John Petite, The Jacobites of 1745, 1873
In the realm of human behavior that needs explaining, I offer you the case of Lord George Murray. On September 3, 1745, Lord George wrote to his brother, the Duke of Atholl, to declare his intention of joining Bonnie Prince Charlie's rebellion, despite having accepted lucrative positions from the government:
I never did say to any person in Life that I would not ingage in the cause I always in my heart thought just and right, as well as for the Interest, Good, and Liberty of my country . . . though what I do may and will be reccon'd desperate . . . and may very probably end in my utter ruin. My Life, my Fortune, my expectations, the Happyness of my wife and children, are all at stake, and the chances are against me, yet a principle of (what seems to me) Honour, and my Duty to King and Country, outweighs every thing.Murray was not hungry, or desperate, or oppressed; indeed he had pretty much everything his century could offer. Yet he threw it all away to follow a prince who had never before set foot in Britain.
There is a famous Gaelic song about these events, Mo Ghile Mear, "My Gallant Darling", written around 1750 by Seán Clárach Mac Domhnaill; Sting's version isn't on Youtube but you can hear Mary Black's here. The first stanza, spoken by a sort of goddess who represents the Irish people, translates as:
Once I was a maiden fairI have a wonderful book about the folklore of the Island of Skye, and mixed in with all the water horses and selkies are dozens of items about Bonnie Prince Charlie, who passed through the island when he was fleeing after his defeat and seems to have been sheltered by every other family on the island. People treasure these memories and have passed them on for generations.
Now it’s widow’s weeds I wear
My husband lies not in the grave
But far from me he ploughs the waves
I've just finished reading a quite good book about the Forty-Five, as Bonnie Prince Charlie's rebellion is generally known, and what lingers in my mind is a puzzle. What is all this about? What explains the enduring appeal of this half-wit royal adventurer and his doomed rebellion, brushed away in an hour at Culloden Moor by a single division of the government's army? Why so many songs about these rebels, and none about the men who in defeating them saved Parliamentary rule and paved the way for British democracy?
This is going to be a long essay, because there is a lot here to unpack.
8 June 1753:
I thank kind Providence I had the happiness to be early educated in the principles of Christian loyalty, which as I grew in years inspired me with an utter abhorrence of rebellion and usurpation, tho’ ever so successful. And when I arrived at man's estate I had the testimony both of religion and reason to confirm me in the truth of my first principles. Thus my attachment to the ROYAL FAMILY is more the result of examination and conviction than of prepossession and prejudice. And as I am now, so was I then, ready to seal my loyalty with my blood. As soon, therefore, as the royal youth had set up the king his father's standard, I immediately, as in duty bound, repaired to it. . . .I could go on, but I think you all know what I mean. And I have to say that of all the political principles ever articulated by humankind, none makes less sense to me than the divine right of kings. What possible difference could it make to me who your father was? or your great-great-grandfather? If you go back far enough, all kings are descended from usurpers or conquerors; why is being descended from a grasping thug more noble than being one? You expect me to do what you say because your great-grandfather killed somebody else's great grandfather and took his crown? Really? James II was overthrown in 1688 because he sought to limit the powers of Parliament and impose French-style absolutism on Britain, besides promoting Catholicism in a way that offended many of his mostly Protestant subjects. When his subjects got sick of him, they tossed him out and brought in a king more to their liking. What could possibly be wrong with that?
Yet to millions of humans, past and present, loyalty to the true king has been one of the deepest moral touchstones, something more to be treasured that marriage or family or friendship, second only to devotion to God.
Small chance of success — certainty of death — what are we waiting for?It's a joke, but it sums up one piece of the hero's creed: where the danger is greatest, there is the greatest chance for eternal glory. It impresses me that although the actual Spartan warriors at Thermopylae were sent with a strategic mission, to delay the Persians until the Greeks could fortify the Isthmus of Corinth, the movie version casts all that aside and makes their stand a completely pointless gesture of courage. That is, to some, more noble and more pure.
Some Jacobites had been raised on stories of earlier rebellions – 1689, 1708, 1715, 1719. When they joined Bonnie Prince Charlie, they stepped out of ordinary life and into story. This is another way of explaining the heroic impulse; to live as characters in a legend, not as mortal humans, thinking not of today but of how we will be remembered in a century.
Many people feel keenly the sordid, messy, compromising ordinariness of life. Shouldn't there be more to existence than a struggle to survive, or to get ahead; than squabbles with relatives we love but can't get along with; than a string of insults from strangers and dismissals from superiors; than churches full of hypocrites; than sadness and loss and regret? There is in all of us a longing to break free from earthbound life and soar. I see this longing all around me: in fantasies of the apocalypse, in the hope of lottery riches, in the dream of a perfect love that transforms, in the unchained rage of killers.
I see this longing among British Jacobites. They were not united by any particular social or economic grievance, or any single vision of life after the Stuarts had been restored. Some were Catholics, but others were Protestants who assumed the new Stuart king would convert to Protestantism, as Henry IV had converted to Catholicism to become King of France. Some wanted to undo the Act of Union that ended Scottish independence, while others wanted greater and closer union. Some wanted to give up the colonies, others to expand them. What united them was a dream of a different world. Especially among the writers and poets – John Dryden, Alexander Pope, Samuel Johnson, Walter Scott – Jacobism was part of a disaffection with the existing order of things. They felt a loathing for the money-grubbing, power-grubbing, self-promoting culture of getting ahead and stomping on whoever got in the way, and they associated this order with scheming Whig politicians and their fat Hanoverian kings. They wanted something else, and the King Over the Water provided a focus for these dreams.
Charles Edward Stuart by Allan Ramsay, 1745
Some people are especially put off by the sordid ordinariness of political life. Shouldn't a people's leader be something more than the most talented vote grubber, the most skillful pledger of false promises? Why should getting the most votes matter more than being the best man? There is, it has to be said, a dearth of purity and high-mindedness in democratic politics. Personally I think that is true of all politics, but anyway democracy is just not that inspiring to many people. They want something pure and true, and the one example that comes up most often is to give their loyalty to someone they believe in. In this loyalty they see something noble and clean that transcends mere political intrigue. Combine this with faith in divine kingship, and politics is transformed, in imagination anyway, from something material and grubby into something sanctified. There is a recurring literary image to describe such people and such times: a falling away, a casting off, a shedding of clothes and even skin, leaving behind something noble and pure. As Yeats wrote of a different rebellion:
You that Mitchel's prayer have heardI see all these longings in the followers of Bonnie Prince Charlie. Dissatisfied with the increasingly commercial, increasingly impersonal, increasingly technical world around them, dissatisfied with politics as trading votes for preferment, they sought to cut through all of it with a pure act of sacrifice. In loyalty and courage they sought redemption from the world of compromise and care.
`Send war in our time, O Lord!'
Know that when all words are said
And a man is fighting mad,
Something drops from eyes long blind
He completes his partial mind,
For an instant stands at ease,
Laughs aloud, his heart at peace
So there is my explanation. It has many parts as, I think, all explanations of human behavior should. There was boredom, restlessness, longing for adventure. There was the fascination of the hero's path, blazing through life on the way to a fiery end that might be long remembered. There was the dissatisfaction of the everyday and the longing to soar above it; there was the longing for pure and noble feeling. There was the desire to shed the skin of an ordinary, compromised, muddled life and to stand for a moment revealed as pure spirit, strong in decision, certain in action, powerful in faith.
Yet in the Britain of 2018 the people care not a fig for the government's victory, which is seen as oppressive in Scotland and forgotten elsewhere. No, it is Bonnie Prince Charlie and his quixotic rebellion that seized and still holds our imagination.
We know their dream; enoughI think about this and similar incidents all the time, and they make me wonder about the politics of my own time. My sort of politics is based on rational self-interest plus empathy. I support governments that defend the rights of the people and do their best to care for them and help them get along. I support democracy because although it is sordid and petty and corrupt, it does people the honor of allowing them to choose their own leaders. None of which is legend; none of which is heroic story; none of which inspires the kind of irrational fervor that Bonnie Prince Charlie did.
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?