The Jacobites

A memorial stone on Culloden Moor calls the Jacobite soldiers who died fighting beside Bonnie Prince Charlie ‘the gallant Highlanders’.

While there were many Highlander casualties at Culloden, the Jacobite cause also drew support from the Lowlands, as well as from France and Ireland. The memorials left behind after the Jacobite risings of the 17th and 18th centuries show that this was one of the most important periods in Scottish history. But what led to such a long struggle? Who was the Bonnie Prince? And how do we remember it now?

The Glorious Revolution

A century of bloodshed began with a family feud. King James VII (King James II in England) would be the last Roman Catholic monarch on these islands. His downfall came at the hands of his daughter Mary and his son-in-law, a Dutch Protestant called William of Orange, who became joint monarchs.

Civil war was a constant threat as Scotland, Ireland and England struggled to find a way to live and prosper together. By 1688 the divisions were so deep that King James VII of Scotland and II of England, a Catholic and a Stuart, had to flee to France.

The English and Scottish parliaments invited William of Orange (James’s nephew) and his wife Mary to come from Europe to rule in James’s place. During the constitutional upheaval, the Scottish parliament made Presbyterianism the state religion in Scotland, overthrowing the Protestant Episcopal Church.

James’s supporters in Scotland would rise up together to challenge the new king and try to restore James to the throne.

A group of men re-enact the Highland charge at the Battle of Culloden, dressed as Jacobite soldiers. They wear blue berets and carry large targes.

Why are they called Jacobites?

The Jacobites were the supporters of King James VII of Scotland and II of England. The Latin for James is Jacobus.


The first battle fought in Scotland against King William was at Killiecrankie in 1689. James’s biggest supporter, 1st Viscount Dundee, somehow rallied several rival clans to the cause.

At Killiecrankie, 3 miles north of Pitlochry, ‘Bonnie Dundee’ claimed victory in a vicious and gory fight against the much bigger Redcoat (Government) army. In the process, Dundee would lose his life, and following other bloody scenes at Dunkeld and Glencoe, clans across Scotland started declaring allegiance to one side or the other. The fighting had only just begun.

An aerial colour photograph of Killiecrankie in autumn, showing the trees in their autumn colours. The rivers runs through the centre of the image, with the footbridge in the distance.
The magnificent wooded gorge at Killiecrankie in glorious autumn colours

The Union of 1707

King William died in 1703, without any direct successors, so the crown was passed to his wife’s sister, Queen Anne. On his deathbed, William recommended a union between the parliaments of England and Scotland, much to the dismay of the Jacobite cause.

Scotland now faced an uncertain economic and political future. Under extreme pressure, its parliament accepted the Act of Union in 1707, combining the parliaments of Scotland and England. Three major issues now divided Scotland: the Union, the restoration of the Stuarts and the dominant form of Protestantism.

Who were the Jacobites in Scotland?

When the Union passed in 1707, several risings followed. The Battle of Sheriffmuir in 1715, led by John Erskine, Earl of Mar, on behalf of James VIII, ended in retreat and embarrassment. Then in 1719, Lord Tullibardine and Earl Marischal would lead the Jacobites in the Battle of Glenshiel, but their efforts would also end in failure, along with the capture of 300 of their Spanish allies. Visitors can see Mar’s castle at Alloa Tower and the Glenshiel battlefield at Kintail. It would be another couple of decades before the Jacobite cause saw another significant rising, this time led by James VII’s grandson, Charles Edward Stuart.

A view of Alloa Tower, a tall forbidding-looking keep, in winter. Bare branched trees stand beside it, almost silhouetted against the pale blue sky.
Alloa Tower is the largest surviving keep in Scotland

Bonnie Prince Charlie

In 1745, Britain had been governed for over 30 years by the political party known as the Whigs. Whigs opposed the Stuarts’ belief in absolute monarchy. Instead, they argued for a balance of power between king and parliament – as under the Hanoverians. They were Protestants but then so were many of the Jacobites.

However, political infighting, charges of corruption and military setbacks abroad meant that the government was not in a strong position in this year, and it was taken by surprise by the Jacobite Rising. War in Europe had been simmering since 1740. In order to divide the British further, groups in the French government had encouraged Jacobite plotting. Without support from the Continent, the Jacobites knew they would never succeed in regaining the throne for the exiled James VII’s son, James Francis Edward Stuart.

On 11 May 1745 at Fontenoy (in present-day Belgium), the French crushed British forces under the leadership of the Duke of Cumberland (King George II’s son). The defeat of the British army offered the perfect opportunity for a co-ordinated rising and invasion of Britain – Prince Charles Edward Stuart, James’s son, seized the moment.

Bonnie Prince Charlie landed in the Hebrides in 1745. His arrival signalled the start of some success for the Jacobites, and under Charlie’s leadership the ’45 rising would claim important victories against the government armies.

An aerial colour photograph of Killiecrankie in autumn, showing the trees in their autumn colours. The rivers runs through the centre of the image, with the footbridge in the distance.
A miniature of Bonnie Prince Charlie

Arrival of the Prince in Scotland

The Prince had left France on 5 July with the essential supplies to start his campaign, but two of his ships were attacked en route and returned to port. Charles arrived in the Highlands with only a handful of men – an unimpressive start. However, his charm and promises of French aid eventually persuaded local clan chiefs to support his cause. On 19 August, Charles raised his father’s Standard at Glenfinnan, the army gathered and the 1745 Jacobite Rising began.

Just over a week later, rumours of the Prince’s arrival were confirmed to the government. But they were confident that Sir John Cope, commander of forces in Scotland, would quell the disturbance, using the new network of forts and roads in the Highlands.

Barely a month later, Edinburgh was in Jacobite hands, and Cope’s forces suffered a disastrous defeat at Prestonpans.

March south to Derby

At a Council of War in Edinburgh, the Jacobites were faced with a critical choice. They could remain in Scotland to strengthen their grip on the country. Or they could march into England and head straight for London. This would encourage the English Jacobites to rise and then, surely, the French would launch an invasion as the Prince had promised. Swayed by the Prince, they chose the latter.

The government, shocked by the defeat at Prestonpans, also called a Council of War. It decided to assemble two armies. One army under Field-Marshal Wade was concentrated in the north-east near Newcastle; the other was positioned in Chester to defend the west.

Showing astonishing speed, the Jacobite army reached Derby, only 125 miles from London, by 4 December. Banks and businesses in the capital were panicking, but doubt was growing among Jacobite officers, primarily Lord George Murray.

In his opinion, it was madness to continue. There were two government armies behind them and he believed that a third defended London. There had been very little support from English Jacobites and no sign of the promised help from the French. During angry meetings on 5 December, the Prince’s leadership was challenged by his senior commanders. Eventually, they decided to turn round and withdraw to Scotland. What if they had continued? What if they had known that a French invasion fleet was at that moment preparing to cross the Channel?

The return to Scotland and the battle of Falkirk

Although in retreat, the Jacobite army was still a force to be reckoned with. Government troops led by the Duke of Cumberland were close behind the Jacobites, but rumours of a French invasion briefly drove the Duke and his army back to the south coast.

On returning to Scotland, the Jacobites defeated the government army at Falkirk on 17 January 1746. But in the confusion after the battle, the Jacobites failed to build on their victory. Against the Prince’s will, they took the decision to retreat further north into the Highlands. They wanted to gather their strength over the winter months, and the Jacobite campaign would start again in the spring. Hearing the news of the government’s defeat at Falkirk, Cumberland raced north to Scotland to take charge.

Towards the end of the long, hard winter, the rising entered a new phase. Both sides divided their forces and engaged in skirmishes across the Highlands and the north-east. The Jacobites were keen to capture government military centres. The government successfully held Fort William but lost Fort George and Fort Augustus. However, the thinly stretched Jacobite army began to struggle to keep its lines of supply open.

As winter eased into spring, the two sides drew closer together. The Jacobite army took Inverness at the end of February; at the beginning of April, Cumberland’s forces began their advance west from Aberdeen.

For the Prince, time and money were running out.

An aerial colour photograph of Killiecrankie in autumn, showing the trees in their autumn colours. The rivers runs through the centre of the image, with the footbridge in the distance.
Glenfinnan Monument stands at the head of Loch Shiel. A lone, kilted highlander atop the 18m column surveys the land, commemorating the Jacobites who fought and fell during the ’45.

The Battle of Culloden

In April 1746, Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Jacobite army went into battle against the Duke of Cumberland and his redcoats at Culloden, near Inverness. In less than an hour around 1,600 men were killed, 1,500 of them Jacobites. This would be the last major battle ever fought on the British mainland.

Read more about the Battle of Culloden

Why did the Jacobites fail?

The Jacobites had been in trouble since returning from Derby. By April 1746, many of the troops were starving and exhausted, surviving on rations of just three biscuits a day. By contrast, the government troops had received extra rations the night before the battle, to celebrate Cumberland’s birthday.

Several Jacobite leaders believed the decision to fight on the moor, rather than on higher ground, was a poor one – it did not favour the tactic of the Highland charge – but Charles’s mind was set.

As the Jacobites lined up for battle, they were surrounded not by open field but by stone enclosures, which they lacked troops to fill, leaving them vulnerable to being outflanked. This is precisely what happened.

The government artillery fired grapeshot, which had a devastating effect upon the Jacobites. The Jacobites were ordered to hold their line until the command to charge was received – and they were bombarded. When they finally charged, many were slowed down by the boggy ground and their attack was ineffectual. Under brutal gunfire, they were forced to retreat.

For the Jacobites, the Battle of Culloden was an exceptionally bloody defeat that changed life in the Highlands forever.

Long grass sways in the wind on a large empty moor. A line of trees stand in the background with hills in the distance.
Culloden Moor

The aftermath of Culloden

Following his victory at Culloden, the Duke of Cumberland was determined to eliminate the Jacobite threat once and for all.

He wanted revenge: his army would crush the unruly Highlanders in the most brutal way, capture the Prince and return to the main war in Flanders as soon as possible. There was to be no question of a further rising.

Within a few days of the battle, around 1,500 Jacobite soldiers gathered at Ruthven Barracks, ready to continue the campaign. To their surprise, Charles gave the order to disperse and then went into hiding. For him, the Rising was over. With help he managed to escape, fleeing to Skye where he was never betrayed, despite a huge reward being placed on his life.

Unopposed, the government sent its troops across Scotland, punishing anyone suspected of Jacobite sympathies. The policy of ‘pacification’ of the Highlands had begun.

The government began to dismantle the structures of Highland society. Clan chiefs were deprived of their legal powers and clansmen of their weapons; Jacobite estates were seized by the Crown; and the kilt and tartan were banned.

However, on his return to France, Prince Charles Edward Stuart was the hero of Europe. The story of his bold expedition and romantic escape made him a great celebrity of his time. His life afterwards was anti-climactic. He was expelled from France in 1748 and spent the next decades drinking heavily and involved in futile conspiracies. He died in Rome in 1788, deserted by his wife and followers.

Charles’s body was moved to St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican in 1807 to join his brother’s. His father and mother are also buried there.

The Duke of Cumberland fared little better. His ruthless conduct after Culloden earned him the title of ‘Butcher’, but his next military campaign ended in defeat and surrender. He died in 1765.

A view of Drum Castle on a sunny day, with bright blue sky behind. The ancient, square stone tower is to the left, with the Jacobean section to the right. Tall trees can be seen behind the castle.
Drum is a Jacobite castle. After Culloden, Alexander Irvine, 17th Laird of Drum was listed as ‘never to be pardoned’ but he made his way back to Drum and was hidden by his sister to avoid capture.

Highland culture

Long before Culloden, Scottish Gaels were living through major social and economic changes. This process was accelerated after the traumatic defeat at Culloden. The ’45 Rising had focused the government’s attention on the region and its people.

For some Highlanders, these dynamic changes opened up opportunities for profit in the British Empire. Others joined the British army. Many ex-Jacobites fought with Loudoun in North America during the Seven Years War, and for King George III in the American Wars of Independence.

But for many others, the destruction of the traditional Gaelic culture and ways of life meant an insecure, increasingly bleak future.

A large round stone cairn stands in the middle of a battlefield. Mountains and forests can be seen in the distance.
The Memorial Cairn was erected by Duncan Forbes in 1881 and stands 6m high.

Culloden today

Since the mid-19th century the battlefield has become a place of pilgrimage for people from Scotland and throughout the world. Some visitors are descendants of those who fought; others are gripped by the extraordinary story. With ongoing archaeological research and fresh historical interpretations, the story of Culloden and the Jacobite cause is far from over.

A velvety mole peeps out of a hole in the earth, with two large front paws resting either side. It has a pointed pink nose with whiskers.

Did you know?

It's said that in 1702 King William III (William of Orange) was riding his horse when it stumbled on a molehill, causing him to fall. He broke his collarbone and subsequently developed pneumonia, which killed him. To this day, Jacobite supporters still toast ‘the wee gentleman in the black velvet waistcoat’ at gatherings, in honour of the mole and his hill.