‘And we’ll all go together’

Bonnie Prince Charlie, by Chris McNaught

Come weal, come woe,
we’ll gather and go,
And live and die for Charlie

From the poem “O’er the Water to Charlie”

by Robert Burns

By Chris McNaught

It’s July 25, 1745, at Eriskay in the Hebrides, and I ask you to join me in welcoming ashore from a French frigate, a handsome 25-year-old, one Charles Edward Louis John Casimir Sylvester Severino Maria Stuart, better known as Bonnie Prince Charlie. He is “hame” from Italy, “come over the water,” brimming with infectious spirit, patriotic passion, charm and verve, a natural magnet drawing fervent allegiance and near-delirious hopes from the battered clans of the Highlands and Lowlands.

If you will tolerate the Scot in me, that is a specific realm and human beacon I exploit here – I admit the wild coastal cliffs, dramatic glens and derring-do of Charlie’s fling with history and legend captured me long ago – but they are used now to exemplify and encourage a universal sense of “nation,” imbued with pride and equity. Have we not all, at some time, welcomed or sought inspiration in a figure with character and élan, who appeals beyond self-puffery, vindictive tribalism and the next popular mandate? For which current or recent leaders would you “live and die”? Causes come and go, but transcendent leaders not so often. Of course, I may well be delusional bordering on dementia, unable to discern the time for real leaders has been eclipsed by vicious factionalism and me-ism; these days, there seems little faith invested in the honesty of political pretenders, or indeed, any requirement of honesty.

That’s my 18th-century candidate, but allow me also a wistful, arguably kindred nominee from 20th-century America, and the last moment I felt profoundly moved by any politician. The Peace Corps, the New Frontier, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but…” marked the 60s Kennedy era; a selfless vitality sought release. Yes, the brothers had significant personal and family failings, but observe once more, in 1968, the early-morning, hotel kitchen floor in Los Angeles, where Robert lay on his back, dying, shot in the head, and listen as he whispered to a crouching busboy: “Is everybody OK?” And so a scrappy, 42 year-old conscript for global peace, social justice and civil rights, who aggressively challenged and championed youth, paid the price.

At Culloden, the Young Pretender also paid a price. He tragically mismanaged field tactics and conditions; unquestionably brave and committed, he lingered in the face of certain defeat, urging a desperate charge, but was pulled from the field by his captains, and though not butchered with many of his men, had to slink back to the continent by the grace of stalwart supporters. In Rome and Venice, there were a string of marriages and affairs, too much drink and despair and eventually a stroke – but, as with Robert, I urge you to hearken to their courage. It was the selfless trying, not the failing which ought to hold sway as we too often witness the meaning of “sacrifice” besmirched by tawdry wannabes and their deafness to the health and aspirations of next generations.

I urge you to fling your bonnet in the air; surely, we still live in a recoverable age of valour. In the fierce grip of climate chaos and pandemic, not everyone hears the spinal skirl and feels impelled to muse on the tides of history – with such effort (and a wee dram), you could sniff again the heather and the wild mountain thyme. Thus infused, you might then pick up the fallen claymore and deal indifference and factionalism a fatal blow; and while you’re at it, sunder the soul-less, jargonistic blather, social media, and partisan sycophancy that mute our better angels.

As for Charlie and Bobby, their causes need not be canonized as “lost,” but as won, if we remember their courage and take fresh resolve. A nation’s pride need not be jingoistic, but wave instead an inclusive banner; gather, rather than disdain the clans.

Chris McNaught is a Canadian author and former criminal lawyer and university lecturer. His most recent novel is Dùn Phris, A Gathering, Pegasus/Vanguard Press, UK, 2020.

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