What history textbooks don’t tell you about the Jacobites…

I had a sketchy knowledge of the period relating to the Jacobites and had never studied them as part of my history degree. This all changed when I found out about The National Archives’ cataloguing project headed by Dr. Katy Mair. When I saw some of the material that was being uncovered from the State Papers of George I (SP 35) and George II (SP 36) by a dedicated team of volunteer cataloguers, it drew me in immediately, helped by the fact that the documents for the most part were so readable in their original state!

I immediately thought that it would be brilliant for schools to have access to some of the documents. After all, where do you find Jacobite source material for the classroom in a hurry when you need it? So the idea for our two themed online document collections, relating to the period of the Jacobite risings of 1715 and 1745 for The National Archives education pages, was born.


Printed handbill from Lord John Drummond, Scottish Commander, 2nd December, 1745.

Printed handbill from Lord John Drummond, Scottish Commander, 2nd December, 1745. Catalogue reference: SP 54/26/90B

Once I started looking of course, I found that Jacobitism was about so much more than the events around 1715 and 1745. The human stories that have emerged have been fascinating. For example, the collections have revealed some letters from Jacobite soldiers to their wives. John Fraser writes ‘my Dear soul take special care of the few moveables & especially the horse and I am hopeful that Alexander Grant will [do] for me as I will [do] for him If I was there & he heare [here] We are gowing [going] forward to Ingland [England] which the Regiment [don’t] like.’ (SP 54/26/381)

Again there are no shortage of court cases against those making clandestine toasts to the king across the water’. One man, for example, ‘wearing the Parchboard crown upon his Hat, and that Abraham Burton drank the Pretender’s health in the Belfry [bell tower] of Ashford Church upon his knees’ (SP 44/79A f.162-3). Many Jacobite drinking glasses survive today and are engraved with secret symbols, such as the oak leaf, white rose and butterfly. You can see an example on our website from the West Highland Museum.

Also small details about ordinary soldiers’ lives abound. From intelligence about the Jacobite army received from Penrith (SP 36/73/3/f7) we discover that ‘they march with Droves both of Black Cattle and Sheep 3 wagons of Biscuit and Cheese, which they sit down at noon to eat; At night and morning they get a little oatmeal, & carry it in a leather Bag at their side, as their only subsistence. Everyone has a sword & targett [small round shield], Gun & Durk [long straight-bladed dagger].’

Some of the documents also give us a sense of the landscape and even the weather. Francis Philipson writing in a tax office in Edinburgh says ‘according to an old proverb we have 9 months winter and 3 cold weather’ (SP 54/3/31). For the soldiers, fighting in Scotland was hard, looking for ‘firing and forage’ was a constant problem often referred to by the Duke of Argyll when sending his reports to the Secretary of State.

Through these collections we hear the voices of some of the key characters via their correspondence, namely the Earl of Mar, James Francis Edward Stuart (‘The Old Pretender’), Charles Edward Stuart, (‘Young Pretender’ or Bonnie Prince Charlie), George I, Flora MacDonald, and the Duke of Cumberland. Here is an extract from Flora MacDonald’s statement on the escape of Charles Edward Stuart from South Uist (Outer Hebrides) to Skye, 12 July 1746. She gives details on how his escape was managed, his disguise and where he stayed (SP 54/32 f.49E).

An extract from Flora MacDonald’s statement on the escape of Charles Edward Stuart from South Uist (Outer Hebrides) to Skye. Catalogue reference: (SP 54/32 f.49E).

An extract from Flora MacDonald’s statement on the escape of Charles Edward Stuart from South Uist (Outer Hebrides) to Skye. Catalogue reference: SP 54/32 f.49E.

Jacobite propaganda also features heavily so we have included an extract from a 43 verse song in the Jacobite Rising 1715: Rebels with a cause? which certainly does not mince its words when calling for the return to the throne of the ‘Old Pretender’ and an end to rule by George I, House of Hanover (SP35/40 f.179). It reads: ‘No more shall foreign scum pollute our Throne; No longer under such. We’ll blush & groan; But Englishmen an English King will own’.

Documents which reflect the treatment of the rebels by the British government in aftermath of the rebellions have also been digitised for these two new online collections. For example there are orders on behalf of George I and George II for the authorities to draw lots to decide which prisoners were to face trial as so many prisoners taken were after both risings. In our themed collection on the Jacobite Rising 1745: A serious threat to the Hanoverians? we include extracts from a sketch of regulations proposed to be made in Scotland, dated 28th June, 1746 which proposed controlling the wearing of plaid or tartan. ‘The abolishing the Habit after a proper time, will be of infinite use but should they pretend that this mountainous country requires their Habit (which I am not at all convinced of) then the use of Tartan or Plaid should be particularly forbid, as it is what makes their uniform’ (SP 54/32/24).

So, if you want to explore a range of primary sources on this period of history, take a look at our two new online collections of over seventy documents. I, for one, am delighted that the Jacobites appear in the Key Stage 3 history curriculum and can be studied as part the A level history syllabi across all the exam boards.


  1. Derek Tunnington says:

    How wonderful to see these old records of historical events. In my schooldays, (70 years ago), we were given a very limited look at the real people who changed lives in Britain’s future generations.

  2. David Selkirk says:

    It is good to see that the National Archives has made these materials in their care more widely accessible to members of the UK public. It might have been worthy to note though that the letters written by Flora MacDonald and James Fraser were written by bi-lingual members of the Highland elite. Most Highlanders with surnames like MacDonald or Fraser in this example – or Cameron for that matter – would have been native Gaelic speakers unable to write in English.

    On a more serious point, though, it is very unfortunate that the author of this blog falls into the basic error of believing that the ’45 Rebellion was a war fought between the Scots and the English. It was not. The ’45 was a civil war, with more Scots fighting in support of the Hanoverians than the Jacobites on the one hand, whilst,, at the same time there was some limited active support for the Jacobites in England (and Wales) on the other. I would also politely point out that in 1745 King George II’s government was not an English government. It was a British government, as had been the case for both England and Scotland since the Treaty of Union of 1707.

    This is a great pity that these errors come under the imprimatur of the National Archives.
    The public has the right to expect better from a National Institution.

  3. Kathryn Petersen says:

    Thank you very much for your detailed comments. We have amended the wording of the blog post to emphasise that the Rebellions were fought between the Hanoverians and the Jacobites, rather than a battle between the Scots and the English.


    Kathryn Petersen, on behalf of the Education team.

  4. Adrian Howell says:

    Extremely interesting and thought provoking. Having travelled and lived in the Western Highlands for over forty years during which I have had many interesting discussions with the ancestors of those involved, I have always been surprised by how these events are just under the surface.
    Although I have experienced some hostility, my enduring feeling about the views expressed are of great sadness. As one close friend expressed, “we can’t believe we actually let it happen”
    It would be very interesting for a study into the lasting effects of this tragedy and how it has affected social history both in the Highlands and further afield and how this might tie in with the current debate on Independence.

  5. Bob McNair says:

    Fact is Bonnie Prince Charlie did not, despite promises to his troops of Scotland regaining its independence, want Scotland disunited from England.
    Fact is the English, in afterall was their parliament in London dominated Scottish politics and political life.
    Fact is in the latter years of the 17th century Scotlands “Three Estates” were approaching “one man one vote”, which was a universal threat to the English parliament and it had to be subsumed.
    Fact is that for 30 years after Culloden there were English soldiers garrisoned in 400 locations throughout Scotland.

  6. Orian Hutton says:

    A great deal has been written about the Jacobites and particularly about The ’45. I, myself, have over 70 books about Jacobites. It is interesting to have some much more personal details added to all of this information. Still, I find it very frustrating how little has been written about the other side of the coin: those who opposed the Jacobites and in particular Hanoverian Scots during The ’45. I hope the National Archives will be doing a project on these people too; their voices also need to be heard.

  7. Deborah Dennison says:

    A number of fairly recent history books do indeed include this material. Notably: ‘Fight for a Throne’
    by Dr Christopher Duffy (Senior Lecturer in War Studies, Sandhurst) whose meticulous research in five languages throughout Scotland, England and Europe is hard to surpass; Glasgow’s Uni’s Prof Murray Pittock’s five books on the Jacobites, all published by noted University Presses, and famed Oxford scholar and biography, Frank McLynn’s several books on the subject, including a 600 page biography of Charles Edward Stuart. If you read the best scholarship, you will find this information has indeed been included.

  8. David Matthew says:

    The views of the records in The National Archives at Kew reflect just one side of the story, for example TNA do not mention the massacres (some people regard it as genocide) when the British Army went on a rampage after the Battle of Culloden murdering innocent old men, women and children. Incidentally the letter from Flora MacDonald was one I found when I worked at TNA, as it was uncatalogued. The fact that the British Government tried to ban plaid never worked and is a sign of Scottishness these days.

  9. Carmela Squires says:

    How interesting that no one has mentioned The Duke of Cumberland’s nickname – Butcher Cumberland . Perhaps he was only know by this moniker in Ireland!

  10. Deborah Dennison says:

    To David Selkirk and others: May we please stop this misinformation that there were more Scots fighting for King George than for the Jacobites! The evidence and the numbers simply do not support this claim. At Culloden, of Cumberland’s forces of over 8000, some 1800 were Scots, many not trusted by Cumberland to be loyal, hence his deployment of those regiments. Of the Jacobite forces, under 5000 on the day, the great majority were Scots. This was not a war of Scots verses English, but there were far more English in Cumberland’s army than with the Jacobites, hence the claim. The Jacobite army was more Protestant than Catholic, more Lowland than Highland – this is what the muster rolls tell us

  11. Deborah Dennison says:

    McNair, you mention that you are stating ‘fact’ – where are your facts? Where are your ‘facts’ that support your claim that the Stuarts wanted to keep the Union? Going into England was about securing essential French support. Everyone in the Jacobite Army knew that they could not win without substantial French support – it was the initial objection of many of the clan chiefs when Charles landed without French troops. After six weeks holding court at Holyrood, it was more than evident that French support would not be forthcoming unless they took St James’s. Nor would they have been able to hold Scotland without Stirling or Edinburgh Castles, once Cumberland returned from Europe. And Charles was proven right, as the news arrived as the Jacobites were retreating from Derby at the insistence of Murray, that a massive French fleet had been assembled on the French coast to meet them in London – that is a well proven fact. If Scotland at the end of the 17th century was so close to ‘one man one vote’ – how to the Penal Laws play into that? Or do you not consider the large number of Catholics and non-juring Episcopalians in Scotland ‘men’?

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