From Chevy Chase to the Demise of Bonnie Prince Charlie
The power of song and verse is a most extraordinary thing and can last for the longest of times. For six hundred years one of the most well-known Scottish ballads, The Battle of Otterbourne has been mirrored in subject and tone by one of the most well known English ballads, The Battle of Chevy Chase (no connection to the American comedian, Cornelius ‘Chevy’ Chase, by the way.)
Both tell the tale of a battle fought on the Scottish borders in the summer of 1388 between Henry ‘Hotspur’ Percy on the English side, and James, second Earl of Douglas on the other. But what is so remarkable about these two ballads is the amount of detail built into them, and also that in both versions the two protagonists are heroes, stout of heart and brave of sword, fighting with their armies through the moonlit night, James Douglas dying just as he is about to gain victory, Hotspur Percy noble in defeat:
The deed was done at Otterburn
By the breaking of the day;
Earl Douglas buried at the bracken-bush
And Lord Percy led captive away.
1988 sees another mirroring, this time not of celebration but condemnation, as this was the year Martin Scorsese brought out his film The Temptation of Christ, condemned as blasphemous by the more extreme wing of Christians,(just as The Life of Brian was a decade earlier) and who boycotted the cinemas where it was shown. More alarming still was the publication of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, also condemned as blasphemous, this time by the more extreme of Islamists, leading to the declaration of a fatwa for its author, and Rushdie having to go into hiding and protective custody, and is still at risk now twenty five years later.
On the plus side, and fighting for rationality and science, Stephen Hawking published his phenomenal bestseller A Brief History of Time. It isn’t the easiest of books to read, but if persevered with might lead to a better understanding of the universe, and therefore, as Stephen Hawking himself has said, without a hint of irony, perhaps even a glimpse into the mind of God.
Here in Scotland though, 1988 will be remembered as the year of the Piper Alpha Disaster, the oil rig of that name catching fire in the North Sea killing 167 of the 229 on board. It must have been of doubtful comfort to the survivors to know that this was no Act of God, of either Christian or Islamist leanings, but an engineering failure caused by an accumulation of errors and questionable decisions (according to an article in Risk Analysis, Vol. 13, No. 2, 1993)
1988 was also the 200th anniversary of the death of Bonnie Prince Charlie, the not-so-by-then Young Pretender, who died in Rome on January 31st 1788 at the respectable age of 68.
Now if only I could come up with a famous song about him…