Joan McAlpine: Why we still find Charlie a darling

HE MAY not have remained bonnie for long, but the charismatic appeal of Prince Charles Edward Stuart and his family continues centuries after the lights went out on the Jacobite cause. Now, Charlie is the darling of a very different Holyrood from the palace where he held temporary court 265 years ago.

Rebels with a Cause: The Jacobites and the Global Imagination is the Scottish Parliament's centrepiece exhibition during Edinburgh's winter festival. It comes with a clutch of spin-off events, including a "family weekend" around St Andrew's Day with quizzes, storytelling and dressing up. Free Mercat tours show you the Old Town "through the eyes of a Jacobite rebel" while the more scholarly can attend talks on the Stuarts' Polish connections and influence on architecture.

The return of BPC, as my old Scottish history lecturer Allan MacInnes used to call the prince, is not without controversy. The exhibition, built around Aberdeen University's world-class MacBean Jacobite collection, is the responsibility of non-partisan Presiding Officer Alex Fergusson. But one of his Tory colleagues has warned the SNP government against making political capital from the show. The North East Conservative MSP Alex Johnstone said: "Many of those who campaign for independence will try to paint events like the Battle of Culloden as a Scottish versus England battle, when in fact it was a battle between two royal households."

The rebels' motivation has long been debated by academics - though not all come to the same conclusion as Mr Johnstone. Jacobites were a disparate, vacillating and often quarrelsome bunch. But while many backed the Stuarts out of loyalty or religion, a desire for divorce did play some part in Scotland. The exhibition includes a German-made sword engraved with the figure of St Andrew and an inscription that reads "PROSPERITY TO SCHOTLAND & NO UNION". On the other side is the figure of James VIII and III, dressed as a Roman emperor.

A more pertinent question might be to ask: "What have the Jacobites done for us?" It might surprise Mr Johnstone, but modern Scottish nationalists may well answer "not a lot". The SNP, while keen to promote the country's history and culture, doesn't want to be associated with the doomed romanticism of the past. Alex Salmond in his Perth conference speech said: "I fight not for flags or anthems, but fairness and compassion". He dismissed the "tartan clichs" and "historical poetry of yesterday" and insisted that independence was about jobs.Rejecting what the playwright James Mavor called king-over-the-watterism is understandable. Jacobitism has as much relevance to 21st-century politics as the claymore is to the contemporary Scottish soldier. It was a cult in its day, with relics passed around followers. Examples in the exhibition include a snuff mull allegedly "made in a house on Culloden moor". Stranger still is the carved ostrich egg inscribed with letters JR (Jacobus Rex) and secret symbols such as a pierced heart said to represent the suffering of the true king. There is a fragment of Charles Edward Stuart's kilt.

We may scoff at this secular idolatry, but fascination with such memorabilia was - and to some extent remains - insatiable. Its popularity owes much to one man, Sir Walter Scott. Before his Waverley novels, Jacobites were dangerous traitors. To rehabilitate them, Scott neutralised the threat they posed to the British state, of which he was an enthusiastic supporter. He re-imagined the Highlands as a mysterious Celtic wilderness, the Middle Earth of the 18th century. Like Tolkien's elves, his Highlanders were a noble, disappearing race - almost "too good for this world".

Scott turned the Jacobite movement into a great lost cause and glorious failure. The fact that the rebels came close to success was buried. This was bad news for political patriots who were the Jacobites' fellow-travellers. In the 18th century, Edinburgh was alive with literary clubs promoting the restoration of Scottish independence. Allan Ramsay, Robert Fergusson and Robert Burns were part of this loose movement.

But when Jacobitism was smothered in trite sentimentality, Scottish nationalism was tainted by association. Civic nationalism, which emerged in the 20th century, struggled to free itself from Scott's over-powering legacy which locked the cause of Scotland into an evanescent Neverland with as much chance of revival as the court of King Arthur. Sir Walter, a staunch Tory, also promoted the most reactionary aspect of the Stuart claim - a desire to maintain an old world order based on the absolute power of kings. This is an over-simplification. The Hanoverian succession was called progressive, thanks to whig apologists. But it gave us one of our most atavistic laws - the exclusion of Roman Catholics from the throne. Still, Scott the brilliant propagandist did his work well. Some unionists still use the Jacobite example, and its pre-democratic connotations, to attack those who would dismantle the UK.

The exhibition also displays material to hearten contemporary nationalists. While plaid clad warriors "captured the global imagination" the real Rebels With A Cause were pragmatic and adaptable. They helped build the modern world. Along with their progeny, they worked for the great powers of Europe such as Russia and Prussia. One exile in Potsdam communicated for many years with the enlightenment philosopher David Hume.The grandson of another was governor general of British India. A particularly enterprising group reinvented themselves as art dealers in Rome, making a killing from rich Hanoverians doing the Grand Tour.

Those who went west include the colourful Ludovic Grant, who was transported for his part in the 1715 rising. He landed in Carolina and married into the Cherokee nation in which his descendants played an important part.

THE character most likely to reverse Scotland's reputation for glorious failure is Charles Edward Stuart's surgeon Hugh Mercer, who fled to Pennsylvania in 1747 after surviving Culloden the year before. He became close to George Washington and was a general in his army during the American War of Independence. Mercer was fatally wounded at the Battle of Princeton but died knowing he had helped achieve ultimate victory. Contemporaries wrote of a gallantry that motivated all who served beside him. He gives his name to Mercer County, New Jersey. Mercer was with Washington when he famously crossed the icy Delaware River on Christmas Day 1777 - some even say it was the Scot's idea. The revolutionaries were at the end of their rope: cold, barefoot and hungry. Then came the publication of Thomas Paine's inspiring pamphlet, The American Crisis, and Washington decided the campaign also needed the uplift of a symbolic victory. So he crossed the frozen river in a raging storm and surprised the British at Trenton. Ahead of the crossing, Washington told his troops: "Let it be told to the future world that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet it."

If the words sound familiar it is because President Barack Obama quoted them at his inauguration address in 2009. He hoped the tale of courage would inspire Americans to "brave the icy currents" of world recession and deliver the "great gift of freedom" to future generations. It's a long way from the veneration of kilt fragments. But there is something poignant about the Culloden soldier whose heroism in a subsequent battle for independence helped to found the world's first democracy. Perhaps the romance of the past has a place, after all, in the aspirations of modern nation states.

• Rebels with A Cause: Jacobites and The Global Imagination opens at the Scottish Parliament tomorrow. Joan McAlpine will chair a St Andrew's Night Debate: Who Were the Winners and Losers in the Jacobite Cause? with Aberdeen University scholars Alison Lumsden, Cairns Craig, Andrew Mackillop and John Morrison.

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