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It may be almost three centuries since Prince Charles Edward Stuart watched his father’s royal standard rise fluttering into the August breeze, at Glenfinnan on the shore of Loch Shiel, but the impact of that momentous day lingers on in Lochaber still.
Few in Moidart and the wider Lochaber area are as well versed in the history and lore of the Jacobite Rising of 1745 as Glenfinnan resident Tearlach (Charlie) MacFarlane. He is probably the most well-known and eminent specialist on Moidart genealogy.
What sets him apart as a historian is his deep knowledge of the links that flow from the ’45 still to this day in this part of the Highlands.
Just when it seems that all the stories about Bonnie Prince Charlie and the rising have been told, Tearlach always manages to surprise the listener with a startling new nugget of information.
Speaking to the Lochaber Times at his home on the edge of Loch Shiel, he tells how the area’s famous monument to the clansmen who rose for the Jacobite cause was officially opened in 1815.
‘When the monument opened in 1815 it is said there were old men in attendance who remembered, as boys, witnessing the actual event of the prince raising the standard. Even if they were only 10 years old in 1745, that would have made them 80 in 1815,’ he explained.
‘So if there had been a few boys aged 10 at the opening in 1815, by the time they were 80 it would be 1885. And then some 10-year-old boy speaking to one of these men in 1885 would be 80 in 1955 which is not that long ago. You’re only talking about going back a little more than three generations to someone who was actually present on that day in 1745.
‘When I was young, people still talked about it as if it had just happened.’
Tearlach, who was born beside Loch Leven opposite Glencoe but grew up in Fort Augustus, added: ”There was an abbot at Fort Augustus, who I vaguely recall, and he said to my father that he could remember sitting on his granny’s knee when he was very small and her telling him how she remembered seeing Prince Charlie in Rome as an old man, on his way to church, with his daughter on his arm.
‘That would have been around the late 1790s. So if the abbot was in his 80s, he would have been speaking in about 1935. The time gap just spans three generations. It’s not that long ago.’
Tearlach moved back to Lochaber in the 1960s and has never been away from the area much since.
‘Even when I came here to Glenfinnan in 1971, the prince was referred to frequently as somebody quite recent. It had such a massive impact on the Highlands as a whole, and especially around here. It was very much imprinted onto people’s memories.
‘I once knew an old centenarian lady, back in 1972 or 73 in Arisaig, and she remembered her great-grandmother talking about giving a mug of milk to the prince when he was on run after Culloden. That was remembered down through her family.’
Historians record the fact that many Highlanders, clan chiefs and clansmen alike, were reluctant to join the rising.
Asked if that was how they felt, why did they still join, Tearlach explained: ‘It was said that in Moidart, and this probably applies in other places in the Highlands, a lot of people didn’t want to know, the ordinary clansmen I’m talking about here.
‘But their fathers and grandfathers had fought in the ’15 and at Killicrankie and they had to honour their forebears. Of course, there was also allegiance to their chief, but they were mainly doing it for their families as much as anything. I wouldn’t like to have been living then, as it would’ve been very difficult making that choice.
‘And if the chief joined, the clan followed. It was that simple. Same with the Reformation.
”They couldn’t be certain it would fail. It so happens they could’ve succeeded but spies gave them false information that they were outnumbered and about to be encircled and that was why they retreated. But it wasn’t true at all and if they had continued I think they could’ve taken London.
‘It wasn’t impossible for it to work. There are so many ‘ifs’ in history.’
After the prince and his army were defeated at Culloden in 1746, the British government launched what was tantamount to a process of ethnic cleansing in the Highlands.
The Act of Proscription (1747) was aimed at destroying the military power of the clans and saw the banning of traditional Highland dress and the possession of arms.
‘I was thinking about the Act of Proscription earlier. The British Empire saw some terrible things done to indigenous peoples but there is no record of anywhere else where the people were forbidden to wear their own clothes,’ said Tearlach.
‘People were stitching pleats of their kilts together to make it qualify as pair of shorts or trousers. It was a terrible, terrible thing.’
While the power of the clans and their chiefs had been on the wane for some time before the 1745 rising, the aftermath of Culloden and the clearances sped up the disintegration of Highland culture.
‘After Culloden, the laws were seen as a way of breaking the bonds of clanship. It took away the law of jurisidiction of the chiefs and those that were left in control of their lands were mostly bankrupt,’ said Tearlach.
‘Change had been happening in the Highlands prior to the ’45, but very slowly. Since then there have been a great many changes. The culture and language is only just hanging on. As someone once put it, trying to keep Gaelic culture alive is like being in bed with an elephant!’
One of the most important changes that gathered pace after Culloden was the severing of the bond Highlanders felt with the land.
‘The bond with the land was something that was very strong in the Highlands and goes back before the feudal system came to Scotland and the Highlands.
‘But from the Middle Ages onwards, it started to affect chiefs and chieftains who suddenly find themselves, made official on parchment, the owners of ground. Before that nobody owned ground, the ground owned the people. There was a feeling that people belonged to the ground, not the other way around.
‘And when people emigrated or were cleared off the land in the Clearances, it was not just about leaving relatives and friends, it was leaving the land they had been part of for generations and that is not always understood.’
Speaking just yards from where the prince raised the standard on that fateful August day exactly 275 years ago, Tearlach said its impact continued to reverberate down through the centuries.
‘It remains important, not just because of the loss of life involved, but because of the loss of a whole culture and way of life.’