Jacobite uprising: 'To us, 1745 doesn't feel that long ago; in evolutionary terms it's nothing'

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THESE days, in Scotland, you are more likely to encounter midgie bites than Jacobites. The movement, which fought for the restoration of the Stuart monarchy, was largely exterminated in the violent purges following the Battle of Culloden, Bonnie Prince Charlie's bloody last stand.

Yet in the 21st century there are still men, and a few women, as familiar with the heft of a broadsword and the weft of a plaid as they are with broadband and PlayStation, and who consider Queen Elizabeth a cuckoo in the nest. These Jacobites – Jacobytes, if you will – may use online forums to discuss their beliefs and they may sometimes carry BlackBerries in their sporrans, but their hearts and heads belong to the 18th century.

On an overcast Saturday lunchtime in early August, a dozen or so of these Jacobites are gathering at Balgonie Castle, near Markinch in Fife. Balgonie has been visited by several Scottish icons over the years including Mary Queen of Scots, Rob Roy MacGregor, and John Smeaton, who married his American fiance here last month. Today, the castle chapel will see six men initiated into A Circle of Gentlemen, one of Scotland's leading Jacobite groups.

The Circle started as a secret drinking society in 18th- century Edinburgh, a way to toast the cause without fear of government reprisals. Revived in the 1990s, the group remained under the radar until last month when one of its members, Alasdair MacNeill, spoke out angrily against tourists picnicking at Culloden.

"A family of four and their two dogs were sprawled across a grave mound having a picnic," he told the BBC. "The father was leaning against the headstone eating a Scotch egg and smoking a cigarette," he said.

MacNeill, 41, lives in Inverness, works in IT, and is a member of the Circle's eight-man Council. Like everyone else here today, he's wearing period dress. Modern-day Jacobites spend a lot of time and money on the clothes they wear to events like these. There isn't a Jacobite shop you can walk into and buy the look off the peg; you have to do your research and get things made. "We're not a reenactment group, so we're not big hairy people with half a deer on our backs." MacNeill explains. "We dress more like the polite end of society. The savage look appeals to tourists who expect to see Bravehearts all over the place, but that's not what we're about."

Matthew Donnachie, the leader of the Circle, has based his outfit on a portrait of Bonnie Prince Charlie with whom he identifies. In addition to his tartan trews and embroidered waistcoat, he is wearing a deep blue jacket, its gold-plated buttons cast from original period fasteners, the silver lace trim 200 years old and sourced from America. He also carries an authentic Jacobite sword.

Donnachie, 39, runs a cosmetic dentistry business in Inverness under the name Doctor Denture. He grew up in Dunfermline as a great admirer of the work of Duran Duran, in particular their flamboyant keyboard player Nick Rhodes, which is where he gets his dandyish dash.

Being a modern-day Jacobite is about more than dressing up, although that aspect is meaningful given the post-Culloden ban on Highland garb. But not everyone on the scene agrees on exactly what being a Jacobite is about. For some, including the group who call themselves Na Fir Dileas, of whom more later, it is specifically to do with a desire to chuck out the royal family and restore the Stuart line to the throne of an independent Scotland.

James the VII and II, a Catholic monarch, lost the thrones of Scotland, England and Ireland in the revolution of 1688, and was replaced by his Protestant daughter Mary and her husband William of Orange. Between that year and 1745 there were a number of armed risings which attempted to put the Stuarts back in power. These culminated at Culloden on 16 April 1746, when the forces of Charles Edward Stuart, Bonnie Prince Charlie, were slaughtered by the British army.

The Circle of Gentlemen did once support the restoration of the Stuarts, but now, like New Labour abandoning Clause IV, they have dropped that policy. "We've been to so many functions where someone will stand up and say, 'Here's to the King, sir!' Well, that's a hollow toast and embarrassing," says Donnachie. "It doesn't mean anything. The King is in a mausoleum in the Vatican. The direct Stuart line is gone. The remote line is now the crown prince of Bavaria, and if you think he would be any better, or any more connected to Scotland than the Windsors, then you'd be very much mistaken."

Donnachie is outspoken and rather brash, and, when talking about the values of the Circle, speaks about the need, in a multicultural society, to retain and promote indigenous Scottish identity and culture. "The ways of the western world are under attack just now," he says, "and so I think you are better with a Christian monarch rather than mumping and moaning about which Christian monarch."

He's talking about Islamic extremists, and becomes defensive when I press him on this, even posting a notice on the Circle's website expressing concern that I am interpreting the group incorrectly. The Circle, he insists, is neither religious nor political and certainly not racist; he finds anti-Englishness, in particular, embarrassing. "There's a lot of cranks out there who want to rebuild Hadrian's wall," he says. "We can't afford to have ourselves attached to people like that."

Though none of the Jacobites I meet are keen to talk about it, some will admit that their movement can attract isolated extremists, or "tartan Nazis" as one member of the Circle describes them. Both the Circle and Na Fir Dileas are strongly against bigotry and careful about whom they let become members.

In fact, Donnachie could be described as the Tony Blair of Jacobitism – committed to making the movement credible to the mainstream. For him, being a Jacobite means being a guardian of Scottish history, hence the stooshie over the Culloden picnickers. The battlefield is a sacred site for the Circle, which each year hosts a Lament for Culloden, and for Donnachie in particular as he proposed to his wife Donna there, one year, in the snow.

The romance and heroic failure of the Jacobite movement – these things appeal to Donnachie. Earlier this year he visited the Stuart mausoleum in Vatican City, bringing with him heather and thistles from the Highlands and laying them on the altar. "Donna was standing around going, 'When am I getting to go to Prada? When am I getting to go to Gucci? You and that bloody Prince! It's the bane of my life!'"

At a little after 1pm, the Circle of Gentlemen walk into the central grassy courtyard of Balgonie Castle, where they are met by the Laird, who has lived here with his wife, son and a succession of rescued deerhounds since 1985.

Balgonie, as he is properly known, is 79 and was born Raymond Morris in Walsall, England, but considers himself Scottish. He is one of the men who today will be initiated into the Circle. He is wearing Highland dress in his own registered tartan and has a white beard. An accomplished craftsman and painter, he has spent over 20 years restoring the castle to how it would have looked in the 14th century, though much of it is still ruined; summering swallows build mud nests in the rafters and fly like stunt-pilots through the corridors. The Jacobite flag, scarlet with a white square in the centre, flutters on the battlements, and the ancient well in the courtyard has confetti floating on the surface, possibly from Smeato's wedding.

The Laird's love affair with Scotland began when he was five and a holidaying aunt sent a postcard of Edinburgh with a pipe band on it. It all went from there. In 1948, he joined the Gordon Highlanders for his national service, and five years later "emigrated" to Scotland to work in forestry. He is a great champion of the kilt and has not worn trousers for at least 35 years. For him, being a Jacobite is simply about patriotism and cultural conservation. "Anything to do with Scottish tradition, I like to see helped along."

He leads the way into the impressive barrel-vaulted room he uses as a wood-carving studio. "There's a little something you don't see very often," he says, gesturing to a large box lying against the far wall. "That's my cremation coffin." Balgonie made and decorated this himself. Along the sides he has painted ancient Celtic designs. On the lid it says, "The much honoured Raymond Stanley Morris of Balgonie and Eddergoll, 1930-2009. Requiescat In Pace." On each 1 January, he paints over the old death date and adds a new year.

Balgonie is explaining this when Matthew Donnachie wanders over. "Are you ready to join the Circle, your grace?" he asks.

The six men who are to become fellows of the Circle of Gentlemen are blindfolded and led, one by one, through a heavy oak door surrounded by white flowers and into the chapel. I am not permitted to see the initiation ceremony, which lasts around ten minutes, but Donnachie later explains that it involves swearing an old Highland oath on a ceremonial dirk. Also involved is a carved silver Medusa's head, modelled on the boss of Bonnie Prince Charlie's shield, one of a number of artefacts used by the original 18th century Circle.

After the ceremonies have been completed, the Jacobites enter the great hall for a candlelit lunch of lentil soup and sausage rolls, whisky, wine and Drambuie, a beverage said to have been invented by Bonnie Prince Charlie. In the centre of the top table there's a crystal bowl of water. Drinks are poured into pewter or silver goblets and passed over the bowl silently before being handed out. This is a Jacobite tradition, a way of toasting the exiled "king o'er the water" without having to utter those seditious words.

It is clear from talking to members of the Circle that everyone has their own highly personal reasons for calling themselves a Jacobite. Peter Chambers, a 60-year-old antique furniture restorer from the countryside near Carluke, believes that he is the reincarnation of Angus MacLeod, a member of Bonnie Prince Charlie's army. During a past life regression he saw himself being pursued and killed by Hanoverian troops in the aftermath of Culloden. "So what we do here is close to my heart," he says. "It's not a hobby. It's a spiritual journey and emotional experience."

For Matthew Donnachie it was a trip to Skye when he was 18 that turned his head. He was seeing a girl from there, and her grandmother, who had the Gaelic, told how her own family in the aftermath of Culloden had suffered at the hands of redcoats looking for the Prince. The family had twin little girls and one of these was hung from a tree by a whip. Donnachie, near tears, was struck by how the old woman told the story as if it had happened just the day before. Nearly 250 years on, it was clearly still traumatic. He found himself getting angry and his obsession began right there.

Perhaps the most interesting of the Circle, however, is Michael Corby. A founder member of The Babys, a British group that enjoyed success during the 1970s in America and elsewhere, Corby has that Jagger/Richards deeply-grooved gauntness but at 58 is still striking and has bright blue eyes to go with his silver tongue. "Despite the appearance of Dorian Gray," he says, "I'm a cadaver awaiting its final ceremony."

At Balgonie, Corby was wearing a Victorian take on the Jacobite look; dirk, sword and a pistol on his belt, his long hair tucked beneath a plumed bonnet. But a few days later, at his home, he is every inch the retired rock star in black jeans and fancy cowboy boots, swagged in silk scarves and necklaces. He sits in front of a huge stone fireplace, legs crossed like a fancy mantis, smoking small cigars and flicking them into a Delft ashtray which, apparently, Britt Eckland stole from a restaurant in Fulham when they were having dinner there. Corby's conversation is full of references to what Jimmy Page, Rod Stewart and Alex Salmond once said to him about one thing and another.

He would rather I didn't write where he has his home, for fear that fans from Argentina might camp out on the doorstep, but suffice to say that he lives in part of a wildly impressive Baronial hall somewhere in Lanarkshire which he likes to call "Disgracelands". There are holes in the front of the building through which residents would once have been able to shoot at Covenanters, but these days the greatest threat is from trespassing neds who knock over the 14th-century sundial and drain the fishpond, killing the poor Koi carp. Corby yearns for the days of boiling oil.

Like Balgonie, Corby was born in England ("a misfortune I cannot deny") but does not consider himself English. His father was from Aberdeenshire, his mother from Ireland. They moved south for business. The family had money, having invented the trouser press, but also had blue blood in their veins. Corby grew up in the grounds of Windsor Castle and attended Wellington public school; he speaks with the sort of accent usually described as "plummy", though the odd Scotticism – "hame", "pish" and "shite" – creeps in following the opening of a whisky liqueur.

His extended family, living in the Home Counties, had an ex-pat obsession with where they had come from, and so Corby was "indoctrinated" in the ways of Scotland, raised on marmalade and shortbread, and taught never to forget his roots "up the road". Ironically, when he finally moved to Scotland a few years ago he was made to feel incredibly English; people, hearing his accent, would tell him, in choice language, to go back to where he came from. This annoyed him because, as far as he was concerned, he was home, in fact hame.

Talking to Corby over the course of three hours, it becomes clear that there are many factors which may explain why he should be drawn to the Stuart cause. He had a very difficult relationship with his parents after their marriage split, felt unwanted, and at 17 ended up begging on the streets of London. Also, he was eventually kicked out of The Babys, the band he had founded, and that led, in turn, to the end of his marriage and eventual estrangement from his son who lives in America. So the idea of being usurped and exiled is very familiar to him.

Corby has no wish to restore the Stuart monarchy, but identifies very strongly with the historical Jacobites, empathising with the suffering of those killed during reprisals following Culloden. He also claims as an ancestor Lord Lewis Gordon, a commander during the 1745 uprising. "I have a Jacobite soul and a Jacobite heart and I have Jacobite blood in my veins," he declares, "and I shall be quite happy to present that when I make my case on Judgement Day."

Much the same could be said of the other significant Jacobite group in Scotland. Na Fir Dileas, Gaelic for "the loyal men", are political radicals. Their vision is this: in an independent Scotland a referendum would be held on whether the country should become a republic, should continue as a monarchy under the Windsors, or whether the royal House of Stuart should be restored. If Scotland voted for the third option, as Na Fir Dileas hope, then anyone calling themselves the rightful heir would have their claim assessed by a panel of genealogists and lawyers. Once chosen, the new Stuart monarch would sit at the head of an elected second chamber and have the power of veto over bills. The people, however, would have the power to depose and replace the king or queen.

Although its members have their own private beliefs, Na Fir Dileas do not have an official public line on who is the rightful heir to the Stuart throne. In the past they supported the claim of Michel Lafosse, a Belgian-born man living in Edinburgh who styled himself Prince Michael of Albany, and who returned to Belgium in 2006 amid Home Office claims that he had used a forged birth certificate to apply for a British passport.

It was a painful and discrediting episode for Na Fir Dileas, but they remain passionate about the Stuart cause and committed to the idea of themselves as a Jacobite clan. Numbering around 40 across Scotland, they meet about twice a month, and communicate every day on the forum of their website. There are also regular expeditions, in period dress, to the sites of Jacobite flashpoints.

Late in the morning on Saturday, 15 August, I meet members of Na Fir Dileas in Glenfinnan. They are camped near the famous viaduct over which, as I approach their caravans and tent, chuffs a steam train called The Jacobite. In a few days time it will be the anniversary of Charles Edward Stuart's arrival in Glenfinnan, when he raised his standard and began the 1745 uprising; Na Fir Dileas are here to mark that occasion. While waiting for others to arrive, Margaret Scott-Stewart, a big, friendly woman of 55 in a tartan tunic and blue bonnet, smokes Royals and sings 'Charlie Is My Darling'.

She and her husband Alistair have travelled from Innellan, near Dunoon. What's it like to be here? "It feels like going back to my roots, seeing what it was like for my ancestors to have their Prince come home," she says. "The point is to honour the dead. To show that they've not fought in vain. That we will keep it going and we will remember them." She sobs at this. "It's quite emotional. This is my life and it means a lot to me."

This is the crucial point about contemporary Jacobites – they still hurt at the thought of losing their King and kin. Somehow, even though they were born centuries after the fact, the wounds inflicted at Culloden and elsewhere gape in their own psyches.

At about 12.30pm, thirteen members of Na Fir Dileas march up to the hilltop site looking down on Loch Shiel, where Bonnie Prince Charlie is believed to have raised his standard. They form a circle around the stone on which he stood and on which his footprints are carved. It's a dramatic landscape, seared by sun one moment, scoured by showers the next.

Alistair Scott-Stewart reads out the Prince's manifesto, the Jacobite flag is flown, and a toast drunk. "We are here to show loyalty to the House of Stuart and to let the Hanoverian usurpers know we are not beaten yet," says Terry Innes from Alloa. "To the King!"

Next, the traditional duo Whiterose perform an a cappella version of 'News From Moidart', a song which tells of the Prince's arrival on the Scottish mainland. Whatever your political views, it's undeniably stirring, even a little eerie, to hear it sung on this particular spot with rain and the smell of brandy in the air, and the sound of the pipes from the Highland games below. There's a sense of the centuries collapsing in on one another, time being blurred.

"To us, 1745 doesn't feel that long ago; in evolutionary terms it's nothing," says Marti Morrison, captain of Na Fir Dileas, lingering on the Prince's rock after the ceremony. He is a 47-year-old lorry driver from Dunbar, an intense man with strong physical presence, wearing a black velvet jacket and kilt. A long-standing member of the SNP, his attraction to Jacobitism began when he was 26 and his mother died. Looking through old photographs, he discovered a picture of himself as a toddler wearing a kilt and bonnet with the white cockade, the Jacobite emblem. He realised that this was who he was.

Morrison bends to pick, as a souvenir, some of the purple heather growing around the rock. "A lot of people like to take the mick out of our attire," he says, "but we take a lot of strength from the values of the men of that period. It was a time when a man's conscience and honour were important, and I've always tried to be an honourable person. That's what tells me in my heart that I would have been a Jacobite, and that's why I am a Jacobite, and I'll always try to keep this going for as long as I live."

The Jacobite cause is sometimes known among its adherents as "the auld sang". Strange to think that in the fields of Fife, the Highland glens and cyberspace's nooks and dens there are still those who sing it.