The events from Scottish history that shaped the nation's character
Jacobites exhibition reveals source of sentimentality in Scottish psyche
Rebels with a Cause: The Jacobites and the Global Imagination exhibition reveals origin of Scottish character’s tendency for the romantic, mournful and sentimental.
All cultural stereotypes, however attractive or unattractive they might be, exist for a reason, and can often be traced to specific events in history. A list of Scottish character traits, for example, might include: passionate, hospitable, broad-based education system, likes pies, stingy, defeatist, fiercely patriotic however misguided this might be, alcoholic, prone to violence, unhealthy, good at engineering. Now, an upcoming exhibition curated by the Scottish Parliament and Aberdeen University explores the origin of a group of these stereotypical traits of the Scottish character, specifically: reflectiveness, a tendency for the maudlin, and a romantic longing for a different state of affairs however unlikely they might be.
Rebels with a Cause: The Jacobites and the Global Imagination examines the ideology, culture and legacy of the Jacobite movement - the supporters of the deposed and exiled King James VII of Scotland, who took their name from the Latin form of his name: Jacobus. An active cause from the Revolution of 1689, when William III and wife Mary (King James’ protestant daughter) took the throne from the Roman Catholic King James, Jacobitism sought a return of a monarch from the House of Stuart, be it King James or later his son Charles, aka Bonnie Prince Charlie.
So why choose this period of history? Well firstly, the Jacobites and their story are about as close as Scottish history gets to a revolutionary underground army. For Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, insert Bluidy Clavers (aka Bonnie Dundee) and Bonnie Prince Charlie and you’re getting there. It’s not for nothing that canny novelist Walter Scott set his hugely successful adventure romp Waverley within the Jacobite uprising - it’s tailor-made for a gripping tale of injustice, exile, uprising and doomed struggle and there are plenty of battles scenes taking in some pretty heavyweight names from Scottish history – Culloden, Prestonpans, Killiecrankie, Glencoe - along the way.
Secondly, the underlying issues during the Jacobite movement are the same issues which still shape cultural and political debate in the UK today. Broadly speaking, the key beliefs of Jacobite cause were: religious toleration, the belief that all faith can and should ‘just get on’ with each other; a strong pro-Royal stance, including a belief in the divine right of kings, whereby a monarch should be all-powerful and effectively ‘above the law’; and belief in inalienable hereditary right, that power should be passed on by birthright alone – the celebrated figures of Jacobitism, James VIII and his son Bonnie Prince Charlie, although viewed as revolutionaries and folk heroes by sympathisers at the time, are all palace-dwelling aristocrats. Somewhat perversely for a movement whose main sympathisers were the common people, the alienated and the dispossessed, there is no place in the Jacobite ideology for those not of noble birth to have any effect on power. These are still ‘live’ issues that fuel debate in the debating chambers, offices and pubs of the country.
Added to this, of course, is the religious dimension. The Jacobite ideology is pro-Catholic. In fact the motivating factor behind the Revolution of 1688 - when a letter was sent to William of Orange in Holland by seven protestant nobleman suggesting that if he were to invade and take the throne from James VII he could expect support - was to avoid a continuation of a permanent Catholic dynasty. This is a state of affairs that still exists in the UK today, thanks to the 1701 Act of Settlement. Unusually, and to its credit, Rebels with a Cause: The Jacobites and the Global Imagination shifts the focus away from the well-trodden ground of the Jacobite era - the 1715 and 1745 uprisings, The Battle of Culloden – and instead examines the aftermath and cultural legacy of the era. Many of the key players were exiled to places across the emerging British Empire in India and North America, and took the culture with them, as exemplified by many of the objects on display as part of the exhibition including a carved egg covered in the secret language of Jacobite symbols and a songbook containing treasonous Jacobite songs.
To understand the influence that Jacobite culture had on Scottish identity, and specifically the tendency to lament for a romantic but lost cause, we can strike a parallel with Ancient Greek world. There’s a great scene in the first series of Mad Men, where Rachel Menken explain to Don Draper - as it’s becoming apparent that he’s not going to leave his wife to be with her - how the ancient Greeks had two forms of utopia: eu-topos, meaning ‘the good place’ and ou-topos, meaning ‘the place which cannot be’. Next time you’re confronted with the image of a lone piper playing a mournful lament overlooking a loch as being emblematic of the spirit of Scotland, you’ll know where that sentiment, longing for a state of affairs that you also know can never happen, originated.