Patriotic Scots, disgruntled Britons, scheming European nations - all got involved in the Jacobite cause. The uprisings gave rise to episodes of great bravery as well of tactical mistakes, and have left us with a legacy of many stirring tales. Louise Yeoman tells the story.
The Glorious Revolution
To modern eyes the complex web of religious and political loyalties which underpinned Jacobitism can seem alien and unsympathetic. The whole movement might be said to span the century from the deposition of James II in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 to the lonely alcohol-sodden death of Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1788.
A Catholic himself, James decided that by promoting edicts of religious tolerance, he would be able to surreptitiously re-establish Catholicism as the official faith of the British Isles. This notion produced near-hysteria in James's Protestant subjects - who had been taught to abhor this faith. When a son was born to the King and Queen, British Protestants were faced with the prospect of never waking up from their worst nightmare: a Catholic dynasty.
They turned to James's Protestant son-in-law William of Orange. In 1688 he led a successful invasion of England. James panicked and fled. As Scotland wavered, James wrote an utterly tactless letter to the Scottish National Convention in Edinburgh. They declared for William. James's most zealous Scottish supporter, Viscount Dundee, turned to a military solution. The first Jacobite rising broke out. But it was not very popular at all. Most Scottish nobles took the attitude of wait and see.
Dundee's forces destroyed William's with a devastating highland charge at the battle of Killiecrankie in 1689, but their leader died in his hour of glory. This left the movement headless. The wait and see-ers kept waiting, and the rising petered out.
So how did Jacobitism come back from the political grave in Scotland? In a few words: William and The Union. The new King's Scottish reign was characterised by government tactlessness and economic disasters. The most important of the latter was the Darien Scheme. William refused all English assistance to this Scottish venture to found a colony in Panama. When the scheme failed, leaving most of the would-be colonists dead, the King was widely blamed.
Thus to the die-hard believers in the hereditary right of James were added the dissatisfied. Jacobitism became a magnet for almost anyone with a grudge against the government. The Union of 1707 then produced what was for many Scots the grudge to end all grudges.
The ink was hardly dry on the treaty before it was being widely denounced, and Scotland was ripe for sedition. The French, who were at war with Britain, suddenly saw an advantage to be gained here. They would land the new Jacobite heir, James III 'The Old Pretender' in his ancestral kingdom and start a rebellion. It was an excellent opportunity to unite much of the nation, even many Presbyterians, on the Jacobite side against the Union.
The abortive 1708 rising was dogged with bad luck, however, and possible sabotage. The invasion fleet arrived tardily in the Firth of Forth to find the Royal Navy waiting for them. The French commander refused to put the furious James ashore. The invasion that might have united Scotland against the Union was a damp squib.
The '15 Rebellion
However Jacobitism was still very dangerous. The promised benefits of the Union had failed to arrive for many people. Instead, heavy excise duty and increased tax caused much ill feeling. Added to these were humiliations at the hands of the English-dominated Westminster parliament.
Yet rebellion when it came, sprang from a most unexpected quarter. When George I of Hanover succeeded to the throne in 1715, he sacked one of Scotland's most influential politicians: John Erskine, Earl of Mar. Mar decided to retaliate by raising the standard for the house of Stuart. On one side of his banner he put the arms of Scotland and on the other 'No Union'. Thousands flocked to it. Soon almost the entire north of Scotland was in his hands. He did this without even bothering to warn the Jacobite court.
This was not a phenomenon of a backward rural people rising for archaic notions of loyalty to the king over the water. There was strong support for the Jacobite cause in the trading burghs of north-east Scotland, as well as in the Highlands.
Historian Bruce Lenman characterised the backbone of the rising as 'Patriotic Scots and Disgruntled Britons'. The government commander, the Duke of Argyll warned his own side that 'Beyond the Forth the rebels have a hundred to one at least against us'. The Union was in serious danger.
Argyll seized the strategically vital ground around Stirling, but he was heavily outnumbered. Then at the battle of Sheriffmuir, when all seemed lost, Mar lost his nerve and suddenly withdrew. The belated landing of the Pretender couldn't retrieve things, and the leaders of the rising fled ingloriously to France.
The 1715 was like no other Jacobite rising since Killiecrankie. It was totally indigenous to Britain and not started from abroad. It was also the only occasion when a sizeable rebellion also broke out in England - in heavily Catholic and financially broke Lancashire.
The moment had passed, however, and the exiled Stuarts now became no more than useful pawns in foreign hands. The next European power to play the Jacobite card was Spain in 1719.
Unluckily for the Spanish, their main invasion fleet was destroyed by a storm before it ever set sail for England. Only a tiny diversionary force made it to the north-west of Scotland. There they garrisoned the ancient fortress of Eilean Donan but were scattered by the energetic response of the local Hanoverian commander at the battle of Glen Shiel.
Lowland Scotland had settled down under a Hanoverian regime, which though sometimes unloved, did not move it to outright revolt. Faced with the Stuart association with foreign enemies, most Scots preferred to keep a hold of their Hanoverian nurse 'for fear of finding something worse'. But what George II and his ministers could not inspire was enthusiasm, and this was to prove near-calamitous when the Jacobite card was played again.
The '45 Rebellion
Engraving of the Duke of Cumberland who defeated the Jacobites at the Battle of Culloden ©
After major French invasion plans collapsed in 1744, Charles Edward Stuart put together his own tiny invasion force to land in Scotland. The Prince came without the men, money and guns that he had been expressly told that he needed. Instead, he brought himself and his unassailable self-belief.
Guaranteed by Charles that he would be compensated if the rising failed, the Chief of Clan Cameron committed his people to the cause. In this case, the support of a few key western clans was crucial to the rising. Without them, the Jacobite standard could never have been raised: with them, the '45 was begun.
The rebellion had remarkable initial success. Many Hanoverian troops had been withdrawn to fight the regime's wars abroad, and only a handful remained to defend Scotland. This, plus the general reluctance of the population to martyr themselves for George II, allowed Charles to occupy Edinburgh virtually unopposed.
In a move to whip up popular support, he decreed the Union to be abolished. Meanwhile, the government forces under General Cope appeared belatedly to take him on. They were surprised by the Jacobite army at the battle of Prestonpans and torn apart, according to one observer in the space of 'seven or eight minutes'.
Execution of the rebel lords at Tower Hill in 1746 ©
The Jacobite army now possessed Scotland. There was nothing to stop them marching into England - but was this a wise decision?
Charles Edward assured his commanders that his loyal English subjects would join them, and that massive French military aid would be forthcoming. It soon turned out that the Prince's promises were mostly empty.
The Jacobite army was in danger of being cut off from Scotland and massacred. At Derby, his military council forced a retreat. The decision sowed discord between the prince and his most gifted commander, Lord George Murray. Murray managed to carry off a successful retreat to Scotland, and then to win the battle of Falkirk against superior government forces. Little gratitude he got, however.
Battle of Culloden - a contemporary coloured print giving an artist's impression of the battle ©
At Culloden, the fruits of Charles's rancour with Murray appeared. After the failure of a surprise night-attack on the government forces, the Prince insisted on taking command.
He chose to give battle on the most unsuitable terrain possible for a Highland charge. Hanoverian artillery cut the Jacobite troops to pieces, and Culloden was a slaughter. The prince became the hunted fugitive in the heather, so well known to romantic legend.
Ironically, the savage government repression after Culloden was as unnecessary as it was brutal. Many former Jacobites were only too willing to seek terms with the State.
Within a relatively short time a large number of them were to be found serving the Hanoverians in a military capacity abroad. Jacobitism had been exposed by the '45 as no longer militarily viable. With the exception of a few half-hearted plots, it continued withering away.
The Bonnie Prince died, a sad old drunkard, in Florence. His brother Cardinal Henry, later effectively recognised the Hanoverians, although theoretically he maintained his own claim to the throne. Eventually admiration for Jacobitism was adopted, along with tartan, by the Hanoverians themselves as part of a general nostalgia for the good old days. There could be no more telling comment on the decease of Jacobitism as a political force.