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Healing the scars of '45 Rising

30 December 08 08:51 GMT

By Steven McKenzie
Highlands and Islands reporter, BBC Scotland news website

This year, the Hogmanay party in Inverness will be held in the Northern Meeting Park.

Indie rock band The Magic Numbers will headline the end of year bash.

One of their songs - Which Way to Happy and its lyrics "tell me a joke and I will love you, Pour me a drink and I am yours" - would have been appropriate in 1788 when 13 Highland men discussed launching a week of "pleasure and innocent amusement".

Their talks on establishing what would become known as the Northern Meeting were set against a recent history of hardship, violence and conflict.

It was 42 years since the Battle of Culloden, near Inverness, where Jacobite forces headed by Bonnie Prince Charlie were defeated by a government army led by the Duke of Cumberland.

In January 1788, the Young Pretender died and with him any slim hopes still harboured by his supporters of reinstating a Stuart monarch on the British throne.

But the physical and psychological scars left by the Jacobite Rising of 1745, its climactic battle on Drumossie Moor and what happened in its aftermath still ran deep more than 40 years later.

There would still have been surviving veterans of the fighting around in 1788 and, of course, their children brought up on stories of the rebellion.

The main aim of the Northern Meeting was to reconcile the differences between families that had supported one side or the other of the '45.

Historian Prof James Hunter said the period of time immediately after Culloden was hard in the Highlands.

He said: "In the aftermath of Culloden the British Establishment comes down terribly hard on the characteristics of the Highlands.

"Highlanders are treated as outlaws and life is made difficult for them.

"There is a tendency today to think of the Jacobite rebellion as doomed to failure from the start but it is amazing how close it came to success.

"The British Government was scared out of its wits by the Jacobite army at Derby during the rising and it wasn't going to only stop that from happening again by crushing the Highlands militarily, but also by having every aspect of Highland life repressed.

"Efforts were made to bring it in line with mainstream British society."

Prof Hunter added: "It was a short period of time, but things were horrendous."

The military crackdown by ground troops and the Royal Navy saw some suspects hanged and houses burned down.

Outside physical reprisals, there was the Act of Proscription which banned the wearing of Highland attire. The act was not repealed until six years before the first Northern Meeting.

However, Prof Hunter said over the next 10 to 30 years after 1746 there was a romanticising of all things Highland.

The region was celebrated in poetry and 1777 saw the establishment of the Gaelic Society of London, the oldest group of its kind.

The historian said: "The Highlands had been pacified and was no longer seen as a dangerous place for people to visit.

"I often draws similarities with the Native American Indians - they are held up as great warriors and for being ecologically sensitive, while at the same time living in squalor in reservations.

"Highlanders were seen as warriors, but there was also an impression that Highland people were lazy and drunk."

It would be new conflicts on foreign fields that would see the north finally accepted, said Dr Hunter.

He said: "Highland regiments were raised - among the most famous, the Fraser Highlanders - to fight in the Seven Years War in America, or what the Americans called the French-Indian War.

"The British Army was desperate for recruits and it turned to the Highlands. The Highland soldier was to go on to become an emblem of the British Empire."

Retired soldier Lt Col Angus Fairrie wrote the history of The Northern Meeting 1788-1988, a copy of which is held by Inverness Museum and Art Gallery.

It documents the 13 gentlemen's early discussions, but also life in Inverness and the surrounding area at that time.

Roads to the town, which had a population of about 9,000, were poor and travellers still had to follow those laid down years earlier by General Wade to help the government combat rebellion.

Routes north of Inverness were unsuitable for wheeled transport.

While today's roads are vastly superior, serious debate still rages on about the network's ability to cope with modern demands.

Ironically, the local economy in the late 1700s had been buoyed by the construction of Fort George - an artillery fortification and barracks built to quell any further Jacobite unrest and to defend the Moray Firth.

Completed in 1769, its construction and the need of supplies provided employment and business for tradesmen, merchants and shop keepers.

In more modern times, the building industry has been a cornerstone of a thriving economy in the Highlands and Fort George is still a working barracks.

Lt Col Fairrie's book goes on to record the first Northern Meeting held on 27 October.

Dr John Alves, its first secretary, wrote that the object of the gathering of members, their friends and family should be for "pleasure and innocent amusement".

A dinner was held and later musical entertainment provided by a regimental band from Fort George.

Any talk of business or politics were prohibited.

By all accounts it was a success and over the years, the Northern Meeting went on to stage games and balls attended by royalty.

In 1864, the meeting's own park was established at Ardross Street in Inverness.

Now owned by Highland Council, the park is the home ground of Scottish Junior Football Association side Inverness City.

And this Hogmanay it will again be the focal point for celebrations as revellers gather to be entertained by bands followed by a fireworks display.

The 13 gents would have been proud.

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