On a cold, wet Saturday afternoon in September, I find myself horizontal on a sodden football pitch on the outskirts of Fort William. I have just been brutally cut down by a burly, bearded Jacobite. As I lie there skyward, in the suitably mangled position of a casualty of war, I have time to reflect on the day’s events and the unfortunate nature of my untimely death as an 18th century redcoat in King George’s army.
Understanding the past through experience has become all the rage in archaeology over the last decade. The advent of theories such as phenomenology, which is all about stepping into the fur-lined shoes of our ancestors, has encouraged many archaeologists to step forth from the depths of their trenches and relive the past. The level of realism involved in these projects varies depending on the aims of the research and relative sanity of the participant. For many, the project will merely involve a pleasant ramble along a hillfort with an open mind. Others choose a more extreme approach, as indicated by rumours of an alleged naked gambol around a prehistoric monument by a certain unnamed archaeologist from this university. As for me, pain and fear is the only way to go. But short of swapping my trowel for a semi-automatic and catching the next flight to Basra, my options to experience the actual horrors of battle are limited. Or so I thought.
One of the conditions for joining a recent archaeology project in Fort William was to participate in a re-enacted battle, organised to complement our dig. In true fighting spirit, we got up on a rather grey Saturday, after a week’s hard labour, and made our way down to the local playing fields to accept the King’s shilling. I must admit I had donned the garb of a 17th century soldier a couple of times before, but the prospect of dressing as a redcoat was a little different. Even in this day and age, the uniform of the redcoat north of the border is loaded with historical baggage, and in this part of the world redcoats don’t last long, as I was soon to find out.
Finally issued with my kit, which included a tri-corn hat, cartridge bag, breeches, neckerchief, white gaiters and, of course, the dreaded red coat, I found a less than secluded corner to transform myself. Whilst I battled with my gaiters, the first flutterings of excitement began to take hold; I felt like I was on Jim’ll Fix It.
But the stiff and heavy nature of the uniform quickly offered me a tangible taste of the past. That early flutter of excitement soon changed to fear when we collected our muskets, bayonets and gunpowder. This was the first time I had ever held a gun, let alone fired one. Drill and instruction on firing our musket had been disturbingly brief. The weight of the musket and the dexterity needed to load it steadily and efficiently, even in the heat of battle, took its toll. I fumbled clumsily trying to cock the lock in place, slicing my fingertips on the razor sharp flint used to create a spark to ignite the gunpowder.
Drill was led by our company Captain, who was every bit the scurrilous rogue one could imagine wreaking havoc on any 18th century battlefield, let alone the local inn. Although short in stature, he could cut any man down to size with a steely gaze and a barrage of foul language. Orders were barked at us in quick succession; retribution for mistakes or delay was relentless. This man was truly the devil incarnate. The 21st century was quickly eroding to dust as we marched smartly to the beat of the drum onto the battlefield: our very own thin red line, ready to meet the rebellious Jacobite. At this moment the reality of war was tangible.
A wise man once told me, ‘The colour of anger is red; the colour of cowardice is yellow; and the colour of fear is definitely brown’. Standing on that football pitch I could certainly appreciate his sage words. Although the crowds of tourists were close by and modern goal posts were clearly visible, I still experienced the primal urge to cut and run when the Jacobites appeared in the distance and formed a ragged line before us. I had drunk with these fellow archaeologists in the pub the night before, yet at this moment their faces were twisted in a red haze of vengeance. The adrenaline started to low through my body, quickening my pulse and shortening my breath.
The noise of battle was deafening. There were cannon to the right of me, cannon to the left of me, and worst of all, cannon in front of me, all spewing out fiery plumes of acrid grey smoke. The instinct most people have in expectation of cannon fire is to clamp their jaw shut, but this can actually cause the sound waves to reverberate through the jaw bone and perforate one’s ear drums. I made sure my mouth stayed well open throughout, an expression which didn’t look altogether out of place.
The order was given to stand ready and prepare to fire. Nervously, I stumbled through the motions of drill learnt only an hour earlier. Half cock your musket; take a cartridge from your pouch; bite the end; prime your pan with powder; close prime cover; a little faster, one fluid movement. Pour powder down the barrel, ram the cartridge home…my unsteady hands were making the work much too hard. But war won’t wait: fully cock your musket; take aim…fire!
I squeezed my eyes shut and pulled the trigger, waiting for the kick. The flint struck the metal plate, and the musket burst into life with a satisfyingly deep bang, sending a smouldering paper cartridge flying out the barrel. I repeated the action, now surer than before and desperate to again feel the thrill of producing my very own little eruption. This time, however, I put too much powder in the pan, sending a blast of hot smoke into my face, singeing my eyelashes and speckling my cheeks with burning grains of gunpowder.
The stinging sensation stunned me, but by this point the Jacobites were beginning to move forwards, banging their broadswords against their targes and screaming promises of pain and death. I had time to load one more cartridge as they drew ever closer, my mouth dry and head pounding. I pulled the trigger and click, nothing! Desperately, I struggled to re-cock the musket. Again I pulled the trigger, and again the hollow click produced nothing. One can only imagine the real sense of horror and panic a misfire can bring when faced with the enemy closing in.
The Jacobites came towards us, first at a controlled jog and then with the great rush of the famous Jacobite charge. One of them picked me out, baring his teeth and raising his broadsword high to bring it crashing down on to my shoulder. I plunged forth my musket in attack, but this was swept away in one move with his targe. I crashed to my knees and rolled pitifully onto my back, making sure my last moments were appropriately dramatic. The crowd erupted in a rapturous applause as the last redcoat joined the rest to lie strewn across the ground. Fort William had been saved, for another year at least, from the relentless Highland oppression of the British redcoats.