My daughter recently learned “The Skye Boat Song” in school. For those of you who don’t know it, the song recounts the flight of Bonnie Prince Charlie, legitimate heir to the throne of Scotland and England, away from his lands and into exile. The King Over the Water. It’s a beautiful, longing song of melancholy and hope mixed together.
Sad that it’s all a load of crap.
I hate to be so harsh about my own culture, but as a Celt my need to pass on the stories of our people runs as deeply as my blood runs through my daughter’s heart. We are a proud people, a stubborn people, and a people whose history reads like a story of teenage rebellion gone awry long before it could come swiftly on a motorcycle. Our process of skidding off the road took centuries of death and destruction.
How many times has a great leader risen up, marching proudly into battle under the cross of Saint Andrew, only to look to their left and see desertion and look to their right and see betrayal? The long sad story of our people is one where they could never have managed to organize their way out of a paper bag, let alone fight a decent war.
I’ve heard it said that good people go to heaven, but Celts go everywhere. I can see how that happened, and how we eventually became American Celts – a different people than the Scots Celts or the Irish Celts, or any of the other bits of moss and rock we wound up inhabiting. So went the great Diaspora. We kept crossing bodies of water until that elusive “freedom” could be found.
It’s not just our stubbornness or tendency to drink that sent us packing. Just read the stories or listen to the sad songs for a while. Rebellions were often organized around romantic embellishment better suited for the pop of a cork than the flash of a claymore.
The real problem is that we are natural democrats by culture. Celts have always insisted that everyone has a voice and everyone has rights. This worked for us in the Middle Ages and it is working well for us now. Inbetween was a bitch. Funny then how our time only really arrived when Michael Collins came along and was able to murder with the cold brutality that the English could understand.
Ah, but look at the Founding Fathers of the USofA. Who were the firebrands who called for independence before sensible leaders were willing to consider it? Most of them were Celts, largely Scotch-Irish whose parents and grandparents had fled one failed rebellion or another. In America, they were willing to make their stand. Their high ideas were expressed in the Declaration of Independence (Jefferson was half Welsh). Good thing that this time they had a number of level-headed Germans, Dutch, and English who were gradually convinced of the idea.
It’s the frustration and the futility of recounting our history that leads me to try to summarize it this way. You can only tell the stories of brutality so often before you have to wonder why we didn’t just kick some English butt long ago and been done with it. It’s not like they didn’t have it coming, after all. But that somehow was not possible.
The King Over the Water was never going to come home, and neither were we. We carried the songs and stories over to other lands, and gradually settled into a place where our culture seemed to make sense. Real, physical freedom and opportunity work well for Celts, and we wedded them to our belief in justice and rights. It just works for us, and it works well back in the old homeland.
The songs of exile and injustice remain. Perhaps it’s better if I not try to help my daughter make too much sense of them. It’s damned frustrating.