"War Paths: Walking in the Shadows of the Clans" by Alistair Moffat is a marvellous book in which the author takes you by the hand and leads you through some of the pivotal moments in Scottish history. As the title of the book suggests, each of these moments involved Scottish clans, sometimes in pitched battle with one another or the forces of the government of the day: and often in support of the Jacobite risings that repeatedly led to conflict between 1689 and 1746. If you want a book that really brings these moments to life, that makes you feel like you were there, then look no further.
The author opens up with a prologue that takes a detailed look at the Battle of Prestonpans on 21 September 1745. In terms of content, this is similar to the other chapters in the book. It starts with a map that sets the battle in context and then gives a very engaging account of the battle, split between what happened on the day and the author's exploration of the ground over which it was fought. It also looks at another battle fought by the Camerons, who played an important part in the Battle of Prestonpans: this time when the 51st Highland Division was ordered to surrender in France in May 1940. The author then sets out the rationale for the book: "'War Paths' is a record of twelve journeys I made in the course of a year. All remember conflict, courage, hardship, change and loss as I tried to get closer to what sped the Highlanders into the charge, how it was they almost toppled the British state, what they looked like in their war splendour, why their prowess terrified those who faced them. As I sailed up Loch Shiel to Glenfinnan or climbed up to Glen Roy or waded through the bracken to a ruined shieling, the ghosts of warriors walked beside me, whispering their stories, remembering the glories of an immense past.'
The first main chapter, "High Tide" looks at the events at Glenfinnan on 19 August 1745 when Prince Charles Edward Stuart - Bonnie Prince Charlie - raised his standard, an event that began the 1745 Jacobite rising. The rest of the chapters are in chronological order, beginning with the Scottish crown's efforts to bring the clans of the Western Isles, and especially the Isle of Lewis, under full control - by any means necessary - in 1613. We then visit the Battle of Tippermuir in 1644 , the Battle of Inverlochy in 1645, and the Battle of Mulroy in 1688.
Then we move into the Jacobite era, with the Battles of Killiecrankie and Dunkeld in 1689; Sheriffmuir in 1715; and Falkirk and Culloden in 1746. The final chapter covers a visit by the author to the old road from Arisaig to Morar, in which he tells of what it has meant to Scottish history and to his personal history. He concludes with a thought-provoking epilogue entitled "Charles III" (no, the earlier Charles III) and discusses how the Jacobite cause finally dissolved in marital infidelity, domestic abuse and an excess of alcohol.
The author's closing judgement on the qualities of the Stuart dynasty is one we would strongly share: "...the Stuarts did not deserve the bravery of the clans and their immense blood sacrifice. As kings of England, Scotland and Ireland they were a feckless, reckless dynasty whose actions and inactions doomed them to eventual and perhaps inevitable failure." He goes on to say: "The raw courage of Gillies MacBean at Culloden and countless other brave men was wasted on this lot, it seems to me." Well said!