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.
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’.
The intelligence report from Patrick Campbell’s Highland venture, Autumn 1746
Our last post explored some examples of the Highland cantonment schemes proposed by British government officials after Culloden, their locations largely selected based upon a combination of local banditry, general lawlessness, and noted recalcitrance toward the policies of the Whig administration of George II – defiance often manifested by varying levels of Jacobitism. Some of the loyalists who were responsible for influencing the creation of these garrisons had witnessed the violence and disorder firsthand – like Donald Campbell of Airds, whose own property was savaged, ironically, by soldiers of the British army. Nonetheless, the unpredictable and complex lattice of malleable alliances, divergent loyalties, and partisan politics in certain remote areas of Scotland essentially guaranteed that some kind of official program of regulation would be instituted after the brutal coda of yet another armed rising.
Access and control were collectively the name of the government’s game in eighteenth century Scotland. The Western Highlands bore the brunt of unconscionable retaliation and enforcement after Culloden not because it provided the largest number of rebels who bore arms (it did not), but because it was so difficult to regulate due to the remoteness of its communities and the severity of its weather and terrain. While the isolated villages and steadings in many regions of the Highlands provided distance and shelter for their occupants, that same isolation also enabled heritable chiefs to maintain control of their clans with little interference, as well as allowing currents of Catholicism to endure within a rapidly reforming Scottish populace. ‘The old way of life’ may have been desirable for some heritors, but plenty of others were progressive improvers with interests in both imperial ventures and global mercantile investments. This alone adequately disproves the popular myth that the Forty-five was a conflict of atavism versus progress.