Jacobitism in History

In the last thirty years, a good deal of new scholarship has been published on the Jacobite movement. In England in the 1970s and 1980s, Eveline Cruickshanks published a large amount of fresh evidence concerning the double game being played by Tory MPs in the eighteenth century (e.g. in the History of Parliament volumes and Political Untouchables: The Tories and the ’45 (1979)), much of which turned on the identification of a coherent Tory Party between 1714 and 1760, a phenomenon earlier historians had denied the existence of. Jonathan Clark (most centrally in English Society 1688-1832 (1985, 2nd ed., 2000)) argued that the conventional view of the eighteenth century as stable and unadventurous at the beginning and radical and dynamic at the end was wrong on both counts, positing instead a largely conservative ancien regime culture as dominant all the way to the Reform Act, while Jacobitism – as an alternative version of such a culture – became more prominent. Paul Monod’s Jacobitism and the English People (1989) suggested that popular Jacobitism was both widespread in England and much more radical than people had given it credit for.

With regard to primarily Scottish Jacobitism, Bruce Lenman in The Jacobite Risings in Britain (1980) and The Jacobite Clans of the Great Glen (1984) evidenced the complexity and depth of the Jacobite movement in Scotland, while never losing a personal distaste for the Stuarts themselves. Frank McLynn’s France and the Jacobite Rising of 1745 (1981) demonstrated the extent and seriousness of French support for the Stuarts in 1744-45, while The Jacobite Army in England (1983) provided a still unsurpassed account of the 1745 campaign, just as Charles Edward Stuart (1988) remains and is likely to remain the leading biography of its subject.

Daniel Szechi showed the importance of the Scottish Jacobite MPs in the last years of Queen Anne in his Jacobitism and Tory Politics 1710-14 (1984) and developed an extensive study of the activities, personality and milieu of the Jacobite agent George Lockhart of Carnwath. Most recently, Szechi’s 1715, published by Yale in 2006, shows beyond all doubt extensive primary evidence for the massive mobilization of over 20,000 Scots to fight for an end to the Union and a Stuart restoration in that year. Allan Macinness Clanship, Commerce and the House of Stuart, 1603-1788 (1996) was the first study to show the importance of the Gaidhealtachd to the culture and society of the Stuart era, and far transcended the outworn stereotypes of ‘Highland’ and ‘Lowland’, while my own Myth of the Jacobite Clans (1995, 2nd expanded edition 2009) argued that Lowland Jacobitism was far more extensive than assumed by the caricatures of British history, and that the Jacobite risings were possessed of a ‘national’, not merely a ‘dynastic’ quality. The completely rewritten and much expanded second edition of this work provides comprehensive and fresh detail of Jacobite recruitment, arming and local activity, demonstrating (as Stuart Reid and others had begun to do in the 1990s) beyond all doubt that the Jacobite army of 1745 was large, often Lowland and armed with muskets and cannon rather than swords and dirks.

Scholarship has also developed in an Irish and international context. In Ireland, Breandan Ó Buachalla’s Aisling Ghéar (1996) and Eamonn Ó Ciardha’s An Unfortunate Attachment: Ireland and the Jacobite Cause, 1685-1766 (2002) powerfully challenged the consensus of republican historiography in Ireland which marginalized Jacobitism and sometimes even adopted the Irish Brigades, led by noblemen loyal to the Stuarts, into the greeny and Fenian story of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. On the European and world stages, serious studies of the Jacobite diaspora have begun to appear, such as Rebecca Wills’ The Jacobites and Russia 1715-1750 (2002) and Steve Murdoch’s Network North (2006). The volume and quality of scholarship continues to develop.

With the exception of Linda Colley’s argument for the existence of a distinctive – but not Jacobite – Tory Party in In Defiance of Oligarchy (1985), most of this work has not been rebutted, far less refuted. It is most often ignored in general histories of the period, which continue to discuss Jacobitism in terms which suggest that their authors have read little secondary, let alone primary, material of relevance to the subject. The quality of primary historical research into Jacobitism required by those historians who would dismiss it is nugatory. Why is this? Loosely, Whig history is to blame. This model of history developed because the Scottish Enlightenment historians chose an Anglocentric model of history in constructing the narrative of progress that would come to be called Whig history. The Enlightenment’s own interest in quantifiable improvement led in the study of human society to a teleology of civility, a stadial history driven by assumptions of progress. In order to combine the notion of progress with that of ancestry, an English pedigree for British identity was selected, which would allow English history to become the predecessor of British history, and England itself an avatar of Great Britain. The long-term effect of this choice can still be seen in the Englishness of much so-called ‘British’ history, particularly at the popular level.

Since Herbert Butterfield wrote in 1931, the end of such history has been frequently – if prematurely – proclaimed. Whig history is essentially a history which conditions its interpretation of the past by regarding it primarily as an explanatory prelude to the present: it is thus quintessentially a history written to glorify victors and marginalize losers, in the process converting a teleological premiss into a narrative which homogenizes distinction, difference and opposition into a simple central story (at its most simple, How We Became Top Nation) and closes down other avenues of enquiry by scorn, silence or ad hominem argument. In the United Kingdom, confronted with a multinational state, it has, in Gilles Deleuze’s terms, sought to confirm the genesis of ‘a unitary state apparatus’ (in Ireland, the case is paradoxically opposite: Irish Jacobitism disrupts the national story by introducing apparent loyalty to a British dynasty).

This is often true of even recent and distinguished historical work which appears to transcend the Whig tradition. Linda Colley’s Britons (1992), for example, stresses the achievement of a common Britishness through Protestantism, in the process eliding the deep divisions between the established churches and dissenters, and totally ignoring both the patriot parliament of Anglican Ireland and the radical nationalism of the United Irish Presbyterians. Britons proved to be an immensely popular study because it told a simple story – who we are and how we became us – in an apparently more sophisticated guise than its nineteenth-century predecessors. Silence about the realities of the past as it was experienced by its contemporaries is a very important part of Whig history, whether it is the ‘enormous condescension of posterity’ to the poor exclaimed against by E.P. Thompson or the alternative religious, political and cultural territories of high culture which are annexed and suppressed in the creation of the ‘mythos’ of history. The ‘mythos’ has dealt with Jacobitism through the repetition of romantic gestures and images concerning it, by silencing its ideology through sentiment or scorn, by ignoring much of the evidence for its importance as a movement, and by repeating the mantra of foundational modernity, that Jacobitism was backward, marginal and doomed, and that the new British eighteenth century was ‘enlightened’ (Enlightenment Jacobites such as Andrew Ramsay are one of the casualties of this assumption), ‘improved’ and modern. Jacobitism is the black sheep of the British family: romantic, glamorous, but on the edge in every sense, out on a limb or a ‘fringe’, not an ancestor.

In 1971, Sir George Clark could still describe the 1745 Rising as ‘a year of Romantic vicissitudes’; in 1973 Charles Chevenix Trench described the Jacobite soldiers as ‘as alien … as a war party of Iroquois’. Sir Fitzroy Maclean described the Rising as a ‘Highland’ ‘raid’. Paul Langford, writing in the standard Oxford history in 1989, passes on without comment the view that 1745 saw ‘the preservation of England against a Highland rabble’, while Linda Colley herself tells us in Britons (1992) that ‘only the poorer Highland clans … rallied to the Young Pretender’.

There are dozens of other examples which are equally or more dismissive. In 2007, the new Culloden Battlefield Centre provides an interpretative facility which does more justice than in the past to the actual arms the Jacobites carried, but the accompanying video still shows hairy Highlanders waving swords, with nary a gun in sight. The view of the Jacobites as quasi-colonial primitives is persistent, indeed in popular terms remains dominant. It has nothing to do with the 39 battalions of foot, 9 horse squadrons (6 active) and approximately 85 cannon deployed in 1745 to challenge the Hanoverian dynasty and the British state. In almost every surrender or capture of Jacobite arms recorded, guns heavily predominate, but in the case of Jacobitism, facts are chiels that ding all too readily. In the Year of the Prince, the last centrally Scottish army mounted serious military opposition to the British government. The seriousness of Jacobitism is ignored because the power of the threat undermines the story of British unity. In the past, this was easy for British historians; in the era of a serious Jacobite history based on the documents it is more difficult, but the evidence for its ideological (as opposed to historical) importance is the zeal with which it continues to be attempted.

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Murray Pittock

Murray Pittock is a Professor in the School of Critical Studies at the University of Glasgow, where he is also Pro-Vice Principal of Special Projects, and holds the Bradley Chair of English Literature.


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