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Issue 54 - History's rebels

Scotland Magazine Issue 54
December 2010

 

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History's rebels

Roddy looks at the groups of people that have become Scotland's romance and legend

It is one of the conundrums of history that losers so often become the stuff of romance and legend, and in Scotland there is no more poignant than that of the Jacobites.

Had James VII & II not been supplanted on the British throne by his daughter Mary and son-in-law William of Orange in 1689; had the Old Pretender succeeded in landing on the shores of the Firth of Forth with his French back-up troops in 1708; had the Earl of Mar triumphed in his aborted 1715 rebellion; had Prince Charles Edward Stuart not stopped at Derby in 1745, the progress of our island race might have been entirely different.

Rebels with a Cause – The Jacobites and a Global Imagination is an engaging free exhibition to be found in the forecourt of the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh until 8th January 2011, moving on the the University of Aberdeen’s new library next September. Curated in partnership with the Scottish Parliament and the University of Aberdeen, it explores and challenges the traditional assumptions surrounding the Jacobites and explores the overseas dimensions – Flora Macdonald’s sojourn to America and Nova Scotia, the Stuart courts in exile in Paris and Rome, and the Sobieski and Stolberg marriages.

Condemned for treason and their estates confiscated by the Crown, large numbers of Stuart supporters fled abroad to become mercenaries in Baltic Europe, North America and, in one particularly intriguing case, to India.

In conversation with the exhibition’s curators Fiona McDougall, Siobhan Convery and Neil Curtis, I learned that the artefacts on display are only a fraction of those held in Aberdeen. There are nevertheless, quite enough here to preoccupy a visit. One unexpected addition is a series of 20th century Rob Roy comics which celebrate the life and intrigues of that legendary eighteenth century renegade, a name not widely associated with the Jacobite cause but who nonetheless fought with Viscount Dundee at Killiecrankie in 1689, and Glenshiel in 1719.

Generically promoting the exhibition is a fine portrait of William Keith, 9th Earl Marischal who although imprisoned for his sympathies after the 1708 invasion still managed to become a representative to Westminster in 1710.

Incorporated in the overall imagery are Jacobite symbols prevalent at the time. Reality is brought to mind by a Jacobite recruitment slip and songbook, but remember that such melancholy masterpieces as The Sky Boat Song and Lady Nairn’s Will Ye No Come Back Again were written and composed long after the Jacobite Cause was lost.

Similarly, there can be no doubt that it was that most prolific of Scotland’s writers Sir Walter Scott who ensured its legacy in his Waverley novels, first published in 1814. Their impact upon the European psyche at the time was immense.

As the descendant of protestant lowlanders ambiguously opposed to a revived catholic ascendancy, I am well aware that the majority of my forebears were perfectly content to remain mere spectators when Bonny Prince Charlie’s Jacobite soldiers marched into the High Street of Edinburgh. When his Royal proclamation was read from the Mercat Cross, the majority who turned out to watch were women hoping for a glimpse of the handsome young prince, who, as it transpired, was otherwise preoccupied.

However, I am also aware that the gentlemen who read out the proclamation were Robert Chalmers of Portleithen, Ross Herald at the Court of the Lord Lyon, and my kinsman Alexander Martine, Islay Herald.

Both were promptly sacked for their efforts, the lesson being that you have to back winners to avoid being confined to obscurity.

I nevertheless found it equally thought provoking to stand on a spot less than a hundred yards from the Palace of Holyrood house and be aware that Prince Charlie, would have been physically present himself on this same spot two hundred and sixty years ago, albeit it would have been open fields then.

That is what I love most about Scotland, the awareness of being constantly surrounded by the events and locations of the past. To my mind, that is what makes this exhibition at Holyrood even more compelling.