Retracing colourful heritage in a kilt

The King’s colour of Barrell’s Regiment of Foot (left) and the Jacobite colour carried by the...
The King’s colour of Barrell’s Regiment of Foot (left) and the Jacobite colour carried by the Stewarts of Appin. These rare Jacobite and British military colours were carried into battle at Culloden by opposing sides, but they now hang together in the National Museum of Scotland ‘‘as evidence of a contentious and divisive episode from Scotland’s past’’. Photos: National Museum of Scotland.
Given my Scottish blood, my first Kilt Day was well overdue, writes John Lapsley. 

In my heart I always knew my trousers were but a temporary hiding place for my knees, and that one day I must man up to the tartan skirt.

An email requested I be one of three kilted gentleman to present the haggis at the Scots themed opening party for the NZ Open — so I was to wear a fresh white shirt to the kilt fitting at Arrowtown’s Athenaeum hall.

The room was full of rehearsing pipers and ladies dressing themselves as goldfields trollops. The outfitter frowned as she looked me up and down.  I was no Bonnie Prince, but nonetheless, I was handed a broadsword, a buckled belt, long socks, red garter flashes, and (disappointingly) a sporran that was entirely hairless. A kilt of Black Watch tartan followed. It was an impressive garment, whose puzzling clips and tags might challenge most blokes raised in pants, but didn’t trouble a man of Scots descent. I put the kilt on confidently. Backwards. Amidst "tut tuts" and pursed lips the kilt was tugged from its arse-about-face position to whatever the opposite of that phrase is.  Then, bearing our steaming haggis, we kilted men marched forth to the village green.

Our pipers puffed out Scotland the Brave. Or perhaps it was The Black Bear or maybe even The 79th’s Farewell to Gibraltar? It was hard to judge. The bagpipe’s ancient drone routs conventional western harmonies in an oddly satisfying way, and as we walked in step, all seemed well with the Scots part of my blood.

Both of my grandfathers were Scots, and I was raised in a house where my sister shared the front bedroom with our Scots great-aunt.

Old Annie was from the Stewarts of Appin, who were West Highland cousins of the Royal House of Stuart. These Appins were good keen ratbags, and in 1745, among the first to take up the tragic cause of Prince Charles Stuart in Scotland’s last rebellion. 

Auntie Annie was a stern woman, but in her lighter moments, she told romantic stories of Highland myth, and did her job as the ancient relative who makes a family proud of its past.

The other side of the family, the Lapsleys, were clan-less Lowlanders from the industrial town of Falkirk. However, one played "fitba" for Scotland, so they were just fine.  Came the time I first visited Scotland, I found the row of terrace houses where Granddad Lapsley was raised. They backed direct on to the grand canal I knew he’d worked as a bargeman. It was the width of a ditch.

I moved on to the Stewart clan’s home of Port Appin, a small village on a Highland sea loch, and there in its pub, found an identical twin to my Stewart grandfather.

The "twin" was an elderly American, his Stewart genes also bringing him back searching. 

A few days later, on a moor outside Inverness, I trudged the Culloden battlefield. 

The grisly statistics of the rout of the clansmen at Culloden are stupefying. The English regiments lost "only" 50 dead — the Stuart army couldn’t fire its three cannon because its quartermaster ordered the wrong sized cannon balls. (Charles was half Polish). Twelve hundred clansmen were either killed outright, or painstakingly slaughtered as they lay wounded.

It wasn’t England’s finest hour.

The Stewarts of Appin brought 300 men to the battle, and one in three were killed. Most died following the Stewarts’ banner leader as they charged the English musketry. When the flag bearer was cut down, another Appin Stewart gathered it up. Then another, and another still, a howling procession of the soon-to-be dead.

The ninth, a teenager called Donald, was wounded, but caught the stirrup of a riderless horse, and made off from the killing with the flag hidden under his jacket.  After Culloden, the captured banners of the crushed clans were taken to Edinburgh’s market square and burnt by the public executioner. But in Edinburgh Castle, I saw one survivor — young Donald’s blue Appin flag with its yellow St Andrew’s cross.

It is torn, shot through, and flecked with Stewart  blood.  A memento to a dogged, hopeless, bravery. And so, on the other side of the world, a Stewart descendant wore a kilt for one whimsical hour — the same length of time as the battle of Culloden. This matters very little, of course. Then again, it matters much.

- John Lapsley lives in Arrowtown.


Well done, John Lapsley. Braw.