The story of Bonnie Prince Charlie and his Jacobite band still fires our collective imagination, says Rodaidh McLaughlin.
A major exhibition will take place in the National Museum of Scotland throughout this summer and autumn exploring the legend of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites. This ground-breaking exhibit will showcase over 300 artefacts assembled from across Europe, including artwork, clothing, jewellery, and weaponry.
What is it about this period in our nation’s history that continues to fire our collective imagination and, judging by the popularity of Outlander, that of the world at large?
A century of warfare
Bonnie Prince Charlie’s defeat at Culloden would conclude a century of religious warfare throughout the British Isles, end six decades of bloodshed in pursuit of a Stuart restoration, and eliminate any substantial challenge to the Union of 1707 for some two and a half centuries.
But in reality, the legacy of Jacobitism is much more significant than all that: the zeitgeist of 1745 still plays a central role in Scotland’s national identity. Sir Walter Scott, chief architect behind the establishment of modern Scottishness, must take some credit for this. Scott revered tragedy, heroism, and, above all, romance, and therefore visited the Jacobite cause frequently in works such as Waverley and Rob Roy.
The Victorians shared Scott’s ideals and would escape the bleakness of industrial Scotland in the romance of bygone ages, consequently creating a lasting romantic narrative to Scotland’s history which focused upon the Jacobites, Mary Queen of Scots, the Highland Clearances, and the Wars of Independence.
Indeed, it is indicative of the Victorians that they would construct a monument on Abbey Craig commemorating the poetic tragedy of Wallace, rather than one celebrating the calculated triumph of Bruce.
The 1745 Rising included all those elements necessary to capture the hearts of a 19th century audience, so much so that even Queen Victoria would famously declare herself to be a Jacobite.
READ MORE: Battle of Culloden: myths debunked
The Jacobites were led by a charismatic young leader belonging to an ancient royal bloodline, they were David to the Hanoverian Goliath, pathos to the Hanoverian logos. The Victorians viewed them as the archetypal “noble savage” fighting heroically not for glory, nor riches, nor honour, but for freedom against forces intent on making their lands a desert and call it peace.
Ultimately, the courageous Jacobite army would show their mettle by capturing Edinburgh, taking the field at Prestonpans and marching as far south as Derby, before making the fateful decision to retreat back northward, despite having, in retrospect, ample chance at capturing London and restoring the Stuarts to power.
The glorious defeat par excellence at Culloden Moor, the barbarism of the Hanoverians in the aftermath, and the Jacobites’ honour in harbouring their fugitive prince until the bitter end would make for an epic saga venerated by generations of Scots.
The National Museum’s exhibition will be a roaring success because there remains something within Jacobitism which chimes with the Scottish psyche: We admire the underdog, we revere heroism, I suspect we even possess a certain peculiar adoration for glorious defeat, not least in sport, but above all, we still appreciate a romantic story from our past.
Rodaidh McLaughlin is a Politics & Scottish History graduate. He lives in Crossford, Fife