Responding to the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion

          The mediations of the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion— both in 1806 and 2014— continue to reproduce and represent Highland culture. Writing to 18th century poet, Anna Seward, in September 1806, Walter Scott considers the contentious authenticity and literary merit of James Macpherson’s Ossian.  According to Macpherson, Ossian consists of “translations of the Gaelic-language material he ... collect[s] in the Highlands” (Mhunghaile 31), and provides an intimate and authentic portrait of Highland culture. Today, Macpherson’s Ossian is known as an imaginative rather than authentic construction that “sometimes ... adapt[s] a plot, sometimes produc[es] a loose translation ... and more often take[s] names or incidents or references from the Gaelic texts and reproduc[es] variants of these” (Mhunghaile 33). The 2014 radio adaptation of Walter Scott’s historical fiction novel, Waverley, completes a three-part series for the BBC Radio 4, Classic Serial Program, entitled, “The Great Scott.” The broadcast first airs on April 28th, 2014, a few months prior to the Scottish Independence Referendum that occurs on September 28th. The online synopsis of the broadcast emphasizes the parallel between the 18th century political context and that of Scotland in 2014, describing Waverley as a tale of “Scotland in open rebellion again the union with England.” This description implies the novel’s prescience and the resurfacing of irresolute political tension as inertial. Beginning with Scott’s correspondence with Seward, and then analyzing the BBC broadcast of Waverley, I will examine contrasting memories of Highland culture and Gaelic poetry that develop in response to the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion.

          In his letter to Anna Seward, Scott suggests that Ossian’s literary merit suffers from the interrogation of its authenticity. He agrees with Seward that the criteria that apply to the “question” (320) of Ossian’s “literary merit” (321) are distinct from the criteria that evaluate its “authenticity” (320). However, Scott recognizes that this model of mutual exclusivity does not explain the inverse relationship between Ossian’s literary merit and authenticity. Scott argues that investigating the authenticity of Ossian introduces “skepticism” (321) that reconfigures its literary merit. The ethos of authenticity permits Ossian’s “claim for indulgence” (321), and the degradation of Ossian’s authenticity destroys this claim and inhibits the identification of Ossian as the “production of a barbarous and remote age.” Scott implies that Ossian’s qualification as an “indulgence” is imperative to its literary merit. However, this qualification portrays the text as an article for gluttonous consumption so that the acts of reading, reciting, and engaging with Ossian are contrary to the moral principles of Christianity. Assuming its authenticity, Ossian manifests Highland culture and Gaelic poetry prior to the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion, so to define Ossian as an “indulgence” or describe it as “barbarous,” situates Highland culture and Gaelic poetry in opposition to Christian doctrine. The characterization of Ossian as “barbarous” rationalizes the erasure of Highland culture and Gaelic poetry from the landscape of cultural memory as a consequence of the progression of civilization. Scott assumes that Ossian is valuable to the extent that it functions as an “indulgence,” and this function is contingent on its manifestation of Highland culture and Gaelic poetry before the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion. The destabilization of Ossian’s authenticity through critical assessment prevents the text’s portrayal as an “indulgence,” thus endangering its literary merit and its value in Scott’s contemporary socio-cultural sphere.

          Moreover, defining the authenticity of Ossian as suspect expands the temporal distance between Scott’s contemporary socio-cultural context and the “remote age” (321) in which Highlanders exist as dynamic voices participating in an active communal and cultural dialogue. As Ossian exemplifies Highland culture through Gaelic poetry, delegitimizing the text mystifies the orality and lived experience of Highland culture before the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion, implying its peripheral position in cultural memory. If authentic, Ossian is a symbolic and material form of cultural transmission that uses Gaelic poetry to connect the temporally “remote” Highland culture to Scott’s contemporary socio-cultural context. The “skepticism” (321) of Ossian’s authenticity inhibits its function as a tool of cultural transmission and confines Highland culture to a temporal and socio-cultural margin where its value relies on its role as a relic of a “remote age.” This assignation transforms Highland culture from before the Jacobite Rebellion into an artefact. It simultaneously obfuscates and sensationalizes Highland culture. Whether or not Ossian is authentic, its description as the “production of a ... remote age” persists. Shading the text’s authenticity with “skepticism” intensifies the disappearance of the Highland culture that Ossian purports to represent.

          Scott refers to the question of Ossian’s authenticity as “the great dispute” (321) that defines a “Scottish man.” Necessitating the investigation of Ossian’s authenticity as a rite of passage that illustrates masculinity, suggests a national fascination with Highland culture and Gaelic poetry. It demonstrates a gendered national desire to engage Highland culture through Gaelic poetry. Scott contextualizes his interest in and contribution to the investigation of Ossian’s authenticity by describing it as a form of conscription to this “great national question” (324) His “researches” (321) prove his participation and enable the consummation of his Scottish national identity and masculinity. In the course of his letter Scott references the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion only three times and each reference is implicit. He first alludes to the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion as the “great & violent change ... the Highlands have undergone” (321). This allusion uses a passive verb in the past tense to obscure the perpetrators of the violence. It severs the connection between Scott’s contemporary socio-cultural and political context and the “change” the Jacobite Rebellion and the responses to it enact. Scott does not recognize his dialogic interaction with Seward or his participation in investigating the authenticity of Ossian as forms of responding to mediations of Highland culture and Gaelic poetry from before and after the Jacobite Rebellion. Scott’s examination of Ossian’s authenticity discerns the degree to which it manifests Highland culture from before the Jacobite Rebellion. The extensive intellectual energy that Scott expends in this investigation demonstrates that “change” to Highland culture, resulting from the Jacobite Rebellion and the responses to it, is active and continuous, even in 1806. The effects of the Jacobite Rebellion on the cultural memory of the Highlands do not desist when the acts that occur in the Jacobite Rebellion are over. 

          In representing the scene of the Highland feast where Edward Waverley hears a Highland song and asks for its translation, the BBC broadcast of Waverley deviates significantly from Scott’s novel. Unlike the novel, the broadcast diminishes the memory of Highland culture as it exists before the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion. In the novel, the “family bhairdh,” Mac-Murrough sings “in Gaelic” at the Highland feast. He serves a communal purpose by using orality to mediate the cultural memory of Highland clans with a specific focus on Clan Mac-Ivor. Mac-Murrough’s use of Gaelic manifests the language as a tool of cultural transmission and inhibits Waverley’s immediate access to the song, necessitating a translation. According to Waverley, the Highlanders at the feast are rapt during Mac-Murrough’s recitation. He describes the embodied communal interaction with Mac-Murrough’s song saying that it “animate[s] those who [are] present.” The oral performance of Gaelic poetry enables a physical dialogue, encouraging the Highlanders to “ben[d] forward” and “spr[i]ng up” and “[wave] their arms in ecstasy” to convey their assent and praise. The Highlanders’ physical responses to Mac-Murrough’s song contribute to the collaborative formation of cultural memory. The recitation of Mac-Murrough’s song enlivens the physical presence of the Highlanders and strengthens the sensory experience of their immediate environment by directing their focus on shared cultural memory.

          In the broadcast, Edward Waverley arrives at Glennaquoich—the estate of Fergus Mac-Ivor—and goes to the hall where the “entire clan is gathered.” Here, Mac-Ivor uses Waverley’s genealogy to identify his political affiliation with and familial support of the Highlanders, defining him as the “nephew of the Waverley who saved [his] father’s life when Hanoverian usurpers tried to hang him in 1715.” Upon Mac-Ivor’s request Flora sings “something appropriate” to mark the occasion. However, the exact words of Flora’s song are indecipherable amongst the auditory occlusion of Waverley and Mac-Ivor’s conversation which persists for the duration of the song. Waverley wonders “what [Flora] is ... singing,” but his confusion is nonsensical since he does not actively listen to the song and Flora sings in audible English. Having Flora, rather than Mac-Murrough, sing at the feast erases the role of the “family bhairdh” in constructing the cultural memory of a particular clan. Though the auditory medium of the broadcast inhibits the description of the Highlanders’ physical engagement with the song, it also neglects to offer auditory imagery as a substitute. Furthermore, while the novel explicitly says that Mac-Murrough sings “in Gaelic,” the broadcast nullifies the need for a translation by having Flora sing in English. Though the novel imagines Highland culture as its exists before the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion, the deviations in the broadcast erase the presence of Highland culture and Gaelic poetry.

          The narrator of the novel acknowledges Flora’s interest in the “music and poetical traditions of the Highlanders” as genuine, and contrasts it with Mac-Ivor “whose perceptions of literary merit” are “blunt” and prevent him from “actually experience[ing]” Gaelic poetry and song. This suggests that knowledge of the criteria that determine “literary merit” is prerequisite to the assessment and appreciation of Gaelic oral poetry. As Gaelic poetry conveys cultural memory, Mac-Ivor’s lack of discernment for its “literary merit” inhibits his communal identification. The broadcast uses dialogue to depict Mac-Ivor’s disinterest through his dismissive classification of Flora’s song as “some old clan song or other.” This comment illustrates an indifference that is discontinuous with Mac-Ivor’s position as chief in his cultural hierarchy. It suggests that the song, which represents Highland culture, lacks complexity and exhibits tautology. Mac-Ivor’s concession that all the Highland songs are the “same to [his] ear” homogenizes their auditory experience and implies his lack of fluency in the language of the song. He encourages Edward to “ask Flora” for the “true meaning” of the song. Negotiating the need for the translation of Flora’s song in the broadcast demands a radical suspension of disbelief from the audience who hears Flora sing in standard English. Further, as language is a tool for cultural transmission, by deflecting the task of translation, Mac-Ivor demonstrates that he possesses neither the individual linguistic proficiency nor the pedagogical skill to preserve the oral culture of the Highlands, and the memory it stores, or to transmit this culture and memory to progeny. Using uncharacteristic dialogue that is discontinuous with Mac-Ivor’s role as chief of Clan Mac-Ivor, the broadcast conveys a fallacious portrayal of Highland culture.

          Scott’s correspondence with Seward and the BBC radio adaptation of Waverley both navigate the memory of Highland culture. Scott considers Highland culture and Gaelic poetry through his investigation into the authenticity of James Macpherson’s Ossian, and asserts that Ossian’s literary merit relies on portraying Highland culture from before the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion as a “remote” (321) relic and an “indulgence.” The BBC broadcast of Scott’s historical fiction novel, Waverley, adopts its title but diverges in its depiction of Highland culture, producing an illogical representation that ignores and erodes the presence of Highland culture from before the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion.

Works Cited

Mhunghaile, Lesa Ní. “Ossian and the Gaelic World.” The International Companion to James Macpherson and The Poems of                Ossian / Edited by Dafydd Moore (2017): 31-3. Project MUSE. Web. 

Scott, Walter, Parker, W. M, Cook, Davidson, and Grierson, Herbert John Clifford. The Letters of Sir Walter Scott. Constable &            Co., 1932. 319-25. Web.

Scott, Walter, Sir. Waverley. 2004. Web.

“Waverley.” The Great Scott. BBC Radio 4, 28 Apr. 2014. Web.


Responding to the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion