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.
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.