How Bonnie Prince Charlie's 'grandsons' sold Queen Victoria a tall tale about clan tartans – Susan Morrison

The Sobieski Stuart brothers’ book, Vestiarium Scoticum, depicting clan tartans and how to wear them, was a 19th-century bestseller that saw them lauded by the great and the good of the day

Prince Albert and Victoria took to tartan like American golfers, and as a result, the interior of Balmoral was a riot of Hunting Stewart and Dress Cameron. The design choice was perhaps inspired by a bestseller of 1842, the Vestiarium Scoticum. It was a sumptuous publication from Mr William Tait of Edinburgh, featuring no less than 70 colour plates of clan tartans, and Queen Victoria ordered a copy straight off the presses.

The images and descriptions of these glorious tartans had been uncovered, edited and curated by a John Sobieski Stuart. He and his brother, Charles Edward Stuart, claimed that this wealth of knowledge had been gleaned from a much older manuscript, dating from 1571.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The brothers Stuart had appeared in Scotland in the 1820s. They had a regal bearing, as well they might, because they claimed to be Royal Stuarts. Their father, they said, was the son of Prince Charles Edward Stuart. Fearing assassination or kidnap, this baby had been smuggled away into the care of John Carter Allen, a British Admiral. He protected the boy, adopted him, and gave him the name Thomas Allen, slightly underwhelming given that the Bonnie Prince’s full name was Charles Edward Louis John Sylvester Maria Casimir Stuart.

‘Their seal is a crown’

This hidden son joined the Royal Navy. He married and had a family. In 1811, he revealed to his sons who he, and they, really were. The last of the Stuart line. The rightful heirs to the thrones of Scotland and England.

Strong stuff. John and Charles shrugged off the identity of ‘Allan’ like superheroes taking off a mask and assumed their rightful surname, incorporating the name Sobieski, the name of Prince Charles's mother. They became known as the Sobieski Stuarts.

A tartan-clad couple dances to the sound of the bagpipes for Queen Victoria, in an engraving from around 1880 (Image: Fototeca Gilardi/Getty Images)A tartan-clad couple dances to the sound of the bagpipes for Queen Victoria, in an engraving from around 1880 (Image: Fototeca Gilardi/Getty Images)
A tartan-clad couple dances to the sound of the bagpipes for Queen Victoria, in an engraving from around 1880 (Image: Fototeca Gilardi/Getty Images)

They returned to their ancestral homeland and totally immersed themselves in Scottishness. They learned Gaelic, wore kilts and were even reported playing shinty. The Times of 1836 notes that “they are good-looking young men… attired in the Highland costume of the house of Stuart, and accompanied by a piper of the clan. They have never worn any other dress than the kilt and its Highland appendages, and their seal is a crown.”

Some of Scotland’s highest society, such as the Marquis of Bute and the Earl of Moray, appeared delighted by these two last Royal Jacobites. Even more importantly, Lord Lovat gave them a house to live in. It's still there, on an island in the middle of the River Beauly called Eilean Aigas.

From this remote Highland base, they churned out romantic poetry, until the unveiling and publication in 1842 of Vestiarium Scoticum, or The Garden-robe of Scotland, that forensic listing of tartans, their clans, and the correct way to wear them.

Thundering broadsides

The book was a smash-hit. The Sobieski Stuarts were lauded. They published a second book, Costume of the Clans, and then in 1847, Tales of the Century. The trouble was that the books and the brothers were both piles of glorious bunkum.

Professor George Skene took aim at the brothers in a Quarterly Review of 1847. It was a thundering broadsides. The Sobieski Stuarts were “quaint”, “false” and their works on tartan were “absolute fabrication”. He started an avalanche of condemnation. Suddenly everyone, it seemed, had known all along the Sobieski Stuarts were fake. The brothers' fall from grace was quick and savage. They left Eilean Aigas and headed for the continent.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Why did it take so long to reveal the truth about this pair of mildly dotty pretenders to the Pretender? They certainly weren’t very good con men. As any huckster will tell you, getting the story straight is crucial, but they couldn’t even do that. Sometimes they claimed their father was that smuggled prince, born in legitimate wedlock, but sometimes they said he told them he was the love-child of the Bonnie Prince and his mistress. Thomas Allan himself probably filled their heads with confusing tales of lost princes and Highland romance.

Rebellious fabric to high fashion

Their stories were so threadbare and baffling that even Sir Walter Scott, a perennial soft touch for tales of Jacobites and tartan, saw right through them. What’s more surprising is the acceptance of these two outrageous imposters by men of influence such as Lord Lovat, a man whose family included Simon Fraser, the last man to be beheaded in Britain, executed at the age of 80 for his part in the ’45 Jacobite rising.

But yesterday’s rising had become today’s romance. The Young Pretender had drunk himself to death in Rome. The cause was lost. The days of raising banners and clans were over. These two were pretty tame Stuarts, when all was said and done. Neither brother appeared willing to issue a call to arms to seize the throne from Victoria, although John was given to muttering things about “a single word from him and the Highlands would rise”. Perhaps these men of title also fell prey to romantic notions.

The books were equally creative with the truth. Tartans did change from place to place in Scotland. It made sense. Plant-based dyes would vary geographically, and thus influence the colours. Attempts were being made in the 1820s to match surnames to tartans, so the brothers were already literally following a pattern. And in a way, does it matter? The notoriety surrounding the Vestiarium Scoticum helped propel tartan even further on the way to global popularity. A fabric that had once been the mark of rebellion now graces high fashion all over the world.

The brothers Allan never saw Scotland again. Like Charles Edward Stuart, they spent the rest of their lives in exile, but they returned after death. They are buried in Eskadale, not far from their island home. On the tombstone is the name ‘Sobieski Stuart'.

Related topics:



Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.