Dead People’s Letters

My dear friend angledge and I are very similar in many ways, and very dissimilar in others. One of the latter has to do with her uncanny aptitude for numbers and formulae – things that I can’t fathom even if I had a nascent scientific calculator embedded directly into my cerebellum. I appreciate this about her, and of course stand in awe of her innate ability. It’s even intimidating at times, but I greatly appreciate that she’s so fascinated by the disciplines.

I stopped by the GIS department today to check up on a room for the next STASIS meeting, and we flopped into the ol’ Benbecula Room – the postgraduate Geography lounge – for some pies and conversation. There we met one of her colleagues, crawling on hands and knees (as some science students do) with a police-line border of tables and chairs overturned and bright, colorful wooden blocks splayed in random patterns all over the floor. I thought it was playtime, but Ange cheerfully informed me that this was actually some type of progressive imaging project. I nodded and pretended to understand, but really it just looked like constructive hour at the old preschool back in Detroit. But these are in fact the future movers and shakers of our generation.

This is why I’m a Humanities guy.

It’s not just that I can’t process complex mathematics in my head, nor that the antiseptic atmosphere of the computer lab makes me want to simultaneously fall asleep and compulsively stick my fingers into one of the many whirring cooling fans keeping all those circuits well-ventilated. It’s that while the results of these projects are splendid, I can’t envision the mental architecture to create the proposed plans and complex hypotheses. And from behind lovely, glossy, wooden henges of all shapes and sizes, geography/imaging/floor guy explains his Vision. I’m thrilled with it, as I am with a description of yet another of their chums, even as we speak wandering the streets of central Edinburgh with a computerized backpack that is plotting all the important architectural and historical points of significance for the future use of the tourism industry. Thrilling, really. And I think I told them so, but it was hidden amidst the gracious thanks that there existed people like them to handle such things, because as I’ve been explaining, it’s really beyond me. Boy, do I appreciate their efforts, though.

So after some further head-scratching, off to the library again I went, to stick my face into things more suited to my sensibilities. No, it wasn’t the Victorian porn archive, it was back to the infernal wall o’ Clan histories, written by many double-breasted, mustachioed gentlemen with more patience and fortitude than I. I’ve been on this wall for a week and one-half now, and finally I think I’ve gotten through it. The only numbers within the old, dusty tomes are dates and levy numbers, which are both manageable and descriptive – I UNDERSTAND THEM. And more than that, the real juice of the work pours out with just the right amount of squeezing, by trained hands and minds that make it their job to comprehend the human condition – it’s our version of science, really. Hell, it’s social science.

So with a futile suppressing of this newfound excitement of wanting to rush home and print *D.S. Layne, Archival Scientist* on my new business cards, I got to work through the three-volume correspondence of the Chiefs of Grant and dug up a few rare treasures that made it very clear to me this job is just as laterally-thinking and progressive as any scientific discipline – a strange juxtaposition when it entails poring over historical texts. To prove I’m actually doing something over here, I’m going to relate one of the gleanings right here in this forum. You might find it interesting, and you might find it boring…especially if colorful, wooden blocks are more your speed.

As it’s been abundantly clear for some time, my primary scholastic interest lies within the social and military consciousness of 18th-century Scotland, most specifically during eight long months in 1745-6, very popularly known as the last Jacobite Rebellion. In short, my course of study and final dissertation deals with a bit of good controversy about the subject, which has been for 250 years appropriated by rabid nationalists as a base of their clarion cry for freedom and independence. It frustrates a sober historian, because we – not that I’m often sober in any degree – know that the Rebellions were about so much more than Scottish independence…and so much more than Scotland, more importantly. So to speak and write on a subject that has been spoken into the ground and written in the sky by generations of dour, fire-eating, and revisionist Albaphiles from all around the world is a tough order indeed, especially for a wee Yank with no Scottish heritage whatsoever. Of course this doesn’t discount my input or opinion, and in some cases makes it even more relevant, not having the stagnant bias that many would-be Scots historians tend to fall back on.

Not wishing to get too far off the subject, I’ll get back to the sources, which is what we’re instructed to do all the time, in any event. My reason in explaining the course of study is to briefly touch upon the idea that far from being a rousing, glorious call to action against the tyrannical oppression of a foreign monarch, the Forty-five was more a strange propaganda battle of differing causes, opinions, and participants that has since alternately been labeled as a bloody civil war and a nationalistic struggle for freedom by those that it behooves on a particular occasion. My own stance – and thesis – is that just as many ‘brave and loyal’ clansmen were by threat of rape and burning forced into taking up arms for The Prince formerly known as Bonnie Charlie. If this is the case, what does it do to hundreds of years of nationalist sympathies, symbolism, and romantic identification? There is tons of evidence out there, but no one has ever collated it and put it into context. So that’s what I’m doing, and I’m up to my white cockade in letters, journals, order books, and prisoner lists. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

So here is a family that perfectly represents the frustrating and confused air of the time. Nobody knew what was going on within either side, and many chose no side at all, or to flirt a while with each. The Grants of Urquhart (think Loch Ness and that gorgeous castle ruin on every postcard from Scotland) were split into many small areas, as most 18th-century clans were, with sub-chiefs taking care of – and renting out their land to – small groups of tenants all throughout the area. Ludovick Grant, the son of the Chief and prime mover of the clan in times of war, was having a difficult go of it. As far as can be proven, he was under nebulous orders from his Father, Sir James Grant of Grant, to take the high road and resist the depredations of Jacobite recruiters coming into his territory with dire threats to stir up recruitment. Feeling better safe than sorry, Ludovick gave his word to the inaugural British army general, Sir John Cope (who, as it turned out, couldn’t cope), that he would rouse his tenants and give them arms in order to forcefully resist these seditious efforts.

So Ludovick had this plan, but a few of his sub-chiefs weren’t so sure which avenue they wanted to pursue. As it happened, for example, both Grant of Corimonie and Grant of Shewglie were making noises about rising for the Jacobites, which seriously threatened to undermine Ludovick’s promise to both is father and to the stern eye of the British army. Since he couldn’t be everywhere at once, the chief’s son appointed factors to take care of the different areas of his land, who would in turn deal with the tenantry and any problems that might occur in those areas. In a short span of time, poor ol’ Ludovick received a barrage of correspondence pushing and pulling him all over the place, and it is not unlikely that he might have had great indigestion on more than one occasion because of it. Between rebels seizing his father’s house (Castle Grant); threatening to burn crops and reive cattle should Grant’s tenants not follow the Jacobite army to Edinburgh; and some of his sub-chiefs vacillating on whether to save face and desert the service of their landlord, protector, and close familial tie; Alexander Brodie, Lyon King-of-Arms was ripping him a new arsehole when he found out that Ludovick had not mobilised his men to make good on his promise to Cope.

Quoth Brodie: “The only way for you and others in your situation to preserve your own part of the country, is to join Sir John Cope and beat them out of the kingdom, for if Sir John is not properly supported, he and you and we all must be at their mercy…you will, if they conquer, be made a sacrifice of sooner or later, and so the only safety you have is joining with Sir John, to demolish them before they grow so strong that it will not be in your power.” Ludovick was struggling to keep his tenants in line, who were being scared to hell by the Jacobite recruiters, and now Brodie was telling him that he had to sway them back over to the Government side, surely against their better judgment. What the hell could he do, and did he even really care either way, as long as he could continue living his life unmarred by depredations from either side?

So now Brodie pulls out the heavy artillery – the Jewish grandmother spiel: “You have disappointed us all, and your uncle the Major is very angry that you should have follow’d other people’s advice and not taken your own; and it had been much better you had given no such assertions without being sure that you could fullfill your engagements.” Knowing full well that Ludovick is being pressured from both sides, Brodie offers him a solution, that was really no solution at all: “Sure I am that fifty men is sufficient to guard Castle Grant, and you might spare two or three hundred to the General, which would be the best way of guarding your countrey, since the General would allways be in pursuit of their army, and so they durst not separate our spare a party to attack your contrey, nor will the young gentleman allow his people to burn and destroy while he is in hopes of gathering a multitude to join him.” Yes, it was the old ‘the best defence is a good offence’ bit. Of course, Brodie was wrong – the castle was taken, and Ludovick had some trouble with groups of his men going off with the Jacobites, then returning, then leaving, and coming back again. It was a Highland merry-go-round, and the chief’s son was getting dizzy at the centre of it all.

And amidst the guilt-ridden letters of Lord Lyon, Grant factors were giving him updates about threats, depredations, and insurrection on his very own property. If his men left, he would have no rents, and if the rebels captured him, he would surely be brought to trial and possibly even killed. If he joins Charles Edward and they are defeated, he loses his head for sure. This wasn’t the first rebellion – it was the fifth, and all before had failed. Everyone knew the consequences. In response, he engages in a furious letter-writing campaign to everyone involved. He gives Cope all the intelligence he can and claims that the Jacobite threats aren’t so bad; he sends a note to his factor telling him to convey to his tenants that the menace is all rumour – promising that if his men will stay at home, “I will show them marks of kindness which none other can do; and before they be much older, if they behave well, I will do them what no body who may spirite them up againest me can do.” Sycophance was the perfect antidote to sedition, then. It turned out to be a rather smart thing in order to preserve his family and his land.

And with this came much obsequience from the other side, as Thomas Grant of Arndillie would make abundantly clear: “You have my most hearty thanks for the peace and safety I injoy in this troublesome time…all this has been owing to you, as you would have resented injuries done your friends, and made repriseals.” It must have made Ludovick feel effectual for the first time in a while, but more than this, a key element is made clear that many Jacobite scholars completely pass over. Thomas Grant explains it clearly to Ludovick: “I am enveyed by my neighbours for the happiness you occasion me to enjoy; long may you live for the good of your family and people.” And that explains it perfectly. There was no good or evil in this pivotal period of British history; there was no right and wrong. The Forty-five gave birth to countless stories like these, however romantic they might sound in the proper context, which are nothing more than regular people living regular lives, trying to survive the only way they knew how: for the earnest benefit of their families and people.

There is no nationalism in this story, no Saltire-waving, Geordie-bashing, or struggle of the urban vs. agrarian lifestyles of the varied Scottish people. The Grants of Urquhart were torn apart by the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745, and in more ways than one. But I bet ol’ Ludovick would have resented 250 years of historical appropriation by people who had no idea of the rigours to which he was exposed. I bet he would have wept at being lumped into the category of ‘Whig’ or ‘Traitor’ despite his perceived loyalties to the Government. And his story continues on, as all this just related occurred in the first month of the Forty-five alone, and I encourage you to follow up on the old boy if the interest strikes you. You might be surprised as to what becomes of him later on.

This story is one of many during the Tumult of History, and it’s what I love unearthing – it’s been put together from one day of research, using only personal correspondence from a single source. There is so much more out there, and all of it makes me think in this way. I can understand it, and it speaks to the human condition in that no matter what time period people lived, we don’t change that much on the inside. A thousand historians might have looked at these same documents and might have mused over a hundred different versions of Ludovick Grant’s motivations and actions. But those previous secondary-source scholars disappear when you’re faced with the words themselves, sitting there in front of you, and begging to be put into a unique story that best reflects the context in which they were created. As an old professor once told me over a good glass of whisky, “You can’t fuck with the sources.”

So it’s a science, after all – but a very social one. The formulae are as complex, and just as difficult to discern, but it’s all in how you engage with it. And as a student of geometry must follow Euclidean theory, so too, does the historian attempt to understand the individual method of each periodic conundrum. Both of us can only hope to do justice to the respective examples considered.

postscript: This is not a sampling of my academic voice. If I could get away with using ‘ripping a new arsehole’ in my dissertation, the world might as well be going to Hell. I’m indulging, and you’re indulging me by reading this. Thanks.

9 Responses to “Dead People’s Letters”

  1. lilitufire Says:
    July 22nd, 2004 at 8:33 am

    Very interesting – not read much on the Rebellion at all, so enjoyed that.

  2. FunkyPlaid Says:
    July 23rd, 2004 at 9:42 pm

    Just wait 'til I get Part II down.

  3. angledge Says:
    July 22nd, 2004 at 8:57 am

    mapmaker, mapmaker, make me a map
    … the antiseptic atmosphere of the computer lab makes me want to simultaneously fall asleep and compulsively stick my fingers into one of the many whirring cooling fans keeping all those circuits well-ventilated.
    *slaps your fingers away from the ventilation fan*
    It is fascinating to read a description of what GIS looks like from the outside. I'm not sure we deserve the title of "movers & shakers" (at least, not most of us, definitely not me), but thank you for the compliment!

  4. FunkyPlaid Says:
    July 23rd, 2004 at 9:43 pm

    Re: mapmaker, mapmaker, make me a map
    C'mon, you move and shake it all the time.

  5. friendsofgumby Says:
    July 23rd, 2004 at 5:50 pm

    If you haven't already, I think you would like reading Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond or The Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. I have enjoyed both books thoroughly and I think you would too. I am also diving into the Humanities course at school which sounded absolutely appetizing in the course description. Although, I'm stuck in AP World History for now..

  6. FunkyPlaid Says:
    July 23rd, 2004 at 9:41 pm

    You know, I have both of those books at home and haven't yet had the time to read them. I'm so glad they come on a good recommendation, though, and thanks for mentioning them.
    Tell me about that course description?

  7. friendsofgumby Says:
    July 24th, 2004 at 2:27 pm

    Here is a link about the course:
    Don't read it all because it's not worth it, but I think it sounds like fun.

  8. FunkyPlaid Says:
    July 24th, 2004 at 9:21 pm

    Holee mackerel. What a wonderful course! I very much encourage you to immerse yourself in it, and let me know EVERYTHING that it does for you, because I would give my eye-teeth to sit in on that one. History as a discipline here in Britain is exceedingly narrow, and any interdisciplinary consideration is frowned upon, and thought to dilute the tradition of sober History. I can't stand that opinion, but it's good to see something as diverse as this course cropping up for a good breadth of understanding of the Humanities.
    There's a little of everything in there!
    And, funny enough, one of my colleagues over here who has decided not to finish the course is from ASU, and is shortly going back there to take an assistantship in the very same field.
    I wish you all the best with this endeavour, and please keep me posted!

  9. pisica Says:
    July 26th, 2004 at 12:45 am

    No, it wasn’t the Victorian porn archive
    I have a few titles if you're interested…. 🙂

Leave a Reply