Obviously Scotland does this to me: it sends me on Jacobite tangents. Fictional tangents, mostly – because really, the moment you try a history book, the whole adventure loses much of its shine. Then again, seven decades of intermittent and unsuccessful attempts at restoring a royal line with the dubious aid of a foreign power were bound to be, on the one hand not terribly well organised, and on the other, perfect novel material… I mean: how can you have plenty of exiles headed by a handsome and charming prince, loyal clans, recurring bursts of violence, conspirations, secret messages, toasts to the King Across the Water, songs, divided families, spirited ladies, battles, and an ultimately doomed cause – and not expect an abundance of fiction? And of course, the foremost charm of the Jacobites is that of the doomed and defeated. Would we care very much about them, would we write novels, if they’d won?
Somehow I doubt it.
But, being things the way they are, here a little list:
- R. L. Stevenson’s Kidnapped, of course, with its sequel Catriona. Besides being how I became aware of the Risings at all, it has the most wonderful Jacobite in Alan Breck stewart: a reckless, colourful, generous adventurer – part wild Highlander, part Frenchified gentleman, swordsman, courier, soldier, poet – it is simply impossible not to root for Alan. Stevenson never sugarcoats either the man or his cause – just makes him irresistible.
- Walter Scott’s… well, several things, covering quite a few of the Risings – from the 1689 one in Old Mortality, to the 1715 with Rob Roy, and the famous 1745 in Waverley. Oh – and let us not forget Redgauntlet, centred around a fictional last Rising (or at least an attempted one) in 1765. As befits an author writing in a Scotland where the Risings were still a personal matter to many, Scott’s Jacobites are a mix of ruthless and charming, honourable and quixotic – but ultimately ineffectual – and the mostly Hanoverian young heroes, after getting embroiled with friends, family and lovers on the wrong side, after risking to yield to the doomed romantic charm of the Jacobites, always re-enter the safe, reasonable, well-ordered world of Georgian peace.
- D. K. Broster’s The Flight of the Heron. Well, the whole Jacobite Trilogy, actually – but the first part already encompasses all the relevant aspects of Broster’s idea of the period. I heard author Maggie Craig describe it as “the highly romanticised tale of the friendship between an English officer and a Highland chieftain” – and actually that’s it. The Englishman has little patience for the Jacobite cause – but admires his opponent and friend’s quixotic loyalty to it; the Scotsman has his faith in the Cause tested again and again – and does his best to swallow his doubts, but… but. In the end the 1745 comes off mostly as a crucible for men’s souls. Highly romanticised indeed – but a very good example of the fascination of this kind of historical background.
- Susanna Kearsley’s The Winter Sea is very, very much on the sentimental side of things. Essentially two intertwined love stories – and a little sugary at that – but it has the merit of giving a rare fictional glimpse of the seldom cited 1708 failed Jacobite invasion. We have the Old Pretender, the French Court seen from afar, the planning and the danger of the Scottish side…
- Rosemary Sutcliff’s Flame Coloured Taffeta is a children’s book – but, as often happens with Sutcliff, there is more to it than just wild derring-do. While helping a wounded and wanted Jacobite courier, twelve-year-old Damaris has to learn a lot about secrets, fear, courage, duty and loyalty. It’s a charming coming of age story – but far from a cheerful one. The wounded courier never wavers in his loyalty, but is well aware that he is risking everything for a doomed cause (we are in 1750) – and, while he has no qualms in doing so himself, he has to come to terms with his conscience when it comes to his young rescuers.
So yes – there is always a certain melancholy, when it comes to Jacobites of ink and paper… A doomed charm of both the aware and the cheerfully unaware. One of the fictional benefits of hind-sight, surely – without which, I’m not sure we’d love Alan and the others as much as we do.