If you listen to all the legends about the Jacobite Rising of 1745-6, there are two main answers to the question – firstly because they were driven purely by loyalty to the House of Stewart, which was a Scottish royal house, or secondly that Prince Charles was so incredibly charismatic that after landing in Scotland in July 1745, he managed to single-handedly persuade all the clan chiefs to bring their clansmen out for him.
Either way, the image conjured up is of hordes of kilted clansmen descending on Glenfinnan from all over the Highlands, armed to the teeth and eager to fight for the Bonnie Prince and for his father James, the rightful king of Great Britain.
As a writer of historical fiction with a romance at its heart I would like nothing more than for this to be the unadulterated truth. Sadly, although there is an element of truth in the image, the actual truth is far more complex and less romantic, and although I have indulged somewhat in the romance of the Highlanders when writing the Jacobite Chronicles, I have hinted broadly that there was far more to the rising than blind loyalty. In this blog I want to elaborate a little on that.
It’s certainly true that some of the great Jacobite leaders did rise purely out of loyalty to James and his son, and their belief in the divine right of the Stuarts to rule. Among these are Lord George Murray, Lord Balmerino, Perth, Pitsligo, Gordon of Glenbucket.
But this was not the case for most of the clans. For one thing, a lot of them stayed at home. Some of them came out for King George, and fought on the Hanoverian side. These include the Campbells, Munros, Mackays, Rosses, and Sutherlands among others.
Of the others, some chiefs who claimed to be Jacobite did not in fact fight for Charles when it came down to it. Among these were the two great Skye chiefs Norman Macleod and Alexander MacDonald of Sleat. Both of them said this was because the prince had not brought the promised French troops with him. They would not yield to persuasion, which was a great blow for the prince, who had counted on their support. The MacDougalls and Sinclairs, also Jacobite clans, also failed to come out. Some of their reluctance was due to the behind-the-scenes work of Duncan Forbes of Culloden, who used all his influence to persuade the wavering chiefs to stay at home.
On to those who did rise for the prince. One of the most notable of these, and one who features in the Jacobite Chronicles, is Donald Cameron of Lochiel, who committed his clansmen and as a result effectively enabled the rising to start. The Camerons had long been a Jacobite clan; Lochiel’s grandfather had fought with Viscount Dundee at Killiecrankie, in the first battle after the so-called Glorious Revolution, and the Camerons had been at the ’15 and the ’19. But even Lochiel was initially unwilling to rise, mainly because of the lack of French support, and it took considerable persuading for him to do so. Although he was undoubtedly an honourable man and a Jacobite, he did have reasons other than blind loyalty for supporting the Stuarts – he had no clear title to his lands, which bordered those of the rapacious Campbells. Prince Charles also agreed to indemnify him for any losses he would suffer as a result of the rising, which made the advantages seem to far outweigh the disadvantages of committing to him.
MacDonald of Keppoch also had no legal title to his lands, and held his clansmen to him by sheer force of personality. The opportunity to gain a legal foothold certainly would have influenced his decision to rise for Charles.
In addition there were several clans whose motive for joining the rising had a good deal to do with a hatred of the rapacious Campbells. Among these were MacDonald of Glencoe and the MacGregors, the latter of whom had not only been dispossessed of their lands by the Campbells, but also of their name.
In fact many of the clan chiefs did not come out in person to fight for the Stuart cause. Those who did include Cameron of Lochiel, Cluny MacPherson, MacDonald of Glencoe, and Mackinnon of Mackinnon, who saw his chance to escape from the shadow of the Skye chiefs. The vast majority, however, decided to hedge their bets to some extent, many of them staying at home themselves, but sending out a son with a contingent of clansmen. In this way, if the Jacobites won, they could say their clan had risen with their blessing; if the Hanoverians won they could say that their son had gone against their wishes in raising the clan.
The most famous of these prevaricators was Lord Lovat, the Fraser chief. He had spent years playing the Hanoverians off against the Jacobites whilst sitting very firmly on the fence. In August 1745 he sent a message of support to Prince Charles, but even so failed to send his clan out until December, when it seemed the Jacobites were going to be victorious. Even then he did not lead the clan himself, instead sending his son, the Master of Lovat, while he stayed at home.
At first hand it might not seem to be important whether the chief or a son led his clan to fight for Charles; surely as long as the men were there and fighting, all was well? No, not really, because the clansmen owed their allegiance to the father of the clan – the chief. It was much harder for a proxy to keep the discipline needed to prevent desertion and disorder.
Another popular misconception is that the clans rose for the Stuarts because they wanted a Roman Catholic king on the throne. This is almost completely false. Most of the clans who came out in the rising were in fact Protestants; only a few clans were Roman Catholic, including the Glengarry and Clanranald MacDonalds, and some of my own clan, the Gordons (who fought on both sides in the ’45, Lord Lewis Gordon heading the Jacobite contingent). The number of Catholics in the Jacobite Army, and indeed in Scotland, was a small minority of the whole.
Another reason which provoked many of the clans to come out was hatred of the union of 1707, when Scotland and England had united, not just in terms of monarchy, but in political terms too. A political union between the two countries had been debated for over a hundred years prior to 1707, in fact since James I and VI had united the crowns, but had never been agreed on, not least because Scotland feared that in doing so it would lose its identity and become assimilated into England, as Wales had been some 400 years previously. However, following the disastrous failure of the Darien venture, which almost bankrupted Scotland, many of the prominent Scottish nobles and politicians became more amenable to a deal with England, and following a number of bribes and debates, the Act was passed, in spite of widespread protest and dissatisfaction (which still endures today). The Highlands in particular saw little or no benefit as a result of the union, and in rising for the Stuarts many of them hoped to break the political union, and not a few hoped to break the royal union too, by leaving George in possession of England and proclaiming James King of Scotland alone.
Overall, although loyalty to the Stuarts DID form part of the reason for the clans who did rise for Charles coming out for him, it was only a small part of the reason in many of the chief’s minds. Unromantic and pragmatic it might sound, but in fact having practical, selfish reasons for following a leader ensured a far stronger commitment to the prince than purely emotional ones might have done. The benefits, had they won (and they came within an ace of doing so) could have been huge.
The probable consequences of failure, based on previous risings, seemed well worth the risk.
Nobody could have envisaged the horrific retribution and wholesale dismantling of the clan system which was visited on the Highlanders following the failure of the rising, and it is unfair of those who have the benefit of hindsight to deride them for stupidly and romantically following a dream which could not possibly come true.
The late Georgians and Victorians turned the Highlands and its inhabitants into a romantic fiction, a wild mountainous land filled with fierce but poetic exotically dressed warriors, who risked all and died for a hopeless cause, due to outdated notions of chivalry and loyalty to a charismatic, tragic hero.
At the risk of pouring cold water on romantic notions, I hope I have shown that this was far from the case.