The winner lives to tell the tale

Nov 11th, 2007 | By | Category: Cross Channel

History is a living thing.

The problem with being English is that the English side has managed to be on the winning side of most battles since losing a home fixture against the Normans in 1066, and where the English weren’t on the winning side, such as the American War of Independence or the Irish War of Independence, then we didn’t look too closely at such things in our history books.

It’s the winners who usually get to write the history and, even when you know that your conduct has been less than exemplary, you tend to say, “Well, that shouldn’t have happened and we did some bad things along the way, but on the whole we are the good guys and things really turned out for the best”.

Except that not everyone necessarily takes such a benign view of our history. The bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade earlier this year raised questions about blame and apologies and brought calls for the renaming of certain places, but before those questions arose, there were serious unsettled matters with our northern neighbour.

Sometime ago, I became aware that Prince Charles’ accession to the British throne would bring with it tensions about his name. Charles III would be unacceptable to many Scots, that title being the one that Charles Stuart, Bonnie Prince Charlie, would have assumed if he had become king.

But there are deeper questions than just numbers after names. Encountering two Scots last month, both of them high powered professionals, I betrayed my Sassenach ignorance of the feeling that the name of the Duke of Cumberland arouses amongst many from the Highlands. “Butcher Cumberland”, said one, almost spitting out the words, as he explained to our dinner companion that “Stinking Billy” had left a trail of death and destruction across the Highlands in putting down the Jacobite rebellion in 1746. The reaction of the other Scot was quieter and more tangible, when he realized that he was sitting in a seat once occupied by Cumberland, he simply got up and moved.

All of which might seem odd, but then how would we feel if people of our country had been massacred?

Since learning that the tune of the hymn Thine be the glory, appeared first as See the Conquering Hero Comes, Handel’s musical tribute to the Duke of Cumberland after the battle at Culloden on 16th April 1746, I have been conscious that things aren’t always as benign as they appear. This morning we had a Jacobite tune in church, a hymn sung to the music of the Skye Boat Song. I joked afterwards with a member of the congregation, descended from Flora MacDonald who helped Bonnie Prince Charlie escape to Skye in after the disastrous battle, that we had to keep a balance in our music.

Writing history that tells the full story will demand more than just being careful about tunes.

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  1. Of course, Elizabeth is Elizabeth the first for the Scots too.

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