Memorialising Through Memoirs: Robert Forbes’s ‘The Lyon in Mourning’ Manuscript

‘The Lyon in Mourning’ manuscript, compiled by Robert Forbes between 1747 and 1775, is a remarkable document in Scottish history, and one that is built substantially from personal recollections and memoirs [See Figure 1]. Forbes was an episcopalian clergyman from Leith who spent almost the entirety of the Jacobite rising in jail due to his support for Charles Edward Stuart. He was released in May 1746, and, in the following year, he began to compile material that reflected the Jacobites’ perspective on recent events. He describes his intentions in a letter written on 18 January 1748 to Mr Hugh MacDonald of Balishair: ‘I have a great Anxiety to make the Collection as compleat & exact as possible for the Instruction of future Ages in a piece of History the most remarkable & interesting that ever happened in any Age or Country.’1 Forbes collected execution speeches, poems and songs and a wealth of other material, as well as soliciting eye-witness accounts through interviews and letters, and he copied out everything he collected onto blank sheets that he subsequently bound into ten octavo volumes with identical leather covers. Several volumes also have material relics pasted on the front and backboards such as fabric from clothes worn by Charles Edward Stuart and pieces of the boat in which he travelled while fleeing from the government troops after Culloden [See Figure 2].2

Figure 1. Bishop Robert Forbes, ‘Lyon in Mourning’, vol. 1 title page, SFU Digitized Collections
Figure 2. Bishop Robert Forbes, ‘Lyon in Mourning’, vol. 4 back boards, SFU Digitized Collections

Forbes was assiduous to acquire the narratives of individuals who had been directly involved in various ways with the Jacobite activities. In the letter to MacDonald of Balishair he affirms that he seeks ‘every seasonable Opportunity of making my Addresses to such, whose Situation in Life has … rendered them capable of knowing or discovering the true State of Facts, & thereby of being useful in the Cause of Truth’ (4: 785). The in-person interviews, letters and written accounts that form part of his collection offer an invaluable glimpses into the lives of the many men and women who espoused the Stuart cause. ‘The Lyon in Mourning’ includes items by and about people who are well known in the historical record such as Charles Edward Stuart and Flora MacDonald. But it also contains the stories of those who are less known – or entirely unknown. ‘The Lyon in Mourning’ is currently the focus of a digital humanities collaborative project involving Simon Fraser University’s Research Centre for Scottish Studies and Digital Humanities Innovation Laband the National Library of Scotland that uses quantitative and qualitative analysis to examine the manuscript’s representation of groups who have traditionally been marginalized in historical accounts: women, labouring-class individuals and Gaelic-speakers. The manuscript has been digitised and is currently being rendered into Text Encoding Initiative (TEI).3 

Irish historian Patricia Palmer refers to the discovery of traces of obscure individuals in the archives as ‘fugitive sightings’ which give us glimpses of individuals caught ‘almost accidentally, in the unsteady lantern beam of history’.4  ‘The Lyon in Mourning’ features a number of such glimpses. In this short discussion, I would like to draw attention to the accounts of three individuals in ‘The Lyon in Mourning’ who were caught ‘in the unsteady lantern beam of history’: Ann Leith, Donald MacLeod and Ned Burke. Their narratives, although mediated in different ways by Forbes, serve as brief but illuminating memoirs of the lives of individuals living at this crucial point in Scottish and British history. I conclude my discussion by examining how Forbes’s process of compiling and scribing his manuscript also constitutes a form of memoir in its own right as he crafts his own identity as a witness to the cultural trauma of the Jacobite followers.  

‘More Than Feamal Courage’: Ann Leith’s Narrative

Ann Leith first wrote to Forbes on 31 January 1749. Over the course their brief correspondence, Leith provided Forbes with a short memoire, which she calls ‘a history of my adventurs in time of the Common Calamity’ (6: 1214). Originally from Aberdeenshire, Leith set out on 2 August 1745 for what was supposed to be a quick visit to Inverness where her son was at school. Finding that the arrival of General Cope’s army and the subsequent ‘Confusition in the Country’ made it ‘impracticable’ for her to travel (6: 1285), Leith took lodgings in the town. But she quickly immersed herself in working for Jacobite cause, helping with the escape of Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat, who was confined in the same building in which she lived. Leith notes that she subsequently had a guard placed at her door and was ‘slightly Examined’, but she was released due to the fact that she had friends who were influential with the government (6: 1288). Leith reflects back on her feelings at that time time of the conflict, indicating that ‘it was no easy matter’ for someone to conceal their ‘real sentements’ at that time (6: 1285), and that ‘my hop[e]s wer[e] very great—’ (6: 1285) at this point for a positive outcome for the Jacobites. 

Those hopes were dashed by subsequent events as the Jacobite army, after marching as far as Derby, returned to Scotland. ‘I had bitter for Sweet’ (6: 1288), she recalls. On the morning of 16 April 1746, summoning what she describes as ‘more than feamal [female] Courage’, Leith and a servant called Eppy go to Drummosie Muir where the Battle of Culloden would take place later in the day to providing food for a number of the starving soldiers. Leith also provides powerful descriptions of the aftermath of Culloden and the crowded conditions in the prisons: ‘Nothing then but Scenes of horror every moment Every day and hour fresh alarms of some Friends being taken til at Last ther wer[e] so many that I knew not whom to have most at heart’ (6: 1289). Her own actions suggest that she continued to draw on her ‘more than’ female course, as she writes about her visits to the prisoners and her attempts to alleviate their distresses. She notes she was searched and questioned on numerous occasions, but managed to avoid arrest herself. Writing the account for Forbes gives Leith the opportunity to record as well as reflect back on her activities, as she comments on the fear that ordinary people experienced such that they were afraid to help even their closest relatives. She also suggests her own ministrations to the Jacobite prisoners at this time took a toll on her, as she indicates that ‘Ther is nothing mor[e] Certa[i]n th[a]n that the maledy I now Labour under was brought upon me Ch[i]efly by the Fatigue I took upon me at that time wich I am afraid I never will get the better of’ (6: 1306). Leith encloses her narrative with a brief letter indicating that she hopes she has provided Forbes with what he ‘disyard [desired]’ and apologising for the fact that she is ‘a very bad penwoman’ (6: 1306). 

The ‘Faithful Palinurus’: Donald MacLeod’s Account

Whereas Leith provided Forbes with her own written narrative that he subsequently transcribed into ‘The Lyon in Mourning’, a number of other informants had their accounts written down by Forbes during an in-person interview. One such individual was Donald MacLeod from Gualtergill on Skye who had steered the eight-oared boat in which Charles Edward Stuart and his close followers fled between the islands and the mainland of Scotland. MacLeod, whom Forbes refers to as the ‘faithful Palinurus’, came to see Forbes in the Citadel in Leith on 17 August 1747. Although MacLeod was initially reluctant to share his story with Forbes, believing that his story would only take up ‘a Quarter of a Sheet’ of paper (2: 266), he was eventually pursuaded to recount ‘a’ the Nig-naes’ of his recollections.. Accordingly, on 20 August, Forbes attended on MacLeod at the house of one James MacDonald and proceeded to ‘write the Journal from Donald’s own Mouth’ (2: 272). MacLeod’s provides specific details of times and dates of the places of the escape, but he also includes more intimate information such as descriptions of Charles Edward Stuart’s love for tobacco, his facility for cooking and his penchant for song. MacLeod also describes his own experiences of being captured in Benbecula after he had parted with Charles Edward Stuart and the horrors of the prison ships that he was held on before he was finally released. 

MacLeod’s story is highly mediated. Forbes notes that, as a Gaelic-speaker, MacLeod chose ‘rather to express himself in Erse than in Scots’ and that James MacDonald and Malcolm MacLeod translated while Forbes carefully wrote down what they said then read it aloud back to them for verification. Forbes indicates his desire to represent MacLeod’s words as accurately as he could, however, noting that he ‘was always sure to read over every Sentence, in order to know of them all, if I was exactly right’ (2: 317). In describing MacLeod’s answer to General Campbell’s question of why he did not turn Charles Edward Stuart over to the authorities and obtain the thirty thousand pounds reward, Forbes writes that MacLeod’s answer was ‘so very good, that the Beauty of it would be quite spoil’d, if I did not give it in his own Words’ (2: 309). It is clear that Forbes prompts MacLeod’s recollections with questions and therefore has a strong impact on shaping the story. Similarly, Malcolm MacLeod and James MacDonald also affect the narrative; the two men and MacLeod debate the specifics of the story amongst themselves in Erse on several occasions. We can consider MacLeod’s account a social text based largely on one man’s recollections rather than a memoir, but it is nevertheless an account that represents a perspective of which we have little historical evidence: that of labouring-class Gaelic-speaking individual.

‘From His Own Mouth’: Ned Bourk’s Journal

Forbes arranged to meet with MacLeod once more on 7 September 1747, at the house of David Anderson in Leith. This time, MacLeod brought along a man who had been one of the oarsmen on the expedition: Edward ‘Ned’ Bourk (spelled variously Burk or Burke), a Gaelic-speaking sedan chair carrier in Edinburgh. At this meeting, Bourk gave Forbes a ‘Paper’ containing an account of what he remembered about his experiences. Forbes complains, however, that this had been ‘taken from Ned’s own mouth in a very confused, unconnected way’ (2: 326). As we no longer have access to the original document, it is difficult to know the basis of this alleged confusion, but it could be owing to the fact that, like MacLeod, Ned was a native Gaelic-speaker (Forbes notes that Bourk ‘speaks the Scots exceedingly ill’ [2: 318]) and that he seems to have been illiterate. Accordingly, Forbes arranged to meet up with Bourk separately two days later during which time he went through the account with Bourk ‘at great Leisure’ and, ‘from his own Mouth, made those Passages plain & intelligible, that were written in confused indistinct Terms’ (2: 326). Bourk’s ‘Journal’ relates the harrowing experiences of the party, including their narrowly missing being captured by Captains Ferguson and Scott, and the ‘skulking’ in huts with doors so low that they were obliged to put heather down so that Charles Edward Stuart wouldn’t bruise his knees when entering. He also relays the subsequent roles he himself played during this time, including providing Charles Edward Stuart with his own coat to disguise him, fishing, hunting, cooking as well as keeping guard. Bourk’s account as it appears in ‘The Lyon in Mourning’ is obviously highly mediated, as was MacLeod’s first by the unknown scribe and then by Forbes himself (who had a distinct agenda in modifying the narrative), and it is conveyed through an odd mixture of first- and third-person narration. Although the language in which Bourk’s narrative is written appears for the most part elevated, there are nevertheless certain expressions and grammatical constructions that seem to represent the informant’s voice, such as when the account notes that Bourk became Charles Edward Stuart’s guide after the battle because he was well acquainted ‘with all them Bounds’ (2: 327). 

Conclusion: ‘The Lyon in Mourning’ as Life Writing

Leith’s first-person letters, MacLeod’s translated composite narrative and Bourk’s translated and altered account are just three examples of the wide variety of items that Forbes includes in ‘The Lyon in Mourning’. As I have indicated, each one of these narratives is highly mediated. The manuscript does not give us verifiable historical accounts, therefore, but it does give us ‘fugitive sightings’ that bring us one step closer to the voices of the individuals concerned. It seems fair to say that were it not for Forbes’s dedication in trying to piece together the history of the Jacobites after Culloden as accurately as he could, we would not have a record of these individuals’ contributions to the Jacobite cause, or of those of many other ordinary men and women whose actions and names they themselves include in their narrations. 

But the pages of ‘The Lyon in Mourning’ contain not just items by other people, but also details of the activities that Forbes himself undertook in collecting the materials, the times he spent in conversation, the other people who joined him for the interviews, the exact dates when he received his letters, and even his thoughts and opinions on what he is collecting. Appropriately, his own signature appears throughout the volume as he verifies the contents that he receives [See Figure 3]. At the same time as it provides us with accounts of individual informants’ lives, then, ‘The Lyon in Mourning’ as a whole can also be seen as a memoir of Robert Forbes. Functioning both as reader and writer of the words of others over the course of thirty years, Forbes forged his own identity as a witness and medium for the Jacobite cause. For Robert Forbes, the compiling and scribing of ‘The Lyon in Mourning’ was also a form of life writing. 

Figure 3. Bishop Robert Forbes, ‘Lyon in Mourning’, vol. 3, p. 544 signature, SFU Digitized Collections
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End Notes

  1. Robert Forbes, ‘The Lyon in Mourning’, vol. 4, p. 785. Simon Fraser University’s Library hosts digital images of the manuscript at https://digital.lib.sfu.ca/lyon-mourning. In subsequent citations, I provide in-text volume and page numbers from this digital edition.
  2. See Leith Davis, ‘“A Piece of History the Most Remarkable & Interesting That Ever Happened in Any Age or Country”: “The Lyon in Mourning” Manuscript of Robert Forbes’ in Eighteenth-Century Life, vol. 48, no. 1, 2024, pp. 159–82 and the Special Issue of the International Review of Scottish Studies on “New Perspectives on ‘The Lyon in Mourning’” https://www.irss.uoguelph.ca/index.php/irss
  3. At the time of writing, the entire manuscript has been transcribed, and volumes 1 to 6 have been encoded using TEI. I would like to acknowledge the work of Joey Takeda, User Interface Developer at SFU’s Digital Humanities Innovation Lab, Project Manager Shauna Irani, and all the “Lyon in Mourning” research assistants: Taylor Breckles, Alyssa Bridgman, Bo Pearson, Jasmine Bojakli, Ron Shrestha, Emma Trotter and Julianna Wagar.
  4. Patricia Palmer, ‘Fugitive Identities: Selves, Narratives and Disregarded Lives in Early Modern Ireland’ in Becoming and Belonging in Ireland, A.D. c.1200–1600 (Cork: Cork University Press, 2018) ed. by Eve Campbell, Elizabeth Fitzpatrick and Audrey Horning, pp. 327, 315.
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