I look forward to the opening tonight of Rebels With a Cause, the winter exhibition at the Scottish Parliament. It is based on Aberdeen University's MacBean collection of Jacobite memorabilia, the best of its kind in the world. Ironically, is was amassed in Yonkers, New York City, by William MacBean, a Scottish emigre from Nairn who died in 1919.
The Jacobite uprisings are compelling and remain problematic, and I explore this today in my perspective piece in The Scotsman. Thanks to Sir Walter Scott, they have come to symbolise "noble failure". Scott sanitised and re-imagined the rebels to make them acceptable to polite society. As a result, their association with the cause of Scottish independence resulted in that too being portrayed as a romantic, impractical idea. The Bonnie Prince Charlies image sits ill with the concept of modern civic nationalism based on equality of opportunity, democracy and economic prosperity. Yet the movement and its iconography, mythical or otherwise, has become a central part of Scottish culture, and not just to draw in the tourists.
The backlash against Walter Scott's Scotland, which falsely suggests every aspect of our identity is invented, hasn't done the cultural nationalist movement any favours either. It has become fashionable for historians to deny there was any pro-independence dimension to Jacobite popularity in this country. The view has arisen that it was about preserving the claim of an ousted dynasty, their aristocratic hangers-on and the interests of the French. This is sometimes taken even further, to say Culloden was genocide of the Gael by Lowland Scots. This is as simplistic and inaccurate as suggesting the rebellion was Scotland v England. Popular revolts often attract a strange, contradictory mass of followers. To suggest that hostility to The 1707 Union did not exist in Lowland Scotland, and was not a factor in the Jacobite movement here, is plain wrong. The mob in Edinburgh turned out for the Jacobite army and it had strong support right up the East Coast as well as The Highlands. And remember Gaelic Scotland was larger then, stretching as far south as Loch Lomond. Glasgow, growing as a result of trade with the British colonies, was lukewarm to the cause, but it was not the great centre of wealth and population it became in the following century.
Many more Scots lived outside the cities then, and these areas had considerable Jacobite and anti-union sympathy in the early 18th century. The exhibition has examples of Jacobite propaganda challenging the 1707 Union. It's true that the Stuarts represented a pre-modern, absolute monarchy, so did the Hanoverians whose claim was based on excluding Catholics from the succession. Besides, nobody asked ordinary Scots whether they wanted to become North Britain. In the absence of a democratic movement, it's not really surprising that powerless folk, unhappy with the state they were in, would follow those elites best placed to bring it down.
History is written by the victors and we hear very little about Scottish patriotic movements in the 18th century. We hear a lots about The Edinburgh Enlightenment, but little of literary societies, such as that run by Allan Ramsay, which wanted Scotland's independence restored, and which identified the Jacobite cause as a means to deliver this. Burns and Fergusson were very sympathetic to these ideas.
The exhibition also shows that Jacobite sympathisers were not atavisitc and at odds with The Enlightenment. Many had been students or teachers at Aberdeen's Marischal College. One exile for many years corresponded with the philosopher David Hume. Another, Hugh Mercer, was a hero of the American Revolution.
The Jacobites were a far more complex, and in some cases, modern bunch than the myths of Scott - and the backlash against those myths - suggests. They were a real threat to the state. Certainly the destruction of the clan system and Highland culture demonstrates that the British establishment felt itself severely threatened. Then as now there were Scots who saw a more secure future by allying themselves to that British establishment. But many Lowlanders were also shocked and - frankly scared - by the brutal suppression of their Gaelic speaking countrymen. Peter Watkins 1964 film Culloden presented the battle and its aftermath as a shocking documentary, which drew parallels with The Vietnam War. It was based on the book by John Prebble. Strangely enough, Culloden was not shown on British television again for 30 years afterwards