Anne Abernethy to Robert Forbes of Corse, 21 October 1745
Of the many archival sources relating to the last Jacobite rising that still survive, one category of documents that is noticeably thin is that of personal letters from rebel soldiers. This makes sense for a number of reasons. For one, the army led by Charles Edward Stuart was almost constantly on the march during its eight-month campaign in Britain, leaving little time to write to family back home. Literacy among the rank-and-file troops was not particularly pronounced, and this is borne out by the number of Jacobite prisoners who claimed they could not write, instead leaving ‘their mark’ on government documents in place of a signature. Postal service through the Royal Mail and by private couriers was indeed active during the crisis, but was notoriously unreliable due to poorly maintained roads through often difficult and remote terrain, as well as the fact that the kingdoms were in the midst of a civil war. Packets of sealed letters were regularly seized by agents on both sides of the conflict and were broken open in the search for seditious material and intelligence within. As a result, thousands of missives never made it to their final destinations.
The signature marks of numerous illiterate Jacobite prisoners and witnesses against them
This dearth of important evidence means that it can be a bit more difficult to study the context of the common people who were caught up in the rising, both within the Jacobite army and on the home front. Newspapers and magazines of the time were valuable for getting out basic (and sometimes pointed) information to the masses, but they are nowhere as intimate or revealing as the personal letters themselves. Thankfully, a few significant collections of these letters written by plebeian soldiers and their family members are still preserved in various archives, and they shed a fascinating light on what it was like for some of the ‘ordinary’ people in Britain who were involved – willingly or not – in Jacobite designs during such a tumultuous period.
The deposition of David Clark versus Charles Hay, 12 July 1746
Like many small towns in the path of the rapidly coalescing Jacobite army, the autumn of 1745 was an eventful one for the inhabitants of Coupar Angus. The annual drudgery of the harvest was interrupted across various regions of Forfarshire and Perthshire as swelling companies of rebel soldiers made their ways southward toward Edinburgh. In late September and early October, inhabited towns and villages along the army’s route were solicited by Jacobite recruiting parties looking for warm bodies to join the cause. Requisition officers wrote up strict demands for civic officials to provide supplies for the benefit of the Bonnie Prince’s war effort, and Gàidhlig-speaking strangers in Highland clothing were billeted in private homes without regard for the owners’ approval. Few political conversations occurred openly, as one never knew who was listening in. Clandestine meetings and furtive confabulation concerning treasonous topics were not uncommon occurrences in Coupar Angus, nor in any locality where Jacobite designs were taking shape.
According to the accounts of several common citizens throughout the rural Scottish Lowlands, this harvest season brought with it a palpable frisson that many regarded with equal parts excitement, trepidation, and ambivalence. Though the last Jacobite rising quickly gained momentum in its opening weeks, many participants knew even at that bullish time that success for Forty-five was by no means a sure thing. Matters were especially complicated for those who wanted to remain neutral or otherwise avoid being involved in such a dangerous gambit. And despite the profound vein of Jacobite support that ran through a broad range of disparate Northern Britons, the overwhelming majority of Scotland’s population was firmly set against the idea of a return to Divine Right monarchy under the Stuart kings.
David Tyrie’s letter to John Gordon of Glenbucket, 17 September 1745
I hope yew will not question my love and affection to ye good cause. Och for 20 years less age, and a little health, nothing should hinder me from assisting ye cause. Butt since I’m ane invalide and cannot doe good, I shall indeaver to advise all young men to Joyn.
There were a number of different reasons why someone might join the Jacobite army in the late summer of 1745, just as things were starting to heat up after the arrival of Bonnie Prince Charlie in the Western Isles of Scotland. Specific motivations to pick up arms or to help others to do so were as disparate and multi-layered as the individuals involved in the conflict, as were their levels of sustained commitment as the campaign progressed.
Some fought for the ancient claim of the Stuart monarchs, and some stood in opposition to the parliamentary union that bound together England and Scotland into a single kingdom. Many resented being forced to accept the authority of the presbyteries over the traditional Divine Right of kings, especially when it came bundled with oaths of fealty to a sovereign from Lower Saxony. Others reckoned that they would be better off without the influence of a comparatively liberal representative government, an establishment which to them symbolized the decay of traditional values – especially in certain long-established and autonomous regions of ‘North Britain’.