The Jacobites in Scotland: a brief introduction

12 October 2020
As an introduction to our themed issue of History Scotland, Dr Allan Kennedy offers a bird's-eye view of Scottish Jacobitism, discussing the movement’s aims, support-base and activities between the late 17th and late 18th centuries

The Jacobite movement has produced some of the most familiar events and personalities in Scottish History. Images of Bonnie Prince Charlie and Flora MacDonald are mainstays of Scottish iconography, and from Robert Burns to Outlander, Jacobitism infuses popular culture. Yet the omnipresence of this sanitised and romanticised version of Jacobitism tends to obscure the movement’s real history.

So, who were the real Jacobites? What did they believe in? What did they fight for, and how did they go about it? And what, ultimately, happened to them?

Jacobites and Jacobitism

Jacobitism was born in the revolution of 1688-91, which overthrew the Catholic king, James VII of Scotland and II of England, in favour of his Protestant daughter and son-in-law, Mary II and William of Orange. During his short reign (1685-8/9), James’s guiding aim had been to secure toleration for his co-religionists, and in pursuit of this he had often behaved in ways that, to his opponents, appeared tyrannical.

His deposition had therefore been widely supported, but certainly not universally so: James continued to enjoy significant support, particularly in Ireland, with its predominantly Catholic population, and in the Scottish Highlands, where the staunch support for William and Mary of the Campbells of Argyll helped push many of their traditional enemies into the arms of James’s supporters. Those who remained loyal to James – ‘Jacobus’ in Latin – came to be known as ‘Jacobites’, and they would spend much of the next century struggling to reverse the defeat of the Glorious revolution.

Who supported the Jacobites?

While all Jacobites shared this nominal aim, the movement attracted a diverse range of individuals, and for a wide array of reasons. For some, genuine loyalty to the ousted royal family was the main motivator. Others, especially among the social elite, turned to Jacobitism for more personal reasons, perhaps because they found themselves out of favour with the government of the day. For many, religion was an important issue, with Episcopalians in particular likely to see Jacobitism as a possible route to overturning the dominance of Presbyterianism in post-1691 Scotland.

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After 1707, however, opposition to the Anglo-Scottish union emerged as the most important motivator for Jacobites, the thinking being that, if you wanted to see the restoration of an independent Scotland, your only realistic option was trying to replace the Hanoverian kings with the Stuarts. And this sentiment proved durable: almost 40 years after the union, practically the first thing Prince Charles Edward did upon capturing Edinburgh in 1745 was to announce the treaty’s dissolution.

The focus of all this activity, the erstwhile King James himself, mostly brooded in French exile until his death in 1701, at which point the Jacobite torch passed to his only legitimate son, James Francis Edward (1688-1766), known to Jacobites as ‘James VIII and III’, and to their opponents as the ‘Old Pretender’.

It was the birth of this younger James, threatening a Catholic dynasty rather than just a single Catholic king, that had sparked the revolution against his father, and ‘James VIII’ spent his entire life convinced that he was the rightful monarch. But he was also dull, uncharismatic, unimaginative, and obstinate in his Catholicism, all of which helped to ensure that he remained in exile throughout his life, surviving off the charity of various European rulers and making only one, inglorious return journey to Britain, during the 1715 rising. 

Much more glamorous was his eldest son and heir, Charles Edward Stuart (1720-88), variously known as ‘Charles III’, the ‘Young Pretender’, or ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’. Bold and dashing, Charles was responsible for the most celebrated of the Jacobite risings, in 1745-46, but ultimately came no closer than his father and grandfather to reclaiming Britain for the senior Stuarts, and he too spent the majority of his life as an aimless, rather pitiable exile. His brother, Henry Benedict (1725-1807) – the last of the Stuarts in the direct line – displayed much less interest in the family cause, instead carving out a career for himself as a Roman Catholic cardinal.

These four men were the backbone of the Jacobite cause, and whatever the immediate motivations – political, personal or religious – drawing people to Jacobitism, the movement’s overriding aim was to restore them to their lost thrones.

The Jacobite risings

To achieve this, the Jacobites cooked up innumerable plots, but their main interventions came in the form of four armed risings. The first began in 1689, under the leadership of John Graham, viscount Dundee. A career soldier, Dundee raised James’s standard on Dundee Law in March, and then melted into the highlands, where he gathered a fighting force of a few thousand men. Modest though it was, this highland army managed to inflict a humiliating defeat on a larger government force at the battle of Killiecrankie in July.

Among Killiecrankie’s dead, however, was Dundee himself, and without his charismatic leadership the rising quickly fell apart. This Scottish rising – really an attempted counter-revolution, quite distinct for the insurrections of the 18th century – coincided with a full-scale war across the sea in Ireland, where Jacobite forces under Richard Talbot, earl of Tyrconell secured almost total control in the course of 1689, only to find themselves remorselessly beaten back, and eventually defeated, by a Williamite counter-attack that included the infamous battle of the Boyne in July 1690.

The second major Jacobite rising, and arguably the most potentially dangerous, occurred in 1715, the year after Queen Anne, the last Stuart monarch, was succeeded by her distant German cousin, George I. The change in dynasty was a logical time for the Jacobites to strike, but unfortunately for them it happened during a rare period of peace between Britain and its principal enemy, France, and in the absence of French assistance, most Jacobites regarded a rising as impossible. They were therefore somewhat surprised when John Erskine, earl of Mar, a disaffected former minister of Queen Anne’s, signalled a new rebellion by raising the Jacobite standard at Braemar.

Despite the almost total absence of forward-planning, Mar was able to tap into a widespread sense of dissatisfaction with the new Hanoverian dynasty, and with the union, to raise a force that peaked at around 20,000 men – by far the largest Jacobite army ever gathered. But Mar proved an indecisive leader, dithering in Perthshire for so long that a badly wrong-footed government was able to dispatch an army under John Campbell, duke of Argyll, which duly met and checked the Jacobites at the battle of Sheriffmuir in November.

Sheriffmuir was a draw, but it was enough to sap Mar’s energy, and his army disintegrated as quickly as it had assembled. Neither the outbreak of additional struggles in Argyll, southern Scotland and northern England, nor the arrival of the ‘old pretender’ himself at the end of the year, was enough to revitalise Mar’s army, which formally laid down its arms in February 1716, effectively ending the rising.

Spanish involvement

Four years after the near(ish) miss of the ’15, the Jacobites tried again, this time with the sponsorship of another British enemy, Spain. The Spanish agreed to provide an expeditionary force of 5,000 men to spark a Jacobite rising in England, as well as a 300-strong diversionary attack on western Scotland. The main flotilla, however, was destroyed by poor weather before it even left Spanish waters, and only the small secondary force made it to British shores.

Marooned in the west highlands with no hope of external support, the Jacobite leadership managed to augment their Spanish auxiliaries with a few clan levies, but after their base at Eilean Donan Castle was pulverised by the royal navy, they could do little more than wander aimlessly in-land before being caught and defeated at the battle of Glenshiel in June 1719. So ended the most inglorious and least remembered of the Jacobite risings.

Onward to Glenfinnan

After the debacle of 1719, Jacobitism seemed destined to recede into quiet irrelevance. However, the return of war between Britain and France in the 1740s caused the French to look again at playing the Jacobite card, much to the delight of the by-now fully-grown Charles Edward, who was soon projected to accompany a large French invasion force.

French plans were shelved early in 1744 when a storm wrecked their armada in harbour, but Charles was not to be deterred, and decided to launch a rising himself with a force of just a few hundred volunteers. Thanks to storms and a vigilant royal navy, only seven men were left by the time he reached Scotland in the summer of 1745, but a mixture of charm, diplomacy and bare-faced lying about the prospects of French support allowed the prince to muster a viable force from the west highland clans by the time he formally raised his standard at Glenfinnan.

Scotland at their feet?

Charles’s rising initially progressed very well. Outmanoeuvring the government forces sent against him, he dashed south to capture Edinburgh, and subsequently defeated an army under Sir John Cope at the battle of Prestonpans. Scotland was at the Jacobites’ feet, but Charles, again offering false assurances of French aid, persuaded them to march southwards into England. Aiming to capture London, they got as far as Derby before Charles was forced to admit that he had no French assurances whatsoever, at which point his generals elected to return home.

The long march back to the highlands was accomplished with skill, and the Jacobites managed to win two further pitched battles – at Clifton and Falkirk – in the process, but they were eventually cornered near Inverness. Battle was offered in April 1746 on Drumossie Moor, near the village of Culloden, and here Jacobite luck ran out; the government army, led by George II’s son, the duke of Cumberland, crushed its opponents, ending the rising and forcing Charles to flee overseas.

The end of Jacobitism

The ’45 ultimately proved to be Jacobitism’s last spasm as a credible political creed. Although Bonnie Prince Charlie continued to plot, he never again came close to fomenting a rising, and by the time he died, alcoholic and penniless, in 1788, most former Jacobites had reconciled themselves to the Hanoverian dynasty.

Charles’s brother, Henry, saw no reason to jeopardise his comfortable life as a prince of the Church, and so did little more than go through the motions of calling himself ‘Henry IX and I’; indeed, so innocuous was he as far as the British government was concerned that George III granted him a pension of £4,000 per year in 1800. When Henry died seven years later, the movement of which he was the final figurehead was already receding into the mists of history and mythology, evolving into the repository of romantic ‘lost cause’ nostalgia that it remains to this day.

Allan Kennedy is Lecturer in History at the University of Dundee and consultant editor of History Scotland.

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