Why did Irish and Scottish people fight and die for the claim of an exiled prince with a claim to the British throne in the Jacobite uprisings of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that culminated in the Battle of Culloden?

To be sure, religion was part of what drove them. Catholicism, with its veneration of Mary and the saints, allowed for a syncretic integration of old beliefs and practices that tied people to their ancestors and the land. But I suspect there were other factors at play as well.

One was likely the partial survival of older ideas of kingship. On the Irish side of the water, at least, the tradition of the Rí (Rígh in Scottish Gaelic) ritually wedding the land at Samhain continued well after the country became ostensibly Christian an act that also connected him with the Otherworld and the dead. This Sacral King was not a political ruler in the modern sense. He was not a maker of laws – the law had an independent existence, passed down from generation to generation. Nor was he a judge – that role fell to the Breitheamh, the Rí instead filled a ritual role of uniting the will of the people – presiding over the assemblies where decisions were made by the tuath – the tribe, and leading the tuath in battle, not only as a military commander, but as one who inspired warriors to fight.

“The Old Pretender” and “The Young Pretender” as the English called them – James Stuart and his son “Bonnie Prince Charlie” – fulfilled the old role of the Sacral King by being figures who rallied the people to battle. They in many ways were clothed with the mantle of the “promised deliverer” in the bardic poetic tradition.

They also fought to bring honor to their families. Under the old Behon laws, the way you lived determined the rights and status of the next three generations of your descendants. The men who fell at Culloden were heard chanting their genealogies reaching back to great mythic ancestors before they charged into the fray.

There are ways we can honor that same spirit today.

There are no more Sacral Kings. But the land remains alive, and we each can embrace the our true sovereignty by committing ourselves to being lovers and defenders of the living Earth – both the land we live on and the whole planet.

And whether or not we have biological descendants, we can commit ourselves to living in ways that will bring honor to all who will receive the echoes of our presence in generations to come.

An old song commemorating the warriors who fought at Culloden has the chorus -- “Tha tighin fodham” -- which literally means “It comes to me” and in this context means, “It is my will.” Indeed, in this time, it comes to each of us to choose how we will live. Let us choose wisely.

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