This week at Wigtown Book Festival Scottish history took centre stage with events on the Battle of Culloden and Shakespeare’s links to Scotland.
Culloden is one of the most myth-laden battles in British History according to Murray Pittock, Bradley Professor and Pro Vice-Principal at University of Glasgow.
This is not least because instead of the fierce but ill-disciplined Jacobites of popular belief armed with broadswords and targes, original sources of the battle show a disciplined, regimented army armed with muskets.
This is not the only myth of the battle spun by the victors who wanted to portray the defeated as belonging to an “old primitive” world, losing to the British Army representing “progress” and all that the Hanoverians wanted to portray as good.
Also controversially Pittock argued that there was an element of the Scots v English dichotomy despite the 1960s articulation of the conflict as a “Scottish Civil War”, as many observers, including the French, did often see it as a battle between “English and “Scottish” armies despite it obscuring the reality of Scots being both Jacobites and British army soldiers.
This talk showed how this battle and its aftermath, that we think we know so well, can be re-accessed.
Chaired by Stuart Kelly, the theatre critic Joyce Macmillan and theatre directors Philip Howard and Dominic Hill discussed the relationship between William Shakespeare and Scotland, which is more substantial than is often supposed.
Firstly this is because as it pointed out, there can be seen to be a new phase in Shakespeare’s work after James VI of Scotland became King of England, which can be seen as a somewhat Scottish influenced period.
This period spanned as much as half of Shakespeare’s career so the portrayal of Shakespeare as a predominantly Elizabethan Playwright is a little exaggerated.
As Macmillan argued, the subject matter of the bard’s plays darkens and becomes increasingly concerned with Kingship and power such as in the plays King Lear and Macbeth with Hill arguing they are about the old and new Britains colliding.
Alongside this, fascinatingly during the “Jacobean” period the spaces these plays were performed in changed, with open air theatres like the Globe giving way to more enclosed spaces and further development of what we would consider special effects. In addition, in Macbeth, as pointed out, the portrayal of Scotland in it has proved influential, with its forbidding moorlands, feuding nobility and kings and an intervention from a more “civilised” England to topple Macbeth. This has been argued to have even influenced the independence referendum in 2014.
However as Philip Howard pointed out, plays such as Dunisnane by David Greig for the Royal Shakespeare Company and the James Plays about Rhona Munro for the National Theatre of Scotland, represent a new way for engagement with those Shakespearean traditions about Scotland, in addition to experimentation with Shakespeare in Scots. In sum, Shakespeare and Scotland is not an oxymoron but a very fascinating subject.