A couple of weeks ago, like Bonnie Prince Charlie, I made my way to the Scottish Highlands and enjoyed following in his footsteps around many of the places with connections to the Jacobite cause. (I also enjoyed seeing the wildlife, especially the pine marten in the picture which visited the bird table at the place we were staying!) I’ve always had a soft spot for the Stuart dynasty. Their political judgement might have been wayward but there is something dashing and romantic about their struggles again the Hanoverians. Like so many lost causes they appeal to the heart not the head.
The Jacobites aimed to restore the Roman Catholic King James VII and II, and his heirs, to the thrones of Scotland, England and Ireland. Jacobites rebelled against the British government a number of times between 1688 and 1745. There was support for the Stuart Monarchy all over the country but most particularly in the West Highlands of Scotland where some of the clans had strong Roman Catholic affiliations. The story of Bonnie Prince Charlie has become inextricably linked with the Highlands and the Scottish clans but also with tins of shortbread, mugs and… trains.
Just down the road from the tiny village where I was staying was Castle Tioram, pronounced, “Cheerum” a ruin that sits on a tidal
island. It has a history as romantic as its appearance and situation. Originally built in the 14th century, it became the seat of Clan Macdonald of Clanranald. It was seized by government troops in 1692 when the clan chief, Allan of Clanranald swore allegiance to the Jacobite cause. Allan won it back during the 1715 Jacobite uprising, only to set fire to it himself because he had a premonition he was about to die and did not want it falling into government hands again. Allan was proved correct; he died at the Battle of Sheriffmuir.
We visited Tioram on a day of glorious sunshine, walking across the spit of sand from the mainland at low tide. That was one way to approach; the other was from the sea on the northern side. The island had a wonderfully peaceful atmosphere for a place with such a bloody history.
Some twenty miles away from Tioram, at the head of Loch Sheil, is the Glenfinnan Monument. It was erected in 1815 in memory of the clansmen who fought and died in the Jacobite Uprising of 1745. The raising of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s standard took place at the head of the loch on 19th August in that year but his hopes were to end in defeat and tragedy at Culloden.
When we visited the monument was undergoing repair and was completely covered as you can see in the back of this picture! We went back later that evening when the place was deserted and I stood on the shore of the loch and conjured up in my imagination the ghosts of the men and women who had been there on August 19th 1745, imagining their hopes, fears and dreams.
A Day at the Museum
And so to Fort William and The West Highland Museum, where there is the most astonishing collection of Jacobite memorabilia. My favourite items included Bonnie Prince Charlie’s waistcoat – it was extremely elegant and it was good to know he didn’t let his standards of dress slip during the uprising! It was exhibited as part of an amazing costume collection that also included a number of shirts and plaids, kilts and tartan dresses, plus the ultimate accessory of the sporran. I learned that the cloth was very dense and weather-resistant (for obvious reasons, although it a very hot day when I was there!) and that local plants were the source of most of the dyes. This made the variety and vividness of them even more impressive.
Most amazing of all Jacobite items, however, was the secret anamorphic portrait of Bonnie Prince Charlie. I had never seen anything like it before. After the Battle of Culloden it became treasonable to support the Stuart claim to the throne and so the loyal adherents to the cause had to pledge their allegiance in secret ways. This portrait can only be seen in the reflection on the cylinder. It was to this likeness that the Jacobites raised their glasses. At the first sign of discovery they could dismantle the tray and the cylinder and no one was any the wiser.
It was time to get on the train for the 80 mile round trip between Fort William and Mallaig, reputed to be one of the most beautiful train journeys in the world. But not only was this a scenic route it was also a trip with a steam engine. For me this was a very nostalgic moment as I worked on a steam railway in my school holidays for years during my teens.
The engine was called the Jacobite. Of course. It honoured the connection between the local area and its history. It was also the train that famously features in the Harry Potter films and it was slightly disconcerting to be sitting in our carriage whilst lots of children dressed as wizards and witches ran along the corridors! As we approached the Glenfinnan Viaduct – the bridge to Hogwarts in the films – it felt quite exhilarating to be steaming along through such stunning countryside.
The line passes near to the Prince’s Cairn, the traditional place from which it was said Bonnie Prince Charlie embarked for France after the failure of the ’45. His story is part of not only the history but also the folklore and identity of that part of Scotland and his legend lives on. There were lots of different reasons why people supported Charles Edward Stuart at the time; nowadays he is so often portrayed as a gallant loser. The monument at Glenfinnan calls the Jacobite cause “The dream that ended in defeat.”
I hope you’ve enjoyed this short tour of a part of the Scottish Highlands and the connection to Charles Edward Stuart. It made me think about how romantic and appealing a “noble” cause can be and how often we support the under-dog, and why.
Are you ruled by your heart or by your head? Do you make practical decisions or decisions based on instinct, or a bit of both? Are you loyal to a particular cause? And do you think the Jacobites were gallant heroes or misguided rebels? I’m offering a copy of one of my Scottish-set Regencies to a commenter between now and midnight Thursday.