A New Battle On Culloden Moor

Jan 13, 2014 by

It was a short, bloody battle that irrevocably changed the course of Scotland’s future.  Though it lasted only an hour, the Battle of Culloden (Scottish Gaelic: Blàr Chùil Lodair) on April 16, 1746, ended the Jacobite effort to restore Charles Edward Stuart, Bonnie Prince Charlie, to the throne of Scotland.  Approximately 2000 Scottish Highlanders sacrificed their lives that day, and more died during the brutal repression of Highland and Gaelic culture that followed soon thereafter.  The sorrow and pain of that day is still felt by many contemporary Scots, as well as those whose ancestors fled Scotland to escape the harsh retaliatory actions meted out by the English in the years following the battle.  For those people, Culloden will always be sacred ground,  “ground zero” of the centuries-long Scottish battle for freedom from the English invaders.

New invaders have now come to Culloden,  developers who want to build houses less 400 meters from the battlefield—and surprisingly, the Scottish government is set to approve those plans.

 

 

People in Scotland and around the world have voiced outrage that such a project would even be considered, much less approved.   Historic Scotland  has given their stamp of approval for the scheme, even though no representative from the government  authority has visited the site to see how it might be impacted.   The National Trust For Scotland (NTS), which owns and maintains the battlefield and visitor center, has expressed great disappointment in the decision, arguing that the approval creates a ” slippery slope”  for future housing schemes, which could result in the the degradation of the historic site at Culloden.

I grew up in Georgia, a Southern state that was the site of many battles during the American Civil War and the American Revolutionary War.  My father was a Civil War historian and ardent battlefield preservationist, who taught me from an early age that historic sites are tremendous visual symbols of what was and, more importantly, what should never be again–specifically, being ruled by a monarchy ( the Revolutionary War) or allowing the enslavement of our fellow men and women (the Civil War).  When you lose those places where people fought and died for their beliefs,  places that are the final resting places of so many souls, you betray their memory.  Moreover, you also lose a valuable teaching tool for future generations who will have no tangible connection to their past.  Textbooks, photos and videos can only go so far—to truly know your history, you must walk the same ground your predecessors walked, feel that sense of connection and emotion that comes from standing where they stood.  Once those historic places are sacrificed for commercial development, they are gone forever.

 

 

Do the souls of those long-dead Highlanders still walk the moor at Culloden?   Celtic mythology holds that there are “thin places” in the world where different planes of existence touch, and the past can sometimes be felt in the present.  If any such place exists in Scotland, it surely must be at Culloden,  where sadness seems to hover over the fields like Highland mist.  I have walked that moorland where Gaelic war cries of fierce, proud Highlanders once rang through the air, and I believe the spirits of those long-dead men are there still.   For me, any encroachment on the battlefield is a defilement of the war graves of brave  men—Scots, Irish and even English who fought with the Highlanders—who died for their country, their families and their way of life.

We will always have competing interests in the name of progress, when developers confront preservationists in the modern world.   Finding a balance between these two interests is difficult and one side (sometimes both)  often believes its arguments have been completely ignored or misunderstood.    In the case of important historical sites such as battlefields, however,  the bigger picture needs to be carefully considered.   Houses can always be built in other places—there will only ever be ONE Culloden.

 

Read more about the proposed housing development, and the arguments on both sides, here:

http://www.scotsman.com/news/environment/historic-scotland-slammed-over-culloden-housing-1-3264115

http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/home-news/government-called-upon-to-protect-culloden-from-housing-developers.23117157

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-highlands-islands-25684570

http://www.scotsman.com/news/environment/light-pollution-fears-over-culloden-housing-plans-1-3266229

http://www.inverness-courier.co.uk/News/Battlefield-site-visit-not-needed-claims-watchdog-10012014.htm

To sign an online petition to stop the proposed development at Culloden, click HERE.

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Alexander the Fierce, King of the Scots

Jan 8, 2014 by

On January 8, 1107, Edgar I,  son of King Malcolm III and Margaret of Wessex, died in Edinburgh, Scotland.  At the time of his death, Edgar was unmarried and childless, therefore the crown of Scotland passed to his 29 year old brother, Alexander, who was crowned that same day as King Alexander I of Scotland.  Who was this young king, described by contemporaries as a bold and godly man?

Alexander I, King of Scotland 1107-1124 AD

Alexander I, King of Scotland 1107-1124 AD    image

Alexander (Medieval Gaelic: Alaxandair mac Maíl Coluim;Modern Scots Gaelic: Alasdair mac Mhaol Chaluim) was born in 1078, the fourth son of Malcolm III by his wife Margaret of Wessex, who would become Saint Margaret of Scotland in 1250. Upon the death of his older brother, Edgar I, Alexander became King of Scotland; in accordance with Edgar’s wishes, Alexander gave his younger brother, David, the lands of the former kingdom of Strathclyde, or Cumbria. David, the Prince of Cumbria as he was entitled, would go on to become King David I of Scotland after defeating Alexander’s illegitimate son, Malcolm, in battle.

Alexander was by all accounts a pious man, not surprising in light of his mother’s devotion to the Catholic Church. She was a devout Catholic and quite active in reforming the Celtic Church of Scotland along the lines of the continental Catholic Church.  Margaret practiced what she preached, so to speak, pursuing many activities on behalf of the poor and ill.  Alexander’s father, Malcolm III, was not nearly as religious, but indulged his wife in her daily prayers and devotionals and in her dedication to raising her sons to be just and holy rulers.  Alexander  may have been named in honor of Pope Alexander II, the leader of the Catholic Church, who had died just a few years earlier.

Saint Margaret of Scotland, as depicted in her chapel at Edinburgh Castle   image

Saint Margaret of Scotland, as depicted in her chapel at Edinburgh Castle image

Alexander established Augustinian priories at Scone and on Inchcolm Island, sometime between 1114 and 1124. He also appointed his mother’s chaplain and hagiographer, Thurgot, as Bishop of Saint Andrews (or Cell Rígmonaid) in 1107 and granted lands for a priory to be built there.

A king, however godly he may wish to be, must also be willing to raise his sword in defense of his kingdom, a royal duty Alexander understood and was more than willing to perform. In 1114, Alexander joined Henry I of England on his successful campaign against Gruffudd ap Cynan of Gwynedd, a powerful Celtic king of Wales. At some point during his reign, between 1107 and 1114, Alexander also married Henry’s illegitimate daughter, Sybillia de Normandy, a woman with both Viking and Cornish heritage. Henry was thus Alexander’s father-in-law, a distinction which may have influenced Alexander’s decision to fight on behalf of an English king.

Many Scottish chieftains had cause to despise Alexander, and there was no love lost between the Celtic Highlanders and the Anglo-Saxon influenced king.  Malcolm III, Alexander’s father, had wrested control of Scotland from King Mac Bethad mac Findlaích, better known by his Anglicized name, MacBeth–yes, THAT MacBeth,  title character in “the Scottish Play ” by Will Shakespeare.   MacBeth himself is a subject for another post, but let me quickly note that the play, while based on the historical MacBeth, is not an accurate account of either the man or his reign as the last Celtic King of Scotland.  That’s a good thing for Scottish history fans–trust me.

When men (not clearly identified in historical sources) from the Gaelic-speaking earldom of Moray (Moireabh in Scots Gaelic, pronounced Murray), in the northeastern Highlands of Scotland, attacked Alexander at his court in Invergowrie, he quickly pursued them north.  He was known for his fiery, energetic temper and  he ruthlessly quelled the nascent Celtic rebellion.  As a result of his actions against the Highlanders, he was nicknamed Alexander the Fierce, a fitting appellation for a warrior king of Scotland.

 

The reverse of the seal of Alexander I, enhanced as a 19th-century steel engraving.  Image

The reverse of the seal of Alexander I, enhanced as a 19th-century steel engraving.  Image

Alexander and Sybillia never had any children.   She died (the cause is unrecorded) in July 1122, on the tiny island of Eilean nam Ban (Eilean nan Bannoamh: “Isle of the female saints”) in Loch Tay, and Alexander founded a priory on the island in her memory.  She was buried in Dunfermline Abbey, Fife.  Alexander did not remarry.

Alexander did have an illegitmate son, Malcolm (Medieval Gaelic: Máel Coluim mac Alaxandair or Máel Coluim mac Alasdair) who challenged his uncle, David I, for the Scottish throne after Alexander’s death.  Malcolm is a relatively obscure figure, mostly due to the scarcity of source material, which appears only in pro-David,  English sources.   I could find no source that identified Malcolm’s mother or her connection to Alexander.

The end of Alexander’s seventeen year reign as King of Scotland came on April 27, 1124, when he died at Stirling.  He was 46 years old.

In addition to the continuation of his mother’s reforms of the Celtic Church in Scotland and his own devout support of the Church, Alexander is remembered for his reforms amongst the governing civil authorities of the day.  He continued the changes begun in his predecessor’s reign, bringing most of Scotland into conformity with the types of high offices used in England:

  “…the whole of Scotland, with the exception of what had formed the kingdom of Thorfinn (during the Norwegian conquest consisting of the Orkneys, the Hebrides, and a large portion of the Highlands), exhibited the exact counterpart of Saxon England, with its earls, thanes, and sheriffs, while the rest of the country remained in the possession of the Gaelic Maormors, who yielded so far to Saxon influence as to assume the Saxon title of earl.”

History of Highlanders, Their Origin, History and Antiquities, Vol I, p.128, by William F. Skene, 1837

 

 

Alexander also encouraged Scottish trade with other countries, even distant and exotic Asian lands.  His court, like that that of his father’s, was a far stretch from the “barbarous” courts of early Scottish kings and chieftains.   Alexander dressed in silks, jewels and finery from around the world, and members of the Scottish nobility followed suit.  More trading with foreign lands led to a need for more royal coinage. Some of the oldest Scottish coinage dates to Alexander’s reign, when commerce began to flourish along Scotland’s coasts and border areas. The silver pennies of Alexander I are some of the most ancient coins and are extremely rare.

Can we conclude that Alexander the Fierce was an important ruler of medieval Scotland, worthy of remembrance?  Scholars generally seem to view his reign favorably, especially the religious and secular changes he brought about in Scotland.   His granting of Scottish border lands in the south to his younger brother David, however, and Alexander’s swift and harsh reprisal against Highland challenge to his authority over the northern portion of Scotland should be noted.  The historic disjunction of these two parts of Scotland aided David’s relatively bloodless transition as successor,  but it further deepened the division between the Celtic, Gaelic-speaking Highlanders and the Anglo-Saxon, English-speaking Lowland Scots,who made up the majority of the noble rulers of Scotland.  Highland Scotland continued to resist  the degradation of their Celtic heritage, while the rest of the country continued on their course towards English allegiances, lifestyles and, ultimately, English rule.

So, Scottish history buffs, I say keep Alexander I in your to-be-studied pile, but remember that this medieval king is not on a level with truly famous Scotsmen such as William Wallace, Rob Roy or Robert the Bruce.  I give Alexander credit for fierceness, but he sadly lacks in heroic qualities–Hollywood won’t be making an epic based on this historical Scotsman.

Sources:

www.britroyals.com

The Scottish Nation: Alexander (ElectricScotland.com)

www.wikipedia.com

Story of Scotland, Chapter Five: Scotland Under MacBeth Successors, by Robert Gunn

 

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Edinburgh Castle, Scotland’s Iconic Fortress

Nov 2, 2013 by

For the third year in a row, Scotland’s magnificent Edinburgh Castle has been voted the top heritage site in the UK. If you have ever toured the castle, you’ll know why this ancient beauty continues to intrigue visitors from all over the world.

Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh Castle

Fiona Hyslop, the Scottish Government’s Cabinet Secretary for Culture and External Affairs said:

“To win this prestigious award three times in a row confirms that Edinburgh Castle’s fascinating history, dramatic location and panoramic views have an enduring appeal for visitors of all ages both in the UK and around the world.”

http://bbc.in/HyEqy1

The fortress stands on a volcanic plug of basalt, known as Castle Rock, and dominates the Edinburgh skyline. The rock was once home to a late Bronze age people and archaeological evidence shows it was also the site of an Iron Age hill fort or broch.

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