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Issue 12 - Nothing quite like honourable defeat

Scotland Magazine Issue 12
January 2004


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Nothing quite like honourable defeat

Roddy Martine talks...

MOMENTOUS events are frequently shaped by defeat, not victory. The aftermath of tragedy creates new beginnings. Such a new beginning took place following the two failed Jacobite Uprisings of the 18th century, and the Highland Clearances that followed them.

Ask yourself. Where would America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand be today if Charles Edward Stuart had triumphed on Culloden Moor?

I started thinking about this recently having had the pleasure of dining with Celeste Ray, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee.

Shamefully I had not at that stage read her marvellous book Highland Heritage – Scottish Americans in the American South which, in my opinion, goes a long way towards explaining the expatriate psyche, not just in the Cape Fear region of North Carolina upon which it focuses, but wherever Scots have immigrated over the last three centuries.

What Celeste is essentially pointing out is that the identity embraced as “Scottish” by these communities is not so much based on a contemporary outlook on Scotland as a whole, as on an historical “Highland” identity, irrespective of where their ancestors actually originated from. And it has everything to do with the romance of the doomed. Like the Battle of the Alamo, or the Last Days of Pompeii, there is nothing better than a catastrophe for attracting the popular imagination, especially if there is a touch of tartan with a few sad songs involved. Davey Crockett was also a Scot, didn’t you know?

History is flooded with examples of frustrated heroes and heroines – William Wallace, Joan of Arc, El Cid and Mary Queen of Scots. As the American South resonates with the lost cause of Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee, Scottish Americans in the Deep South like to identify themselves with the lost cause of Bonnie Prince Charlie. The fact that quite a large number of their ancestors most likely fought against the Prince and his Jacobite army, is irrelevant.

Although the majority of the Scottish diaspora was in search of a better life when they took leave of their homeland, it did not prevent them from embellishing the imagined quality of the life that they left behind.

The pull of the Highland landscape never deserted them; nor did the yearning to one day return. A classic example is that of Flora MacDonald, the heroine of the ‘45, who immigrated to Cape Fear in North Carolina in 1774.

Flora’s brief encounter with Bonnie Prince Charlie, helping him to escape from Benbecula to the Isle of Skye, and her subsequent imprisonment in the Tower of London, earned her immortality, but her American adventure is less well known.

Forced through economic circumstances to leave their home on Skye, Flora and her husband, Alan MacDonald of Kingsburgh, were typical of their generation of Highland Scots dependent upon the land for a living.

When Highland cattle prices fell to an all time low, they took themselves and their large family abroad to join Flora’s half-sister and cousins in the land of opportunity – America.

Unfortunately they arrived just as the War of Independence was starting, and having had enough of uprisings, supported the British. Immensely unpopular locally as a result, Flora and her immediate family were virtually driven out of a region where she is nowadays regarded as the next best thing to visiting royalty.

After only five years, some of them spent in Nova Scotia, she returned to her beloved Skye in a merchant ship, which during the voyage was attacked by a privateer.

True to form, she remained on deck and was wounded in the arm. Flora died on Skye aged 68, but her legacy remains as strong in the Carolinas as it does in Scottish legend.

And this, for me, encapsulates the relationship which the old country has with the new world. It is these interconnecting associations, be they Highland or Lowland, which bind us together, irrespective of reality.

There is much that is wonderful and commendable about Scotland in the second millennium. We are a vibrant nation, forging ahead with the latest technology, but what makes us truly special is our shared past, and the melancholy it invokes in the hearts and minds of Scots wherever they find themselves.

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