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History-Buff Couple Make Historical Reenactments An Educational Family Affair

Charlotte as Mary Queen of Scots, with Fiona and Arran (PA Real Life/Collect)

When six-year-old Charlotte Johnston dresses up she looks back to the 16th century for inspiration, pulling her Mary Queen of Scots costume from the dressing up box.

While some parents might find the Catholic queen an odd choice, especially since she was beheaded, her parents Arran and Fiona, proudly join their daughter dressed as her governess and her regent.

Historical reenactments are a family affair for the Johnston clan. Arran loves to play Bonnie Prince Charlie, known as The Young Pretender.

“Bonnie Prince Charlie's story is a truly compelling one, about a young guy convinced that he is doing the right thing and throwing everything he has at it," Arran said.

“He was just one person who created a whole army and he very nearly made it to London to take the throne."

“I'm just hoping Covid-19 won't stop us from getting together on New Year's Eve this year in full military regalia to celebrate his 300th birthday."

Fiona and Arran (PA Real Life/Collect)

Calling historical reenactment “more of a lifestyle choice than a hobby," Arran takes stepping back in time very seriously and spends weeks getting into the part.

“I came home from a week-long battle in 2013 and Fiona broke the news that we were expecting our first child together," he said.

“I was so shocked from the revelation – and a week in battle – that the next morning, after a long kip, I called her to make sure I hadn't made the whole thing up as part of my character's back story!"

Fiona and Arran as ancient Romans (PA Real Life/Collect)

Arran had his first taste of seeing history brought to life on a school trip. When he watched a reenactment showing his home city's role in the Jacobite rising of 1745, the closest place Bonnie Prince Charlie got to London.

“I've always been fascinated by military history, especially the Jacobite uprising," Arran said.

“The thought of Scottish soldiers clad in tartan, in the middle of England, really captured my imagination."

“I found it a really inspiring way to tell the story. The spectacle of it all was as engaging as it was informative."

He loved the way it brought history to life.

“Historical reenactment pulls characters off the page and helps people to see them as the real people they were – something you can smell and touch," he said.

“Conferences, lectures and literature can only tell you so much, so I contacted the reenactment group and remain friends with some of the fellows today."

Fiona and Arran in Venice (PA Real Life/Collect)

For the rest of his teens, Arran joined reenactments up to five times a year playing soldiers from Scotland and England.

But his occasional hobby became his lifestyle after his debut playing Bonnie Prince Charlie during the Jacobite Rising of 1745.

“I'm now 10 years older than Bonnie Prince Charlie was when he led the Jacobite rising," Arran said.

Arran and Fiona as 18th century British army soldiers (PA Real Life/Collect)

“It's the story of how one man can create an army out of very little and comes so close – just a few days march – from fulfilling his plans," he said.

“That's what I find so compelling about the Young Pretender."

Reading classics at the University of Edinburgh, Arran started joining reenactments every two weeks.

Settling in the city after graduating, he met then history student Fiona when he became a walking tour guide of Edinburgh's old town.

“It was only by chance that Fiona was thrown into my world of historical reenactment," he said.

Arran as Bonnie Prince Charlie (Tony Marsh Photography/PA Real Life)

“When we met she was studying the Jacobite uprising, so we had lots to talk about," he continued.

“We were both at a history conference when a friend and fellow reenactor, told me that one of the ladies intended to perform at the weekend had dropped out."

“I introduced him to Fiona at the same time and he turned to her and said, 'Thank you so much for stepping in.'"

“The fact she played one of the sisters that Bonnie Prince Charlie is said to have called 'the prettiest girl in Scotland' well, if it was written in a romantic novel you'd probably laugh, but that really is how it happened," he said.

“Fiona has been involved ever since, mainly as a maid or governess, although she did survive the 1745 Siege of Carlisle as a drummer in the British army once."

Two years later, he proposed under the statue of another famous Stuart king, Charles II.

“We resisted the temptation of having a historical themed wedding, although so many guests were part of the reenactment community it would have been easily done," he said.

Arran often stays up all night making historical costumes.

Arran as Bonnie Prince Charlie (John Walls Photography/PA Real Life)

“I'm a victim of my own success. I honestly couldn't put a figure on how much I've spent over the past 20 years on doing this," he said.

“In fact, even if I could I wouldn't share it as it's probably an eye-watering amount. The cost of pure linen and wool alone is enough to make you gasp."

Now, with Charlotte making her debut in September 2018 playing the infant Mary Queen of Scots in the 1547 Battle of Pinkie – which saw thousands of men fighting over who would take the young royal's hand in marriage – and Archer destined to his first costume next year, Arran hopes that his children will get the history bug.

Arran and Fiona in Dunblane, 2009 (PA Real Life/Collect)

Charlotte was such a natural that after playing the Catholic queen for the first time Arran says it took weeks to convince her that she did not really have royal blood.

“What young girl doesn't love the idea of being a queen?" he said.

“For weeks she refused to have her hair washed, saying, why should she, she was the Queen of Scots!"

“It took a while to convince her she wasn't the queen of Mummy and Daddy, too."

A family photo (PA Real Life/Collect)