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Who were the Jacobites and what did they want for Scotland?

Professor Murray Pittock and Professor Christopher Whatley debate the nature of Jacobitism in 18th-century Scotland, discussing what the Jacobite vision for Scotland was and how it compared to the competing ambitions of Scotland’s Whigs, who supported the exclusion of the Jacobite claimants. This article is based on the first History Scotland Lecture, delivered in Dundee on 24 April 2018


Illustration depicting the punishments suffered by the Covenanters under the later Stuarts


I am going to start with three questions. First of all, why, even in current history books, are the Jacobite claimants described as the old and young ‘pretenders’? This is a term which derives from the ‘pretended prince of Wales’ identified by the English parliament in 1689 and refers not to claimants, as some historians would like to say, but actually to illegitimacy, as in the Attainder of the Pretended Prince of Wales (1702). Why is that the case?

Question two. Why is the force that defeated the Jacobites on Culloden moor in 1746 never called ‘the British army’? That is what it was; many of its soldiers were veterans of the war of the Austrian succession. They had fought at the battle of Fontenoy in 1745. They formed an army much more British than that commanded by Wellington in 1815. The issue was always avoided in Scotland by calling them ‘governmental’ or ‘Hanoverian’ troops or some other concatenation, but they were formally the ‘British’ army.

Third. The British army was in Scotland in occupation from 1746 to around 1760. Ten years after Culloden there were still 60 regular British army patrols in Scotland. Why has no book ever been published on the occupation of Scotland by the British army, even though there are extensive primary sources, both in British military archives and in the burgh archives of Scotland, to go no higher? I am not going to answer these questions, but I am going to explore the ways in which misreading Jacobitism, and misunderstanding what the Jacobites were about, has become very important for a very long time to British history.

The long-assumed opposition between British and Jacobite, between constitutionalism and absolutism, states and tribes, Britons and Gaels, Saxons and Celts, Protestants and Catholics and all the rest of it is only just now coming under some pressure. I do not mean that serious historians write like this – of course they do not – but more broadly these kinds of oppositions are very common in the way we think about Jacobitism, and they are quite confused.

One of the interesting things I have found about Jacobite scholarship in the last 20 years is that actually they are getting less confused in England than they remain in Scotland. Perhaps because we do not like things that disturb our memory. We may have coined the phrase ‘facts are chiels that winna ding and downa be disputed’, but I am not sure we altogether live by it.

When I published Culloden two years ago, one of the initial responses to it was from Keith Simpson, the Tory MP and military historian who described it as an admirably balanced volume which should be ‘required reading for non-Scottish MPs’. It was enjoyed by the wellknown English scholar Jeremy Black, who recommended it as his choice title of 2016 in History Today. It was a Country Life recommendation and recommended as the best book on its subject by general James Campbell of United States Air Command and Staff College, and of course it was commissioned by Sir Hew Strachan who occupies the senior military history chair in the United Kingdom. I say that not as a matter of boosterism, as these things are easily found on the web, but actually because it refl ects that in Scotland, and in Scotland alone, some of what I am about to say remains controversial, even though it is part of the evidence and part of the structure of British history.


Jacobitism has been called by British historians ‘the last struggle of barbarism against civilisation’. It has been called ‘a romantic episode of a few ruined adventurers and exiles’ and ‘a fantasia of misrule in defiance of parliament and its laws’.

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About History Scotland

In this packed issue we continue our pioneering new series which focuses on the Stewart queen consorts, exploring the life of Arabella Drummond (c.1350-1401) who played a significant role in governing the country following the incapacity of her husband Robert III of Scots. Also in this issue: · The ‘richest commoner’ and his Barra tenants · Excavations beneath the streets of Inverness · New reconstruction of St Andrew’s Cathedral Plus: Family history advice, archaeology dig reports and finds analysis, National Records of Scotland column and lots more…