Sir Walter Scott: Bonnie Prince Charlie and Scotland’s Romantic Age

Scott, Sir Walter.  From Montrose to Culloden: Bonnie Prince Charlie and Scotland’s Romantic Age. ed. George Grant. Nashville, TN: Cumberland House, 2001.

The survey of this history of Scottish romantic chivalry can be ended with a meditation on “tradition vs. discipline.”  All the heroes and villains are here: Whigs, Tories, Covenanters.    The Tories opposed the accession of King George I.  Scott faults George I for listening to his Whig advisors and unnecessarily antagonizing otherwise noble Tories (Scott 11).

Scott, however, is realistic about what romantic life in feudal Scotland would have been like.  He writes, “[F]ew modern readers would desire to exchange conditions with a resident within the romantic bounds” of those times (29).

The main problem for the Scots in 1715 was the delayed raising of the western clans (46). And in what can only be a bizarre turn of events, the Scottish outlaw Rob Roy was just as likely to support those who supported the Hanovers (71). Rob Roy might have been a Jacobite, but he felt he should be loyal to his patron, the Duke of Argyle.

1715 might seem a sad ending for those with a romantic bent.  The Chevalier de St George was more inclined to “the intrigues of court, not the labors of a campaign” (113).

Scott praises the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge for establishing chapels and schools, which did more to enlighten “the people of that country than had been achieved by any prince who had yet reigned in or over Scotland” (124).

The uprising of 1745 is the heart of the story.  It tells of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s secret landing in Scotland, his raising of a highland army, his initial successes, and his inevitable failure. The Bonnie Prince never had a chance, but not for military reasons.  His stunning victory at Prestonpans allowed him to march deep into England, perhaps on London.  This was a fatal move, as England eventually marshaled two armies to cut him off.  His army did make good a retreat, allowing the later (and doomed) battle at Culloden.

Even then he wasn’t completely doomed.  He had 9,000 Highlanders under his control, roughly the same as the English.  Desertion was a problem, though, and he never could bring all of his forces to bear.

Could things have been otherwise?  To a degree, perhaps.  He certainly could have retained control of Scotland and left England alone.  That would have given him a few years.  Charlie thought he deserved England and wouldn’t settle for less. 

Scott suggests that even if Charlie won every battle, he still would have lost the war.  Scotland’s standard of living had improved due to English rule.  The Highlanders represented a small minority, and Charlie himself represented that line that was opposed to Presbyterianism.  He would never have had popular support, and his problems would have multiplied in England.

Still, there is something haunting and compelling about the old ways.  While it was good to see the last remnants of feudalism dissolve under modern developments, one wonders–perhaps for our own times–if there is a way to hold to both modern economics and a vision of that way of life which isn’t reducible to economic factors.

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