Charlie's last pretence

From Rebel to Hero - 1745 - Lochiel of the '45 - The Desperate Faction? The Jacobites of Northeast England 1688-1745 - The 'Forty Five' - The Myth of the Jacobite Clans
April 12, 1996

Winning hearts and minds was supposed to be more important to the Americans in Vietnam than victory on the battlefield. If success in psychological or propaganda warfare is more significant than defeat in obscure battles, then we can only conclude that Charles Edward Stuart, Laka the Young Chevalier, the Young Pretender and Bonnie Prince Charlie, was the true victor of the Jacobite Rising of 1745.

The actual winner of the battle of Culloden, on April 16 1746, whose 250th anniversary is currently being celebrated, was William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, whose legend corresponds with historical reality. Legend credits him with being a dim-witted, obese, bloodthirsty, third-rate military commander who got lucky against a bunch of starving Highlanders on Drummossie Moor that fatal day and never won another battle. History records that this is the sober truth. But Charles Edward - in reality an alcoholic near-manic-depressive who could never form a satisfactory relationship with a woman or an older male - has been subsumed in myth as a kind of sun god.

Academics - some of whom appear as contributors or authors of these volumes - often lament the excessive attention given to the Bonnie Prince and the '45. But this is to miss the point. The Prince dwells in the pantheon alongside King Arthur, Robin Hood, General Custer or Davy Crockett, while the '45 has the resonance of Bosworth Field, the Little Big Horn or the Alamo.

Alongside their status as romantic or nationalistic icons, Charles Edward and the Jacobites have also been the subject of serious scholarly attention during the past 20 years as part of the revival of Jacobitism as an academic study. The two main subjects of debate are: was the Tory party in England crypto-Jacobite until 1745; and were the risings in favour of the Stuarts during 1689-1746 doomed to failure?

Jacobite revisionism still encounters stiff resistance. Linda Colley's 1992 volume Patriots treated the subject in the grand Whig manner of Macaulay and Trevelyan, insinuating a view of historical inevitability whereby the Jacobite risings were "ineluctably" doomed to defeat. And there are sceptics even within the ranks of those who have published serious work on Jacobitism. Despite the sterling work done by Eveline Cruickshanks, Paul Monod, Daniel Szechi and others on Jacobitism in England, there are still those who view it as an entirely Scottish phenomenon.

Six recent titles exemplify the heterogeneity of current work on the Jacobites and the '45. From Michael Hook and Walter Ross comes an excellent, eminently straightforward narrative of the last Jacobite rising, embodying all the latest research. The synoptic vision of this work enables it to score heavily over the companion HMSO volume, edited by Robert Woosnam-Savage, which tends to be quirky and idiosyncratic, reflecting the very different attitudes and approaches of the eight scholarly contributors.

The introductory essay is typical. Bruce Lenman has never liked Charles Edward, but it is sad, after all the careful work done on the Prince in recent years, that he still portrays him as a Polish blockhead, as witness this description of his behaviour at Derby: "When his principal supporters in effect challenged him as an irresponsible liar, he banged his head against walls and screamed abuse at them." Charles Edward lost control when the clan leaders refused to follow him to London and, given what was at stake, he was justified in his outburst. Moreover it was at Bannockburn, after the battle of Falkirk, not at Derby, that the "headbanging" incident took place.

Disappointing too is John Gibson's main thesis in an otherwise lucid and welcome biography of Donald Cameron of Lochiel, whose decision to "come out" for the prince is widely recognised as a turning point in the '45. The meeting of Charles Edward and Lochiel at Loch-nan-Uamh on July 29 1745 is one of those famous historical incidents - like the meeting of Bolivar and San Martin at Guayaquil in 1822 - of which no authentic record survives. The consensus view is that since Lochiel was in debt and his clan under extreme pressure from the powerful Campbells he was disposed to rise, if there was any chance of a successful outcome. Moreover, his motives must have been hard-headed ones, for he took full security for his estate from the prince in case the rising failed.

In my biography of the prince I argued that Charles Edward probably used on him the same kind of argument that Trotsky and Lenin used to rationalise the events of 1917. According to the Marx-Engels doctrine, a revolution would take place in the most advanced countries first. When, instead, it took place in Russia, one of the least advanced, Lenin and Trotsky argued that since revolution was "bound to" spread throughout Europe it mattered little where it actually occurred first. In the Jacobite book of doctrine the orthodox view was that no rising in Britain could succeed without French help. Charles Edward, I surmise from copious circumstantial evidence, simply argued that it did not matter which took place first, French invasion or Highland rising, since the French were "bound to" join in once the rebellion started.

Gibson, however, zeroes in on a sentence in a memoir written by Lochiel in France in 1747 which says that it took him three weeks to decide whether to join the rising. Gibson, therefore, argues either (and confusingly sometimes both) that heavy-handed treatment by the Scottish authorities (an arrest warrant had been issued against him shortly before the prince landed) left Lochiel with no choice, or that he was a man of honour who agonised for three weeks before coming to the only conclusion a man of honour could come to.

Let us leave on one side the fact that the document Gibson uses as his cardinal piece of evidence is by no means new or unknown. The blurb claims that it "recently came to light in the French foreign ministry archives" though I myself took a note on it as long ago as 1977. The fact is that if the warrant or the indebtedness was weighing on Lochiel's mind, it would probably have taken him less than three weeks to decide. If we are to believe that Lochiel really did agonise for three weeks, then the only plausible explanation is the "loyalty" theory.

The snag with this, as Murray Pittock points out in a brilliant polemical essay, is that loyalty to the Stuarts by clan leaders on ideological grounds is the very factor we do not see in operation in the '45. Ideological loyalty from the non-Highland feudal lairds of the Lowlands and the Northeast, yes, most decidedly; but from the clan leaders, with minor exceptions, only ambivalence. The most important clan chief stayed home or played a double game and sent out a son or a clan commander. Another tactic was the one well known from Stevenson's Master of Ballantrae: sending one son to fight for George II and another to fight for the Jacobites. Of those who did appear in person, Lochiel and Cluny MacPherson hedged their bets and took security from the prince. Keppoch, Glencoe and Mackinnon of Skye were unimportant chieftains who led out tiny bands of men. This was all part of the process whereby "big" clans supported the Hanoverian status quo while the "small" ones backed the prince.

The "myth" of the Jacobite clans that particularly exercises Pittock is the idea that the Jacobite army was a purely Highland force. It is this myth, ultimately, that has allowed the '45 to become an item in the culture of kitsch, evinced in the biscuit tins, chocolate boxes and "clan tartans" of the tourist beat on the Royal Mile. The real villain for Pittock is Sir Walter Scott who "annexed" the martial tradition of the Scottish clans in an act of prestidigitatory "integration" whereby the ultimate historical nisus of the 1707 Act of Union and the Jacobite risings lay in the same direction.

Scott managed to conflate all the nostalgia and sentimentality felt about the Highlands after 1815 with the Whig myth of historical inevitability, making the union of the three kingdoms the only possible and desirable terminus ad quem. To insinuate that Jacobite support came almost exclusively from the Highlands helped to uncouple the Jacobites from ideas of Scottish nationalism and marginalise Jacobitism as a phenomenon. There is no challenge to the Whig theory of history if we accept that the Stuarts were supported by a few Rob Roys and wild men in plaid; but to admit the extensive support for the Stuarts in the Lowlands and Northeast would mean conceding that Jacobitism really was a national phenomenon.

Making use of his formidable talents as a cultural historian, Pittock disposes of the many myths which are still being assiduously peddled in this year of Culloden. Take that old chestnut that we still hear from Norman Stone and his ilk: that more Scotsmen fought against the prince at Culloden than fought for him. This one is regularly refuted and as regularly springs to life, like another head on the hydra. Calmly, Pittock points out that, in the Duke of Cumberland's army of 9,000, there was a maximum possible number of Scots of just 2,400, of whom 25 per cent were Campbells, a priori committed to the Hanoverian status quo by patronage links whatever the condition of Scotland. The Jacobites, on the other hand, raised 14,000 men for their army in 1745 - a figure equalling or excelling that raised by the Covenantors 100 years before. Moreover, only 43-46 per cent of the Jacobite army came from the Highlands.

What makes Murray Pittock the doyen of the present crop of Jacobite historians is the way that he is at ease both with the statistics and arguments of professional historians and with literary decodings of traditional Highland songs, with MacPherson's Ossian, Burns, Scott, Aytoun and the rest of the Jacobite-inspired Scots poetic heritage. His readings are always marked by an abundant fund of common sense - alas, not a commodity invariably found among academic historians. English Jacobitism has always been the "ghost in the machine" when it comes to studying the '45. There has been an irritating tendency among some historians to take the positivistic line that the only Jacobites in England were the 300 men who actually joined the prince on his march to Derby. As Pittock says, are we seriously meant to believe that the Irish Republican cause at present consists solely of the 400 or so known IRA and INLA gunmen?

One might have expected important light to be shed on English Jacobitism in the '45 by Leo Gooch but, despite a chapter on the subject in which his conclusions are safely conventional, he eschews the topic in favour of richer Northumbrian pickings during the 1715 rising. Here he emerges as an iconoclast in three main ways. First he claims that Thomas Forster, leader of the northern English Jacobites in the '15, was no incompetent but has been made a scapegoat for the Jacobite grand strategists. Next he lays into the conventional view that the Catholic gentry in Northumberland rose in the '15 and then suffered a catastrophic decline. Not so, says Gooch: most Catholics did not come "out" in the first. Finally he argues that the Northumbrian rebels of 1715 were not motivated by bankruptcy: many bankrupts stayed home. But since Gooch is so adamant that economic Jacobitism is not the answer, he might have provided an alternative theory. The absence of any real explanation as to other motives prevents his study, which in terms of pure archival research is probably the most impressive of the batch, from being a revisionist tract in a significant sense.

How was the image of the Highlander as a child-eating, barbarous savage - a staple of Whig propaganda in the '45 - replaced by that of the brave and noble warrior bearing himself proudly at Waterloo? Many writers at the time and since compared the Highlanders to Zulus, Afghans, Iroquois, Comanches and Apache, and Lenman, for one, has noted the irony of "Iroquois" fighting real Iroquois in Canada during the seven years war. The military diaspora of the Highlands, which saw 48,300 clansmen recruited from the Highlands to fight in foreign wars in the period 1756-1815, has been blandly explained as a simple function of overpopulation, with military service providing a system of "out relief" for the Highlands.

But Robert Clyde points out that this argument will not do. After 1745 the government in London systematically drained the Highlands of manpower, deliberately sacrificing clansmen to the campaigns and diseases of foreign battlefields. It took until the Napoleonic wars, by which time the supply of Highland recruits was anyway declining because of the clearances and large-scale emigration, for the idea of "treasonable" and disloyal Highlanders to vanish completely. In the meantime, in mortality rates significantly higher than those for the rest of the British army, the descendents of the men who fought for Prince Charlie had shed their blood for George II and George III in India and North America. It took exactly the same 60-year period for historians to concede the obvious and admit that the Jacobite risings were not simply large-scale plundering expeditions. But the idea of a multicausal phenomenon in which Scots nationalism played a major part had to await the 20th century.

Historical events like the '45 which generate their own mythology are always vulnerable to a particularly tendentious kind of revisionism. In the 19th century the sentimental Jacobite songs of Lady Nairne, which resulted in the apotheosis of "Bonnie Prince Charlie", were linked by association of ideas to David Livingstone and other great Scots travellers in order to reinforce positive images of the British Empire.

The current wave of scepticism about the Jacobites - as in the absurd idea that Culloden represented a Scottish civil war not a triumph of English arms - seems similarly tendentious: this time aiming to damp down the fires of Scots nationalism. Perhaps built-in ambiguity is a characteristic of the Jacobites, so called from the Latin Jacobus for James. Both James and "the Pretender" have uncertain referends, as Philip Guedalla reminded us when he memorably described the three stages of Henry James's literary career as being "James the first, James the second and James the old Pretender".

Frank McLynn is the author of Charles Edward Stuart (1988).

From Rebel to Hero: The Image of the Highlander 1745-1830

ISBN - 1 898410 21 6
Publisher - Tuckwell Press
Price - £20.00
Pages - 201

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