Embroidered canvas on display at NTS Culloden
Despite the recent, lively debate about the value of the work undertaken by historians, we can agree that many of them generally spend the tenure of their careers involved with research, analysis, and output. Depending upon the era of study and subject matter, dutiful historians will go back to the primary sources when at all possible and critically address the lineage of information as well as its context. Following and challenging that data lineage is something about which I have repeatedly written, and this pursuit represents a significant role in the methodology of my everyday work, as I believe it is necessary in order to produce informed and precise history.
Precise historians will familiarize themselves with as many sources as possible and determine which are most relevant, accurate, and valuable to the arguments which they are asserting. Concurrently, sources that challenge those assertions must also be consulted and may lend valuable perspective to or even transformation of the historian’s original assertions. The honest scholars will admit those changes and influences along the way by showing their work while being as deliberate and precise as possible. Preciseness is not just the end goal, it is absolutely integral to the process. In that way, scholarly history follows a course that rightfully marks it as a social science.
Just the other day the news was announced that starting in early 2021 I will be contributing to History Scotland magazine with a regular column of original content, which we are calling Spotlight: Jacobites. Like the usual posts here on Little Rebellions, this content will be presented as short, digestible essays about a wide range of different topics concerning the Jacobite era. It is a huge opportunity for me as a scholar to reach a wider audience, of course, and to raise awareness about the JDB1745 project in general. But I am also looking forward to engaging with and encouraging thousands of casual readers who might have only heard about the Jacobites or Jacobitism in passing, as well as those whose primary frame of reference is the Outlander books or television series and who would like to delve a little bit deeper into the subject. To this end, I thought I’d take just a bit of time to explain what you can expect to see in the coming months and also some of my thoughts about the impetus behind the column.
Similar to the case studies written and posted here on the JDB1745 research blog, my vision for Spotlight: Jacobites is to create a public space in which we can present fresh perspectives on the entire Jacobite century (1688-1788) based upon archival research and a modern reassessment of primary sources. When we think of the broad ‘Jacobite cause’ or the military risings that manifested from its aims, the things that many remember most vividly are often shrouded in mythology and romance. This is the natural way of history as tradition and how it passes through our collective memory. Indeed, history is less of a single, static timeline and much more of a set of parallel experiences, and it is here that the historian’s craft comes into focus to offer valuable context. While a significant part of the Jacobite era’s appeal is that romantic narrative, its tales of noble savagery and the fateful doom of exiled kings and gallant Highlanders, that is only a small part of the much larger story.
Examination of John Bruce, allegedly a soldier in Lord Sempill’s Regiment, 30 April 1746
Deceptions and mistruths in eighteenth century judicial cases are rarely different from those in the modern day. The indicted have always lied to save their own skins or to provide cover for people and institutions they wish to protect. Though overloaded with prisoners and casework by the end of the last Jacobite rising, the British justice system was fundamentally sound enough to make the necessary adjustments to expedite an effective method of processing that massive influx of suspected persons. Many of those lessons were learned in the aftermath of the Fifteen, wherein the first Georgian administration sought to balance victory and clemency, hoping to establish an indelible hallmark upon the nascent regime. Thirty years later, the system was much the same, and though the categories of punishment scaled with an increased number of prisoners taken from a significantly smaller number of total participants, a fair and accurate penal process was again pursued by many of the Hanoverian ministers who were in charge of prosecution.
A handful of high-profile Jacobite trials have since been published, offering readers a glimpse into the legal mechanics of treason cases against the Crown, but these are especially focused on prominent characters who were singled out to be made examples of. The best way to learn more about the regular folks who were involved in the last Jacobite rising is to go through the plethora of original documents housed in archives across Scotland and England, and sometimes further afield. The paper trails of these individuals are often fragmented on account of them facing examinations in the different places they were held, and subsequent prison transfers and other movements can sometimes make tracking them quite difficult. Nonetheless, the raw information left behind by the accused and by the witnesses in favor of or against them can shed valuable light on both the large and small events of 1745-6. It is worth the time spent piecing together these archive-driven stories, which is a focal objective of the JDB project.