Six years ago I went to Dundee, Scotland, for my first Erasmus period abroad. My wishes were quite simple at the time, I did not want to cross any ocean and I wanted to go to an English-speaking country, presuming that life would be easier if there wasn’t that much of a language barrier. How little did I know. Whereas the Scots officially do speak English, at least half of the time I had no idea what lecturers were talking about in class or what classmates were saying during discussions. But despite all that I have some good memories of university life in Dundee.
Accidentally I stumbled across two topics that still have my particular interest. Dr. Fiona Watson taught me about Macbeth, and how historical figures can turn into literary heroes or villains, depending on the side history is on. More than anyone else, she raised my awareness of how history is written by the victors and that a legacy can get tainted if you happen to be the last king before a particular house comes to power – as Macbeth was. Dr. Derek Patrick and Dr. Billy Kenefick sparked my interest in Scottish military history, lecturing about the images of Highland soldiers in the 19th and 20th centuries. Drawn to the romantic image of the kilted heroes, I ended up writing my MA thesis about identity formation in the Scottish army.
Although I did spend a lot of time reading about Scotland in the past few years (and especially during the writing of my thesis) I had not actually been back anymore since my return from Dundee in the summer of 2010. With so many sources available online, there was no real need to dive into the various military archives. But with watching Reign (about Mary, Queen of Scots) and especially Outlander (set during the Jacobite Rebellions) my urge to return to Scotland increased over the past year. And so instead of discovering new countries, this year I decided to go back. It was long overdue.
Driving north from Glasgow towards the Highlands it struck me how many war memorials there are. You might find an odd memorial in the Netherlands here and there, but in Scotland they are everywhere, from the village square to the middle of nowhere. Literally. The special commandos monument for example lies nowhere near civilization, overlooking the former training grounds. Every Scottish village too has a memorial, to remember the sacrifice of those that didn’t return from the fields of France, Belgium and further afield. Erected in the interwar period, many hold the names of the World War II victims next to the Great War victims. Sometimes it is little more than a simple stone cross, on other occasions huge monuments were erected. The island of Lewis for example boasts a huge memorial tower, a tribute to the servicemen that did not come back. The how and why of these memorials is a fascinating subject in itself: who erected what, when and why?
Lewis was also the site of the most tragic episodes of the entire First World War. Although tragedy is hard to compare in situations of war, the case of the HMS Iolaire stands out for all its drama. On New Years Day 1919 this navy vessel, with hundreds of Lewis war veterans on board, perished in a violent storm, claiming almost200 lives. And as I stood there at the place where it all happened, overlooking the treacherous Beasts of Holm, so very calm on that beautiful sunny day, I couldn’t help feeling emotional about it. The Iolaire had sunk literally with the harbour in sight: only a few kilometers separated the place of the disaster and the Stornoway harbour. Four years of trench warfare and only minutes away from being united with friends and loved ones, it does not get much more tragic than that.
Although especially the memory of the First World War is still very much alive in Scotland, older traces of war can also be found. Completely by accident I stumbled across the Hector MacDonald monument in Dingwall. A huge tower on a hill overlooking the city, I couldn’t help noticing it when driving through Dingwall. ‘Is that what I think it might be?’, I wondered, knowing Dingwall to be the birthplace of one of the greatest British generals of all times. One of the few generals to start his career as a simple private, the farmer’s son Hector MacDonald (d. 1903) reached the highest army rank in a period where merit usually counted for little compared to money and heritage. A not-so-hidden-gem, but off the beaten track for sure.
Visiting Fort George, yesterday and today came together. An active army depot, it also hosts the regimental Highlanders museum, where I spent a good few hours admiring its extensive collection. Memorabilia of all the famous regiments are kept here: the Cameron Highlanders, the Seaforth Highlanders, the Queen’s Own Highlanders and many more. Today the fort is home to the Black Watch, arguably the most famous of all the famous Highland regiments. Raised during the Jacobite Rebellions, they were the most senior Highland regiment in the British army until very recently. Amalgamations mean that the Highland regiments do no longer exist as separate regiments, but the traditions live on in the new Royal Regiment of Scotland.
To my delight my visit to Fort George did not only allow me to admire Scotland’s military past, but also it’s military present. Not only were we lucky enough to see the new generation of Black Watch soldiers go about their physical training all over the grounds, we also witnessed them at leisure, whether socializing, smoking a cigarette, making some phone calls or walking their dogs. And although unfortunately these days they do not wear kilts anymore, it was still a marvelous sight for this historian: the living present and past coming together.
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