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Issue 2 - Gael Force

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 2
June 2002


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Gael Force

Take a swift history lesson, from James II to Queen Victoria - and discover the influence of the Jacobites on Scotland's past

In 1685, aged 52, James Stuart was crowned king of Great Britain. His father Charles I believed he had a divine right to rule as his fancy dictated. Parliament disagreed, and they went to war. The king lost and was decapitated. Oliver Cromwell became the Lord Protector and that should have settled the matter, but the Stuarts were restored to the throne on Cromwell’s death. Charles II’s great passions were good living and his mistresses. A subtle man, he avoided confrontation with his subjects but he died without a legitimate child and his brother James had the rigidity and self-righteousness of his father. Worse, he was a Roman Catholic and the Protestant faith was perceived as the cornerstone of British liberty.

James and his promotion of Catholicism was tolerated because his heir, by his first wife, was Mary. She was stoutly Protestant and married to the even more stoutly Protestant William of Orange who was involved in a desperate war with France. But in 1688 came disaster. After 15 years of marriage, James’s queen, Mary of Modena, produced a son who would ensure a Catholic succession. William was invited to England to take the throne. James panicked and fled to France, dying there in 1701, and William, in the Bloodless Revolution, was crowned king.

The ruling class was split into factions – Whigs and Tories. Many of the latter objected to this usurpation of the anointed king. Others were wary of the new power of William’s supporters and wished the Stuarts’ return. These were the Jacobites – from the Latin for James – and with support from the French, they would remain a threat to the state for more than 60 years.

The Scots had already been unhappy with James in 1680-2 when he was Lord High Commissioner for Scotland, so Parliament in Edinburgh was quick to acknowledge William as king. But John Graham, Viscount Dundee, travelled north and raised an army for the deposed king which beat a government force at the battle of Killiecrankie in 1689. Dundee was killed and the rebellion fizzled out but it was a precursor of what was to come.

In 1775, Dr Samuel Johnson could still write ‘To the Southern inhabitants of Scotland, the state of the mountains and the islands is equally unknown with that of Borneo or Sumatra; of both they have heard little and guess the rest.’

The Highlands of Scotland held what has been described as the last tribal society in Europe, utterly different from the rest of Great Britain, its natives seen as savage barbarians. Beyond the sharply defined border of the Highland line, people spoke a Gaelic instead of English, wore plaids and tartan rather than trousers. Their music, culture, customs and many of their laws were different. In the far north-west, Catholicism had not only held out against the Reformation but itself battled against paganism. A mutual contempt was almost all the two societies had in common.

Little had changed since the days of the Romans. Tribes now called themselves clans but the king’s writ held little force across the trackless moors, bogs and mountains. Control was devolved to the great Highland magnates who wielded absolute power within their domains and they had private armies to support their authority. The dukes of Argyll and Atholl could field 3,000 men each. Breadalbane 1,000, the Mackenzies 2,500 and so on down to lesser clans with a few score followers. If one of these mighty subjects became dangerously dominant, the king would encourage his neighbour to wage war upon him and thus preserve a balance. It was as if a modern Britain had Afghanistan in its northern extremities. In fact, in 1816 Walter Scott wrote a ‘Comparison between the HIGHLAND CLANS and the AFGHAUN TRIBES’.

The Highlands were controlled by warlords, constantly involved in bloody squabbles for power and territory while their footsoldiers, with claymores rather than Kalashnikovs, indulged in cattle theft and brigandage against each other and the peaceful Lowlands. In the rest of Great Britain, most people were simple farmers. The Highlands held more than 30,000 trained warriors. These were a magnet for anyone wishing to raise an army against the Crown.

After Killiecrankie, the government in London had a good idea of the magnitude of the problem. They forced the clans to take oaths of allegiance to the new regime in 1691, earning opprobrium with a botched attempt at extirpating the unruly Macdonalds of Glencoe when they were late. William died; Ann the second daughter of James and the last Stuart monarch came to the throne. Through bribes and inducements and in the teeth of popular opposition, the Scots peers signed the Act of Union in 1707 which joined the two Parliaments. To many Scots the English had not only removed their rightful king, but now they had stolen their Parliament and their independence.

In 1708, to counter the success of the Duke of Malborough’s campaign on continental Europe, the French sent an invasion fleet to the River Forth. Bad weather and faulty navigation thwarted their attempt to link up with their Scottish Jacobite allies. Scots resentment against English policy continued to build. Even the Presbyterian establishment which had been delighted to see the back of James became alienated when London encouraged episcopalianism north of the border. On Ann’s death in 1714, Westminster ignored a slew of closer heirs and picked Prince George of Hanover as the new king. The Earl of Mar, disgruntled at being out of favour with the new regime, raised 10,000 men, mostly from the Highlands, and the Scots rose in rebellion.

Mar was no great leader nor was King James’s son, another James known as the Old Pretender, who arrived late from France, caught a cold, and depressed everyone he met. 2,500 men were ordered south to link with English Jacobites. The latter were believed to be legion but no more than a handful showed themselves in any of the Risings. The rebel invaders were besieged at Preston and surrendered. An indecisive battle was fought at Sheriffmuir in Perthshire between Mar and a government army under the Duke of Argyll. James went home and the Rising collapsed.

Some rebels were executed, more were transported to the Colonies and many of the leaders suffered heavy fines or had their estates confiscated. The Jacobites licked their wounds. Another abortive Rising took place in 1718 when a small Spanish force allied to the French landed on the West Coast opposite Skye but were defeated and surrendered with little fuss. For the next 25 years Jacobite supporters flitted between the exiled Stuart court and London, hatching plots and counterplots all which were reported by a myriad of spies on the government payroll.

Then came Bonnie Prince Charlie. Born in 1720, he was the eldest son of the Old Pretender. Ignoring all advice – a characteristic Stuart trait – he sailed from France in 1745 to land in the Western Isles with seven companions. The French were always in favour of Jacobite incursions that would drain British troops from fighting on the Continent, but were never convinced it was worth risking a serious force of their own men on so speculative an adventure as a Stuart uprising. On this occasion Charles’s companion ships were ambushed by the Royal Navy and never made it to Scotland.

The great majority of Scots and perhaps half the clans were against the Prince, but he appealed to the honour of those chiefs who had supported his father and many mustered their tenants. It was said that if Charles had fallen asleep on landing in Scotland and left the fighting to his great general Lord George Murray, brother of the Duke of Atholl, he would have woken king of Britain. But Charles had all the characteristics of his family – courage, charm, arrogance and obstinacy, compounded in his case with limited brains and a rudimentary education.

His little army captured Edinburgh, destroyed government forces in Scotland and marched south towards London. With 5,500 Highlanders he got as far as Derby, 150 miles from the capital. The government, in a profound panic, brought troops back from Flanders. The king’s son, the Duke of Cumberland, had 60,000 men, regulars and militia, to counter the rebels. The Jacobites retreated north. They beat another Redcoat army at Falkirk, but were routed on 16th April 1746 at Culloden Moor near Inverness.

With £30,000 on his head, Charles secured his romantic reputation by spending five months being bundled round the Highlands by his supporters dodging the Redcoats before finding a ship for France. He died, a drunk, in Rome in 1788.
The government believed the anachronistic culture of the Gael would always be a source of trouble to the state, so they destroyed it. Troops went on the rampage, looting and murdering their way across the glens unconcerned whether their victims were involved in the Rising or not. Weapons were confiscated, the kilt, tartan, and the plaid banned, bagpipes forbidden, the authority of the chiefs removed, the Gaelic language suppressed. Thousands were executed, transported or died in prison hulks.

In this new world, landowners wanted cash, not armed followers and sheep produced more money than the old tenants. Thousands left the Highlands for the Lowlands and the colonies. Many left voluntarily to escape poverty, others were forcibly ejected from their ancient lands. The contemptible Highlanders and their bizarre way of life seemed to have been expunged from history. This looked like being the legacy of the Jacobites.

But even as it was being destroyed, fashionable ladies in Edinburgh were donning tartan. Brutality and even the eating of babies had been expected of the Highlanders in England but their behaviour had been exemplary. Mythology was already at work. Young Gaels were recruited into the Highland regiments of the British army and their courage, particularly in the Napoleonic Wars, attracted the admiration of the world. James Macpherson produced a volume of poems purporting to be by the ancient Gaelic writer Ossian and these took Europe by storm. Rousseau introduced the concept of the Noble Savage which fitted the old Highlander admirably. Dr Johnson met Flora MacDonald who had helped Prince Charles to escape and published his account of the meeting and his tour of the Highlands in 1775. And with the culture no longer a threat, Sir Walter Scott could romanticise it and his work achieved huge popularity.

The Highland Society of London reinvented Gaeldom in Scott’s image. In 1822 George IV visited Edinburgh and, in an astonishing pageant orchestrated by Scott, much of the nation donned kilts and declared itself Highland. Later Queen Victoria bought Balmoral and the Royal Family has decked itself in tartan ever since.

Even before Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Risings, the ancient Gaelic culture was in decay and it would have collapsed under the impact of the Industrial Revolution but its ruthless destruction gave it a romance and resonance that still echoes down the years. In a remarkable twist of fate, the trappings of this once-despised people gives Scotland the most identifiable national image of any nation on earth and sells a million tins of shortbread. And this is largely thanks to Bonnie Prince Charlie – and the Jacobites.

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