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“The Sun Shines Bright on Loch Lomond”: Geography Meets Politics in the Scottish Highlands

By Sheila T. Cavanagh 

In March, 2018, I joined a group of graduate students in Scotland under the direction of Georgia State University Professor, Tanya Caldwell. The students were enrolled in a course investigating the travel narratives of renowned eighteenth century writers, Dr. Samuel Johnson and James Boswell. Johnson, who famously stated that anyone tired of London was tired of life, had long resisted traveling to Scotland to the chagrin of Boswell, his Scottish-born friend, admirer, and biographer. Boswell eventually succeeded, however, in convincing Johnson to undertake this venture, which both participants later chronicled in publications detailing their adventures (Levi 1990).

As part of the modern endeavour in their stead, the Atlanta cohort retraced as much of the original journey as academic calendars and weather conditions allowed. Following “in the footsteps” of Johnson and Boswell as this group did, unavoidably highlights evidence of the cultural expanse separating the 18th and 21st centuries. Nowhere is this more evident than on modern treks to the picturesque spot encompassing the lake area, known as Loch Lomond, which the graduate school contingent visited twice. When Dr. Johnson describes his own intrepid literary duo’s sojourn there, he focuses first on its socially significant inhabitants: “From Grencroe we passed through a pleasant country to the banks of Loch Lomond and were received at the house of Sir James Colquhoun, who is owner of almost all of the thirty islands of the Loch” (Levi, Kindle location 2888). He then offers disparaging comments about the region’s climate and topography: “Had Loch Lomond been in a happier climate, it would have been the boast of wealth and vanity to own one of the little spots which it incloses (sic), and to have employed upon it all the arts of embellishment. But as it is, the islets, which court the gazer at a distance, disgust him at his approach, when he finds, instead of soft lawns and shady thickets, nothing more than uncultivated ruggedness” (Levi, Kindle location 2888).

Today, visitors find much more to admire about the scenery on offer here. Loch Lomond is a popular tourist destination in the Scottish Highlands because of its beautiful setting.  Nevertheless, the Loch Lomond segments of our two Rabbie Tour Company (named after famed and beloved Scottish writer, Robert Burns) stops there were focused largely on the Scottish nationalist sentiments generated through powerful modern renditions of the classic nineteenth century song, “Bonnie Banks ‘o Loch Lomond.” The song has often been recorded in the years since its composition, both by folk artists and others, including Benny Goodman and AC/DC.  Similar to many sanitized modern fairy tales, however, the text’s mellifluous words and melody mask a grim genealogy. Both tour guides presented emotionally charged narratives about the historic events alluded to through the lyrics of the piece and used these musical selections to support their impassioned defenses of twenty-first century campaigns for Scottish independence. Scottish citizens largely voted against the 2016 ‘Brexit’ referendum that plans to take the United Kingdom out of the European Community. Although the most recent Scottish vote on their own independence failed (2014), anxieties associated with Brexit have rekindled nationalist ambitions. These separatist sentiments are unavoidable on modern visits to this famous, photogenic lake.

American National Public Radio (NPR), among many other sources, notes the dark undertones of this famous folk tune, which appears on first listening to be a simple, sad love song: “me and my true love will never meet again on the bonny, bonny banks of Loch Lomond.” This initial impression is misleading, however, since the lyrics actually recount the execution of Scottish soldiers loyal to “bonnie Prince Charlie” at the 1745 Battle of Culloden, which marked the end of Scotland’s efforts to regain the English throne. The brutal killings were witnessed by many of the victims’ families, who had walked south in order to be reunited, however sorrowfully, with their condemned loved ones. As Leslie Howard reports on NPR, “once the acts of execution were complete, in order to be an example to anyone out of line, the bodies and the bits and most particularly the heads on the tops of spikes were exhibited in all the towns between London and Glasgow in a monstrous procession.” Scotland’s loss at the Battle of Culloden still resonates in modern political discussions, where these deaths remind listeners not only of dashed hopes for a Scottish reclamation of the English crown, but also of the demise of numerous patriots willing to die on behalf of their leader and countrymen.

The familiar lyrics of “Loch Lomond,” which refer to these events, including the morbid display of the mutilated corpses, contain somewhat ambiguous terminology. “Oh, ye’ll tak’ the high road, and I’ll tak’ the low road. And I’ll be in Scotland before ye” for instance, simultaneously offers literal and metaphoric meanings, depending on the interpreter’s perspective. The ‘roads’ referenced may literally be different paths, assigned by social and political rank to distinctive sets of travellers, as NPR suggests. They may also invoke the spirit or fairy world, however, through which the souls of the faithful Scottish departed would reach their homeland before prisoners, who escaped execution.  Our tour guides preferred this second version of the story, claiming that the condemned Scottish soldiers were given the opportunity to choose which members of their company would die and which would be spared. In this rendition, those who sacrificed their lives in order to save their relatives or companions sent their sadly, but heroically, departed spirits, on the swift ‘low road’ back to Scotland.

While this iconic song (first published in 1841) may or may not yet have been written when Johnson and Boswell visited the area in 1773, the Jacobite rebellion, which it commemorates, had already occurred. Indeed, as Peter Levi notes in the introduction to his dual edition of Johnson’s 1775 A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland and Boswell’s 1785 The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (London: Folio Society, 1990), these tumultuous events of the mid-eighteenth century nearly derailed the impetus for this pair’s journey through the region: “this expedition was an old project. It matured almost too late, because the war of 1745 was the beginning of the end of ancient Scotland, and the processes of change in the Highlands were already gathering speed” (Levi, Kindle location 122). According to Boswell, he and Dr. Johnson undertook this expedition across Scotland “with a notion that we might there contemplate a system of life almost totally different from what we had been accustomed to see; and to find simplicity and wildness, and all the circumstances of remote time or place, so near to our native great land” (Levi, Kindle location 2999). Like many travelers, possibly including the American group visiting in 2018, this pair hoped to experience sights and people unlike those they already knew.

When they began this pilgrimage across Boswell’s native territories, Johnson and Boswell were certainly familiar with the issues surrounding the efforts of Bonnie Prince Charlie to become the English monarch, whether or not it spoke to them politically in any serious fashion. They each comment, for example, about their visit with famed Jacobite heroine, Flora McDonald, who was noted for helping the disguised Prince escape the Outer Hebrides island of Benbecula, when he fled there after his defeat at Culloden. McDonald was convicted and imprisoned in London for her role in this escapade, but was freed in 1747, when the Act of Indemnity was passed. Johnson only mentions McDonald briefly, but describes her with respect: “We were entertained with the usual courtesy by Mr. Macdonald and his lady, Flora Macdonald, a name that will be mentioned in history, and if courage and fidelity be virtues, mentioned with honour” (Levi, Kindle location 1450). Boswell describes the visit with much more detail, clearly enjoying the relative implausibility of the event: “To see Dr. Samuel Johnson, the great champion of the English Tories, salute Miss Flora Macdonald in the isle of Sky, was a striking sight; for though somewhat congenial in their notions, it was very improbable they should meet here” (Levi, Kindle locations 4568 and 4584). Boswell offers an extended account of their stay, remarking that “To see Dr Samuel Johnson lying in that bed, in the isle of Sky, in the house of Miss Flora Macdonald, struck me with such a group of ideas as it is not easy for words to describe, as they passed through the mind” (Levi, Kindle location 4584). He also provides a detailed story of the relevant historical events, which he offers both to his interested readers and to posterity: “I have compiled the following abstract, which, as it contains some curious anecdotes, will, I imagine not be uninteresting to my readers, and even, perhaps be of some use to future historians” (Levi, Kindle locations 4601 and 4617). He then includes a lengthy narrative about Flora McDonald’s assistance in orchestrating the escape of Prince Charles, who fled disguised as her “supposed maid” (Levi, Kindle location 4633). In addition to pertinent historical elements of the narrative, Boswell highlights aspects of the story likely to amuse readers, noting, for instance that Charles “was very awkward in his female dress. His size was so large, and his strides so great” (Levi, Kindle location 4633). Like the Georgia group’s recent tour guides, Boswell seems desirous to entertain as well as inform his audience, using the dramatic flight after Culloden as a means to accomplish numerous rhetorical purposes.

Although Boswell was famously supportive of Corsican independence, the prospect of political sovereignty for his native land seems not to have captured his imagination as fiercely as it has engaged our modern Scottish tour guides, although he may just have been hesitant to proclaim such thoughts in his particular political climate. He vehemently announces, for instance, that he was “fully persuaded that the House of Stuart had originally no right to the crown of Scotland” (Levi, Kindle location 4837) and notes his pleasure that the succession is no longer in question: “I am happy that a disputed succession no longer distracts our minds; and that a monarchy, established by law, is now so sanctioned by time” (Levi, Kindle location 4855). He also takes pains to insist that his contemporary Scottish brethren fully support the English monarch: “I must do the highlanders the justice to attest, that I found everywhere amongst them a high opinion of the virtues of the King now upon the throne” (Levi, Kindle location 4821). For Dr. Johnson, in contrast, these locations and events seem less resonant and intriguing. Loch Lomond signals societal prosperity and unrealized geographic appeal, while Flora McDonald warrants only a brief mention. Scottish separation from England is not pressing on his mind, although, as Levi points out, he created a stir in 1777 for declaring (in England) “if England were fairly polled, the King would be sent away tonight and his adherents hanged tomorrow” (Levin, Kindle location 139). For our bus-driving commentators, however, these same historical details and this identical lakeside location offered opportunities to share poignant hopes for an independent Scotland. While the landscape has not changed inordinately, apart from the addition of paved roads and modern buildings, the area’s disparate political and social resonances for each audience demonstrate the considerable distance marking the difference between these notable eighteenth century visitors and modern international tourists as they approach the ‘bonny banks’ of Loch Lomond.

The distinctive convergence of history and travel writing demonstrated through these disparate responses to the same location illustrate the power of emerging and popular narratives to shape places and events to fit divergent political or social agendas. By the time Johnson and Boswell arrived at Loch Lomond, the events commemorated in the song were definitely in the past, even though accounts vary as to when the words were composed. The aftermath of the Battle of Culloden had not yet been linked so decisively to Loch Lomond, however, so it would be comparatively easy for the eighteenth century visitors to leave this region without confronting issues related to the potential for Scottish independence. At the same time, while the song now so closely identified with this area remains opaque in its meanings, its longevity and its consistent reimagining makes it difficult for current travelers to avoid tales of Scotland’s thwarted historic efforts to remain independent of England’s sovereignty. It also offers ready opportunities for modern Scottish tour guides to champion the notion of Scottish independence with the audiences captive on their busses. As the Georgia state group learned repeatedly, the power of this song’s lyrics, melody, and emotions can be hard to resist and our guides took ample advantage of this circumstance. Places resonate with both topographical and historical significance. Loch Lomond demonstrates how powerfully cultural artifacts such as folk songs can contribute to visitors’ divergent experiences of location, even when the places themselves largely remain the same.

Dr. Sheila T. Cavanagh is Professor of English at Emory University. Founding-director of the World Shakespeare Project and Director of Emory’s Year of Shakespeare (2016-2017), she was recently Fulbright/Global Shakespeare Distinguished Chair in the UK. Author of Wanton Eyes and Chaste Desires: Female Sexuality in the Faerie Queene and Cherished Torment: The Emotional Geography of Lady Mary Wroth’s Urania, she has published widely in the fields of pedagogy and of Renaissance literature.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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