Were the Jacobite risings as much about dissolving the Union as Stuart restoration?


‘Pittock’s sound scholarship demonstrates the extent to which Scots supported the 1745 rising, and its purpose in dissolving the Union. This book offers a point of departure for a reconceptualization of Scottish history.’ (Jeremy Black, U of Exeter)

Note: I’ve learned from experience that many of you reading this blog are ahead of me on many topics and so, I understand, that you may already have a better or even a contrary grasp of this. By all means, add your thoughts below. As always, my posts are only starters.

As I stumble toward my allocated years, I continue to learn things about Scotland which I maybe should have known earlier. I did Higher History at school and by 1968, I knew far more about the tragic history of Poland than I did about any aspect of Scottish History. I could even draw accurate maps of the partitions of Poland by their predatory neighbours, Prussia, Austria and Russia. Only a few years ago, I discovered that my teacher, Mr Danskin, had a surname suggesting origins in the city of Danzig, today Gdansk!

So, it was in the years that followed, that I began to learn what a good Scottish, republican, socialist education system might have provided. Perhaps predictably, I started from the edges and worked inward. First, though I learned what you might term a ‘People’s History’, seeing my own working-class experience, of tenement life and of relative poverty, in a wider theorised Marxist explanation of capitalism and its victims. Second, I learned of the horrors of empire, in places such as India, in the Middle-East and in Kenya, to name only a few. Then, perhaps, stimulated by the Troubles in Ireland, so visible in everyday media coverage, I began to learn another history. Coming from a protestant, social and educational background, I knew nothing worth knowing. Reading Irish sources, I saw the same imperial practices that I had read of in India or in Kenya. As an academic in the 80s, 90s and 10s, attempting to broaden and to make more critical, the perspectives of education and media students, beyond their understandable but limited obsessions with practice in the short-term, I developed my own understanding of the later, globalised, form of capitalism which so constrains all of our choices including even what we think we can think about.

Now, in retirement, I come across a book which reveals to me another shocking gap in my understanding and this time, one that is geographical, historically and theoretically so close to where I stand today, deeply embedded in the contemporary movement for Scottish independence – the Jacobite Risings of the 17th and 18th centuries.

The book in question is Murray Pittock’s second edition of his 1995 treatise, ‘The Myth of the Jacobite Clans’. In 1995, I had just been promoted, beyond my maturation and emotional intelligence, to be head of a university department of 26 utterly unherdable souls. So, challenged by the experience, I regularly cycled home at lunchtime for a double vodka and packet of extra-strong mints. The cycling was good for me. Until I managed to change horses, ten years later, from the management to the research lanes, I missed a great deal of cultural importance as I hardened my heart to deal with such as budgets, evaluation and staff deployment. I did things in those years which I must pay for later in any final assessment of my character.

This book has somewhat gobsmacked me in its revelation of my sheer ignorance and narrow assumptions of the more nuanced and complex nature of the risings labelled ‘Jacobite Risings’ rather than ‘Wars of Independence’.

I won’t hazard a fuller account here of the book’s 229 heavily referenced pages but merely give you a very quick and much-reduced overview of the myths Pittock tackles, before you, as I sincerely hope you do, buy it.

As you might expect the contents page tells us what the central myths are. Selecting only aspects of these, they are:

First, there is the myth that the Jacobite army was, only, a Highland army. Pittock, with strong evidence, suggests that it was, at the very least, 50% made up of ‘lowlanders’ and that orders were, in the main, given in English. Fascinating, for me, is his revelation that highland dress was commonly worn by the lowlanders as a uniform and to avoid being mistaken for the Union army by the actual Highland battalions.

Second, he tackles the myth, popular with those who wish to downgrade their significance, that few Scots supported the risings. Again, fascinating for me is the way he extrapolates from the many reports of numbers to show how the risings were actually well-supported when you compare them with the earlier, state-sponsored, Covenanter armies or with the, per head of population, very small British army in the 21st Century.

Third, he demolishes, for me, the myth that the risings were only strongly supported in the Highland and Gaelic-speaking parts, offering extensive evidence of their considerable support except, ironically where I write this, in the South-West.

Fourth, he demonstrates the inaccuracy of the propagandistic tendency to characterise the Jacobite armies as undisciplined, charging and sword-waving barbarians. We read of the sophisticated battle tactics and modern firepower, needed to, of course, explain the repeated earlier victories against supposedly more advanced Union armies.

Finally, and perhaps of most interest to us, in the contemporary independence movement, Pittock challenges the narrow propagandist explanation, still popular with Unionists, that the risings were almost entirely about the restoration of the Stuarts and of Catholicism. With extensive evidence, he concludes:

‘Their aims were national at least as much as dynastic; their defeat had consequences for the future of Scotland as much as the Stuarts. That was why they were supported in such numbers, why even Scots who welcomed their defeat might also in a manner regret it, and why the saltires, muskets and bayonets of the Jacobite Army have been so long shrouded by British history in the Children of the Mist’s performance of the Myth of the Jacobite Clans.’




27 thoughts on “Were the Jacobite risings as much about dissolving the Union as Stuart restoration?

  1. Alasdair Macdonald November 3, 2018 / 12:03 pm

    Your school education in the history of Scotland was as deficient as that experienced by most of the rest of us who were educated in Scottish schools until relatively recently. There was very little on Scottish history in the Scottish universities and so the school teachers of history were taught British (approved myth), European, American history courses and this perpetrated the absence in school curricula. Many teachers of history in Scottish secondaries, were opposed to the idea of Scottish history being taught (largely, because many were sincere – no irony intended – socialists and often supporters of members of the Labour Party and ‘feared’ it would become ‘nationalist’ propaganda, which was to be avoided because of their understanding of ‘nationalism’ from relatively recent history.

    Another huge factor was the literature of Sir Walter Scott, who created the myths of Scotland and ‘highlandism’ and implied that civilisation’s northern boundary was a little north of Stirling. While Scott was a high Tory, he was also a Scottish patriot and had a keen interest in the border ballads, for example. However, his lifetime, which began within a quarter century of the ’45, was a turbulent period historically. The name ‘Scotland’ was banned. There had been the American and French Revolutions. There was radical unrest in Britain and Ireland, with Thomas Muir in Scotland being a leading figure. In Ireland, the United Irishmen were brutally suppressed (‘The Wind that shakes the barley’) and Ireland was assimilated into the British Union in 1801. There were the Napoleonic Wars. Even after the victory at Waterloo, there was still considerable political ferment with the infamous ‘Peterloo’ massacre in Manchester (fortutously, there is a current film on general release). There were ‘radical risings’ across the UK, with a major one in Scotland in 1820. In that context, Scott saw his writings as creating a unifying British myth. His stage managing of George IV’s visit to Edinburgh in 1822 was a specific part of this and the start of ‘tartanry’, and the ‘Caledonia stern and wild’ image. With stories like Ivanhoe, Scott also created a myth of Saxon England.

    This is the ‘history’ and literature on which much of our school curriculum was founded. It was propagandist. And the BBC is part of the myth propagation mechanism – it has always been.

    Fortunately, in the past 30/40 years or so, there has been a significant growth in the production of different histories (or ‘herstories, such as that recently published by Rosemary Goring) of Scotland, which include the stories of the ‘common people’. We owe a great debt to people like Murray Pittock and Tom Devine. We also owe a lot to those from Hamish Henderson onward who began to establish studies of Scottish literature and history in our universities.

    To return to the question which is the title of your post and the book to which you are referring, my view is that the ’45 was, indeed, about dissolving the union and, very quickly and for a short period, it had succeeded in that. Very rapidly, the Jacobites took control of Scotland and, at the border, there was debate amongst the leaders, some of whom felt that the aim had been achieved. However, probably through hubris, Charles Edward Stuart wanted the BIG prize (as he saw it) of ruling England, too. Westminster would probably have accepted a separate Scotland (for a while, anyway!). This might have allowed time to reconvene the Scottish Parliament and develop Scottish institutions (appropriate to the period). However, ‘wi a hundred pipers an’ a’, an’ a”, the army crossed the border to take Carlisle and to push forward to Derby, when things began to fall apart with inglorious retreat to the massacre at Culloden. This was also when ‘God Save the King (Queen)’ was written, with its infamous line calling on God to crush rebellious Scots.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Contrary November 3, 2018 / 12:38 pm

      Fabulous addition Alisdair. I find it extremely difficult to get all the historical events in order. Likely that’s because we weren’t taught about Scottish history in school, the implication being that it was inferior, just as we are inferior, and should know our place. Being told that that history was not allowed to be taught makes me think our history is superior – otherwise, why ban it?

      The clan thing, I’ve come to realise, is an artifice along with the tartans (a way to exert control? And a form of heraldry?). My own clan, Rattray, has a long history of being deeply divided – which begs the question of what makes a clan? In name only perhaps. There were plenty of the colonial echelons, buying into British colonialism, and even still there is a Rattray Indian regiment (because they’d take the name of their commanding officer). Then there are the bog standard people that get on with their daily lives and have normal opinions and views. We cannot be forever tarred by the actions of the ruling elite and people bought out by them, we have to accept that it happened and does happen and just try to argue against the selfish greed that spurs people on to put themselves before their community.

      The divisions were at the bog standard people level too, though, not just on the selling out our souls on a national level. I believe in community and caring for it, but that does not seem to be what clans are.

      As an aside, Rattray was a fairly prominent name in Jacobite history, and the first set of golf rules (Alan Rattay? I forget now, physician to what’s-his-name), but that by no means makes the name something to be used on one side of a debate or the other.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Contrary November 3, 2018 / 12:11 pm

    Thanks for this John, too much history has been re-written and re-nuanced by the conquerors, that we really don’t have a clue what went on in the past.

    From my small reading of local Strathardle history – once a major stakeholder in Scottish (a non-Gaelic speaking part in the main) national considerations – you see the Scottish clans and people divided, and agent provocateurs at work in all their insidious glory. Affiliations were made and broken frequently. I don’t see much change now, just the form of the fight has shifted.

    It made me consider the reasons behind why there never seems to be a huge majority for Scottish independence – surely everyone should be able to see the true benefits and be clamouring for it? – and the conclusions are; Scottish people are a contrary lot, and will never wholly agree on anything – and therefore I don’t expect any more than a max 55% Yes vote, ever, at any one time. It is just the way we are. Individuals all. And agent provocateurs are so ingrained in our society and our psyche that it is against this that the true battle must be fought. It isn’t the action of dividing us, we will always be divided, but the action of causing doubt and keeping us stupid that must be fought against. Anyone or anything that misinforms or sidelines the arguments – even if it is ourselves that do it – needs to be fought against. In ourselves.

    Looking at history is good, for taking a step back and considering how our society has been formed, what influences us, and helps us to look at the overall picture to see what we could be.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. johnrobertson834 November 3, 2018 / 12:36 pm

    Thanks both. As always great contributions widening and deepening.


  4. Brobb November 3, 2018 / 12:43 pm

    I might add this to my christmas list along with Tom Devine’s. Also enjoyed and learned a lot from Restless Land A Radical Journey for insight into the legacy of the risings

    Growing up in Northern ireland was no different regarding the history taught in schools – lots of royal stuff, the Industrial Revolution and world wars but very little from an Irish perspective. Only in my last year did we get a teacher passionate about Irish History but there’s a limit to how much you can pack in in one school year. However it whetted my appetite for more and possibly came at the right time to open my eyes to a different world, sparking an interest in social history and politics

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Contrary November 3, 2018 / 2:17 pm

    Not wholly related, but in my learning of Roman history in the British Isles, I believe the biggest stumbling block the Romans had to conquering Scotland was its lack of unification – there was no beaurocracy in place, no written language, no money. And the Romans didnt have the resources to actually set up an administration (busy as they were conquering other lands that were more ‘civilised’)(civilised, by their measure). So they had a choice of costly military occupation, or,,, building a wall to at least get us to pay taxes to trade with the other side of it. They certainly tried plenty of times to keep their foothold in Scotland, but they just couldn’t do it, because of the lack of structure and administration already in place, and the resistance to having any.

    So, there were differences way back then, two thousand years ago, between north and south, before the southern Chiefs sold out their people to the Romans, and they finished the job of dividing us.

    So, when I see calls to unify grassroots Yes groups, I think it’s a bad idea, it is a weakness to have large administrative groups running anything – the SNP cannot do certain things and is controlled to a certain extent by the state, it does not have the manoeuvrability or freedom that small groups have, ones that don’t have to kowtow to current political structures. If you have flexible collections of small groups, always shifting and not looking for glory, they can dodge the biggest problems caused by others exerting control and other ideologies on to an overarching campaign. Power comes from our ability to step back and compromise with things we don’t wholly agree with, one good thing about being a contrary people is our ability to argue a case but not let it be the end of all things. Power comes from being flexible and agile – I don’t suggest anarchy, small groups can be better at self governing and also seeing a wider picture. Big clunky administrations are open to abuse and infiltration and spurious rules.

    Every individual has a different reason and ideology behind wanting independence for Scotland, and we should allow ourselves that, and come together in whatever group that may suit us at any one time, not held to other’s ideas of what constitutes ‘civilised’ or tied to something we decided in the past.

    Ever shifting, small, fast, agile, no strict rules, understanding, flexible, patient, and absolutely no quarter given on the fundamental question on whether Scotland deserves self-determination. Stay strong.

    Liked by 4 people

    • William Henderson November 3, 2018 / 2:34 pm

      “Ever shifting, small, fast, agile, no strict rules, understanding, flexible, patient, and absolutely no quarter given on the fundamental question on whether Scotland deserves self-determination.”

      Desirable, and very close approximation to s definition of classical “anarchy”. I’ll vote for that!

      Liked by 2 people

    • johnrobertson834 November 3, 2018 / 3:32 pm

      Ever shifting, small, fast, agile, no strict rules, understanding, flexible, patient, and absolutely no quarter given on the fundamental question on whether Scotland deserves self-determination. Stay strong.



    • Alan Gordon November 3, 2018 / 8:49 pm

      Liked that response Contrary. Would like to add my understanding on why the Romans got their arse kicked in Scotland (should that be the collective, arses? Not as erudite as yoos yins). I read a book on this subject a while ago, written by an Irishman, I found this idea compelling, I’m buggered if I can remember his name.

      The Romans’ downfall lay in treating these tribes as disparate, undisciplined groups.when in fac the main tribes of the time were highly organised, they had leaders in each tribe and each tribe would rear and train the warrior siblings from the other tribes, warriors were male or female. Fighting strategy and ability would have you selected for this warrior education. This gave a co responsibility, connection, comunication and understanding between them. Also at least four times per year they would meet for the big festivals. In times of invasion/war an overall warrior leader would be chosen, a meritorious appointment lasting for as long as the conflict and bringing with it the loyalty of the warrior class.

      Some this part might ring with you Contrary, particularly your last sentence. The warriors of ancient Scotland were very agile and travelling light very fast. They wore no clothes just paint on the skin, any wounds would heal faster without fabric entering the wound and the paint held antiseptic qualities. It was early guerrilla warfare that they used on the Romans. Waiting till the days march was done, supper served, guards posted, this was the time they would strike. Bump a few off and just as quick disappear into the night. Tacitus’ report on Agricola’s great victory some reckon to be false, it covered up or gave an exuse for the Roman deaths for no gain. Tacitus currying favour of the powerful Agrocola?

      I pile of indy supporters, in the nuddy bar some paint, heading for Kings Cross, at speed on the Virgin express on a guerrilla mission in Westminster is not what I’m advocating. Even though it paints a lively picture.

      Thanks John for bringing the book to my attention also to Alisdair and Contrary for the thought provoking comments.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Alasdair Macdonald November 3, 2018 / 11:43 pm

      There is a lot of good stuff on the Romans in Scotland in the Hunterian Museum at Glasgow University. The Romans moved around a fair bit north of the Antonine Wall and built roads, signal stations and forts, which indicates that they must have spent a fair amount of time beyond the wall to construct these. There are the remains of several signal stations and forts in the Ochils. Many years ago, I walked the Roman road from the Earn Valley into Perth. In the area around Findo Gask the present roads follow the line the Romans took – look at how straight they are on the map.

      Again, I think this has been an area, which apart from a few underfunded scholars that has been neglected.


      • Contrary November 4, 2018 / 12:34 am

        Definitely Alasdair. I have still to do Gask ridge and check out the forts along it (vague outlines of ditches!). They don’t even know where the Antonine wall ends at the Forth end, it turns out. The slabs in the Huntarian are impressive too – and unique to the Antonine wall. We forget that the Roman’s were around for hundreds of years and trying to get a foothold in Scotland all that time – most of the forts in Scotland were campaigning ones, not permanent like along Hadrian’s Wall, and often re-used and rebuilt at different times. The changing political landscape of the Roman Empire over those centuries seemed to mean campaigns weren’t constant, but Scotland would always be a desirable prize, and though there was some occupation they just couldn’t hold on to it. They got right up to near Inverness I think.

        We should also remember the vast amount of deaths and brutality the Romans inflicted, for centuries, Severus being one of the most brutal – employing slash and burn tactics, and probably wiping out the entire population of the borders. It’s likely one of his sons poisoned him (died in York in 211, from an illness, while between campaigns) for political expediency and gain – that’s your civilised society for you right there.


      • Alasdair Macdonald November 4, 2018 / 10:29 am


        Thank you for the additional information which has amplified my post.

        Re the terminal points of the Antonine Wall – for many years I have worked with others tidying up sections of the Forth and Clyde Canal and have often worked in the Old Kilpatrick area. I was unaware until relatively recently that the western end of the Antonine Wall was here. Only this week, I was told that there is evidence of a crannog in the Clyde at this point, although I have not looked for it yet. There is, apparently, evidence of another on the opposite bank near Langbank and that it is possible in times past that there was a causeway across the river (which had quite a different form from the present which was dredged and channelled for commercial reasons).


      • Contrary November 5, 2018 / 8:16 am

        Ooo, that’s interesting about the Old Kilpatrick end – I have wandered about the old bus station that was build on top of the fort there. And well done for cleaning up the forth-Clyde canal! It has been a grand job. Having walked along the canal about 20 years or so ago (though still trying to make it to Falkirik on that particular walk), I have seen huge changes and been on a barge a few times along the canal, fabulous that the canal is open again, and I thank you wholeheartedly and all clean up volunteers for making it happen. For walks or for barging.


    • Contrary November 4, 2018 / 12:05 am

      Haha, I should try and summarise more often! I have one vote already, next I will be taking over the universe.

      And thank you for your thoughts Alan, good insight on the Scottish angle – yes I believe that guerrilla tactics would have been used, though I doubt the nakedness for the most part. I actually don’t know enough about it from the Scottish perspective, but yes, I think you are right in that the tribes were very cohesive groups and well structured – the myth that the Romans brought to our shores is that somehow administration, money and written language is the civilised way – and this myth is still perpetuated – while in fact there was a very mature and functioning society in Scotland already – or societies rather, and in what was to become Scotland! – at that time. Why on earth did we need someone else’s version when it was functioning nicely as it was? Who says we need administration etc? Peoples were called barbarians when they didn’t roll over and become conquered and adhere to the Roman’s version of being civilised.

      But Tacitus’ Agricola, well, I have read it and it is hilarious – you have to bear in mind it was written about 10 years after the supposed events, and was effectively a propaganda piece for the folks back home. It gives a huge amount of insight into the mindset of the Romans, but not of historical facts (though some do still adhere to it being a factual document).

      And Tacitus wasn’t actually there either,,, but perhaps he did a ton of research, must have in fact, to get 4 pages of a speech by Agricola, then another 4-page speech by the Scottish war chief (amazing how eloquent and verbose a barbarian can be), before the big battle. 8 pages of paraphrasing is an awful lot. It was the excuses Tacitus made for Agricola not being able to campaign in the winter that decided me it was a load of balony though, saying that the sun never came up & weird stuff about mist and fog and such like, so then saying Agricola was quite right to only campaign in the summer (he spent 6 years on it, and still failed, how do you dress that up,,,) – whilst in fact he was a total pansy, and add to that, he only used his auxiliary forces (that is, only those from other conquered countries) so as to not put his own pansy precious Roman legions at risk. Nah, the whole book is a whitewash to promote Agricola for the senate back home. It is worth a read though, as well for showing how much the British empire adhered to the same conquering mindset of total disdain for the conquered peoples. Tacitus was Agricola’s son-in-law, and was sucking up something terrible. And I doubt there was any great battle. Being posted in north Britain was actually a superb career move for any up and coming Roman, made and broke emperors even, though I find the concept bizarre myself.

      The Roman’s invented the imperial mindset, and I can’t see any differences in the British, or other, empire mindset. They aren’t just planning to take us back to the dark ages, the are planning to regress us much further back. Being civilised CAN mean something completely different to what we’ve been taught.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Andy Anderson November 3, 2018 / 2:49 pm

    I to learned all about the Britsh Empire at school. Only now in my retirement am I digging into our history. Good piece John.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. johnrobertson834 November 3, 2018 / 3:41 pm

    12 French readers today. Unusually high number. Descendants of French soldiers in the 45?


    • Alasdair Macdonald November 4, 2018 / 10:23 pm

      One might well be my namesake and friend from schooldays, who now has French citizenship and lives there.


  8. Lanark November 5, 2018 / 8:49 pm

    Fascinating article and very interesting responses! I learn more reading the pro independence blogs than I ever did at school (familiar story it seems).

    Would I be correct in thinking that the Caledonians were Welsh speakers?


    • johnrobertson834 November 6, 2018 / 6:38 am

      Hi Lanark
      Perhaps a more expert reader will answer your question better but my understanding is that the term Caledonians refers to a cluster of tribes living north of the Clyde-Forth line who were distinct from the Brittonic (proto-Weslh?) tribes living south of it but that there were clearly overlapping terms used by both, like aber for river mouth, but also terms like pit (a piece of land) used only in the North.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Alasdair Macdonald November 6, 2018 / 5:17 pm

        I tend to agree that ‘Caledonian’ was a blanket term applied by the Romans to the various groups they encountered in this part of the world.

        Since the ‘Britons” territories extended from Wales through what is now Lancashire and Cumbria into Scotland as far north as the Clyde (Dumbarton Castle was a local stronghold and there are ‘rumours’ that King Arthur might have been born in Govan), then it is likely that some of the ‘Caledonians’ spoke Welsh.

        However, there were also the Scoti extending from Ireland to the west coast of Argyll and some of the Islands, who would have spoken Scots/Irish Gaelic.

        There were the Picts – and not much is known of what they spoke.

        There were Angles on the east side as far as the Forth, who would have had a Germanic language which would evolve into Scots and English.

        And there were the people of the north, with Scandinavian links and, thus, a norse language.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. Alan Gordon November 6, 2018 / 11:16 pm

    Thanks to you all, for bringing new aspects, of this subject within my horizons, but also giving the impulse to delve deeper.


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