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The Fall Of Bonnie Prince Charlie

The Fall Of Bonnie Prince Charlie

The National Museum of Scotland takes a once-in-a-generation look
at the man who tried to return the crown to the Catholic Stewarts...
and failed miserably

BY KEITH AITKEN

There is no more iconic figure in all of Scottish history than Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Young Pretender, nor any more divisive. To some, he is a romantic adventurer who battled nobly to defend a proud dynastic and cultural heritage against an imposed order from south of the border; to others, a self-interested chancer who stirred the embers of feudalism in an attempt to restore his family's fortunes, leaving a society he barely knew vulnerable and beaten.

To this day, it is a debate that can swiftly descend to rancour and vituperation in Scotland, which is why this summer's landmark exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, in attempting to tease the truth from the myth-making, begins from a shrewd awareness of the need to proceed with sensitivity. Most Scots, and many people in the wider diaspora, carry their own idea of the Bonnie Prince around in their heads, and can take ill to its being challenged. And challenged it will certainly be.

You need only dip into the folk songs, of which there are hundreds, to see the range of opinion about Charlie and the Jacobites. At one extreme we find the fair-complexioned, tartan-draped Alan Ladd of a thousand gooey ballads and a million shortbread tins, striding south at the head of a brigade of hirsute Highlanders to take on the might of the Auld Enemy:

Although my heart is unco sair (aching),
And lies fu' lowly in its lair,
Yet the last drap o' blude that's there,
I'll gie for bonny Charlie.
[Alexander Stewart]

At the other extreme, and perhaps the more common view in recent years, we find the ineffectual son of a brooding father, the posturing, petulant exile who bequeathed to a homeland he had never seen a bitter legacy of slaughter, civil strife and cultural suppression in a vainglorious attempt to hold back the march of history. That Charlie, summed up crisply by comedian Billy Connolly as "an effeminate Italian dwarf," also has his place in song:

And tell me will we never hear the end
Of puir bluidy Charlie at Culloden yet again?
Though he ran like a rabbit down the glen
Leavin' better folk than him to be butchered
[Brian McNeill]

In the infuriating way of Scottish history, both versions contain nuggets of truth, and beneath them lie many strata of loyalty, sentiment, mythology, politics, revisionism and social change. Those struggling to make sense of it all may never have a better chance than at this summer's exhibition, the biggest mounted by the National Museum since its blockbuster Mary, Queen of Scots show in 2013.

The full text of this article is available in the Summer 2017 issue of Scottish Life.

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Photos © National Museums Scotland