A wee look at Jacobite Poetry
The Jacobite Risings of 1680-1746 has provided many poems, perhaps one of the largest repositories of Scottish poetry. It comes in many languages too, which cover Scottish and Irish Gaelic, Scots, Scots English, French and English; so covers a multitude of cultures and views.
Poetry, by nature, is emotive and driven by emotion which could be argued colour the poets accounts of events, especially large and tumultuous events throughout the 1715 and 1745 risings.
I am going to explore the correlation of three poems of The Risings as recounted in poetry to what is known to have occurred via historical accounts.
A brief historical account seems necessary for perspective in the poems, before taking a look at them, so we can see where and how they diverge from the generally accepted view of the events. This should help provide a timeline of events and a baseline of what happened and where.
Timeline of Events Leading up to ‘15 and ‘45
The Jacobites became a term for supporters of the exiled king James II. He was exiled in 1688, during the ‘Glorious Revolution’. The aim of the Jacobites was to place a Stuart king back on the throne as succession was not followed properly by the Government to place William III in power alongside Queen Mary Stuart1.
Support for the Jacobites was strong in both Scotland and Wales2, for reasons of succession and in Ireland for religious reasons3.
Prior to 1715 there were two attempts at insurrection; 1689-90 and 1708, firstly where James II landed in Ireland to be appointed as King, to be defeated by William III at the Battle of the Boyne4. In 1708 an attempt was launched from France, which can only be described as ‘botched’.
The third attempt, known as ‘The ‘15’, was far more successful than the prior two efforts. Lead by John Erskine, 6th Earl of Mar. He advanced as far as Perth and tackled the Duke of Argyll at the Battle of Sheriffmuir5.
We will look at this battle via the poem Oran air La Sliabh an t-Siorraim / Song of the Day of Sheriffmuir. by Sileas na Ceapaich6.
The poem itself was written before the battle, acting as as an incitement to battle (brosnachadh) and to cast shame on those who don’t participate. So, it’s accuracy in retelling the battle is negligible. Instead we can look at how well it acted to rally.
The poem speaks to many people and clans; MacDonald, MacKenzie, Fraser, MacLeod, MacKinnon and Chisholm. Of the clans listed to bring support, MacKenzie and Fraser didn’t appear as they may have been battling between themselves during the Siege of Inverness at that time, with Clan MacKenzie, supported by the MacDonalds of Keppoch, acting to defend the castle from Clan Fraser, Forbes and many others 7.
It is a little odd that Clan Fraser are mentioned in support of the Jacobites in the poem as they often sided with the Government, even though Lord Lovat himself was shrewd enough to play both sides.
It is also odd that Clan Forbes are called to fight for King James because they were publicly pro-Government and fought alongside Clan Fraser. The poem reads, later on from verse 14, as if to try and get Duncan Forbes of Culloden to change sides away from the Government.
Some of the MacLeods appeared for The ‘15, Macrae of Eilean Donan who “Fell Almost to a Man”8 at Sherrifmuir, however the bulk of the MacLeod gathering were two months late alongside the MacKinnon and MacKenzie’s9.
Clan Chisholm were supporters of King James, who had 200 men at the Battle of Sherrifmuir, where they were defeated 10.
The poem comes across as fantasy in asking for Clans allied with the Government, especially powerful ones such as Fraser and Forbes, to rally for King James. It may have acted to help indecisive clans to declare for King James if they were to falsely believe that they’d switched allegiance, thus boosting numbers. This poem can be interpreted as propaganda through that lens.
The fourth attempt, in 1719, often gets collated with The 15, however it was its own failed attempt. Aided by Spanish forces it was aborted after the Battle of Glenshiel, where the Jacobites lost to a far better armed Government military force using, for the first time, portable cannon which out-gunned and caused Jacobite forces to flee. If it wasn’t for the cannon, the numbers on each side were fairly even with 970 Government troops and 1,200 Jacobites11.
The ‘45, as it is colloquially known, was by far the most successful and neared success, if it weren’t for poor decision making and misleading intelligence12 leading to a turn-around at Derby after 5 months of decisive victories and rapid progress toward London. On their return to Scotland they remained un-defeated, even while being chased by General Cope. After the Battle of Prestonpans the Duke of Cumberland replaced General Cope, he was tasked with defeating The Jacobites in totality “No quarter was to be given”13.
This culminated in The Battle of Culloden in April 1746, which was written about by Iain Ruadh Stiubhart in Òran Eile Air Latha Chuil-Lodair / Another Song on Culloden Day14.
The poem recounts the events of 16th April 1746, it was written after the battle. Its recounting of the battle match contemporary accounts, even down to terrain and weather conditions.
'“As we took the field
The wind was driving the showers,
From the air came a third of our torment.'
'The ground grew so soft,
Both heather and sod,
And we had not the help of a hill slope”
Verses 13 &14'
Here, the weather is accurately recorded as was the lay of the land. We know the weather to have been very poor and the ground boggy from a correlating letter on the day 15.
Verse 15 portrays a period of battle where Jacobites were facing musket-fire. The poor ground compounded with the flat-land ensured the Jacobites were ‘sitting ducks’ for volleys of musket-fire. “Spoilt the use of our swords” shows how the Jacobites were unable to get close enough to avail them their skill of the sword because the musket-fire killed nearly half16 of the charging force
Looking back at verse 6, the poet, accurately, reinforces the narrative that the Jacobites were given poor direction and they were not able to fight at their best. The Highland Charge, which aided in their undefeated status, relied on a hill and firm-ground to gain speed, momentum and terror. Prestonpans and Falkirk were great examples of the Highland charge working to full effect, with Government forces retreating early17. It also speaks the poor direction of the midnight march, which was an unmitigated disaster, leaving the men hungry, exhausted, tired and with lowered morale18.
Another example of the poor decision making is described in verse 12; Clan Donald were traditionally on the right-hand side of the battle-line and for Culloden they were placed on the left and, as a result, refused to fight as is described in footnote 3 on page 179.
Verse 19 beautifully describes in few words the fateful demise of Clan Chattan, a mish-mash of clan-folk who were slaughtered after they, successfully, found a way around the bog.
'“My whole sorrow and woe
For the brace men smitten down
Clan Chattan of the flags and the keen swords”'
There is foul-play and revisionism taking place in the poem too. With verse 16 calling Lord George Murray “Achan” and a “vile ranting treacherous rascal”. The footnote on page 181 of Highlands Songs of the ‘45 states that there was “no foundation for the charge of bribe-taking” by Lord Murray.
The poet also scathes, in verse 7, of the deserters who left prior to the battle. Writing a satirising comment on the soldiers bravery, loyalty and reliability. These soldiers numbered around 2,00019 and may or may not have helped in the battle. Their desertion could also be that they saw the writing on the wall, choosing to see their families before the Duke of Cumberland came hunting.
'“There were many away
Of each northern clan,
Who in need’s hour would never fail us.”'
After the Jacobites fatal loss at Culloden, swathes of changes were brought in to bring the Highlands into heel by the Government. These changes were codified in the Act of Proscription 1747, through it was brought into effect in August 174620.
This we’ll look at through the lens of Iain Mac Codrum’s Oran an Aghaidh an Eididh Ghallda / Song Against the Lowland Garb 21.
The poem caustically laments the removal of the Highland dress and the imposition of Lowland dress. The poet laments that the new clothes are ill-suited to life in the Highlands and look unbecoming on the ‘Gaël’. Great praise is cast upon the plaid, kilt and tartan, saying it is the clothing of ‘handsome’ and ‘active heroes’.
The King comes under the cosh, being cursed and referred to as swine:
'“Cursed be the King who took the plaids away,
May he damned be since our hose he lengthened…”
Verse 1, lines 3-4.'
'“And when the sow’s been singed and her brood of piglings salted…”
Verse 10, line 5.'
This is clearly showing the malcontent, in the poet, brought by the Proscription Act. Given similar heat are Clan Donald who are described in unfavourable terms as “tailors of red-coats” and written as “MacDonalds as of old, the boldest in the charge” implying that the MacDonald’s of that day were cowardly and once brave. Footnote 2 states that the MacCodrum’s were a sept of MacDonald 22 which gives greater clout and intended impact to his censure.
In his recounting he draws an inaccurate view of Jacobites vs the Government; he portrays it as Highlands vs Lowlands instead of the incredibly mixed groupings of men on each side. It is clear why this distinction is being made, in that it furthers his imagery of the Highlander being subjugated and made to be someone they’re not, a lowlander.
'“Earnest prayer we’ll offer, and help will be coming,
Ten thousand French will come, at their feet the ball be,
Charles will be their leader, ready for the slaughter,…”
Verse 10, lines 1-3.'
The final verse speaks to a lingering false hope and bravado that James would become King and that House Stuart would be returned to the throne, also to the return to normality and life as was known prior to the Battle of Culloden. False hope in that there is no record of support being sent, only assurances23.
It is worthy of note that the Dress Act only affected boys and men who were not enlisted in the Government army24, women and girls were exempt from the ruling.
From this small selection we see that Jacobite poetry is of mixed quality when it comes to accuracy of events of the day. Even within the poem we can have a swing from accurate recount to gossip.
A big thread through the poems above is a strong conviction in their beliefs, both in the Stuart dynasty and the strength and martial ability of the Highlander. The greatest impression in the poems is of a people fighting for their way of life, for just succession and pride in who they are as a people.
- ‘Jacobite | Meaning, Risings, & History’, Encyclopedia Britannica https://www.britannica.com/topic/Jacobite-British-history
- Beatson, Siobhan (2019). The White Rose and the Red Dragon: An Analysis of the Jacobite Support in
Wales 1688-1746. Student dissertation for The Open University module A329 The making of Welsh history.
- Murphy, Seán. “Irish Jacobitism and Freemasonry.” Eighteenth-Century Ireland / Iris an Dá Chultúr, vol. 9, 1994, pp. 75–82. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/30071341.
- Encyclopedia Britannica
- ‘Battle of Sheriffmuir (1715) | Jacobite Rebllions (1689-1746) | Battlefields of Britain’ http://www.battlefieldsofbritain.co.uk/battle_sheriffmuir_1715.html
- MacDonald, Sĩleas, The Songs of the 1715 Jacobite Rising; Song on the Battle of Sherriffmuir, National Library of Scotland
- Fraser, Sarah. The Last Highlander: Scotland's Most Notorious Clan Chief, Rebel & Double Agent. London: HarperCollins, 2012. p. 154.
- ‘Clan Macrae at the Battle of Sheriffmuir’, Imperial War Museums https://www.iwm.org.uk/memorials/item/memorial/57954
- Elizabeth Ritchie, ‘Fields of Blood: Ross and Sutherland during the 1715 Jacobite Uprising’, Historylinksdornoch, 2018 https://historylinksdornoch.wordpress.com/2018/03/09/fields-of-blood-ross-and-sutherland-during-the-1715-jacobite-uprising/
- Rev. Carruth, J.A., ‘The Bonnie Prince Charlie Country’, Jarrold Publishing, 1996
- ‘Battle of Glenshiel (1719) | Jacobite Rebllions (1689-1746) | Battlefields of Britain’ http://www.battlefieldsofbritain.co.uk/battle_glenshiel_1719.html
- Livingstone, Alastair, No Quarter Given: The Muster Roll of Prince Charles Edward Stuarts Army 1745-46 (Neil Wilson Publishing, 2001) p. XXI
- ‘Butcher Cumberland’, Historic UK https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofBritain/Butcher-Cumberland/
- Campbell, John Lorne. Highland Songs of the Forty-Five, (Edinburgh, John Grant, 1933). pp. 177-185
- A letter signed a lover of truth and liberty, Scots Magazine v. 8 (1746) ‘On fome accounts of the battle of Culloden, &c.’ https://hdl.handle.net/2027/nyp.33433076839061?urlappend=%3Bseq=533
- Scots Magazine
- ‘Battle of Culloden’ https://www.britishbattles.com/jacobite-rebellion/battle-of-culloden/
- Battle of Culloden
- Anderson, Peter, Culloden Moor and Story of the Battle (William Mackay & son, 1920), Chapter 3.
- ‘Act of Proscription 1747’ https://www.electricscotland.com/history/other/proscription_1747.htm
- Highland Songs of the Forty-Five, pp. 249-253
- Highland Songs of the Forty-Five, p. 253
- No Quarter Given, pp. XXI-XXII
- Act of Proscription 1747