The royals' gilt complex
Much of our pageantry is not as rooted in the ancient mists of time as is supposed. Jude Collins drives a coach and horses through cherished myths
Published 24/04/2008 | 00:00
So. The bagpipes have been pretending to be something they're not. There we were, thinking the great Highland pipes were played from time immemorial, providing rousing background as the Scots hurled themselves into battle against the English or lamented the death of Highland chieftains.
Not so, apparently. New research by Gaelic historian Hugh Cheape suggests that far from coming skirling through the mists of time, the Highland bagpipes came into existence at the start of the 19th century, and were invented by wealthy Scots living in London.
The set of bagpipes that were allegedly played at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 now appear to have been created from bits and pieces of several pipes — including some from the 20th century.
As for the Highland pipes being played at Flodden Field in 1513 and at Culloden in 1745 — forget it. Didn't happen.
But why would someone want to create and maintain a deception of this kind? Because there are those simple-minded enough to believe that if a thing is old it must be good. We see it with people as well as things.
If someone lives into their nineties, they automatically become lovable, venerable relics who have lived life to the full and are moving gently through their wise final years. So what if someone was a fool whose life was characterised by duplicity and greed? Live long enough and the world will hail you as a paragon.
And what is true at the personal level is even truer at the public level. Take, if you will, the monarchy. From the late 19th century, the monarchy underwent striking change. In the early part of her reign, Victoria was an obstinate woman who interfered in politics (she loved Disraeli, detested Gladstone) and was generally unpopular.
By the end of her reign, her capacity for interference had been dramatically reduced and she was widely revered by the people. How come? How was it that as power leached away from the monarchy, popularity flooded in? Simple: the Victorian spindoctors went to work and created instant tradition. This was done in a number of ways, starting with royal transport. Until the late 19th century, royal carriages had been nothing out of the ordinary.
Now, with motor cars and commercial vehicles becoming more commonplace, the image makers decided it would be a good wheeze to make the royals stand out by contrast — their ancient versus the world's modern.
Shabby gave way to splendour. The Gold State Coach, which had its first outing in 1821, was presented to the public as something centuries old. And the coach in which the Queen today travels to attend the opening of Parliament was built in Dublin in 1851 and offered a similar hint of non-existent history. Royal ceremony, which until the late 19th century had been cack-handed and confused, was smartened up.
Victoria's jubilees, Edward's coronation and royal occasions in general became marked by precision and splendour. Greater emphasis was placed on the links with the past, and ceremony was used to mask the emptiness of royal power. And so it has continued down the decades, with awkwardness trimmed away and instant tradition tacked on to the royal train.
When the writer, Harold Nicolson, was asked to write the life of George V, he was told to 'omit things and incidents which were discreditable to the royal family'.
When a Christmas broadcast was first delivered by a British monarch in 1932, it immediately became the 'traditional' royal broadcast. George V was good at it; George VI, despite his stammer, was pressed into service to keep the newly-minted tradition alive.
With the 1950s, the 'tradition' of televising royal events was created, with its most recent great outing the now-laughable fairytale presentation of the Charles-Diana wedding. When we were at school more than 50 years ago, we had a translation from Julius Caesar drummed into us: 'Men readily believe that which they desire.' That's why the tale of the bagpipes and the myth of royal antiquity is greedily received by millions.
Most people would rather live with the illusion that the Highland pipes go back forever and are quintessentially Scottish, rather than confront the fact that they were originally an Islamic instrument, played in the Mediterranean and eastern Europe for centuries before their emergence in Scotland.
Most people would like to think that the trappings and ceremonies surrounding Queen Elizabeth are part of an unbroken line stretching back to the Middle Ages, even when evidence of manufactured tradition stares them in the face.
But, hey, maybe it's all harmless enough. If the British people want to spend hundreds of millions on maintaining a family at the centre of a modern myth posing as a timeless tradition, that's their choice.
Yes, it drives home the notion that the family you're born into is what matters, not your own talent and application; but it does provide a distracting soap opera for those who find their own lives too dull to contemplate.
Tradition becomes truly dangerous, not when it's been manufactured, but when it makes productive change impossible — when people insist that because something has 'always' happened, it must go on happening. Apply that to child labour or slavery — once respected traditions — and the stupidity of clinging to some traditions becomes obvious.
Which for some reason brings to mind a question. When does the Orange marching season begin?