History David Horspool
The Waverley novels romanticised the Jacobites – and Scotland
‘If resentments were harboured, that was because blood had been spilt’
The country was a house divided against itself.
Although the result of the dispute had long been known, and even those most dissatisfied with it had come in some way to accept it, resentment and bitterness coursed through politics from parliament to breakfast table.
Feelings ran higher in some areas – particularly in Scotland – than in others, but the division was rehearsed in every part of Britain.
For those on the losing side, there were daily reminders of their humiliation – a defeat that intruded into everyday life, including their economic prospects, and made them question the Union.
Of course the victors sat prettier, happy to have avoided one form of foreign vassalage, even as they embraced other overseas connections. They were modern, outward-looking people after all, whose reasons for wanting a change had been principled, not prejudiced. But even they knew that the great dispute might have been resolved more amicably. Not with victory for the other side, but perhaps with more mutual accommodation.
Decades later, even as the losers’ party declined in numbers, everyone could remember which side they or their forebears had been on; where they had been at the crucial moments. Two numbers acted as mnemonics for the whole sorry mess: 15 and 45.
Historians have a maddening habit of telling us that we (or at least they) have seen it all before. So I apologise for my attempt to cast Jacobitism, the movement you will have guessed I was describing, in contemporary Brexit terms.
The failed attempts to place the Stuart dynasty back on the British throne, in the risings of 1715 and 1745, and their long afterlife – lasting at least into the nineteenth century and arguably, in some ways, even into this one – were, of course, very different from our present antagonisms.
For one thing, they were a lot more violent. The bloodless ‘Glorious’ Revolution that removed the crown from the head of James II in 1688 does not look quite so harmless when the Battle of the Boyne two years later is taken into account.
And the risings of the Old and Young Pretenders – James II’S son James Edward and grandson Charles Edward (Bonnie Prince Charlie) – were clashes in which casualties numbered in the thousands, on both sides. If resentments were harboured, that was because blood had been spilt.
True, there were principles at stake, too. The foreign vassalage I mentioned was papal interference, the scourge of British politics ever since the Reformation.
Fear of Catholics had animated much of the English Civil War. When the restored monarchy led to the accession of a Catholic king, James II, the threat of a reversion to the faith, however remote in reality, did much of the work of removing the king from the throne and replacing him with his Protestant daughter Mary, and her exemplarily Protestant husband, the Dutch Stadhouder Willem, who became William III. The size of the fleet William brought did the rest, but the welcome was not universal.
The remarkable fact in hindsight isn’t that the adherents of James – Jacobites – launched armed resistance against what they viewed, with some justification, as a usurpation. It is that it took so long, and then carried on in one form or another for so many more decades. It was 27 years after the Glorious Revolution before the first Jacobite rising, and another 30 before the next.
We know that they failed, and that failure, together with the fact that both risings originated in Scotland (though they won support elsewhere), had a profound effect on the way Scotland was viewed in the rest of Britain, and even the way Scots viewed themselves.
The political organisation of the Highlands fell victim to a legislative and economic assault. The failure of Jacobitism sounded the death knell of the clan system. Tartan was banned. On the other side, in the Lowlands, conspicuous loyalty to what became the Hanoverian succession emerged as the only way to get on.
But Jacobitism was not forgotten, even while Bonnie Prince Charlie pickled himself in drink at foreign courts. Politically, it dwindled to a residue of bitter-ender schemers. But private sympathisers continued to pledge their allegiance by such quiet gestures as toasting ‘the King across the water’ or singing the old songs. Their Bonnie lay over the ocean.
Later still, Jacobitism succumbed to what we would now call cultural appropriation, with its symbols and stories recast for popular consumption, even by those who should by rights have had nothing to do with them.
Much of this was down to the genius of Walter Scott. The subtleties of his Jacobite-themed Waverley novels were forgotten in the wholesale embrace of Scottish kitsch. Scott was George IV’S favourite novelist, organised a Scottish tour for the king and encouraged him to spend lavishly on tartan, legal once again.
The image of Scotland that took root, of a wild, romantic – and above all separate – country, had its origins in Jacobitism, but was even more a result of this re-creation. In a sense, it is still with us, even as we wrestle with the implications of our own, other great disagreements.