Either that, or they die a martyr.”
“There is always a price,” said Morgan le Fay, sounding concerned. “But if the weight of that knowledge sounds like too much at once, you can make three equal payments. And if you find you don’t like him, you can return him during our free-trial period.”
“A free hero does not sound like much of one,” said Merlynn, folding his arms. “But what about the payments?”
“Your saviour will endure an even amount of grief over his or her lifetime,” she said. “You might be interested in Hercules, perhaps: that’s a twelve payment plan.”
Merlynn sighed with such a deep longing that he could not encompass just how much he wished for the world to be different. But the earth was still there, in so much need. “You know … I don’t think Wales can pay such a hefty price for a saviour. In this age, after all, who needs a hero who causes so much more grief? Sure, these heroes legends, but I really don’t think Wales is ready for this investment.”
Morgan le Fay nodded and smiled. “That’s why we have our free-trial period. If you are in any way dissatisfied, we can return your hero to Avalon for a full refund.”
Merlynn cursed himself for a fool. He wanted heroes to lead Wales as they had in the days of old, but time had moved on and the every year brought a steeper decline in glory. He supposed it was simply not possible in this age, for heroes to be born the way they used to be. Ever since the goddesses had formed Avalon, their corporate machine had experienced unprecedented successes, selling high-quality heroes to lands bereft of them. This was the way of the future, and the past was done.
He grumbled from behind his white beard, a throaty old-man sound. When had he gotten so old?
“Him,” he said, pointing to an illumination in Morgan le Fay’s codex. A golden crown rested heavily on a man’s bearded head, a silver sword sheathed by his side and a red-tipped spear in his hand.
“That is the dux bellorum, lord of battles,” said Morgan le Fay. “He is expensive, but it’s worth it, because he comes with Caliburn, his famous sword, Ron, his great spear, and a host of eight other gallant knights. Is this who you want?”
“I’m on the verge,” said Merlynn, nodding, and trying not to think of the cost. “But I cannot justify saturating this world with so many heroes. There could be glory in it, but evil as well.”
Morgan le Fay squeezed her lip together. “I can give you a deal. If you agree to rid the world of one or two of your more common heroes, I can give you the Knights of the Round Table—which, by the way, includes the world’s greatest knight, Lancelot du Lac.”
Merlynn wondered what her game was, but there was no doubting that she was giving him an excellent deal. He thought he would surely weep later, if he passed up the chance for such a bargain.
He smiled. The promise of future glory, the shortcut history could take towards remaking the social cohesion of the pax romana, was too tempting. It was an investment in the future. He owed his decision to succeeding generations.
“He will be called Arthur Pendragon,” he said, and signed by Avalon’s wax seal.
“Tigana, let my memory of you be like a blade in my soul.”
-Guy Gavriel Kay, Tigana
Alessan’s mantra for his beleaguered nation, erased from history by the tyrant sorcerer Brandin of Ygrath, forms a central node in the theme of exile and memory in Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana. A novel set in the Peninsula of the Palm, a landmass that more or less corresponds to Italy, Tigana borrows much of its inspiration from the Italian Renaissance era of warring city-states.
Brandin’s court is like that of the Medici or the Borgia. Ygrath and Barbadior’s conquests can be compared to the expansion of the empires of Spain and France, which were drawn into Italy by unwise allies who wished for them to intervene in their internecine rivalries with city-states such as Florence, Venice, Genoa, and the Papal States. The allies paid for this by being overcome by kings and emperors much more powerful than their own states.
Famously, one man who advised against taking such action was Niccoló Machiavelli. He wrote The Prince—a notorious book, one of the first on pragmatic political science—to advise Lorenzo de’ Medici (grandson of Lorenzo the Magnificent) on how to act wisely as the governor of Florence.
In his final chapter, he exhorts Lorenzo to liberate Italy from “the barbarians,” likely a reference to the foreign armies of France and Spain who have taken up permanent residence on Italian lands. It is my observation that Machiavelli’s ideal to for Italian unification—something never accomplished until the efforts of Garibaldi in the nineteenth century—stems from the same national pride as Alessan feels in Tigana.
Which led me to wonder. If Guy Gavriel Kay used Machiavelli in his research, then in what ways could a reading of The Prince enrich our understanding of the conflicts in Tigana? Or a more precise question: is how Machiavelli understands memory and history the same as how Tigana understands it, or is there a difference?
On the surface, Machiavelli’s world—in ways I have already described—greatly resembles the world of Tigana. Brandin himself is a Machiavellian figure, a real Prince interested in establishing his authority across the Peninsula by driving out his rival Alberico of Barbadior. He superficially agrees to the terms of a peace treaty, while scheming to destroy Barbadior the moment it becomes convenient to break the agreement. Alberico, of course, plans to do the same, in a kind of polarized Cold War scenario where only the province of Senzio (perhaps a surrogate for Venice) remains neutral.
Machiavelli has several things to say about memory in The Prince. Some advice that he gives to Lorenzo may as well have been given to Brandin. For example, read the following paragraph from Chapter 5 on “How you should govern cities or kingdoms that, before you acquired them, lived under their own laws”:
“Examples are provided by the Spartans and the Romans. The Spartans took Athens and Thebes, establishing oligarchies there. However, they lost them again. The Romans, in order to hold on to Capua, Carthage, and Numantia razed them and never lost them. They sought to govern Greece according to more or less the same policies as those used by Sparta, letting the Greek cities rule themselves and enforce their own laws, but the policy failed, so in the end they were obliged to demolish many cities in that territory in order to hold on to them. The simple truth is there is no reliable way of holding on to a city and the territory around it, short of demolishing the city itself.He who becomes the ruler of city that is used to living under its own laws and does not knock it down, must expect to be knocked down by it.Whenever it rebels, it will find strength in the language of liberty and will seek to restore its ancient constitution. Neither the passage of time nor good treatment will make its citizens forget their previous liberty.No matter what one does, and what precautions one takes, if one does not scatter and drive away the original inhabitants, one will not destroy the memory of liberty or the attraction of old institutions. As soon as there is a crisis, they will seek to restore them. That is what happened in Pisa after it had been enslaved by the Florentines for a hundred years” (17, my Italics).
Brandin, after conquering the province of Tigana after the Battle of the River Deisa, destroyed its main cities: Avalle of the Towers and the capital Tigana. Avalle, which was inspired by San Gimignano, once had many towers that stretched to the sky. But Brandin’s forces knocked them down, in order to ensure the city’s submission to his rule. Tigana itself (based on Florence, perhaps) was demolished as well, and renamed Lower Corte—Corte having been its bitterest enemy. Avalle was renamed Stevanien, after Brandin’s son, who was killed in battle. These policies seem to be directly inspired by Machiavelli’s advice to Princes in Chapter 5.
The tyrant’s spell adds an extra layer to the political-military strategy of Machiavelli: he uses magic to erase the very name of Tigana from memory and make its name unpronounceable. One particular difference from Machiavelli’s dry strategy and Brandin’s motive to demolish Avalle is that the Tiganese killed his son and he wanted revenge. This does not mean that Brandin acts on his emotions, however. He only knows where to direct his temper. Machiavelli advises on several occasions that a Prince should “lose his temper” deliberately under certain circumstances, such as when he is being lied to (105). The demolition of Avalle would have been one such well-advised occasion for Brandin to become angry.
Machiavelli may have also unknowingly given Brandin the idea to create his spell of obliteration, if the two had ever met in some other dimension. In Chapter 1 of The Prince, Machiavelli remarks how hereditary principalities—territories where it is traditional for a particular aristocratic family to inherit power—are by far the easiest to hold, compared to republics. “Because the state has belonged to his family from one generation to another, memories of how they came to power, and motives to overthrow them, have worn away,” he advises (7).
Brandin was not necessarily planning to share or to pass on his rule. But the implication of how enough time passing eventually legitimizes the rule of a Prince may have attracted to him. Since sorcerers can live to advanced age in Tigana‘s world, he plans to outlive all the Tiganese exiles, who alone carry the memory of their homeland. Once they die, Lower Corte would know no better than that Brandin is the right and honourable ruler of the land.
In addition to these specific remarks about the ability of a ruler to hold onto power by controlling memory, Machiavelli has an understanding of history’s usefulness in deciding policy. He constantly draws upon the patterns of the past in order to find examples that can advise rulers on present courses of action and on their future ambitions. The exploits of ancient Greeks and Romans—some real, others fictitious—are on par with those of other Renaissance Italian Princes, such as Cesare Borgia, Alexander VI, and Savanarola, as examples of what-to-do or what-not-to-do. He assumes the past serves as a map for the unknown.
Kay would use the metaphor of a mirror. “With bronze as a mirror one can correct one’s appearance; with history as a mirror, one can understand the rise and fall of a state; with good men as a mirror, one can distinguish right and wrong”: the epigraph from Under Heaven (by Li Shimin, Tang Emperor Taizong) can apply just as much to Machiavelli’s understanding of political history, as to how Kay invites us to understand history.
That being said, Machiavelli has his detractors, to say the least. Francesco Guicciardini, a contemporary and a friend of Machiavelli, questioned even the usefulness of bringing the past to bear upon the present, although the patterns might be there for anyone to observe. Who, after all, can say they have ever successfully predicted the future, simply by looking at the past? He also believed that all men, though subject to sin, were essentially good—which Machiavelli’s pessimistic yet pragmatic philosophy seems to deny. “This is how it has to be,” says Machiavelli, “for you will find men are always wicked, unless you give them no alternative but to be good” (73).
Which brings to mind another cynical philosopher and his ideas of history and morality—Friedrich Nietzsche. Notorious in the twentieth century for his belief in Social Darwinism, which inspired the racialist ideas of Adolf Hitler, Nietzsche argued in Geneology of Morals that men behave good because they were given no other alternative.
Like Machiavelli, Nietzsche believed that the autonomy of the sovereign was mutually exclusive with morality. He also believed that all morality developed out of primitive ideas of punishment—that morals were literally beaten into our forefathers, so that as we evolved, we came to obey the laws better. For example, the brutal uses of capital punishment in the past—strangulation, hanging, drawing and quartering, beheading—produced the more civil society we live in during the present day.
I seriously doubt his conclusion on that last point. Nietzsche’s perception is affected by his retrospective analysis. I believe modern “civilization,” as he calls it, emerged because we rejected the brutality and absolutism of the past, not that brutality shaped our modern civilization. However, the idea that morals come from the memory of punishment is interesting in relation to Tigana: the idea that memory is directly tied to pain:
“Tigana, let my memory of you be like a blade in my soul.”
When Alessan speaks these words, it could be said he engages in a (somewhat) Nietzschean understanding of memory—and by extension, perhaps of history and morality as well. He must recall the pain of his exile in order to force himself to remember his nation—and then take moral action.
Nietzsche and Machiavelli exist simultaneously in Tigana: memory (problematically) is both ingrained by pain and an intellectual tool with which to gaze into the past. The heroes of Tigana do not let their fear of punishment lead them to submit to tyrants, but they do wish to experience pain, if it preserves the memory of their homeland. And that experience of self-inflicted pain guides their self-defined morality, to do anything they can to liberate themselves from Brandin’s yoke.
But does morality itself suffer under Alessan’s model? If we can determine our own morality by deciding what to remember and forcing ourselves to remember it—carrying all the pain that memory can bring—can we be expected to reach rational decisions that respect our fellow human beings? Or could this kind of morality cause us to act according to our passions and, more importantly, our self-interest—one of the guiding human principles that Machiavelli (and notably, Thomas Hobbes) understands as the source of all human endeavour?
Just as Brandin is a tyrant, Alessan is literally a Prince. Brandin’s morality—if he has any—is almost driven entirely by the interests of himself as ruler, and those of his state. But behind this self-interest is the burning memory of Stevan’s death at the River Deisa. Prince Alessan, like Brandin, carries the Deisa in his memory, but for different reasons. His father Prince Valentin died in battle, leaving Alessan without a principality to call his own. Is Alessan simply motivated by jealousy for Brandin and his own interest in becoming ruler? Is his nationalist rhetoric only a facade?
Kay intentionally makes Brandin a foil of Alessan, adding good qualities to Brandin and evil qualities to Alessan. For example, Alessan must enslave Erlein di Senzio as his wizard servant, in order to for his master plan to work. Should a man so preoccupied with liberty be damned for making a slave of one man? (Perhaps someone ought to have asked the leaders of the American Revolution this same question, many of whom owned slaves.) Furthermore, Brandin, however ruthless, also has feelings. Dianora, his favourite woman in his saishan and a Tiganese herself, notices that he cared an enormous amount for his son and that he never forgave himself for sending him to fight in battle. She intends to kill Brandin to avenge her country, but finds herself loving the man she has schooled herself so long to hate—even saving him once from an assassin.
Guy Gavriel Kay’s George Seferis epigraph sums up his own beliefs in the ambiguity of holding onto memory:
“What can a flame remember? If it remembers a little less than necessary, it goes out; if it remembers a little more than is necessary, it goes out. If only it could teach us, while it burns, to remember correctly.”
A long enough memory can produce a desire in you to avenge all the wrongs ever done to your kind. Witness the damage that extensive memories wreck in Middle East daily. Even Nationalism, which seems a noble enough ideology until you remember the twentieth century, can go too far. Yet having no memory at all utterly robs you of any identity. I like imagining all the whitebread kids lost in the suburban USA being asked what their heritage is, and being unable to answer “English” or “Irish” or “Welsh” or “Scottish.” Assimilation into a melting pot can do as much to erase memory as Machiavellian attempts to snuff it out all at once.
Does Alessan remember correctly? Does Brandin? The answers are ambiguous, although most readers will probably side with Alessan. But it cannot be ignored that Alessan may have easily turned into the villain in Tigana. Nietzsche argued sovereigns were above morality. Yet, following one’s own painful memories might have caused Alessan to think himself above morality while rebelling against the sovereign Brandin, in an effort to fight fire with fire.
Tyrant and rebel: an age-old conflict. Each obeys no law and each is the antithesis of the other. Yet, they are, in so many ways, the same. Nietzsche believed the laws we live by were oppressive. Yet, he also (quite famously) saw a way to rebel against such authority. The creed of the Ismaili Assassins said, “Nothing is true; everything is permitted.” Truths established by tyrants create a certain morality, so disbelieving in those truths frees one to perform any action suitable to overthrowing that power.
Does Alessan follow a similar creed, or does he too have a belief in truth, in morality? It would be worth a re-reading of Tigana to see just how much Alessan uses ends to justify means.
But turning away from Tigana now, other questions emerge. What are the dangers of the Assassins’ creed? If everything is permitted, do we have Hobbes’ State of Nature on our hands? Would followers of the creed then become self-interested, build up social contracts, and then begin punishing others when the contracts are breached, beginning the process of moral development all over again?
Let these questions stand as food for thought. It is not my place now to answer them, and I’ve rambled on enough as it is. But I believe it’s safe to say that memory can be a dangerous thing, especially when it forces us to disregard morality. Perhaps it depends on what we choose to store in our memory as well: if we keep hoarding pain, the fire of memory will grow so large it will consume us.
Feed the fire, but not to excess.
Kay, Guy Gavriel. Tigana. Toronto: Penguin, 1992. 1-793.
Kay, Guy Gavriel. Under Heaven. Toronto: Penguin, 2010. 1-710.
Machiavelli, Niccolò. Selected Political Writings. Ed. David Wooton. Indianapolis: Hacket, 1994. 5-80.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. “Morals as Fossilized Violence.” The Prince. Transl. Francis Golffing. Ed. Robert M. Adams. New York: Norton, 1977. 253-275.
Rudowski, Victor Anthony. The Prince: A Historical Critique. New York: Twayne, 1992. 12-17
“Jamie Fraser is an eighteenth-century Highlander, an ex-Jacobite traitor, and a reluctant rebel in the American Revolution. His wife, Claire Randall Fraser, is a surgeon—from the twentieth century. What she knows of the future compels him to fight. What she doesn’t know may kill them both.”
Thus reads the back cover copy of An Echo in the Bone, a sequel in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. As the explanation would suggest, it is a time-travelling historical epic, with a bit of fantasy, romance, and family saga thrown in. I call it mainstream historical fantasy. “Mainstream” because it doesn’t fit neatly in a genre category, is a bestseller, and yet isn’t quite literary fiction. And “historical fantasy” because of its subject matter.
A compelling combination, no matter what genre it is, and even if I did enter the series in media res.
Yes, I admit it. I recieved Echo for Christmas, but it was a book in the middle of the series and I had not read the first one. And now I’m reviewing it. Which demands a question to be asked of me right off the top: why do so, if I have imperfect knowledge of the series as a whole? What gives me the right?
It may indeed speak of arrogance, on my part. However, reading the series in media res placed me at an interesting perspective. I read to see if the series could grab me, a fresh reader, in the middle—a dangerous part of any book series. So often, the middle novels of a series lag into repetition. While I have no other novel of Gabaldon’s to which to compare Echo and check for repetitions, I can still observe the inherent quality of her book, as it stands.
Actually, reading her novel in media res was an interesting experience. Experts will tell authors to begin their stories in the middle of the action, so the reader can catch up on backstory on the run. While I was disoriented at the opening of the novel, within a few chapters, I gained an idea of who the main characters were and I managed to reconstruct past histories. This improved as I poured through her 1,000+ pages.
It was time enough to get up to speed, I think. You read that many pages and you’re immersed in a series, no matter what anyone says.
In Echo, Claire and Jamie are surviving a cold winter on Fraser’s Ridge after their home, which contained almost all of Claire’s medical equipment, was burned to the ground in the previous novel. Recovering their gold from the wreckage, Ian Murray incurs the vengeance of a bitter man after he kills his wife. Eventually, Jamie, who once was a printer by trade, sets out on a goal to find a ship to bring him back to Scotland to recover his old printing press.
Their adventures will force them to become pirates, follow and flee the Continental and British armies, and meet illustrious historical figures such as Benedict Arnold and Benjamin Franklin (one disturbing image of whom I am still trying to wash from my brain).
Meanwhile, a second storyline involving William Ransom, a lieutennant in the British army and his father Lord John Grey unravels. Willie, returning from an intelligencing operation, is sent on a mission northward to Quebec and recieves his first taste of battle. Meanwhile, John Grey’s brother becomes fatally ill after being wounded. Only one woman—Claire Fraser—can save him.
A third storyline follows Claire and Jamie’s daughter Brianna and her husband Roger. Having just arrived in twentieth-century Scotland from the eighteenth century, Brianna and Roger follow up on Claire and Jamie’s adventures via a set of letters sent through time. Leaving her letters at Lollybroch, a safe farmhouse that has been in the family for generations, Claire is able to keep her daughter informed of their adventures, reassuring her that she is still alive and well. The irony, of course, is that presumably, Claire has been dead two hundred years by the time Brianna reads the letters. Brianna and Roger read them one at a time, which forms a neat segway into Claire’s scenes, which are told in the first person point of view (the other timelines are in third person).
While Brianna gets a job at a hydroelectric company, Roger attempts to overcome an injury done to his singing voice—his throat was damaged by a hangman’s rope in another century—by teaching a choir. He also begins to teach Gaelic in school, as his son Jem readjusts to twentieth century life in which there are cars and speaking Gaelic is considered passé.
The three storylines operate on three different timelines: the 1980s, the 1770s, and Lord Grey and William’s adventures generally occur a few months or weeks earlier than Jamie and Claire’s. The interweaving of the storylines is intricate. As I kept wondering how the characters were connected (being out of the loop), I was consistently astounded—even flabbergasted—when I learned the intricate relations between the characters. There were so many hidden secrets in the past that I could hardly keep up, although that might not be true for one who is more familiar with the series.
What enables this interweaving is the fantasy aspect of Gabaldon’s mainstream historical fantasy novel. Instead of a “time-machine” Outlander uses the fantasy trope of mysterious stone circles that send you through time and space. These power centers are connected by ley lines. This and other pseudo-scientific phenomena produce portals that are especially volatile when the sun is an a certain position, such as on Halloween or May Day, which also happen to be Celtic pagan festivals. The portals may go off without warning, but I gathered that if you brought a gem to one of the
stones, you could travel back intentionally, though there is always risk attached. Once, long ago, the price of crossing was blood, a detail that the book leaves you off with during its cliffhanger ending.
When I finished the novel, I was connected with these characters. They were each well-written, each point of view having a distinctive voice, from Claire’s spunky attitude and fiercely practical relation of field doctor medical procedures, to Jamie and Ian’s Scots drawl, to Lord Grey’s formal, gentlemanly diction. Gabaldon created plenty of mystery and unpredictability, a perfect combination to keep me hooked. Furthermore, the sheer mountain of research that must have gone into these novels is astounding: not just the historical details, but the medical details as well. It made me wonder whether Gabaldon was a nurse once.
All of this combines to make a compelling middle novel. But one must not forget that it is in the middle.
Certain adventures in Echo begin at the start of the book, are forgotten over the middle, and come to a conclusion at the end, lending a sense of completion. However, other adventures begin in the middle only to be concluded (presumably) in the next book.
The effect of this is that not all your questions are answered at the end of the novel and, while you read, characters presumably introduced from previous books keep popping up. If you love Gabaldon’s minor characters, you can probabaly bet on them making second and even third appearances in later books.
I suppose this is how Gabaldon draws her readers into buying the next book in her series. Ironically, her strategy now makes me want to buy her earlier books.
After the disaster of Culloden, the Duke of Cumberland continued to repress the rebellion, to put it lightly. Really, he opened the way up for genocide.
Having captured Lord George Murray’s orders to the Jacobites, which had been issued the day before the battle, he supposedly found a line that revealed the Jacobites were to give no quarter to the Hanoverians. Using this conveniently forged piece of enemy instruction, Cumberland felt justified to give no quarter to the Jacobites, either. Cumberland’s letter to his men following up on this discovery read as follows: “Officers and men will take notice that the Public orders of the rebels yesterday was to give us no quarter” (Magnusson 622).
In the end, it was Cumberland who really gave no quarter.
Following atrocities such as the massacres the followed the Battle of Culloden, it is difficult to assign blame onto any one individual. But we can pretty well blame Cumberland for most of it. His orders were stated obliquely, leaving the correct course of action he expected ambiguous—but he intended this. He likely wanted soldiers to draw their own conclusions about his desire, while ever so slightly suggesting that they should take an eye for an eye. The order would then be untraceable to Cumberland.
This resulted in wholesale massacres. Dragoons scourged the Highlands, on the search for anyone associated with the rebels. They slaughtered fugitives as well as bystanders. They robbed livestock, burned barns to the ground, and raped the wives of those they sought. These days have passed into Scottish legend.
The atrocities of the slaughter were assisted by understanding that the Gaels were subhuman, vermin to be exterminated. The statistics are as follows:
3,471 Jacobite prisoners
120 of which were executed,
600 died in prison,
936 sold in the West Indies as slaves,
1,287 released or exchanged (Magnusson 624).
Among the legends of that time is one about James Wolfe’s virtue, which may be true, or might not: you decide.
Apparently, he refused to shoot a wounded Highlander shortly after the battle, claiming he would rather resign than betray his honour. Cumberland himself ended up shooting the Highlander, possibly under the orders of General Henry Hawley, Wolfe’s superior.
What is interesting is how Wikipedia states this story was popular among the Royal Highland Fusiliers, a Scottish regiment that fought under Wolfe during his campaign in North America. It makes you wonder how much Wolfe wanted the Highlanders to understand that he was merciful. Merciful, despite his statement made famous by Alistair MacLeod, that it was “no great mischief” if the Highlanders fell in battle. He must have relied strongly on the perception of being merciful, to earn his men’s loyalty, since his army of highlanders might have fought against him at Culloden, or knew those who had personally, and resented him.
Whatever the case with Wolfe, Cumberland was gloating in his triumph in the wake of the repression, and London celebrated with glee. The Duke was appointed chancellor at Aberdeen University, while in London he had a beautiful flower named after him, called Sweet William. Its scientific name is Dianthus barbatus.
The Jacobites also honoured him by naming a flower. This one was a foul smelling ragwort called Stinking Willie.
But this witty response did nothing to prevent the English from consolidating their military and cultural domination over the Scots. The policies, meant to assimilate Highlanders were similar to the tyrant Brandin’s policies in Tigana following the Battle of the River Deisa.
These were the Disarming Acts. They demanded all weapons in Scotland be surrendered. These included guns, claymores, and bagpipes. I hear bagpipes are deadly at a range of sixty feet (never mind the dying cat inside). But really, these singularly loud instruments of the Highlanders were used to rally troops and encourage them to fight in battles—so as far as the English were concerned, they had to go.
Tartan was banned, the great plaid, the kilt, and every other part of traditional Scottish garb. This is extra significant to Scots, because the different tartan patterns are unique to your family, or clan, sort of like a plaid coat-of-arms. I believe this would have been an attempt to dissolve the clan system in Sotland, which meant a direct attack on Highlander kinship relations.
Furthermore, the traditional language of Gaelic was to be repressed. If Brandin of Ygrath were the Duke of Cumberland, this would be the spell that erased the country’s name, by erasing its language. In Gaelic, Scotland is called “Alba.” Even into modern times, the speaking of Gaelic was considered taboo.
Various attempts have been made to resuscitate the vanishing language. One of the most famous was the discovery of Ossianic poetry, a set of Gaelic verses rumoured to have been written by an ancient author called Ossian. However, Ossian was revealed to be a hoax, fabricated by James Macpherson. It might speak to the romantic desire to revive a perishing language, which had once been so central to his culture, that Macpherson invented a Gaelic Homer to legitimate the language in the eyes of others.
The Disarming Acts carried lasting devastation on Scottish culture. But what ever happened to the Bonnie Prince, you ask?
Well, he decided to flee for France. 5 kilometers to the south-west of Culloden, he met some of his Scottish officers at a Fraser safehouse. By 20 April, he was staying at Arisaig until news of approaching redcoats forced him to take a boat to the Outer Isles. However, in a fateful moment he was taken in a storm and was shipwrecked on the isle of Benbecula—which is situated between North and South Uist, my ancestral homeland.
Irony of ironies: had he stayed, the French would have saved him. Two ships, the Mars and Bellona, landed on 30 April at Loch nan Uamh with money and brandy … four days after he had left.
Instead of seeing safety too soon, he was going to run into some ancestors of mine in Uist. With a £30,000 bounty on his head, everyone of Hanoverian sympathy was searching for him, and even some neutral folk would have been tempted by that much cash. His narrow escapes are the stuff of legend, but nothing compares with how he dressed up in drag to flee the redcoats closing in on him, with Flora Macdonald leading him to safety.
I have a hard time imagining why a Broadway musical has not yet been made of this event.
The 24-year-old Flora Macdonald came to North Uist to help his brother with the cattle and sheep, when she ran into the Pretender. Together, they hatched a desperate plan to bring Charlie to the isle of Skye disguised as her Irish maid Betty Burke. What followed was 11 days of fun, laughter, and a Tony Award-winning musical score. With bagpipes.
And an award-winning wardrobe to boot. According to Magnusson, the Pretender looked pretty … convincing (if a bit tall) for a lady. S/he wore a “white blue-sprigged calico gown with a quilted petticoat, a sturdy waterproof overcoat and a woman’s head-dress” (626).
They reached Skye before dawn and parted at McNab’s Inn in Portree, now called the Royal Inn. (Now, does the name change refer to a Scottish or an English king?) The site is a tourist landmark in the town today.
Flora Macdonald, who shares a name with my grandmother’s grandmother, was arrested later, but not executed for her treason. She was released and married Alan Macdonald of Kingsburgh in December 1750. Later, she immigrated to the American colonies, losing her money when the colonies became the United States, during the War of Independence. She returned to the isle of Skye, and was buried at Kilmaur.
Every family has heroes like Flora; but every family also has villains.
The following came as a mild shock for me, since I discovered not everyone who shares my mother’s last name in Scotland was a Jacobite, though my uncle had assured me of this.
It turns out, Reverend John Macaulay of Benbecula sent a message to his father, Reverend Aulay Macaulay, telling him to capture the Prince upon his arrival at Harris.
Fortunately, Donald Campbell showed up when Reverend Aulay came with his parishioners by boat to collect the lucrative bounty. Campbell put his value on hospitality above his loyalty to the Whigs, and convinced Macaulay to lower his hand and spare the Prince. Campbells have married into my family, so I can only hope some of that good nature flows through my veins.
On a more positive note, my ancestral blood might also be responsible for my interest in history and writing. John Macaulay was the grandfather to Lord Babington Macaulay, a Whig historian in the nineteenth century.
This brings us to the end of this epic of the Battle of Culloden. Alongside the description of the battle, its causes, and aftereffects, we have had a glance at Scottish culture more generally. It has been a great journey, and I think I will be posting more historical posts like this in the future. Next post will be a review of Diana Gabaldon’s An Echo in the Bone.
Maclean, Fitzroy. Highlanders: A History of the Scottish Clans. New York: Penguin 1995.
Magnusson, Magnus. Scotland: The Story of a Nation. New York: Atlantic Monthly, 2000.
Culloden Moor, which was once called Drumossie Moor, is a “boggy, heather-clad upland moor above Culloden House, south-east of Iverness, overlooking the broad waters of Moray Firth” (Magnusson 617). It is pretty good metaphor for the mire the Jacobites found themselves in on 16 April 1746, when the battle was fought…
When the Jacobite army was assembled on that battlefield, Prince Charlie was ready to receive the Hanoverians, led by the Duke of Cumberland, in the last pitched battle fought on English soil. But he forgot one thing.
He really should have checked his calendar because he might have realized it was his bitter enemy’s birthday. Happy Birthday, Butcher Cumberland!, he might have said. (Charlie’s followers would later call him a butcher, after the battle.) To celebrate, the English commander gave a rest day to his troops, which was thoughtful, not to mention useful.
In exchange, his soldiers would bring him back the material to make a stylish fence around his family’s country house. Believe it or not, this is not a throwaway remark, and there will be more on that later.
Celebrating with Cumberland was the infamous-in-Quebec Conquerer of Canada, General James Wolfe, though he was not a general yet. Known for his conquest at the Siege of Quebec and leading the English forces in the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, Wolfe is an ambiguous figure in Quebec culture. Anglophones might occasionally stand by him, but the Francophone majority tend to resent his actions. For one thing, he ended New France and brought French Canada under British control. The Quebec nationalist movement, represented in Quebec by the Parti Quebecois, makes Wolfe into “the big bad Wolfe,” according to one Aislin political cartoon, the legendary enemy of the Quebecois.
Before all that, according to Wikipedia, he fought in the War of Austrian Succession, where he was made a brigade major after showing heroism against the French on the Continent. In Scotland by October 1745 to deal with the Rising, Wolfe became an aide-de-camp, for General Henry Hawley, who he was with on the duke’s birthday on Culloden Moor. He waited with the rest of Cumberland’s troops for the fateful encounter.
Since Charlie was missing Cumberland’s birthday, he thought it odd when the English troops did not arrive as planned, which muddled his plans. As early as 6:00 am on April 15, the army was ready to fight—except the enemy didn’t show.
Which is where Lord George Murray, a Lieutennant-General of the army, came up with the bright idea of a night raid on Cumberland’s camp. Maybe he wished they’d been invited to his birthday. They probably almost did wish it, actually, all joking aside—at least they feed you at a party.
The army had no food for two days, the clansmen were tired, and they were cold. Lord Murray’s idea was a long shot at best. It would be impossible to move 5,000 men 16 kilometres through unfamiliar terrain at night with the sort of discipline necessary for secrecy.
9:00 pm: The first three columns doused their campfires and marched off.
2:00 am: The leading soldiers were only 6 kilometres from their camp, with disorder and confusion in the ranks behind them. Everyone, officers and soldiers, had no idea where they were going.
Dawn: They were 6 kilometres away from their target, and deprived of a night’s sleep. Meanwhile, Cumberland’s forces started waking up, stretching, and began thinking of breakfast. Bitter Scotsmen slowly returned to camp, fearful of being spotted.
Upon their arrival, Prince Charles is said to have shrugged and said, “It is no matter, then; we shall meet them, and behave like brave fellows.”
He was right about being brave. The problem was, it was an enormous matter.
The Scots were famished and freezing (In Scotland, who isn’t?). Once Cumberland’s men were done with their morning routines, breaking fast with bread, cheese, and brandy, their marching drums awoke the dreary-eyed Highlanders. If ever a pot of coffee were needed more at any time in history…
The enemy was only 6 kilometres away (all these ‘6’s might have been an omen, in retrospect). Utter confusion followed in the Scottish ranks at the arrival of Cumberland’s army, and only 1,000 men answered the threat on their own initiative.
10:00 am: 5,000 Highlanders assembled themselves at last, though they are disoriented and dead tired, still not fed. Each man was eventually given a single biscuit to eat before they set off. A chilling nor’easter brought in stabbing sleet and rain to oppress them even further. The English had 800 mounted dragoons, ten three-pounder guns, six mortars, and outnumbed the Scots by 2,000 or 3,000 men. It was not shaping out to be a great day.
11:00 am: The armies were within sight of each other. Now would be time for an inspiring speech on the part of the Bonnie Prince, and an opportunity to moon the enemy, but this wasn’t Braveheart, unfortunately.
Around this time, they had to come to terms with the grounds they’d chosen. It was decent ground for a Highland charge, though it also gave great advantage to the enemy dragoons, who were mounted and well equipped, unlike the Scottich cavalry. Lord George Murray disapproved of the terrain vehemently, but by this time, it was too late.
12:00 pm: BATTLE COMMENCES
The Jacobites fired first with their rifles. The Hanoverian forces responded with precise roundshot from their cannons, which created a few casualties among the Scots but mostly succeeded in creating confusion. Communication was so terrible among the Jacobites that the Highlanders awaiting the command to charge (“Claymore!”) had to wait for a good hour until they heard it at last. During all that time, powder clouds, sulfur, and thunder from canons caused blindness and uncertainty.
Finally, the shout of “Claymore!” went through, and 1,500 men forming 8 clan regiments, charged “in a wave of unleashed kilted fury” (Magnusson 620). These included the Camerons, the Macintoshes, Macphersons, the Macleans, the Maclachlans, and Clan Chattan, all of whom encountered the first shock of battle.
This happened when Cumberland switched his artillery from roundshot to grapeshot, a deadly strategy. The new ammunition was essentially cannisters filled with iron nails, led balls, and other sharp objects. Imagine clouds of flying wedges flying at you. The clansmen were decimated and massacred. Furthermore, one row of Government infantry would shoot a volley of bullets at the Jacobites, while the others loaded their muskets, repeating so there was always a volley of lead hissing through the smoke, finding their targets in a haze of bloodied tartan.
If a Highlander even came close to Cumberland’s forces, he even had a secret weapon to stop the claymore broadswords used by the Jacobite infantry. “Instead of engaging the clansman coming directly at him (thereby catching his bayonet on the enemy’s leather shield), each soldier went for the unprotected right-hand side of the man on the attacker’s left,” writes Magnus Magnusson. “The tactic took steady nerves, and complete faith in you comrades—and it proved very effective” (620).
After the Government employed these devastating techniques, organization fell apart and the battle was all but lost. The Highlanders fought bravely, but ineffectively, kilted bodies littering the moor. Then the dragoons stormed the battlefield to bring the battle to a swift end, all after only 30 minutes.
Along with the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, Culloden ranks among the shortest most important battles in history.
The Jacobites lost 1,500 troops while the Hanoverian losses amounted only to 50 dead, though 259 were wounded. The Jacobites killed one Hanoverian for every 300 they lost.
In the midst of the carnage, MacDonald of Keppoch is said to have run at his enemy, weeping as he was struck down by a volley of led balls, yelling in Gaelic, “Mo Dhia ando threig clann ma chinnidhmi?” In English: “My God, have the clansmen of my name deserted me?”
Lord George Murray marshalled some order to the right wing of the army in order to withdraw. But the sight of Prince Charlie weeping as he was escorted on horseback from the battlefield by his Irish officers was too much for many of the Jacobite supporters. Lord Elcho, a commander of Charlie’s bodyguard, yelled, “Run, you damned cowardly Italian!” (See, Rome was the new home of the Jacobite leaders after the Hanoverians supplanted them. They spent a lot of time arguing there.)
In the carnage that followed (for the blood of the day was not yet all spilled), the Duke of Cumberland would earn his derogatory title as Butcher Cumberland. Having been handed a fine birthday present in his easy victory at Culloden, his soldiers would soon run the field, slaying wounded Scotsmen and taking the steel from their claymores to present as trophies to the Duke.
According to Fitzroy Maclean, Cumberland used the swords to make a fence at Cumberland House, his family property. But such trophies do not last forever, and when the house was demolished in the 1800s, the sword blades were brought to Inverary Castle.
Thus concludes Part II of the epic of the Battle of Culloden. Stay tuned for the third part, in which Bonnie Prince Charlie dresses in drag to escape redcoats in pursuit of his £30,000 bounty! Also, I uncover something rather shocking about my family heritage…
Maclean, Fitzroy. Highlanders: A History of the Scottish Clans. New York: Penguin 1995.
Magnusson, Magnus. Scotland: The Story of a Nation. New York: Atlantic Monthly, 2000.
On 16 April 1746, the Scottish Jacobite army, led by Prince Charles Edward Stewart, fought the English Hanoverians in the bloody Battle of Culloden—the last pitched battle on British soil (the Battle of Britain in World War II was fought in the air). A last stand such as this defines an age, and many legends and songs about “Bonnie Prince Charlie” have celebrated the heroism of that day and mourned the fatal outcome. The loss at Culloden, the climax of Prince Charlie’s Rising, preceded the English repression of Scotland and attempts to obliterate Gaelic culture.
For those familiar with Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay, it can be said that Culloden is Scotland’s Battle of the River Deisa. It is a last stand (close to a river, the Moray Firth, no less) against a dominating force which eventually consolidates its control over the defeated defenders with slaughter and cultural repression, in an attempt to assimilate them. History has seen a few such battles…
Culloden features prominently in Alistair MacLeod’s novel No Great Mischief and in popular fiction such as Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, in which one of the protagonists, Jamie Fraser, is a veteran of the battle. For those interested in such novels, or Scottish history more generally, this three-part telling of the battle (before, during, and after) is for you.
My personal interest in this battle extends deeper than a mere interest in Scottish history, since Scotland and particularly the Jacobite cause is within my heritage. People from my own ancestry played key roles in the build-up to the battle and the aftermath. My mother is a Macaulay and her mother was a MacDermid, and her grandmother shared a name with one of the key players in the Prince Charlie legend: Flora MacDonald. Furthermore, Campbells and MacDonalds appear with frequency in my family tree.
According to my uncle, who is the genealogist of my family, my ancestors were Jacobite politically and Catholic devotionally, which fits because Jacobites tended to be Catholic rather than Presbyterian or Anglican. My family is originally from South Uist, North Uist is more Protestant.
Now, to begin with the boring part (actually, not that boring) to the narrative, a.k.a. the politics. The reason for why.
Anyone familiar with films such as Braveheartwill know that Scots have hated the English frequently in their history. The iteration of anti-English feeling that is called the Rising “arose” (get it?) as a reaction to the Act of Union in 1707, which unified Scotland, Wales, Ireland, and England into Great Britain.
Many of those who opposed the Union in Scotland wanted the old Stewart dynasty, instead of the Hanoverian kings of England (the first being George I), who were from a German family. Even among the anti-royalists, Stewarts were preferred over foreign Hanoverians. “Jacobite” came to refer to those who supported the Stewart cause, after “James,” the name of many Stewart kings.
The first Jacobite uprising followed the Act of Union and revolved around the pretender to the throne James Edward Stuart, who Louis XIV, the Sun King, recognized as King James VIII and III. The two numbers in his title refer first to his position on the Scottish line and then the English line. For some reason, Scotland really liked to call their kings James. During the first Rising, the Scots, as usual, had the support of France, a partnership called the “Auld Alliance.” Basically, the country that hated England the most after Scotland was France.
The first Rising ended when Prince James returned to France before ever setting foot in Scotland. Later Risings, such as the one 1715, also ultimately failed.
Now the Rising of Bonnie Prince Charlie, who will serve as the tragic protagonist of my narrative, is also known simply as “The 46.” It began with the mounting (to avoided the word “Raising”) of the Prince’s standard on 19 August 1745. By this time, Jacobite support had waned considerably. Since 1727, George II sat on the English throne, proving that the Hanoverians were here to stay. Meanwhile, the Jacobite leaders were still largely in Rome, bickering over futile plans to win back the throne. It might be said that Charlie had higher “standards,” which he “raised” but that’s enough with the bad puns.
What enabled him to raise his standard? Well, in 1743, the Jacobites saw an opportunity. The hilariously named War of Jenkins’ Ear, in which British captain Robert Jenkins had his ear cut off by a Spaniard who did not apologize, had hurt England’s feelings, making it enemies with Spain. And then came the War of Austrian Succession, which was unpopular except among our favourite rebels, the Jacobites, since it drove France and Spain to war against England. Party time! The time was ripe for a Pretender’s dreams, and Bonnie Prince Charlie landed on the isle of Eriskay in the Outer Hebrides on 2 August, hoisting the standard 17 days later.
Here’s where Alistair MacLeod’s ancestor comes in. Meeting Charlie at the landing site was MacLeod of MacLeod, who stands as a bit of traitor, unfortunately. He mentioned his arrival to the English government—in a shrewd, say-no-more kind of way—as if he expected no one would notice. A tough legacy to live down for Alistair. And all the way from South Uist, the rocky homeland of my Scottish ancestors, came MacDonald of Boisdale to tell Charlie to go back to Italy. These people two did not want a war. But the exiled prince gave MacDonald a sly look (in a very Alessan di Tigana moment) and said, “I am come home.”
So the struggle began. Rounding up his allies and dealing with the clansmen who supported the Hanoverians, Prince Charlie fought a guerilla-style war against the redcoats throughout Scotland. In September he promoted Lord George Murray and the Duke of Perth as Lieutennant-Generals. Both men would play crucial roles at the Battle of Culloden.
The high point of the campaign was capturing Edinburgh. Fighting off English dragoons with his army, Prince Charlie marched into the Scottish capital after the Camerons beat the sentries guarding the city. He was proclaimed King James VIII on 17 September.
Unfortunately, that title meant little so long as the Rising itself was unconcluded. During a siege on Stirling Castle, morale fell apart. On 30 January, the Duke of Cumberland claimed control of the English army from General Henry Hawley and scattered the disorganized Jacobites, setting off for Linlithgow. The leaders convened in Falkirk, agreeing after much debate to march north, where they would encounter Cumberland for a final decisive battle.
The battle would take place on Culloden Moor, and it would see the end of the Rising, though not before a much romanticized battle, in which heroism meets the hard flying nails of grapeshot from regimented English canons.
Stay tuned for Part II of the epic of the Battle of Culloden, and learn how the battle was fought (including a guest appearance by the infamous James Wolfe, the Conqueror of Canada, of Plains of Abraham fame).
Maclean, Fitzroy. Highlanders: A History of the Scottish Clans. New York: Penguin 1995.
Magnusson, Magnus. Scotland: The Story of a Nation. New York: Atlantic Monthly, 2000.