Canadian War Museum puts Scotland afore ye in new exhibition

Alma : Forward the 42nd Gibb, Robert (1845 - 1932, Scottish) 1888. Oil on canvas. Scene depicting Battle of Alma, 20th September, 1854, with Black Watch, in full review order, advancing towards enemy guns on heights above. Courtesy Canadian War Museum.

There’s no immortality in Highland Warriors, the new exhibition at the Canadian War Museum, no chesty Christopher Lambert battling arch enemies across the centuries, a la the movie series. These Highlanders were real men, in real adventures that, in their own way, are immortal. This is the stuff of legend.

The exhibition is located, appropriately, in the Sir John McCrae Gallery, named for the Canadian soldier of Scottish descent who penned On Flanders Fields, before he died in a military hospital in France in 1918. The exhibit covers about 500 years of clan warriors, whose exploits sometimes became “their own inspiration for the poetry and music of Gaelic culture,” the notes explain.

“When on the march to carry a sharp

“blue-bladed sword slantwise, and on

“you elbow you boldly carry a shield…”

So goes one poem, printed on the wall in English, French and Gaelic.

The Highlands are mountainous, rugged lands that, like the warriors who defended them, have seen much change over the years. The unforgiving terrain remains unforgiving, and the proportionate numbers of Scots who are willing to live on them is a fraction of what it used to be. In 1690 roughly a third of Scotland’s one million people lived in the Highlands, whereas today less than five per cent of Scots live there.

To provide me with colourful insight at the media preview, I’ve brought along my friend Boom, who is a painter of war scenes and is of Scottish extraction. (Boom immediately goes off script and asks, “Should I have worn my tartan jacket and tartan pants?” Knowing they’re two different tartans, I suggest that “they probably would clash catastrophically, like a matter-antimatter explosion.”)

But, more to the point, Boom observes how the hilts on some swords on display and the handles on some pistols look surprisingly small. He also notes that an officer’s jacket “would fit a 12 year old today.”  This is, he notes, because people were quite a bit smaller when the Highland warriors became a military force. I look it up later and determine that in the 17th century the average European male stood just below five-foot-six, a full three to four inches shorter than the average male Scot today.

There was nothing diminutive about the warriors’ courage or ferociousness. Their effectiveness in battle was widely known, and clan chiefs (and the Scottish crown) did well by hiring out warriors as mercenaries to fight battles across Europe. Out of this tradition grew the Highland regiments, which were so important to the campaigns of Great Britain, including those fought in North America. It made the warrior “a convenient and potent national symbol” when Scotland was “refashioning its own sense of identity,” the exhibition notes explain.

There are vintage recruiting posters, including one calling for “All Aspiring Young Men” to join the Cameron Volunteers in service of King George the Third, “whose greatest happiness is to reign as the Common Father and Protector of his People.” A poster for the Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa from around 2000 may lack the flourish of language — “Share in the opportunities of and traditions offered by the Canadian Forces Primary Reserve” — but it shows that the pride and honour of the regiments remains intact hundreds of years later.

When the story begins, the clan warrior’s principal weapon was the claymore (claidheamh mòr, in Gaelic), a broadsword, and the styles and designs of the many included here vary greatly. The first one seen in the exhibit is an impressively large, double-handed sword, made around 1530 and likely carried by a clan chief in battle and ceremony. The rest are comparatively smaller though still daunting, and often more elaborately designed.

Some of the swords come with stories: One is “thought to have been carried by William Boyd, fourth earl of Kilmarnock white fighting in the Stuart cause during the last Jacobite rebellion in 1745.”

Another sword is “said to have been carried at the battle of Waterloo by Lieutenant Kewan Leslie of Kininvie, 79th Cameron Highlanders.” The 79th saw a casualty rate of 70 per cent in the historic battle, “among the highest of any British unit.” Next to Leslie’s sword is a fragment of the regiment’s colours from Waterloo.

Firearms were prohibitively expensive at the time, so only the most elite warriors carried them. None top the pair of brass “shaphaunce” pistols made around 1625 by Dundee’s John Low, “considered among the finest of all Scottish firearms makers.” He even made a pair for King Louis XIII of France. The brass pair of flintlocks on display are elaborately engraved, and Boom points out that the firing devices are on opposite sides — one to be fired in the right hand, and one in the left.

Many of the Highlanders’ exploits are captured in paintings, and together they demonstrate, as Boom points out, how warfare and painting have changed over the centuries. The romantic glory of battle in paintings such as Alma: Forward the 42nd, by Robert Gibb in 1888, gives way to the less celebratory modernism of W.A. Ogilvie’s 1943 watercolour-and-ink painting, Prelude to Invasion, Seaforth Highlanders of Canada.

In 2007, Gertrude Kearns painted her portrait of Lt. Col. Dwayne Kevin Hobbs of the Toronto Scottish Regiment. Hobbs, seated, leans toward the viewer. Kearns has painted him mostly in shades of grey, with splashes of red on the uniform. Almost 300 years after the Highland clans fought their final battle at Culloden, they continue to inspire. Such are legends.

Highland Warriors continues to Jan 12.

Canadians on Juno Beach. Canadian Army Film Unit, photographer Ken Bell. George Metcalf Archival Collection. Canadian War Museum

Also at the War Museum is a photography exhibit to mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day.

The exhibition in the main lobby includes 12 photographs that tell the stories of a few of the 15,000 Canadian soldiers who were part of that seminal day, including Sergeant Barney Danson, the soldier for whom the museum’s theatre is named and a former federal cabinet minister. Danson stands for the camera, one eye covered in a patch, and his smile is genuine but restrained, perhaps by the horrors he had seen.

Another photo shows Canadian soldiers leaving their landing craft and crossing Juno Beach. They’re not under fire at that moment but what looks like an aircraft trailing black smoke cuts a downward line through the background. Another photograph shows the utter devastation of the town of Caen, with Canadian soldiers and French civilians mixing amidst the rubble.

Invasion! – Canadians and the Battle of Normandy, 1944, continues to Nov. 24,

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Peter Simpson, a native of Prince Edward Island, was arts editor and arts editor at large for the Ottawa Citizen for 15 years, with a focus on the visual arts. He lives in downtown Ottawa with one wife, two cats and more than 100 paintings, drawings and sculptures.