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Jacobitism was a largely 17th- and 18th-century movement that supported the restoration of the House of Stuart to the British throne.

bonnie prince charlie lost portrait, Jacobitism
Lost portrait of Bonnie Prince Charlie

The name Jacobite is derived from Jacobus, the Latin version of James. When James II and VII was forced into exile in 1688, Parliament argued he abandoned the throne and offered it to his Protestant daughter Mary and her husband William III. Jacobitism was a complex mix of ideas but supporters argued monarchs were appointed by God, or divine right, and could not be removed, making the post-1688 regime illegitimate.

Jacobitism had armed support in Western Scottish Highlands, and Aberdeenshire; 20,000 Scots fought for the Jacobites in 1715, compared to 11,000 who joined the government army, and areas of Northern England, Wales, and South West England. The movement had an international dimension; several European powers sponsored the Jacobites as an extension of larger conflicts. There were Jacobite risings in 1689,  in 1715, 1719 and 1745 along with abortive French-backed invasion attempts in 1708 and 1744.

That of 1745 has provided much romantic writing of the devasting Highland Charges, the bloody defeat at Culloden, Prince Charles’s evasion of capture with a price tag on his head, the heroism of his supporters such as Flora MacDonald and his escape to France.

These events were immortalised in many well-known Jacobite songs in Gaelic, such as Mo run geal og and in English such as The Skye Boat Song (‘Speed bonny boat like a bird on the wing/”Onward” the sailors cry;/Carry the lad that’s born to be king/Over the sea to Skye’); Will ye no come back again? (‘Bonnie Charlie’s noo awa’/Safely o’er the friendly main); The Hundred Pipers, (‘Wi’ a hundred pipers an’ a’ , an’ a ). While the Gaelic songs are contemporary with the events they describe those in English are not. They were written by Robert Burns, James Hogg, Lady Nairne and other named songwriters during the nineteenth century.

While the 1745 rising had succeeded in taking control in Scotland and forced the recall of troops from Europe, its defeat at Culloden and withdrawal of French support in 1748 ended Jacobitism as a serious political movement. Whig historiography viewed Jacobitism as marginal to the progression towards present-day Parliamentary democracy. Nowadays historians suggest that Jacobitism should be seen as an ongoing political idea and a strain of social and political conservatism running throughout British history.

Written by Coinneach Maclean