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Book review: War Paths: Walking in the shadows of the clans by Alistair Moffat

24 November 2023

The clans liked a fight, Ian Bradley suggests

THE prolific Scottish author Alistair Moffat has developed something of a speciality in combining scholarly analysis of historical figures and events with vivid descriptions of his own journeys in their footsteps. He followed the trail of St Cuthbert to Lindisfarne in To the Island of Tides (Books, 31 January 2020), and explored four remote Hebridean and Highland locations associated with early Irish saints in Islands of the Evening (Books, 25 November 2022).

In his latest book, he walks around the sites of 12 Scottish 17th- and 18th-century battles, most of them involving an element of religious conflict as well as traditional clan rivalry, and pitching Catholics and Episcopalians against Presbyterians.

It is clear that religious loyalties and enmities fascinate him, and he has some well-chosen anecdotes about their grip on the Scottish psyche. Among the characters whom he introduces in describing the build-up to Bonnie Prince Charlie’s rallying of the clans at Glenfinnan, at the start of the 1745 rebellion, is the Gaelic poet Alasdair MacDonald, a Jacobite sympathiser whose father was an Episcopalian priest.

Arriving late for a meeting of Presbyterian ministers, his father, who knew the disreputable company that he kept, said “Alasdair was in Hell.” Asked by one of those present what he had seen there, he replied, “I saw nothing there but what I see here. I could not get near the fire for ministers.”

In the chapter “The Godly Commonwealth”, on the Battle of Dunkeld in 1689, Moffat writes about the Cameronians, a regiment raised specifically to preserve the Protestant religion “in opposition to Popery, prelacy and arbitrary power in all its branches”. It later became a battalion in the British Army, and, when it was finally disbanded in 1968, having refused to merge with another Scottish regiment, its soldiers formed up around a flagpole and a communion table, and listened to a long sermon from a former chaplain about its Christian Covenanting origins.

When the regimental flag was finally lowered, it was placed on the communion table under a cross.

In the Scottish clans’ enthusiasm for fighting with one another, God has often been invoked, as this well-researched and well-written book makes all too clear.

The Revd Dr Ian Bradley is a Church of Scotland minister and Emeritus Professor of Cultural and Spiritual History at the University of St Andrews.


War Paths: Walking in the shadows of the clans
Alistair Moffat
Birlinn £18.99
Church House Bookshop £17.09

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