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The Travelogue

Touring History

As well as the cultural past, the travelogues also manufacture the historical past. This too presents a thematic preference for particular events and particular types of events, and the elision of others. Travelogues such as Enchanted Isles (1957), A Song for Prince Charlie (1959), and Over the Sea to Skye (1961) all centrally feature another piece of mimetic capital in the imagining of Scotland, the flight of Bonnie Prince Charlie, with the assistance of Flora MacDonald, over the sea to Skye after the rout of the Jacobite clans at Culloden in 1746; 'Stepping inland we follow the path of a royal fugitive, perhaps this moor land pool once mirrored the face of Bonnie Prince Charlie as he rested in his flight' (Enchanted Isles). There are two questions we might ask of this recurrent narrative event. Why this particular event, and how is this event represented? Answering the second question we will answer the first.

A Song for Prince Charlie extract
History transformed into legend in A Song for Prince Charlie (1959)

Hayden White argues that the historian shapes his/her materials in response to the imperatives of narrative discourse in general, imperatives which are rhetorical in nature. Generic story types permit the reader to understand the events as part of a recognisable structure. In response to this generic story type, the historian shapes his materials, displacing some facts to the periphery and moving others to the centre. We can see this tropical nature of historical discourse in the representation of the story of Charles Edward Stuart and Flora MacDonald. The trope takes the Jacobite Rebellion and reduces it to the romantico-tragic story of two individuals. Over the Sea to Skye remarks that 'the story of one girl's courage will continue to throw its light across the seas of time', history has been displaced by a legend that has been woven around two figures that are marked as extraordinary.

We can categorise as legend historical events that are retold in a particular way. Legends are defined as people and events which have a special place in public esteem because of striking qualities or deeds, real or fictitious, and the body of fact and fiction gathered around such people, which becomes a collection of sacred stories. These sacred stories or legends represent a disturbance of the Western epistemological categories of fact and fiction. They are neither literature nor history.



Over the Sea to Skye extract
History, myth and the present co-exist in Over the Sea to Skye (1961)

Historical representation, according to Michel de Certeau (1988) serves a particular function:

"It constantly mends the rents in the fabric that joins past and present. It assures a "meaning," which surmounts the violence and the divisions of time. It creates a theatre of references and of common values, which guarantee a sense of unity and a "symbolic" communicability to the group. Finally, as Michelet once said, it is the work of the living in order to "quiet the dead" and to unite all sorts of separated things and people into the semblance of a unity and a presence that constitutes representation itself." (p. 205)

Drawing on de Certeau, we can suggest that the recurrent narration of the legend of Charles Edward Stuart and Flora MacDonald in the Films of Scotland travelogues serves a particular function. Throughout the Films of Scotland Collection there is one very striking absence, the Act of Union of Parliaments that took place in 1707, an event which the historian T.C. Smout (1990) argues appears to overshadowed the whole history of Scotland since the end of the seventeenth century (p. 199). While focusing on Flora and Charlie draws attention from the atrocities carried out against the Highlanders after Culloden, it also diverts attention from the Act of Union that took place only thirty nine years earlier. If every nation has a trauma in its past that has to be either forgotten or ceaselessly worked through, it is tempting to suggest that for Scotland it is the Act of Union of Parliaments. Why? Because to recall it is to invoke Scotland's loss of independent statehood, its move to a stateless nation. The legend of Bonnie Prince Charlie and Flora MacDonald is a comfortable house for this discursive strategy because the pressure of linked events and the assumed coherence of the tale help to pull the reader past these absences, assuring the meaning of the nation in its relation to its past.

Highland Capital extract
Highland Capital (1968), in which Culloden Moor is transformed by the events that took place on its soil and embedded in a sacred story.

Narratives of the past serve another function in the travelogue, the reproduction of a national Scottish heritage. Preserved historical sites and buildings, particularly castles and keeps such as Edinburgh and Stirling, can be visited and gazed upon. These sites, and the narratives which they are associated, guarantee the authenticity of Scotland's history as a nation, evidence of a tradition of national resistance to other nations, and serve as physical monuments to the nation's collective past or memory. Over a shot of Stirling castle in Heart of Scotland (1962), the narration claims that 'echoes of battles that shaped Scotland's future as a nation carried to here'; Highland Capital argues that at 'Culloden, that battleground of dreadful memory [...] the sorrow of defeat is here recorded'; Enchanted Isles suggests that: 'The crumbled stones of St Margaret's nunnery brings to mind Dr Johnson's stately tribute "That man is little to be envied, whose piety would not grow warmer among the ruins of Iona."' What kind of relationship between legend and landscape is being constructed here?


Discussing Mandeville's pilgrimage to the sacred rocks in Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Temple of the Lord, Greenblatt (1990) argues that 'these objects are natural features in the landscape, but they are features that have been transformed by the momentous events that have occurred on them and still more by the simple physical presence, the literal weight, of certain remarkable persons' (p. 38). As a result of this transformation, he argues, the rocks become 'embedded' in sacred stories, and Mandeville reproduces these stories in his account: 'The rocks function then as tangible materialisations of sacred stories. Mandeville and his contemporaries are saturated with such stories, circulating not as chronologies or sources, but as radiances that attach to material existence' (pp. 39-40). The same is happening in these travelogues. Although in these accounts, the transformation of features in the landscape is not limited to sacred sites such as Iona, but also includes rocks embedded in folklore, and landscape passed through by Charles Edward Stuart. These are not sacred sites or stories in the strictly religious sense of that term, but they are still the object of veneration as a consequence of their embeddedness in particular narratives or legends.

Still from The Borders: Where England and Scotland Meet
The Borders: Where England and Scotland Meet (1970) narrates the national narratives in which these castle ruins are embedded.

But there is a connection between Mandeville's religious pilgrimage and the twentieth century travelogue's journey to sites embedded in their own narratives. With the decline of the religious mode of thought within which Mandeville's sacred stones operated, Anderson (1983) argues that 'what was then required was a secular transformation of fatality into continuity, contingency into meaning' (p. 19). He argues that this secular transformation was provided by the idea of the nation. Just as the religious community was 'imaginable largely through the medium of a sacred language and written script' (p. 20), so too was the new national community imagined through its own panoply of signs. These signs include the sites and legends embedded in national narratives, reproduced in the twentieth century through the film and television media.

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Author: Richard Butt Images are drawn from the SCRAN database.