Canadian Press story reduces cultural conflict to a simple ethnic dispute

Referring to the Battle of Culloden as a battle between the English and Scots is historically inaccurate

Fred-DonnellyROTHESAY, NB, Mar 17, 2014/ Troy Media/ – A small educational institution at St. Anns on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, Canada, was recently embroiled in a cultural controversy. Each year the Gaelic College teaches Scottish Highland arts and crafts as well as the Gaelic language to hundreds of students from across North America.

In December of 2013 the college’s board of governors received permission to add the word “Royal” to its official name. This prompted protests and a petition from the many descendants of Scottish Highlanders resident in the area. It was pointed out that the policies of the British crown in the 18th century were responsible for their ancestors’ difficult trans-Atlantic migration [or expulsion] to Nova Scotia. It was painful to many to see the historical opponents of Highland culture now honoured by the renaming of the college.

Indeed, the British Crown did seek to eradicate traditional Scottish Highland culture by restrictive laws, by promoting the English language, by allowing “clearances” of the population from the region and by military action. Reference was made to the Battle of Culloden of April 16, 1746 (near Inverness in Scotland) where government forces defeated a largely Highland rebel army. This event marked the start of an intensive campaign to uproot Highland culture. The victorious commander of the government forces at Culloden was the Duke of Cumberland, the son of King George II.

Faced with mounting criticism, the college’s board has backed down and agreed to drop the “royal” designation. The situation has been defused and everyone can appreciate the lesson learned about cultural sensitivities. What seems a small thing to some is very important to others when it’s a matter of their heritage.

That should have ended controversy but I think there is still a loose end that needs to be tied up. The story was picked up by the Canadian Press and circulated across Canada in both hardcopy and electronic media. Referring to the Battle of Culloden of 1746 the Canadian Press text reads people were “. . . forced out of the Highlands following a battle with the English”.

This is where I have a problem. The history teacher in me is cringing at the historical howlers contained in the above statement. The reason is I know the English army ceased to exist on May 1, 1707 when England and Scotland became Great Britain by an Act of Union. So the government army led by Cumberland at the Battle of Culloden in 1746 was the British Army not the English Army.

What difference does it make? It makes a lot of difference because the improper use of the word “English” in this context distorts the historical facts and puts a simplistic, nationalistic, ethnic or linguistic gloss on a more complex struggle.

Consider the known facts of the contending armies at Culloden. Of the 15 British Army regiments at the battle, four were Scottish, one composed of Highlanders. There was also a Scottish cavalry force, a regiment of Ulster Irishmen, and Cumberland’s personal entourage consisted of a couple of dozen Germans and Austrians.

Meanwhile, the rebel or Jacobite Army had largely Highland regiments, some Lowland Scots supporters, along with units of Scottish and Irish expatriates in the service of France. They also had a small number of English artillerymen from Manchester. As was pointed out by the Anglo-Canadian author John Prebble in his book Culloden (1961), it was both ironical and confusing as the opposing sides each had a regiment named the Royal Scots.

We need to be reminded of the complicated, overlapping dimensions to this historical episode. It is not only Highland culture that was at issue as is so painfully commemorated by so many Cape Bretoners today. There was also a religious aspect with an important division along a Catholic-Protestant line.

The battle also occurred during the wider European “War of the Austrian Succession” (1740-1748) where Britain and France were on opposing sides. France, a Catholic power, supported the claims of the Catholic pretenders to the thrones of England and Scotland, supplied them with weapons, and so dropped ‘Bonnie Prince Charles” into Scotland. His task was to raise rebellion, not only in Scotland but also England, and thereby weaken the British ability to conduct the wider war on the European mainland.

Scots were on both sides at the Battle of Culloden and some Scots later participated in the destruction of traditional Highland culture. To mislabel the British Army as “English” in this conflict reduces a multi-dimensional cultural conflict to a simple ethnic dispute.

Troy Media Columnist Fred Donnelly’s career in journalism covers more than two decades. He writes on popular culture. Fred Donnelly visited the Gaelic College in Cape Breton in August 2012. You can follow Fred on Twitter @FredDonnelly2.

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