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.
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.