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Bonnie Prince Charlie - exploring the myths


Roderick Graham, author of the new book 'Bonnie Prince Charlie - Truth or Lies', talks to us about the various myths that surround the life of the 'bonnie' Prince Charles Edward Stuart.

Read more about Scottish history in every issue of History Scotland magazine.

The most charismatic man in Scottish history was Charles Edward Louis Casimir Silvester Severino Maria Stuart or ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’.  His life was a heady mixture of adventure and legend. Some truths are merely legends which have gained credence by repetition - and some of the most fanciful events are true occurrences.


For most people the prince first appears fully grown in 1745 and lands on an obscure Scottish island with seven men. He intends to claim Britain as his own Roman Catholic kingdom and leads an army of screaming sword-waving Catholic Highlanders to the town of Derby. But, out of cowardice, he retreats to Culloden where his brave Scots are butchered by the English army of the Duke of Cumberland. He is then spirited away by his mistress Flora MacDonald to disappear from history.

This book will show that most of this is total bunkum. But, bunkum grows from legend and legends must start somewhere. Napoleon defined history as ‘fable agreed upon’ and most fables have a basis in remembered reality.

Charles Edward did land on an obscure Scottish island but he was a young adult of only twenty five years old and his background had shaped his ambition which was not altogether sharply focussed.

The Highlands were in a state of political and religious flux and there was no overall ambition among the chiefs. The retreat from Derby did happen but legend ignores the John le Carre like events the night before it began. The march to Inverness produces the most comic/heroic event of the whole Jacobite campaign and lets us meet the most charismatic of the many women in Charles’s life although it is often ignored by the romanticisers

Culloden has been misrepresented many times as has Cumberland’s behaviour. The days before the battle are often ignored so that an oversimplified black versus white version can be given. The truth is much more savage and it is possible that it was at Culloden that General Wolfe learnt the strategy that let him capture Quebec.


After Culloden Charles became less and less ‘Bonnie’ and was befriended by Flora MacDonald (pictured). Once she managed to save him from capture in the nick of time, as she prevented his walking into two Hanoverian officers while dressed as a woman. His beard would have probably given him away.

For the latter half of the eighteenth century Charles was in Europe, supposedly incognito although he insisted on attending the opera wearing the full paraphernalia of a royal prince and we meet him hiding in a Parisian convent while involved in a catalogue of adventures that resemble a mixture of comic opera and the memoires of Casanova. Mistress followed mistress and he renewed an acquaintanceship from before Culloden.

His numerous liaisons let us see the gaudy life of the great salonaires, the haughty hostesses that dominated Parisian society and he hovered on the fringes of the great intellectuals such as Montesquieu and Diderot.

His religious belief now wavered as much as his sadly abandoned virtue and he broke off relations with his cardinal brother. He endorsed totally lunatic plots for his restoration in clandestine visits to London and would endorse anything if it brought him nearer to the next case of sweet and powerful Commanderia wine from Cyprus.

There was no longer any purpose to his life and it was a downhill stumble to drunken disaster. The days of the legendary ‘prince in the heather; were well and truly over and there has been no need for the romantics to create legends over his final years since they have all the drama of an eighteenth century opera bouffe.

I have written more about the man than the politics, although I could not keep them altogether in the wings no matter how ludicrous they were. Did the papacy really fear that if they befriended Charles, then Nelson’s Mediterranean fleet would bombard the port of Rome? Fact is more outlandish than the legend that he had the papal blessing to convert Britain. This book will allow the muddy waters to clear and let us see Charles Edward unadorned and then, perhaps to have some sympathy for the misguided pretender.

Keep up to date with the latest history news, discoveries and research in every issue of History Scotland magazine, available in print and digital versions.

Bonnie Prince Charlie - Truth or Lies by Roderick Graham (ISBN9780861537839) is published by St Andrews Press on 28 February 2014 at £12.99.

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