Victory at Culloden–Scott Nadelson

My daughter, three, has recently taken to using the word “actually” whenever she wants to convince me of something I won’t likely believe. “Well, actually, Daddy,” she said the other night, shuffling into my office ten minutes after I put her to bed, “I’m not sleepy at all.” Then she let loose an enormous yawn.

One of my colleagues does something similar, only he prefers the phrase “in fact”: “Maybe the students don’t, in fact, want as much feedback as we’re giving them.”

In both cases, I recognize that the actual, the fact, has little connection to verifiable truth. But is it any less real?

Yesterday, when my daughter tried to persuade me that, actually, she was no longer hungry for her dinner but had plenty of room for one of her remaining Halloween treats, I recalled a trip I’d taken to Inverness, which happened to coincide with the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Culloden. I was on my way to the Western Highlands, where I planned to climb windy peaks and down pints in the most remote pubs I could find, but when I heard about the planned commemoration, I decided to stick around. It was 1996, and I was twenty-two; after living in Edinburgh for most of a year, I knew only the basic details of Scottish history, but I assumed that marking a crushing military defeat and the loss of hope for independence and self-determination would be characterized by somber reflection.

To save money on transportation, I walked the five miles to Culloden Moor, and it turned out to be a good decision. Cars and coaches jammed the road most of the way. Hundreds of people, maybe thousands, sat on the lawn around the visitor’s center and lined up in front of the battlefield. Families ate picnics and played games on the moor, with no thought, it seemed, that the blood of fifteen hundred clansmen had once seeped into its soil.

In the visitor’s center, a dozen or more paintings depicted scenes from the battle, and in all of them the sky was ominous, dark clouds seeming to rise up from the line of Redcoats, as if smoke from their muskets had blackened the whole world. But today the sky was unusually clear, the sun strong enough for me to take off my jacket and roll up my sleeves. The men dressed in traditional Highland tartans were sweating, and a number had sunglasses perched on their noses. Many of the younger ones also wore heavy beards, though their ancestors in the paintings were all clean-shaven. They looked less like Jacobite rebels than extras in Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, which had come out a year earlier, and which depicted battles that took place four hundred years before the one at Culloden.

The official ceremony began with speeches by the mayor of Inverness and a Scottish MP. Then a parade of MacDonalds and Mackinnons, Camerons and Fergusons, Stewarts and Urquharts, each clan with its own set of drummers and Gaelic chants. But all this seemed rushed and perfunctory, the march winding no more than half a mile through the manicured grounds around the visitor’s center before petering out.

And soon I understood why. The real event, the one for which everyone was impatiently waiting, was a re-enactment of the battle itself. Or, I should say, a partial re-enactment. The moor was cleared and the young bearded men in Highland dress lined in formation on its western edge. Photographers readied cameras on tripods. An old guy with big red ears sticking out on either side of a Glengarry cap—a stand-in for the Bonny Prince, maybe—called out orders. The men drew swords. Another order, and they raised their faces to the bright sky. In unison they let out a long, desperate, fearsome shout, their neck muscles straining, faces going red. Then they were charging, bare legs pumping through heather and grass, swords lifted or jabbing, kilts fluttering. Cameras clicked on all sides, and the crowd let out a cheer almost as bloodthirsty as the battle cry.

After running about thirty feet, the warriors pulled up short. The crowd shifted a few dozen yards east. The cameras were repositioned. The charge started again and then stopped. It went on this way until the men reached the end of the moor, far past the marker for the enemy line. There were no Redcoats in sight. No one acknowledged the spot where the Duke of Cumberland’s soldiers would have met the charge and slaughtered the clansmen. In this version of the battle, as far as I could tell, the Jacobites won, the Stuarts rightfully returned to the throne.

For years I laughed about the absurdity of the one-sided re-enactment, its shameless reinvention of history. I dismissed the sincerity of those who’d organized the event, who, as far as I could see, had no commitment to the truth. But now I’ve begun to think about it differently, especially in light of recent political developments in Scotland, the fact that in less than a year, the Scots will vote in a referendum on their independence.

The words “actual” and “re-enact” share the same root, coming from the Latin actus: to act. So maybe the actual isn’t just what has happened; it’s what you do, what you perform, what you can make happen. For my daughter and my colleague, what’s real, what’s fact is the imagined outcome of desire. “Well, actually, Daddy,” my daughter said while munching the Kit-Kat I gave her despite knowing she hadn’t eaten enough dinner, “I’ve actually got room for two treats.” A few days later, my colleague popped his head into my office and said, “The students don’t, in fact, seem to mind that I’ve stopped commenting on their drafts.”

The news reports I’ve read about the Scottish referendum have all credited Braveheart with the surge of national spirit among young people, who grew up with the image of William Wallace leading a ragtag band of tartan-clad ruffians against King Edward’s army and shouting “Freedom!” just before an axe falls on his neck. And though that film, too, is a questionable re-enactment, with plenty of historical inaccuracy, overblown rhetoric, and excruciatingly hokey Hollywood melodrama, it has primed the collective imagination for the possibility of change. Its simplified version of the actual, one with clear heroes and villains, with exaggerated emotions and obvious gestures, has ushered in a possible future that might not have existed otherwise.

On Culloden Moor, those bearded men in kilts, swords raised, battle cries tearing from their throats into the bright sky, weren’t recreating Bonny Prince Charlie’s devastating defeat and the end of the Jacobite Rebellion. They didn’t care about the Stuarts’ right to rule. They were playing out the fantasy Mel Gibson had dramatized for them on the big screen, one in which they were actually strong and determined and prepared to sacrifice for their ideals, one in which no one stood in their way.


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