Saturday, 19 September 2015

Corbynmania, the Media Backlash and the Hidden Legacy of the Eighteenth Century Pacification of the Scottish Highlands




On the afternoon of Saturday 12th September, my birthday, Jeremy Corbyn was elected outright leader of the Parliamentary Labour Party and a new era in British politics began. Three days later, following his attendance at a Battle of Britain Memorial Service, where he was observed standing passively and respectfully in silence as a characteristically jingoistic congregation sang the National Anthem, in an outward exhibition of what is widely viewed as 'Patriotism' by a predominantly Right Wing Tory press, an unrelenting media food frenzy began. Much of what has been said since in the 'Daily Telegraph', the 'Daily Mail', the 'Daily Express' and elsewhere seems to have been aimed at toppling the new Labour leader before he can even take up the task that has been alloted to him by a substantial working majority of his numerous Constituency Labour Parties, not to mention their attendant supporters.

One interesting point that most of the commentators, who have subsequently joined the fray in relation to Mr. Corbyn's decision not to sing this thoroughly jingoistic dirge on both sides of the argument, appear to have missed is that the original version of the song that was being sung, 'God Save the King', was an important tool of government propaganda during a particularly dark and bloody period in Britain's not so distant historical past: the suppression of the Highland Clans and the Pacification of the Scottish Highlands. A long drawn out process that began in February 1692 with the Massacre of Glencoe and ended in the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Culloden in April 1746.  

The previous year, 1745, saw the appearance in print, in the pages of ‘The Gentleman’s Magazine', to which the venerable Dr. Samuel Johnson was himself a noted contributor, of ‘A song set for two voices, as sung in.....playhouses’ to a tune by Thomas Arne. It's subsequent popularity in the coffee houses, taverns and other public meeting places in London at that time, and its widespread performance in the theatres of Drury Lane immediately after its publication, were all part of the Hanoverian Government's campaign to legitimize the ruthless manner with which it was to deal with the largely Catholic Gaelic speaking supporters of the exiled Stuart Line.

In one of the verses the virtues of the use of military force, to suppress the seditious inclinations of government opponents, are extolled in the eloquent style of the time in a fashion so characteristic of what Gaelic speaking Scots still refer to as 'Mi-run Mor nan Gael': the hatred many of those who hail from below the Highland Line feel for the wild, often ungovernable and fiercely independent Clans of Athole, Moidart, Appin and the Isles, who had joined the Bonnie Prince on his arrival in the Highlands that self same year. In spite of the quality of the language, however, the message is abundantly clear.  

'Lord, grant that Marshal Wade 
May by thy mighty aid 
Victory bring. 
May he sedition hush and like a torrent rush, 
Rebellious Scots to crush. 
God save the King.' 

Some fifty four years previously, on 27th August 1691, King William III of Orange had offered an outright pardon to all those who had participated in a previous Jacobite Rising in return for swearing an Oath of Allegiance to the Crown. The oath, which had to be sworn before a magistrate prior to January 1st of the following year, was intended to destroy support for the Stuart Cause once and for all. What happened next however was to assure the Stuart Cause a wealth of support amongst subsequent generations, and to romanticize the image of the Scottish Highlander as a brutally oppressed under dog right into our own immediate historical era. 

When Alasdair MacIain, Chief of Glencoe, failed to meet the statutory deadline by a mere six days, due to an unfortunate and overseen error which had necessitated an arduous seventy mile journey from Fort William to Inverary in the middle of a Highland Winter, a decision had been made to make an example of him and his fellow Clansmen. John Dalrymple, Master of Stair, King William's previously appointed Lord Advocate and the then Secretary of State for Scotland, a position he would later share with James Johnston, saw this as a perfect opportunity to teach the rebellious Highlanders a lesson, and a small force, under the command of Captain Robert Campbell of Glenlyon, was duly dispatched to Glencoe; where they were to accept the traditional hospitality of the Highlands from their unsuspecting victims. After having spent ten days receiving food and drink under the roofs of the MacDonalds of Glencoe, the soldiers' mood was to change dramatically on 12 February when Glenlyon received the following order from his immediate superior, Major Robert Duncanson:

'You are hereby ordered to fall upon the rebels, the McDonalds of Glencoe, and put all to the sword under seventy. You are to have a special care that the old Fox and his sons do upon no account escape your hands, you are to secure all the avenues that no man escape.'

In spite of attempts by the men under Glenlyon's command to carry out their orders to the letter, some of the McDonalds did manage to escape the massacre, making their way on foot away from the principal government military base at Fort William in the direction of Pitlochrie in the Perthshire Highlands. Here, according to an account derived from Small in Ferguson and Fergusson's 'Records of the Clan and Name of Fergusson, Ferguson and Fergus', published by David Douglas, Edinburgh, in 1895, they were to find shelter in the nearby Manse of Crathie, through the intercession of my own direct ancestor, Adam Fergusson, the celebrated Minister of Moulin. Fergusson's decision to risk the possibility of death, or at the very least indenture and transportation to the Caribbean or the Americas, appears to have been derived from his kinship with the House of MacVurich, a Sept of Clan Macpherson, who until 1726 were to hold the post of Hereditary Clan Bards to the MacDonalds of Clanranald. 

The Massacre of Glencoe was to usher in a fifty five year armed struggle which was to involve some of the most brutal and bloody episodes in the History of the Two Kingdoms. During the course of the various insurrections that would follow the wholesale massacre of innocent civilians, and the mass deportation of those fortunate enough to surivive, was to become an alarming feature of a situation in many ways reminiscent of the recent conflicts in the Balkans that began in the closing years of the last century. In 1695, more than three years after the Massacre had taken place, King William III, who had signed the original order that was to lead to the deaths of no fewer than thirty eight men, women and children on that fateful day, and the subsequent deaths of many more in the days and weeks that were to follow, was forced to order an enquiry into the affair in spite of a previous government cover up. 

But, in spite of the fact that the victims were later found to have been murdered under trust in an act in no ways dissimilar to the atrocities exposed by Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning and others in the wake of the illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq so vociferously opposed by Jeremy Corbyn himself, then as now no one was ever brought to trial. In view of this it is perhaps worth noting that if the true significance of the song that Mr. Corbyn declined to sing was viewed in proper historical perspective the supposedly 'popular press' might have had considerably less to say on the matter than they do now.