Bonnie Prince Charlie and The Jacobite Rebellion

Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Young Pretender, Charles Edward Stuart. Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites. The 1745 Jacobite Rebellion
Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Young Pretender, Charles Edward Stuart. Credit: GL Archive/Alamy

One of the most pivotal periods in Scottish history, the failed rebellion of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites had widespread repercussions

The plot and cast are extraordinary: a foreigner, 52nd in line to the throne, is made King of Great Britain and Ireland, while a King over the Sea and a Bonnie Prince, who seek to regain the Crown, have their hopes dashed on a Scottish moor by a blue-blooded butcher. Add disguises, scheming and skirling bagpipes: if William Shakespeare had been around to witness the Jacobite rebellions of 1715 and 1745, he would surely have found material for a great tragedy.

The first Jacobite Rebellion, known as the ‘Fifteen’ (1715–16), was a dramatic outburst of  resistance that had been brewing ever since the Glorious Revolution (1688–89) had ousted Roman Catholic King James II from the throne in favour of his daughter, Mary, and her husband, William of Orange.

The subsequent Act of Settlement (1701) that excluded Catholics from the Crown meant that when Queen Anne died childless in 1714, 51 blood relatives were passed over before George of Hanover, closest eligible Protestant to succeed, was thrust onto the throne.

The roots of rebellion

Boorish and unable to speak English, King George I impressed few of his new subjects and gave fresh impetus to feelings that James Francis Edward Stuart, exiled son of King James II, was the rightful heir.

King George I & the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745. Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites
King George I. Credit: GL Archive/Alamy

Popular myth says the Jacobite rebellions (from the Latin Jacobus, James) that sought to restore the Stuart dynasty, pitched Scots against English, or Catholics against Protestants. In reality, there were Jacobite sympathisers across England and Wales too, and across religious divides. Those uneasy about the union of the kingdoms of Scotland and England in 1707 also found a focus for dissent, while powers in Europe were ever ready to raise mischief by backing the Jacobite cause.

Open rebellion broke out in Scotland in 1715, led by the Earl of Mar, but was checked in November by government forces at Sheriffmuir, northeast of Dunblane. Slow off the mark, James Stuart, the ‘Old Pretender’, returned from France to Scotland only in December, holding court at Scone Palace.

This was the man who, it was rumoured, had been a changeling: the baby smuggled into Mary of Modena’s bedroom in a warming-pan to replace the royal baby that had been stillborn in 1688, then smuggled in a bundle of washing into exile in France when his father King James II lost the throne. The lugubrious individual who appeared 27 years later fell sadly short of his adventurous past. Unable to inspire the rebellion to continue, he slipped back to the Continent, settling in Rome. 

Castle and Loch, Eilean Donan, Highland, Scotland. Jacobite Rebellion of 1745/ Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites
Castle and Loch, Eilean Donan, Highlands, Scotland. Credit: VisitBritain/Britain on View

Backing for Bonnie Prince Charlie

Although the Fifteen was foiled, with Eilean Donan Castle all but destroyed in 1719, disturbances continued, until the House of Stuart had another chance to invade in 1745, alongside the French. While James was too tired to bother, his 24-year-old son Charles, ’so sweet a prince, that flesh and blood could not resist following him’, answered the call. 

In the event, French backing fell away, but Charles pressed on, arriving at Glenfinnan, Scotland, in August 1745 with just 50 supporters.

Loch Shiel with the Glenfinnan Monument in the centre, which commemorates the 1745 uprising. Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites, Jacobite Rebellion 1745
Loch Shiel with the Glenfinnan Monument in the centre, which commemorates the 1745 uprising. Credit: Ian Dagnall/Alamy

Over two days the charismatic, blue-eyed ‘Young Pretender’ attracted 1,500 men about him and he raised his father’s standard – today’s monument and visitor centre at the head of Loch Shiel, framed by dramatic Highland glen scenery, tell the story.

Edinburgh fell to Jacobite hands and Charles set up court at Edinburgh’s Holyroodhouse, conducting official business there. His army’s rout of government forces at Prestonpans in September sent shock waves to London and the speed at which Jacobites marched to Derby by 4 December, just 125 miles from the capital, threw banks and businesses in the City into panic; King George II prepared to flee.

But things began to go wrong for Charles. Promised help from France failed to materialise and English Jacobites showed little support, leading senior officers to argue for a withdrawal back to Scotland. What might have been if Charles’s army had not turned around?

The Jacobites defeated government forces at Falkirk in January 1746 and took Inverness in the following month, however crucial momentum had been lost and, by spring, money and supplies were running critically short. The fate of the Forty-Five rising was about to be sealed at the Battle of Culloden, five miles southeast of Inverness.

Battle of Culloden 16 April 1746 was a decisive defeat of the Jacobites. Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobite Rebellion
Battle of Culloden 16 April 1746 was a decisive defeat of the Jacobites. Credit: Print collector/Alamy

The Battle of Culloden

Take up the story at the Culloden visitor centre, where an exhibition features eyewitness accounts, a battlefield guide and tours that detail events of 16 April 1746.

After a botched night-time attack on sleeping government Redcoats had left Jacobite troops weary and hungry, Charles faced down his advisors – “God damn it! Are my orders still disobeyed?” – and insisted on joining battle.

Vastly outnumbered – 7,500 to 5,500 – the Jacobites advanced through afternoon hail, gunfire and grapeshot. Their great tactical weapon, the feared Highland charge, was
no match for the well-drilled forces of the 
Duke of Cumberland, son of King George II. In an hour Charles had lost 1,500 men, while government casualties were just 50. The Jacobite dream lay dead on the rain-drenched, boggy moor, the last hand-to-hand battle fought on British soil. While the Bonnie Prince fled, ‘Butcher Cumberland’ and his men showed no mercy, slaying those who remained.

Aftermath of the Jacobite Rebellion

In the aftermath, the government ruthlessly set about dismantling Highland culture, depriving clan chiefs of their legal powers and clansmen of their weapons. Jacobite estates were seized, and the kilt and tartan were banned. Mighty Fort George was built northeast of Inverness as a government army base.

Charles went on the run across the Highlands and Scottish islands for five months before making good his escape abroad; his disguise as Betty Burke, an Irish spinning maid, in the company of Flora MacDonald, entered legend – though he was nearly discovered when he unthinkingly hoisted up his skirts to cross a river.

At first feted on the Continent as a romantic hero, the once-handsome Bonnie Prince became a tragic figure of drunken dissipation, dying in Rome in 1788 following
a stroke. He long lamented not perishing at Culloden.

Raising a Glass to Rebellion

At a time when Jacobite support was treasonable, those loyal to the cause would conclude covert meetings by raising their glasses over a finger bowl, signifying allegiance to
‘the King over the Sea’ (James Francis Edward Stuart).

As a result, Jacobite drinking paraphernalia that had hidden or coded imagery also sprang up. See, for example, a tray in the West Highland Museum at Fort William. It is covered in seemingly random scrawl until you place a metal cylinder or goblet in its centre, when the likeness of Bonnie Prince Charlie becomes apparent as a reflection.

Other toasting vessels included Amen glasses, inscribed with ‘Amen’ in reference to the conclusion of the Jacobite national anthem, The Origin of our Own. Such glasses often
bore a tear-shaped bubble in the stem, symbolising mourning for the absent
royal house.

Further symbols on Jacobite glasses included thistles and sunflowers (Scotland and Restoration). Glasgow Museums has 400 Jacobite objects in its collection, including a wine glass with an engraved portrait of Charles Stuart.

For your own Jacobite toast, try Drambuie, the secret recipe for which was given by Bonnie Prince Charlie to John MacKinnon, chief of Clan MacKinnon, in thanks for helping him to escape from the Isle of Skye. Its full Gaelic name ‘an dram buidheach’ means ‘the drink that satisfies’.

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