'Lost' portrait of Bonnie Prince Charlie on display at Fort William Museum

27 July 2023
Bonnie Prince Charlie Highlander portrait
A previously unknown portrait of Prince Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie), likely made in Scotland during the 1745 Jacobite uprising, has gone on display at the West Highland Museum in Fort William.

The so-called ‘Highlander Portrait’ is one of the most widely replicated portraits of Charles, appearing on snuff boxes, Jacobite glasses, and prints, including many in the West Highland Museum. But until now, no contemporary painted example has been known. 

The portrait shows Charles wearing tartan, a white cockade in his bonnet, and the Order of the Thistle, the pre-eminent Scottish Order of Chivalry. At some point, probably in the 19th century, much of the face and background was repainted to make Charles 'bonnier', even giving him blue eyes, leading to the identification of the sitter to be doubted. 


But an x-ray and conservation analysis has revealed not only the original portrait of Charles beneath, with brown eyes, but that it was painted on top of what appears to be a Jacobite battle banner. The banner shows the coat of arms of a Scottish clan, with a red saltire on a white background. It is possible this is the arms of Archibald Menzies of Shian, who fought for Charles during the uprising. A banner of a similar description was captured after the Battle of Culloden in 1746. Charles stayed at Castle Menzies on his way north to Inverness in 1746, and it may be that the portrait was painted at about this time.

Highlander portrait x-ray

In contrast to Allan Ramsay’s portrait of Charles painted in Edinburgh in 1745, in which Charles wears no tartan and only the Order of the Garter, the Highlander Portrait was intended to have a Scottish audience. It may have been intended to help rally support for the prince after his retreat from Derby. 

The Highlander Portrait

The Highlander Portrait was engraved by Robert Strange in Inverness in 1746, but he is unlikely to have been the artist of the painting. It was also engraved by the unknown artist, T. Scott. Examples of Strange’s engraved portrait are replicated in an oil painting, miniatures and a hidden portrait snuff box on display at the West Highland Museum.

The West Highland Museum has an outstanding collection of objects relating to Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobite cause including the famous Secret Portrait, an anamorphic painting of the prince that can only be viewed through a reflective cylinder.  The museum has been acquiring Jacobite material culture for its collection for over a century and during that period has established its reputation as a Jacobite focused museum with a collection of objects and an archive of potentially national significance.

View the portrait

The portrait will be displayed in the museum’s Jacobite gallery until the end of December 2023.  The portrait is on loan from Dr Bendor Grosvenor, who in 2013 discovered Allan Ramsay’s portrait of Charles, which is now on display in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

Vanessa Martin, Curator Manager of the West Highland Museum said: ‘The discovery of this unknown portrait of Prince Charles Edward Stuart is a remarkable accomplishment and we are delighted that Dr Grosvenor has chosen to loan this important painting to the West Highland Museum for its inaugural public display.  It will be exhibited in our Jacobite gallery alongside an image of the x-ray revealing the original portrait and the banner hidden beneath the now visible portrait.’

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Dr Bendor Grosvenor said: ‘One of the exciting things about Bonnie Prince Charlie's story is how it still has the capacity to surprise us today. I was amazed when this lost image of Charles appeared in the X-ray, and am delighted to be able to share this discovery with visitors to the West Highland Museum, alongside its internationally important collection of Jacobite material.’

Visit the West Highland Museum

The West Highland Museum is an independent museum and registered charity operating from a listed building in Cameron Square, Fort William, Scotland.

The museum was founded in 1922 and celebrated its centenary in 2022 with an exhibition of rare portraiture of the Royal House of Stuart that had been loaned to the museum by the Pininski Foundation, Liechtenstein, Dr Bendor Grosvenor and John Nicholls MBE.

Its mission is to be a welcoming museum which provides inspiration, learning and enjoyment for all.  It aims to collect, conserve and present a comprehensive range of objects of historical and cultural importance which illustrate the history of the West Highlands in an attractive and informative way.  The museum aims to offer local people and visitors not only an enjoyable experience, but also a substantial insight into the history of the West Highlands.  It is best known for its world-renowned Jacobite collection.

In 2011 the museum abolished admission charges.  Since it became free to enter visitor numbers have soared from 9,000 visitors per year to 60,806 visitors in 2019 before the pandemic. Volunteers are key to the museum’s success and in 2021, the museum volunteers were awarded the Queens Award for Voluntary Service, the equivalent of an MBE for volunteering.  This was in recognition of the hard work of volunteers at every level of the organisation from governance, to events, education, and visitor engagement.

The museum has purchased land and buildings adjacent to its existing building with the assistance of the Scottish Land Fund and is about to embark on a capital fundraising campaign to expand its galleries, community spaces, learning facilities and retail operation.

West Highland Museum, Cameron Square, Fort William PH33 6AJ; website.

Museum image courtesy Alex Gillespie. Report and images courtesy West Highland Museum.