Rebellion, or Uprising? In this Really Like This Book podcast scripts catch-up I’m in the middle of the British eighteenth century, looking at the ‘1745’, otherwise known as the Jacobite Rebellion, or Uprising, depending on which side you were on. This was the second attempt by the exiled Roman Catholic monarchy of Britain to reclaim what they thought was their rightful kingdom, so let’s have a wee bit of history to fix us in time and space, before I get on to John Buchan’s fascination with the subject.
The United Kingdom of England, Wales and Scotland had been inherited by James II and VII from his elder brother Charles II, in 1688. Unfortunately James’s open adherence to Roman Catholicism did not go down well with the Protestant government, and in due course he was forced to leave Britain for the Continent, and his daughter Mary and her Dutch husband William of Orange took the throne as the ‘Protestant Kings’, William III and Mary II. They were the penultimate Stuart monarchs, and their successor and sister, Queen Anne, was succeeded in 1714 by the Protestant Hanoverian dynasty, brought over from Germany. In 1715 James II’s son, James Stuart, called the Old Pretender by his opponents and James III and VIII by his supporters, attempted to lead an uprising against the British government and Hanoverian monarchy from Scotland. He was disappointed by his lack of supporters, fell ill and went back to France. He died in exile in 1766.
Thirty years later his elder son Charles Stuart, most famously known as Bonnie Prince Charlie, or the Young Pretender, attempted an uprising in 1745 by landing on the west coast of Scotland. He successfully gathered the clans to support him, including some senior Scottish noble families, and marched with a large army as far south as Derbyshire, about halfway down the island of Britain. But then the common sense of his military leaders took over, dismayed by their own dwindling support and rumours of Government troops massing to meet them, and he was forced to withdraw back to Scotland. The Uprising was decisively destroyed in April 1746 at the Battle of Culloden, near Inverness in the far north, and Charles Stuart escaped the British army – very famously – in disguise as Flora Macdonald’s maid. He landed back in France in September and never troubled the British government again.
So that was the Jacobite Rebellion, or Uprising. Like Flora, I am a Macdonald, descended from Clan Macdonald of the Isle of Skye. However, this took place over several centuries and follows the genealogy of only one of my many ancestors, so it’s a very selective way of claiming a heritage. I’ve never been convinced by the heady romanticism of the cult of Jacobitism. The idea of the glamorous prince from over the water, the tragedy of Culloden and the lost cause, and the resulting oppression of the Highlands, have produced a deliberate nurturing of Scottish nationalist sentimentality about English oppression and the nobility of lost Scottish causes. This can be uplifting, in very small doses, but is disturbingly divorced from historical fact. Vast numbers of novels have been written about the Jacobite theme. Until the mid-twentieth century it was one of the most important subjects in Scottish fiction, first made popular by Sir Walter Scott with his novel Waverley of 1814, and continued by, among thousands of others, John Buchan, about whom I’ve posted several times. Looking at Buchan’s Jacobite novels and how he treated the theme is a useful antidote to some of the glutinous and unhistorical nonsense that has been published about this military, political and dynastic disaster.
One of Buchan’s earliest short stories – a tiny fragment called ‘Afternoon’ published in 1896 – is written in the style of Kenneth Grahame’s Dream Days, about a little boy playing at Jacobites who has a private adventure. It’s not very much, but it’s indicative of the sentimental hold that the theme had even in the fin de siècle. Three years later another story – ‘The Earlier Affection’ of 1899 – copies part of the Waverley plot. Its about an English traveller who meets his cousin, a Jacobite fugitive, and finds himself fighting with him for the Jacobite cause just because of a few rousing words spoken in Gaelic, which sums up the sentimental mythology of the Uprising, or Rebellion.
Buchan’s third novel was A Lost Lady of Old Years, also of 1899, so we can see what his preoccupation was at this time in his writing life. It takes a very different approach to the ‘45 than is or was usual. The ‘Lost Lady’ of the title is Mrs Murray of Broughton, the wife of Mr Secretary Murray who was hanged for his part in the rebellion, though she escaped. The ‘Old Years’ means of times past: she herself was young and beautiful. History apparently records that she was a bad lot, but Buchan romanticises her spectacularly. His Mrs Murray is pure, perfect and brave in her unswerving support for the Prince, despite the treachery of her husband whom she is beginning to suspect. The main protagonist of the novel, a teenage delinquent called Francis Birkenshaw, is saved from a life of crime because Mrs Murray catches him breaking into her house, mistakes him for the Jacobite messenger for whom she is waiting, and gives him a highly secret political message to deliver to one of the great Jacobite leaders in the Highlands, Lord Lovat.
Miraculously, the trust she mistakenly places in Francis restores his wavering sense of honour and duty, and he decides to turn away from the path of petty crime down which he had been sliding, and to struggle back to being a gentleman again. He takes the message to Lovat, but he is too late, delayed by illness, and getting lost. He returns to Edinburgh to find the Cause also lost – for by now Francis is as devout a Jacobite as Mrs Murray had expected him to be – and he devotes his efforts to keeping her safe, and to getting her away to France after the execution of her husband. The story is desperately romantic, and cleverly patched in alongside the facts of history so nothing factual is disarranged very much. Francis meets the Prince, and Lovat, and other real figures, but they are all where they should be, and do what they ought to be doing at that time. Mrs Murray is too unimportant a figure in the male-centred version of how history should be written for it to matter how Buchan rewrites her character: there is simply very little known about her. A Lost Lady of Old Years is a rather good novel, for the splendid urgency that drives Francis on his quest, and the sense of redemption that the reader feels after his recovery from a life of arrogant, petty crime. Buchan doesn’t tamper with the Rebellion or Uprising at all, and is really most respectful of the facts.
His next Jacobite outing was a short story, ‘The Company of the Marjolaine’ in 1909. It combines two unrelated facts – that shortly after the American War of Independence the new nation of the United States of America was encouraged by Benjamin Franklin to look for its own king; and that Bonnie Prince Charlie was still alive, and hoping to be offered a throne. It’s a sad story of greatness come down in the world, since the Prince is now an alcoholic living thinly-veiled poverty, attended by his illegitimate daughter the Duchess of Albany and a single servant, as they travel about the Continent to no purpose. It’s also a story about endurance, about how it might have been for Charles Stuart to exist for a further forty years, the best years of his life, as a failed Pretender to a throne and country that did not want him. The story that lies behind Buchan’s iteration is of the Duchess of Albany herself, required to use this title to acknowledge her father’s claim to royal status, but denied ever finding a place for herself because her illegitimacy bars her from polite society, and her nobility requires her to withdraw the hem of her garments from anyone else.
Buchan’s best Jacobite novel is Midwinter, of 1923, because it is a very plausible story – Dr Johnson (yes, THE Dr Johnson) tries to stop an anti-Jacobite plot at the moment of the Jacobite army’s decision to march away from Derby, and helps to save the marriage of a young girl married to a traitor. It is brilliantly plotted with really memorable characters. We all have a vague idea of Dr Johnson, the grumpy and superior lexicographer sitting in state at a tea-drinking at Mrs Thrale’s house, a figure of importance. This Dr Johnson is a much younger man, and a humble but doughty tutor to the gentility. Whether he was at tutor at this point in his life is unimportant: Buchan makes Dr Johnson live, just as he makes the Jacobite cause live, and all the historical characters are fleshed out with life and vigour. There is also the heroic, romantic Jacobite clansman, Alastair Maclean, and Claudia, the woman he loves who is being so sadly betrayed by her treacherous young husband, and the great Duchess of Queensberry, and a fascinating underground network of outlaws and disguised Jacobite supporters whose reach stretches from Oxfordshire to Yorkshire. The plot is packed with action and high drama, with spectacular dramatic set-pieces of duels, struggles to escape deadly traps, creepings along corridors, long journeys undercover: it really is one Buchan’s best thrillers, drenched in the anguish of the lost Jacobite cause.
7 thoughts on “John Buchan’s Jacobites”
“The United Kingdom of England, Wales and Scotland had been inherited by James II and VII from his elder brother Charles II, in 1688. ”
England and Scotland were two separate states with two separate governments in 1688. Although they shared a monarch, they’d still been at war with one another in the 17th century. They didn’t become the United Kingdom until 1707.
Two novels by a Scottish contemporary of Buchan who took a more critical view of the Jacobites and Jacobitism are John Splendid, and The New Road by Neil Munro.
As a Derbyshire lad, I feel I must point out that Derbyshire is roughly in the middle of England, not Britain. If you are looking at the island of Britain, then northern England – Northumberland or Cumberland would be more accurate. Which only goes to show how large Scotland really is and why English chauvinists should not dismiss it. Have you read Walter Scott’s Redgauntlet? It was clearly an influence on Buchan, not least because one of the characters wears a green cloak and is referred to as Lady Greenmantle. The novel tells of a plot, some 25 years after 1745, to foment rebellion and attempt to place Bonnie Prince Charlie on the throne. It contains the famous “Wandering Willie’s Tale” which, when placed in context in the novel, is far more satisfying. Formally, it is also an adventurous work, in that the novel is told from two different points of view. Scott could write some rubbish but when he was on top form, as here, he really is superb.
Whoops, geography failure: sorry. I have read Redgauntlet, and I think I say something about it in my World’s Classics edition of Buchan’s Greenmantle.
I share your concerns about the glamourising of The Jacobite rebellion. I visited Culloden for the second time last year. First time there was the battlefield, a little cottage, and not much else, it was enough, we all sympathised with the romantic Jacobites. The new visitors centre, and the way the Scottish national trust chose to tell the story ended up really annoying me, comments on trip advisor (real anger from dozens of people commenting on a small cross that the Trust speculated may have been dropped by a fleeing highlander – the opinion was that no highlander would ever have retreated, that this was a terrible slur, and should not be allowed) made me think it wouldn’t be sensible to share my view there.
There’s no doubt that the governments treatment of the clans after Culloden was terrible, but there’s very little attempt at Culloden to explain why this might have been. Earlier uprisings are all but ignored, the divisions within Scotland at the time are ignored, the basic lack of support for the Jacobites underplayed, the religious issues underplayed, and the representation of the wider European situation at the time questionable. The whole place essentially felt like a piece of nationalist propaganda designed to bolster resentment against the English which was disturbing.
Yes, I’m with you on that. I avoid Scottish heritagey places if I can because I get enough Scotland-is-the-centre-of-the-universe rubbish from my own family. The Scottish NT have to go for the most lucrative marketing angle, to be fair, but I agree that they take the easiest option, with relentlessly nationalist narratives that don’t rely enough on historical fact.
I find the Scottish National Portrait Gallery really interesting, almost subversive, by comparison. They certainly give a much more balanced and nuanced view of the Stuart court in exile. Culloden really shocked me, and I thought I had quite a high tolerance for that kind of thing.
Meanwhile you’re making me feel I really need to read some of the Buchan’s I’ve collected, and just a little bit bad that I haven’t done it already.
Well, I hope you enjoy at least some of them! He is a splendid, multiply rewarding storyteller.