Results of the court martial held against seven Jacobite soldiers for desertion, 9 October 1745
After a handful of Donald Cameron of Lochiel’s men slipped through Edinburgh’s grand, turreted Netherbow Port virtually unopposed, the capital of Scotland, excepting its imposing castle, was firmly in Jacobite control for most of the late summer and autumn of 1745. From 17 September to 31 October, high-ranking soldiers and officials under the leadership of Charles Edward Stuart consolidated their provisional government in ‘North Britain’ at Holyrood House, and in the fields around Duddingston Village they bolstered both the numbers and training of the men who formed the military arm of the Jacobite cause. This distinctly irregular army was essentially the crowbar with which Charles Edward would attempt to pry George II off the thrones of the Three Kingdoms while advocating for his father, James Francis Edward, who was proclaimed at the mercat cross as James VIII of Scotland on the very same day the burgh was taken. Cobbled together in fits and starts before the capture of Edinburgh, it was never a sure thing that enough support would materialise or that the enthusiasm it bore would translate to success on the battlefield when open conflict eventually came.
The lightning-quick and overwhelming Jacobite victory at Prestonpans in the early morning of 21 September boosted the confidence not only of Charles Edward’s Council of War but also that of many of the common soldiers across the ranks. Now that this army had faced seemingly the best that the British government had to offer, the zeitgeist of the mission was astir and word quickly spread to the surrounding localities that this revolution, long-desired and attempted on numerous occasions before, might really happen this time. Recruiting drives marshalled in places like Perthshire and the north-eastern counties, like Aberdeenshire and Forfarshire, eventually secured valuable additions to the nucleus of Highland Jacobite troops in Edinburgh, with numbers swelling from around 2500 to nearly 6000 men through the month of October.
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.
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.