More than an Outlander tribute act: meet the modern day Jacobites

Over 300 years on from the Glencoe Massacre, author Stephen Millar spends the weekend with modern-day Jacobites commemorating the tragic event.

The group commemorated the anniversary of the Glencoe Massacre
The group commemorated the anniversary of the Glencoe Massacre

It is a Saturday night in February and I’m in a pub, hundreds of miles from home, with a group of men I’ve only just met.

Two carry firearms and drinks are flowing freely when one of my new acquaintances – a thick set man with a huge grey beard - pulls out a massive knife and holds it to throat of a South African woman nearby. It is her first ever day in Scotland, and she squeals, her eyes open wide.

Welcome to the world of the modern day Jacobites.

The Royal Oak Society are a newly formed group of Jacobites

The men I am with are members of the Royal Oak Society, a newly formed group of Jacobites who are in Glencoe to commemorate the Massacre of 1692. They are spending the whole weekend dressed as 18th century Highlanders and their broadswords, replica pistols and dirks are drawing attention in the busy pub.

The South African lady is not in danger, but as a fan of the Outlander series, is desperate to have her photograph taken with these fierce looking Jacobites. They are only too happy to oblige.

Remembering the MacDonalds

Earlier that day, the Jacobites of the Royal Oak held a poignant commemoration service at the memorial to the Massacre. Speeches were made, a prayer recited, and a piper played a lament. By chance a solitary woman turned up, a MacDonald here to pay a personal homage to her ancestors who were murdered here. She is genuinely touched that the Jacobites have made such an effort to be there, the only other people who seem to care.

The group carry a red, blue and white flag used in the early Jacobite rebellions

Modern day Jacobites often get a hard time, ridiculed by many for living in the past, and supporting a cause that died on the field of Culloden in 1746 when Bonnie Prince Charlie and his army was defeated. It certainly marked the end of the Royal House of Stuart’s attempts to regain the thrones they had lost when James II was forced to flee in 1688.

It is true that some Jacobites can obsess about whether various obscure European aristocrats with distant links to the Stuart dynasty have a stronger claim to the British throne than Elizabeth II, however, the Jacobites I meet are much more concerned about finding out more about the history of the Jacobite era, and educating others about this period of Scottish history. As a result, they regularly attend anniversaries at places such as Culloden (April 16th) and Glenfinnan (August 19th). Without them some of these dates might just be confined to dry history books.

Swords, songs and politics

After the ceremony at the memorial the Jacobites return to the pub where the fun begins. Whatever your views on Jacobites, they know how to party (like its 1739). As the evening goes on things get a little Jacobite-crazy: Broadswords are waived in the air, a piper plays Jacobite songs and a great deal of raucous singing takes place. The fun is contagious and the Jacobites talk to everyone – tourists from South Africa and America, walkers weary after a day on the West Highland way, and locals. Some must think they have wandered into a Outlander wrap party and the Jacobites carry on until three in the morning.

The Royal Oak Society is new, although its founding members have been involved in other Jacobite groups for decades. The society has adopted the name of Jacobite secret society founded in 18th century Edinburgh and which counted Robert Burns as a member. It is one of a handful of Jacobite groups in Scotland, most being by invitation only and having a constitution that must be agreed by the swearing of an oath.

The Jacobites I meet see themselves as a link between the past and the present. Most are involved in the SNP and nationalist politics, and over a pint the conversation shifts seamlessly between topics such as the spread of food banks in Scotland to some obscure fact about Bonnie Prince Charlie’s health and then to Scotland’s place in the world post-Brexit.

A ceremony streamed to the world

Whilst researching my book Tribes of Glasgow, I met members of a motorcycle club in that city, and noticed similarities between them and the Jacobites. Members of both are mostly middle aged men, and often include former soldiers who are seeking something to replace the sense of camaraderie the experienced whilst serving. Bikers and Jacobites follow strict rules of conduct, and – in their different ways – dress up and attract attention. Perhaps this allows members an escape from the drudgery of every day life?

On my second day with the Jacobites in Glencoe they attended a second commemoration, this one organised by a man named Henderson who wanted to remember the many Hendersons who died beside the Macdonalds during the Massacre. It was a strange moment, half a dozen of us trudging out across a boggy field in driving rain to the Henderson memorial stone. The organiser read out a speech and the piper played.

No other Scots were present, although curious faces looked out of passing car windows. However, in America, members of the Henderson Society were watching this rain-soaked commemoration as it was being live streamed on one Jacobite’s smartphone. I suggested the descendants of Scotland’s own Diaspora are more interested in aspects of our history than those who live here, something the Jacobites are keen to rectify.

And then it was over. The Jacobites set off in their cars back to their ordinary lives – driving taxis and lorries, running office facilities, a weekend over far too soon.

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