Culloden and the ’45 by Jeremy Black (1990)

Jeremy Black MBE is a prolific and respected historian who’s written mostly, but not solely, about 18th century history. This is a large format book in the series of Illustrated History Paperbacks from Sutton Publishing but it isn’t a balmy coffee-table read; it is a dense and detailed account of this key event in British history.

In a sense you have to go back to the Civil Wars to understand the Jacobite Uprising of 1745; taking the long view, as far back as the Reformation. Thus:

The Reformation 1517

In 1517 the monk Martin Luther nailed to a church door in Germany a set of ‘theses’ which attacked the social and theological corruption of the Roman Catholic church. He was the right man in the right place at the right time, for his theological attack crystallised a century or more of opposition to the Catholic church’s elaborate medieval theology, his attack on the church’s corruption (demanding money for ‘indulgences’ – in effect, charging people to get into heaven) attracted social reformers, and the political uproar he caused suited many rulers of German’s numerous little states who seized it as an opportunity to throw off political domination of Catholic emperors and declare their theological and political independence. Within a generation what became known as ‘the Reformation’ spread across Europe, inextricably intertwining politics with theology and creating two armed camps, of Protestants and Catholics.

The Reformation in England and Scotland 1530s and 1540s

The Reformation caused mayhem in England where King Henry VIII seized the opportunity to use the new theology as a pretext to overthrow the authority of the pope and make himself supreme ruler, coincidentally allowing himself to shut down the nation’s rich monasteries and convents and seize their riches.

His successors – Edward, Mary and Elizabeth – managed this turbulent legacy of religious and political dissension as best they could, Elizabeth more or less stabilising the conflicting views of theologians in a media via or compromise position which came to characterise the Church of England.

Scotland underwent its own version of the Reformation which was much more hardline in nature – briefly this meant the Scots rejected the rule of bishops in the church (seeing them as appointees of the king not of God) and adopting Calvin’s version of Protestantism, which emphasised God’s foreknowledge and the idea that all our lives are predestined. (In contrast to the Catholic view that, if you sin you can say confession and be forgiven by a priest or buy ‘indulgences’ or pay for masses to be said to save your soul or generally buy forgiveness and entrance to heaven, Protestants from Luther down emphasise the idea that all of us are irretrievably damned and can do nothing to save ourselves; only the love of God can save us, only his ‘amazing grace’ offers any hope of forgiveness.)

The British Civil Wars 1637-49

When Elizabeth I died she left no heir and Parliament invited King James VI of Scotland to come down and become King James I of England. James had survived the poisonous machinations of the Scottish court of his childhood and so was well-prepared to enter the equally complex web of post-Elizabethan power politics and theological conflict.

However, James brought his son, Charles I, up to be a modern European monarch and to believe in the Divine Right of Kings. This was a mistake for, when Charles I inherited the throne in 1625, his high-handed, aristocratic and dangerously Catholic views alienated a diverse range of his subjects. Businessmen were frustrated that he awarded monopolies on foreign trade to court favourites. Lawyers and politicians were offended by his high-handed way with Parliament, which he eventually suspended for blocking all his plans and laws. And the party of ‘Puritans’ – people from all walks of life who believed that Elizabeth’s Church of England was a sinful compromise with worldly authority – were scandalised when Charles I married a Catholic Queen, Henrietta Maria. Even worse, Charles I allowed her to have a Catholic priest and to attend Mass in Whitehall, which rumour implied that Charles I himself sometimes attended! Meanwhile, he made himself very unpopular by reintroducing the altar rail, images, singing and other ‘Catholic trumpery’ into the Church of England.

In 1637 Charles I made the bad mistake of trying to impose a new, more ‘Anglican’ Prayer Book on the church in Scotland. There was a popular rebellion against the ‘Popish innovations’, a movement quickly seized hold of by dissident aristocrats. Charles I ordered a ramshackle English force to enter Scotland and impose his Prayer Book, but to everyone’s surprise it was defeated by a better organised Scottish army which forced the English back across the border and then marched south and seized Newcastle. Charles I was forced to recall his hated Parliament which, instead of voting him the money he needed to prosecute the war, set about renewing all the demands for political, economic and religious reform which had made him shut it down in the first place. And many Parliamentarians started corresponding on friendly terms with the Scots Presbyterians, with whom they shared Puritan values.

King Charles I painted by Sir Anthony van Dyck

King Charles I painted by Sir Anthony van Dyck. It all starts with his ineptitude.

Charles I recalled his most effective minister, the Earl of Strafford, from Ireland to consult on plans, but this in turn gave the rebellious Irish the opportunity to rise up and storm the English settlements in the Pale of Dublin, driving many Protestants into the sea. Exaggerated stories of atrocities played into the hands of Puritan propagandists, who could present the attacks from Ireland and Scotland as part of a coordinated plan to overthrow Protestant rule in England. When Charles I attempted to arrest his leading critics in Parliament – and failed; forewarned, they had fled London – he realised he had stepped over a line. He withdrew with his court and supporters to Oxford, raised his standard, and the countries of England, Ireland and Scotland were plunged into an intertwined and very complicated series of wars.

The Commonwealth 1649-60

Briefly, after three separate wars (in England alone) beside the campaigns in Scotland and Ireland, and a maze of negotiation, Charles I was captured, put on trial and executed in January 1649, his wife and sons, the future Charles II and James II, having long ago fled to France. For 11 long years they languished in exile, hosted by a French king eager to foment rebellion in Britain, hatching innumerable failed plots for their return.

This was to become the pattern of behaviour for the next hundred years of what Black pithily titles The Wars of British Succession.

The Restoration 1660

Oliver Cromwell had risen to the top of the pile in republican Britain and, following Charles I’s execution, led successful military campaigns to quell first the Scots then the Irish. He ruled as ‘Lord Protector’ from 1653 to his death in 1658. His son, Richard, inherited the position, but had none of his father’s skills or connections and within a year the republic crumbled away, and influential soldiers decided the only way to avert anarchy was to restore the monarchy and invite Prince Charles back to become King Charles II.

Surprisingly maybe, Charles II returned a hero to great jubilation and wine flowed in the street. He became infamous for having numerous mistresses, holding drunken parties and gained the nickname ‘the Merry Monarch’. Charles II was careful to put the royal imprimatur on all sorts of organisations, from the Royal Society to the Royal Academy, the Royal Observatory, as well as instituting Derby Day, sailing at Cowes and other popular leisure activities. BBC surveys and the like report that he is one of the best-known and most popular English kings.

On a more serious note, the restored Parliament persecuted many of the leaders of the old Puritan regime, as well as anyone who refused to ‘conform’ to the new, strict Church of England. These ‘non-conformists’ as they became known, were often imprisoned, where many died. Those who could afford to emigrated to America, such as the Quaker William Penn who founded Pennsylvania in America.

King Charles II painted by John Riley

King Charles II painted by John Riley. Dissolute and profligate but determined never to go on his ‘wanderings’ again, Charles  II managed Britain’s affairs better than his father.

Stuart kings and the Catholic issue

More serious still were persistent rumours that Charles II had become a Catholic while living in France and was doing secret deals with the French king Louis XIV. Worst of all, Charles II’s younger brother, James, publicly announced he was a Catholic. There was much opposition to this from traditional Anglicans, and it led to the Exclusion Crisis of 1679-81 when Parliament tried to pass a bill excluding James from the succession because of his Catholicism. Charles II eventually overcame the crisis but it was followed by the Rye House Plot of 1683, a conspiracy to assassinate Charles II and Prince James. There was serious, high-level opposition to the notion of England being ruled by a Catholic.

This wasn’t prejudice or bigotry. From the street to the pages of leading philosophers, Catholicism was associated with despotism and tyranny. The Catholic Church was known for its terrifying Inquisition, tainted by its association with the Spanish conquistadors wars of extermination in the new World. Long memories harkened back to the rule of ‘Bloody’ Mary Tudor, England’s only Catholic ruler who managed to burn alive 300 Protestant clerics during her short reign (1553-58). On the continent England’s great foe, France, was led by an all-powerful king who used the Catholic church to stifle debate and crush opponents. Since Henry VIII’s time the English had spent 150 years defining themselves as virtuous protestants surrounded by Catholic enemies, not forgetting the rebellious population of John Bull’s other island, Ireland to the west. The idea of allowing one of these tyrants, Papists, heretics, torturers and despots to become king of England alienated the majority of the population.

James II

James II learned nothing from his father’s folly or his brother’s cunning. His Catholic allegiance and personal arrogance led to his overthrow and 80 years of Jacobite unrest.

When Charles II died in 1685 his brother James succeeded him to the throne, becoming James II, with the grudging acquiescence of many Anglican aristocrats, and the overt opposition of many. Almost immediately one of Charles II’s many illegitimate sons, the Duke of Monmouth, led a sizeable rebellion in the West Country, calling on his countrymen to rise up and overthrow the Catholic ‘tyrant’. The powers-that-be rallied round the legitimate ruler and the Monmouth Rebellion was crushed at the Battle of Sedgemoor in July 1685.

But three short years later James, like his father before him, had managed to alienate key numbers of the ruling classes. The decisive moment came when a son was born by his second – Catholic – wife, Mary of Modena, and James let it be known that this heir to the throne would be baptised a Catholic. The powers-that-be decided that something had to be done. James’s sister, Mary, had married the leading European soldier, William Prince of Orange, an impeccably Protestant ruler who was almost permanently at war with his neighbour Catholic France.

The Glorious Revolution 1688

The ‘immortal seven’ formally invited Mary and her husband William to come and adopt the throne. William accepted and sailed to England with an invasion force which landed at Brixham on the south-west coast on 5 November 1688. He marched with is army towards London, while all James’s best generals defected to his side. James was allowed to flee to France – it was infinitely better to pain him as having absconded and in effect abdicated than to create a martyr in battle, let alone – by far the worst option – capture him and hold some kind of grotesque trial. The throne was William’s.

King William III painted by Thomas Murray.

King William III painted by Thomas Murray. He was invited to become king of England by virtue of his mother, Mary, being daughter of Charles I, and his wife, also a Mary, being the daughter of his uncle, James II. And because he was a good Protestant, which he proved by his lifelong war with Catholic France.

He set about quelling James’s supporters in Scotland then moved onto Ireland which had risen up against its English oppressors. Here William won the Battle of Boyne on 1 July 1690 against James leading Irish and French forces, going on to retake Dublin. To this day, the Orangemen in Northern Ireland celebrate the Battle of Boyne every year during the so-called marching season. James returned to France where he, his son and grandson were to spend the next 70 years plotting their return.

Dubious successions to the British crown

From the start the Jacobites were just one among the kaleidoscope of forces, parties and causes swirling round 18th century Europe. The French offered James assistance to invade in 1692, 1696 and 1708. The latter is significant. In 1707 the English government bribed key Scottish nobles to agree to an Act of Union between England and Scotland to create ‘Great Britain’. The Act was very unpopular across most of Scotland and so the French despatched an army to Scotland led by James. However, most of the fleet was intercepted by the Royal Navy, only a handful of ships making it to the Scottish coast where they decided not to bother landing.

In 1702 King William died, his wife having died before him. Parliament had foreseen this and passed an act providing for the succession of Mary’s sister Anne (daughter of the exiled James but raised a good Protestant), herself married to Prince George of Denmark. Despite 17 pregnancies (!) she had no living children and died childless in 1714.

Once again parliament had foreseen this outcome and passed over no fewer than 50 closer relatives (but who were all Catholics) to alight on the Electress Sophia of Hanover, who was a descendant of Charles I. Unfortunately, she had died a few months before Anne and so the crown passed to her son, George, Elector of Hanover, who became George I of Great Britain.

King George I by Sir Godfrey Kneller

King George I painted by Sir Godfrey Kneller

The rebellion of 1715

The following year, while George was still settling in, there was a major and co-ordinated Jacobite uprising. James II had died in 1701 handing on his claim to the throne to his son (the one whose birth prompted the Glorious Revolution back in 1688) James Francis Edward. The Earl of Mar led an uprising in the Highlands which secured the north of Scotland; the government in England made pre-emptive arrests of Jacobite leaders which prevented an uprising in central England, and sent troops to Bristol, Southampton, Plymouth and Oxford to deter rebels; but Jacobite forces rallied in Northumberland and initially won battles. Only slowly did British forces in Scotland and the North of England win back the initiative and by the time James Edward Stuart arrived from France it was too late. After decisive government victories he sailed back to France to brood and plot like his father and his uncle before him.

The Spanish invasion 1719

From Charles II’s escape through to the last days of Bonny Prince Charlie (for well over 100 years), France was the bolthole and main supporter of the Jacobite cause. The exception which proves the rule was a single attempt by Spanish forces to land in Scotland and raise the Jacobites in March 1719. As usual, the same ‘Protestant wind’ which had wrought havoc on the Armada of 1588 was on hand to damage and disperse the Spanish fleet. Most were too damaged and dispersed to continue, but a small contingent of 300 Spanish got through to form the nucleus of a Jacobite force which fought the Hanoverian army at the Battle of Glenshiel. They were thrashed, the Spanish surrendering, the Highlanders melting away to their mountain homes to scheme and plot anew.

The Atterbury invasion Plot 1722

Jacobites continued to hold high office in Georgian England. The country itself was badly divided between Tories (the party of country and Church of England) and Whigs (mercantilists and soldiers, anti-Catholic, anti-Stuart defenders of the Hanoverian succession). There was a tendency for anybody grumbling about the state of the country to be labelled a Jacobite, as well as a tendency for drunks, rioters and trouble makers to drunkenly call for the restoration of the ‘true king’. For several generations Jacobitism was a permanent part of the political landscape, used by all sides as excuse, rallying cry, fig leaf or threat.

The Atterbury plot was a conspiracy led by Francis Atterbury, Bishop of Rochester along with other leading Jacobites, the accusation being that they were planning to support a French-backed invasion in 1722. Government spies revealed the plot which led to the ringleaders being thrown into the Tower or fleeing, as so often, to France, the Old Enemy. Only one relatively minor figure was found guilty of treason and hanged, drawn and quartered.

The 1744 invasion

From the time of the British Civil Wars onwards, most of these events can only be fully understood in the context of the never-ending conflicts in Europe. The nations of Europe were almost permanently at war, in a bewilderingly complex maze of alliance and counter-alliance. Many of the wars were disputes about who had the right to succeed to contested thrones (The War of Spanish Succession 1701-14, the War of Austrian Succession 1740-48). In the latter Britain was at war with France’s ally Spain and it was only a matter of time before France and Britain went to war (again), which they did in 1744. This prompted the French to consider a quick knockout invasion of Britain and King Louis XV ordered his ministers to draw up an attack to be launched from Dunkirk. They contacted James II’s son, James Francis Edward Stuart (the ‘Old Pretender’ as he became known) and planned to make a lightning invasion on the south coast, march on London and restore James to the throne, thus securing Britain as a Catholic client state for France. The French government chose to believe Jacobite claims that a large part of the population and leading nobles would rise up for their ‘rightful king’.

The French gathered forces of around 10,000 and embarked them in February 1744. But once again bad weather played the decisive role and in fierce storms 12 French transport ships were sunk, seven going down with all hands, the others were badly damaged and limped back to Dunkirk. The main French fleet was also badly mauled whereas the British ships had stayed in harbour and escaped the worst of the storms. The French – as so often – called off the invasion and the troops were packed off to umpteen other battlefields on land. Needless to say, the Old Pretender and his Jacobite followers were bitterly disappointed.

The ’45

The next year the Old Pretender’s son (and so James II’s grandson), Charles Edward Stuart, aged just 24 and recently appointed Prince Regent by his father, decided to take matters into his own hands. He commissioned two ships and sailed to Scotland. As usual he hoped for French support and as usual the French fleet was mauled by storms and never showed up. So Charles Stuart, or Bonny Prince Charlie as he became known to posterity, landed at Eriskay on 23 July 1745 with just seven companions. They roused the Highland chiefs and marched on Edinburgh whose governor quickly surrendered. On 21 September 1745 the Jacobites defeated the only government army in Scotland at the Battle of Prestonpans. His growing army crossed the border into England, took Carlisle and marched south through England unopposed, reaching as far as Derby, just 120 miles from London.

Prince Charles Edward Stuart by Antonio David

Prince Charles Edward Stuart (‘Bonny Prince Charlie’) painted by Antonio David

Here they hesitated. The English Jacobites had failed to rise up in the numbers promised. And where was the French army they had been promised? And reports reached them of a major Hanoverian army being assembled and heading towards them. Against the Bonny Prince’s desperate pleading, his army commanders decided to withdraw, a decision taken on ‘Black Friday’, 6 December 1745.

Pressing on was not really an option for the Jacobites not so much because of the military situation, however misrepresented at Derby, but because of the breakdown of confidence in the prince among his commanders… [Charles] lost support because of a breakdown of confidence arising from the failure of his promises over the English Jacobites and the French. The Scots understandably considered themselves tricked, led into a more risky situation than they had envisaged and that a long way from home. (p.116)

In fact the French did try to mount an invasion: King Louis XV expressly ordered it and his General Richelieu made extensive plans, gathered soldiers and ships, but they were defeated by delays in gathering materiel, terrible weather in the Channel (as usual) and the ever-present threat of the Royal Navy, which managed to stage attacks on some of the shipping gathered at Dunkirk and Brest. And then the French heard the news that Charlie and the Jacobites were retreating to Scotland, and all bets were off.

So the Jacobite army withdrew into Scotland, losing adherents along the way, in terrible winter weather. They won a further battle at Falkirk and took Inverness without a fight. Although back in Scotland they still presented a real threat and rumours of a French invasion kept Hanoverian troops in the south to protect London; and all the while the situation in the ongoing War of Austrian Succession on the Continent deteriorated as the French took parts of the Austrian Netherlands now undefended by British troops who’d been withdrawn to protect against the rebellion and/or threat of invasion (Antwerp, Mons, Charleroi). (Black emphasises that all of the Jacobite uprisings, and the Hanoverian response, must be seen in the broader context of the European war of the time – although this does have the effect of making it a much more confusing, or demanding, story.)

Both sides hunkered down for the snowy Highland winter, the Hanoverian army under King George II’s son, the Duke of Cumberland, spending the time training in modern military manoeuvres with the fairly newfangled bayonet fixed to the end of their muskets, at their base in Aberdeen, while the rebels holed up in Inverness. The French continued their half-hearted support and made several attempts to send money, troops and supplies, but all of them were intercepted by the Navy or loyalist land forces, leaving Prince Charlie with dwindling money and food, encouraging a trickle of desertions. Also the prince was unwell for most of the winter, a condition which brought out the worst, most indecisive aspect of his character. But it was lack of funds and food which forced the Jacobites to seek a confrontation with Cumberland rather than eke out a prolonged insurgency, which some pessimistic commentators had thought might become ‘tedious and lasting’ (Lord Albemarle) and maybe even drag on for years.

Thus a determined Cumberland marched west from Aberdeen in April, fording the river Spey where the Jacobites missed the opportunity to halt him. On the night of 15 April, which was his 25th birthday, Cumberland rested his troops at Nairn, and Charles conceived the idea of leading his forces on a surprise dawn attack. The Jacobites marched in three columns across what turned out to be marshy heath, in fog, obstructed by walls and dykes, so that the forces became hopelessly separated and delayed and never got within striking distance of Cumberland’s forces. Just before dawn they abandoned the night attack and marched back the way they’d come, towards Culloden House, where they regathered, tired, demoralised and disorganised. It was a terrible preparation for what turned out to be the decisive battle of the whole campaign and, indeed, of the whole Jacobite cause.

The Battle of Culloden

On 16 April 1746 the Duke of Cumberland finally, after nearly 6 months of stalking his enemy, brought Bonny Prince Charlie and the Jacobites to battle on the bleak upland moor of Culloden. Charlie insisted on this as the battle site despite the objections of his most experienced general, Lord George Murray. With superior numbers (around 9,000 to possibly 5,000), the firepower of its muskets and its disciplined use of bayonets in close formation, the Hanoverian army massacred the Scots. Black quotes eye-witnesses extensively who all testify to the slaughter. It was all over in half an hour. Black emphasises that Culloden was unusual for an 18th century battle, in its brevity and completeness and makes an interesting comparison with Clive’s victory at Plassey in 1757, another victory of well-drilled infantry using muskets and bayonets against numerically superior, but less disciplined opponents. Around 2,000 Jacobites were killed and over 500 taken prisoner, against 44 Hanoverians killed and 250 wounded.

Cumberland ordered that no quarter was to be given. All the Scots wounded were executed on the battlefield (there is an old story that Cumberland came across a wounded Jacobite and ordered the nearest officer – who turned out to be James Wolfe, later to gain immortality at Quebec – to finish him off. Gentlemanly Wolfe refused, so Cumberland turned to a common soldier who finished the Jacobite off without compunction.) There were stories that many camp followers i.e women and children who had accompanied the Jacobite army, were also killed. In the days and weeks that followed Hanoverian forces tracked down and killed straggler Jacobites, burnt all the surrounding hovels, amid accusations of indiscriminate rape and murder, and then further afield rounded up all suspected Jacobites to send to mass trials and execution. This was how Cumberland – only just 25 years-old -earned his nickname of ‘the Butcher’.

William Augustus Duke of Cumberland by Sir Joshua Reynolds

William Augustus Duke of Cumberland, the ‘Butcher’ of Culloden, by Sir Joshua Reynolds

As news spread, rejoicing was widespread across England, with church bells rung, bonfires lit and parties in the street. Wikipedia tells us that a thanksgiving service was held at St Paul’s Cathedral, that included the first performance of Handel’s oratorio Judas Maccabaeus, composed especially for Cumberland, which contains the anthem ‘See the Conquering Hero Comes’.

About 4,000 surviving Jacobites regrouped at Ruthven but Charlie refused to join them and said it was every man for himself. He spent months hiding among peasants and conspirators across the Highlands, who eventually smuggled him to the coast where he was picked up by a French ship on 20 September. This story is retold in songs and ballads and novels as a glamorous and heroic exploit, but abandoning his men to their – generally dire – fates doesn’t strike me as that heroic.

And so it was back, once again, to France, to spend the rest of his life trying to persuade the French king to launch another invasion, while his descent into alcoholism and his taking a disreputable mistress alienated many of his followers in Scotland and England.

The legacy of Culloden

Defeat in battle left a lasting legacy in the Highlands. Apart from the many clan leaders who died, many more were arrested and sent for trial in Scotland or London. Lords and clan chiefs who had supported the Jacobite rebellion were stripped of their estates which were then sold and the profits used to boost trade and agriculture in Scotland. The wearing of tartan or the kilt were banned. Leaders of the Church were compelled to take an oath of allegiance to the reigning Hanoverian dynasty; any who refused were dismissed. Several acts of Parliament sought to end the extensive traditional rights and powers clan chiefs had over their tenants and members. Many small settlements were depopulated after the revenge of the Hanoverian army, forcing many Highlanders to emigrate, mostly to the North American colonies. And many of the men, with their warrior tradition, enlisted (ironically) in the British Army, where they formed the core of regiments which went on to become some of Britain’s most successful and feared fighting units.

Black’s treatment

If you are in a hurry to get the basic sequence of events and to understand the basic context, I’d advise you to read the Wikipedia articles about Culloden, which link off to articles about Jacobitism, about the Old and Young Pretender and, if you wish, the context of the European wars against which the various invasion attempts are set.

There are two types of history books: ones which simply tell you what happened; and ones which assume  that the reader more or less knows what happened and so are more concerned to present their theories and interpretations about the events, to refute other historians’ opinions, to challenge the accepted wisdom about this or that aspect, and so on. If you don’t even know what the received opinion is, or weren’t aware that this or that theory dominates the field, a lot of this effort is wasted on the casual reader.

This book is one of the latter: it assumes you’re already familiar with a lot of this history and the general background of the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion; it goes through the events in broad chronological order but heavily loaded with the arguments Black is making, which I often found hard to follow.

It suffers from another major drawback, which is that Black proceeds by quoting extensively from contemporary letters, diaries, journals, reports, memos and so on. Entire pages are tessalations of quotes. I think the purpose is to convey the confusion, the misreports, the rumours, and panics and misunderstandings which clouded the view of contemporaries, and I can see that Black is committed to the worthy goal of accurately reporting what was known at the time from primary sources, and of placing as much of these sources as is practical before the reader.

This is very useful in his short account of the battle itself, where he quotes extensively from eye-witness accounts. I also understand that the broader aim of Black’s book is to show that the Jacobite Rebellion wasn’t pre-ordained to fail, that it scored numerous successes and could have survived in other forms (as a purely Scottish phenomenon, as a lasting insurgency) if not for a sequence of bad luck and poor decisions – and that Black uses the conflicting and confused testimony of major players at the time to emphasise the contingency of events.

But for me this was too much detail. What the British envoy to Venice wrote to the ambassador to Russia about the latest rumours of French or Austrian or Spanish plans in the spring of 1724 requires several levels of knowledge, knowledge of the key players, what was at stake, what their long term plans were, and all to be compared to what actually happened, in order to be of value to the reader, to be understood. While I was struggling to remember who Henry Pelham was and what his relationship was to the Earl of Newcastle and so grasp the context of his letter which is quoted at length, or to remember which side Colonel Cuthbert Ellison was on, or wonder if I was meant to remember Welbore Ellis and why he was writing to Lord Hartington (and who Lord Hartington was) I was missing the much bigger and more obvious developments.

I found this method of relating the events almost entirely through contemporary accounts just too demanding for a beginner; the reader ends up unable to see the wood for the trees. I think this book is better suited to readers already familiar with the story, as a prompt to review it in a new light.

The Seven Years War 1756-63

Amazingly, Culloden wasn’t the end of the Jacobite story. In fact British fears of a further French invasion revived in 1747 and were only allayed by the conclusion of the War of Austrian Succession in 1748, at which point France no longer had an incentive to threaten Britain with invasion or play the Jacobite card. Nevertheless, in 1751 and 1752 Alexander Murray of Elibank developed a conspiracy to kidnap George II and his family, and smuggle them to France, replacing them with the Bonny Prince. The plot was revealed and Murray fled into exile.

Meanwhile, the broader impact of The ’45, as it came to be known, had been to withdraw British troops from the Continent, allowing the French to capture Brussels and thus sowing disagreement in the anti-French alliance. Further afield, it made the British hesitate to follow up the capture of Louisburg in Canada, an enterprise which would have to wait ten years until the outbreak of the Seven Years War in 1756.

Charlie lived on and the two books I’ve just read about the Seven Years War (1759 by Frank McLynn and Battle for Empire by Tom Pocock) show that the Jacobite cause was still a bogeyman which enemies within and without could scare the British government with, one among the many tools the French monarchy could consider deploying in its never-ending duel with Britain.

In fact, right from the start of the Seven Years War (1756) the French government revived the invasion plans of 1744 and went to the extent of building hundreds of flat-bottomed barges to ferry an army of up to 100,000 soldiers across from Dunkirk to the South Coast. McLynn’s book is threaded through with detailed descriptions of the prolonged but ultimately abortive negotiations with the Bonny Prince to put him at the head of the invasion or, more cannily, to send him back to Scotland to raise the Highlands while the French attacked in the south.

But Charlie had learned from the ’45 that it was all or nothing – either he led a major invasion force against England, or nothing – he refused to be used as a figurehead for sideshows in Scotland let alone (in later plans) Ireland, and he flatly refused to be put at the head of one scheme which aimed to send him on a cock-and-bull mission to Canada! Given his obstinacy, in 1759 France’s invasion plans went ahead without him and, in the event, were foiled by brilliant victories by the Royal Navy at the Battle of Lagos and then the Battle of Quiberon Bay.

In 1766 the Old Pretender died. The Pope had recognised him as King James III of Britain, but didn’t extend the same recognition to young Charlie, realising his faltering legitimacy. Charlie lived on in Italy with his wife, Princess Louise of Stolberg-Gedern. Between them they failed to do the only task a monarch has which is to produce a male heir. He had an illegitimate daughter, Charlotte (b.1753) by his long-time mistress, Clementina Walkinshaw, legitimised her in law and gave her a title, the Duchess of Albany, but even among the most rigorous legitimists this didn’t entitle her to the crown. At Charlie’s death in 1788 the Jacobite legacy expired. With exquisite timing the very next year saw the start of the French Revolution and the beginning of a whole new era of French threats against Britain.

Right or wrong

Who was right? It depends on your point of view. For Scots their nation was betrayed by the Act of Union and their traditional culture decimated by the Highland Clearances and savage repression which followed Culloden. Scottish nationalists remember it to this day. For the Irish the Battle of the Boyne in 1692 remains one of many bones of contention, not least because it is commemorated every summer by Northern Irish Orangemen who march in celebration of King William’s victory.

For the English, who have forgotten most of their history, it probably all seems long ago and irrelevant.

For the objective reader, I can understand the motives of both sides. Charlie’s story is extraordinarily romantic, from the landing with just seven companions to the final weeks fleeing across the Highlands in disguise and helped by loyal supporters. But I can understand why the Hanoverian dynasty and its Whig supporters acted as they did. England had been invaded or threatened with invasion in the 1690s, 1701, 1708, 1715, 1722, 1744 and 1745, the last one being the most serious attempt to overthrow the lawful monarch, change the religion of the entire country, and rewrite foreign policy to suit our oldest enemy (France), probably abandoning our foreign colonies and business interests in the process. I can see why George II’s forces acted as they did, not only to defeat this invasion attempt but to put an end once and for all to the hotbed of Jacobitism/treason which had allowed it to fester on. As Cumberland’s aide-de-camp, Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Yorke wrote to his father from the Hanoverian army as it approached the retreating Jacobites:

The thing must be put an end to so effectually now, that it will never be able to break out again; otherwise you may depend on having it again in a very short time. (quoted p.146)

I can understand, but not condone it.

Out-of-the-way words

  • philabeg – the modern short kilt
  • spontoon – a half-pike, a type of European pole-arm that came into being alongside the pike


Culloden and the ’45 by Jeremy Black was published by Alan Sutton Publishing in 1990. All quotes and references are to the 1993 paperback edition.

Related links

Other blog posts about Empire

The Master of Ballantrae by Robert Louis Stevenson (1889)

If the Nonesuch foundered, she would carry down with her into the deeps of that unsounded sea the creature whom we all so feared and hated; there would be no more Master of Ballantrae, the fish would sport among his ribs; his schemes all brought to nothing, his harmless enemies at peace. At first, I have said, it was but a ray of comfort; but it had soon grown to be broad sunshine. The thought of the man’s death, of his deletion from this world, which he embittered for so many, took possession of my mind. I hugged it, I found it sweet in my belly. I conceived the ship’s last plunge, the sea bursting upon all sides into the cabin, the brief mortal conflict there, all by myself, in that closed place; I numbered the horrors, I had almost said with satisfaction; I felt I could bear all and more, if the Nonesuch carried down with her, overtook by the same ruin, the enemy of my poor master’s house.
(Chapter IX – Mr Mackellar’s Journey with the Master)

Like Treasure Island and KidnappedThe Master of Ballantrae is a gripping, fast-paced adventure story told in the first person, serious and foreboding and Gothic. It starts off in a gloomy old Scottish mansion and takes its protagonists, powerfully and vividly, to the immense forests of New World.

A mix of texts…

The narrative is presented as the written account of Ephraim Mackellar, steward of the Durrisdeer estate in Scotland. He writes as an old man, telling his story long after the events, lamenting the many misfortunes which befell the noble Durie family during his time of service. We know it is a written account because Stevenson himself intervenes at a few points, as the Editor of Mackellar’s manuscript, to make comments and explain how he has edited and is presenting it to us.

The text further foregrounds its own artifice when Mackellar’s account itself breaks off to include long chunks taken from the supposed autobiography of the Irish soldier of fortune ‘Colonel’ Francis Burke, and also to include the texts of letters from the various protagonists.

… and styles

The way the narrative is assembled from various sources means it deploys various prose styles. Whereas the old retainer Mackellar’s style is a kind of ‘honest old Scotsman’, Burke’s is completely different – foppish and Anglicised, while the letters of, for example, the Master himself, reveal his venom and cruel sarcasm.

The story is set in the 18th century and concerns two Scottish brothers who develop a life-long blood feud which spills over into blackmail, murder, madness and revenge – and their different attitudes to life, the way they hold themselves and speak, are also brought out through differences in manner, speech and style.


The net effect of all this is that the book is rich not only in straightforward adventures and melodramatic scenes, but in the range of voices and styles it uses. It is a good example of the Russian literary critic Bakhtin’s theory of ‘heteroglossia’ – meaning the novel’s distinctive ability to incorporate a host of voices and styles.

And these voices are often themselves in competition or are themselves compromised or questioned:

  • Mackellar considers Burke’s version of events to be unreliable, advising us to read between the lines
  • Mackellar uneasily says that many critics have questioned his role in the events he’s describing, so he is touchy about key moments where different interpretations are possible
  • and at the heart of the story is the radically different interpretations the two feuding bothers put on central events

So it is easy to show that this text is a virtual battlefield where numerous conflicting voices compete. And to attribute to this conflict and clash of voices and styles, much of the book’s energy and thrill.

The plot

We are in Scotland, in the mid-18th century, near the town of St. Bride’s, on the shore of the Solway firth. Here stands the house of Durrisdeer, home of the noble Durie family, built in the Continental style with fine gardens, and attended by numerous servants. The Durie family consists of:

  • the old Laird, who has relinquished control of the estate and likes to read classic books by the fire
  • his eldest son, the Master of Ballantrae, James Durie, not yet 24 in 1745, a determined, arrogant man, rumoured to have fathered a child by a wench in the village
  • the second son, Mr. Henry Durie, an honest, solid sort of young man
  • Miss Alison Graeme, a near kinswoman, an orphan and the heir to a fortune which her father acquired in trade, a spirited, independent-minded woman, much in love with the dashing Master

It is generally accepted that, in time, Miss Alison will become the Master’s wife, and her fortune will go a long way to paying off the big debts the Durrisdeer estate has acquired.

The toss of a coin

When Bonny Prince Charlie lands in Scotland in July 1745 and raises an army to march south and claim the throne that is rightfully his, families all across Scotland are placed in a quandary: whether to throw in their lot with the ‘rebels’ – backed as they are by a large number of Highland clans and appealing as Charles does to their patriotism as descendant of the last Stuart king of Scotland – or to remain loyal to the anointed king of Great Britain, George II, from the royal (German) house of Hanover, who have been rulers of Great Britain since 1714. The conflict between the brothers is real and psychological but also reflects the conflict at the heart of Britain’s seriously divided society and body politic.

At Durrisdeer, as at so many other gentry houses, the family is split by divided loyalties and decides to hedge their bets with a pragmatic solution: one son will go off to join the rebels, the other will stay at home with ostentatious loyalty. But which son should do which? There is a violent quarrel about whether James the Master or young Mr Henry should go to join the Prince and the Master, with his characteristic violent frivolity, suggests they toss a coin for it. The fateful toss decides that he, the Master, will ride to join the rebels while Mr Henry will stay at the estate, representing loyalist support for the established king.

With some bitterness the Master rides off, leaving Miss Alison in tears. In the following weeks the old Laird, Miss Alison and Henry follow, on tenterhooks, the progress of the prince’s invasion. They follow as the Bonny Prince succeeds in penetrating as far into England as Derby, before the Hanoverian English army stop his advance, and then pushes the combined Scottish, Irish and French forces all the way back into Scotland and, at the notorious battle of Culloden, slaughter the flower of the Scottish aristocracy. Many of the survivors are hanged in the subsequent reprisals and the Highlands are laid waste in a vengeful campaign which resonates with Scottish nationalists to the present day.

Nothing more is heard of the Master, for months, and then years, and the family dolefully conclude he must be dead. During this time Mr Henry grows into the role of the careful, responsible guardian of the Durrisdeer estate, taking all the burden and responsibility upon himself, and Miss Alison finds herself eventually, reluctantly, marrying him, and blessing the estate with her fortune.

News of the Master – and a second narrator

Then one day, out of the blue – on 7 April 1749 to be precise – a pompous preening Irish aristocrat, one Colonel Francis Burke, arrives at Durrisdeer, bearing the not-entirely-unexpected news that the Master survived Culloden after all. Burke is invited in for dinner and afterwards, by the fire in the big baronial hall, tells the most amazing account of his and the master’s adventures in the three years since the disastrous battle. (Mackellar elaborately explains that some time later the Colonel sent him a written version of his memoirs, and he now includes in his manuscript excerpts from that written account.)

The Master and Burke’s adventures

Briefly: the Master and Burke escaped pell-mell from the battlefield of Culloden, agreeing to co-operate even though they spend a lot of time arguing. They made their way with other survivors across country to one of the French ships which brought the rebel army, and now collects them off the coast. But in a disastrous turn of events, the ship is seized by pirates, led by the bizarre and manic Captain Teach. Sizing up the situation, the Master and Burke immediately throw their lot in with the pirates and so escape walking the plank, which is what happens to the rest of the crew and passengers.

The Master of Ballantrae illustration by Walter Paget

The Master of Ballantrae illustration by Walter Paget

There then follow a gruelling 18 months as Burke and the Master assimilate with the pirates, taking part in various adventures and attacks. Early on the Master realises that ‘captain’ Teach is a hopeless strategist, often drunk and making bad decisions – and leads a rebellion against him, persuading the crew to name him quartermaster and effective leader. But with the kind of psychological realism which lifts Stevenson’s adventures a cut above the rest, the Master realises that he needs to keep Teach alive, as both a psychopathic mascot for the crew when they go into battle, and a useful lightning rod for ongoing disaffection among a group of man much given to drunken grumbling.

Eventually, after many adventures, the pirate ship makes the mistake of running up the jolly roger as it approaches a strange ship at sea, only to discover it is a Royal Navy warship. They turn tail and sail to an empty waste spot they know on the American coast, and are saved by a fast-descending fog from pursuit. The Master organises a party to celebrate their escape and gets the whole pirate crew legless, steals all their accumulated treasure, and then rows the ship’s skiff ashore, with Burke and the one pirate they slightly trust – a certain Dutton who claims to know his way about the marshes where they are planning to go ashore.

From the moment they land every step of Burke and the Master’s adventures are fraught with peril and excitement; they could almost have made a story on their own, as the lads make their way through up the beach in a thick fog, then into impenetrable wooded marsh, terrifyingly aware that there are Red Indians in the woods nearby, trying to avoid getting captured and scalped, and also falling into the treeacherous quicksand which surrounds them. At last, when they think they are nearing habitation, the Master cold-bloodedly leaves Dutton to drown in a quicksand, stealing his portion of the treasure.

Eventually, after many days, they come across the crew from another anchored ship making a fire and food. It is a trader out of Albany, New York, with a cargo of slaves, and the Master and Burke cockily stroll up to them and offer to pay their way to Albany as legitimate passengers. Thus rendered respectable, they sail up the Hudson River and put up at the ‘King’s Arms’ in Albany to find the town up in arms against the French. Worried that they might be on a wanted list – as both pirates and rebels from the Uprising – they masquerade as loyal subjects of King George; but as soon as possible set off across country heading northwards to join the French (in what will eventually become Canada).

There follows a long sequence of travel through the wastes of unspoilt, untamed colonial America, paddling a native canoe they’ve got hold of with the help of a native guide, Chew. After some days of rough travel, Chew dies of some unknown ailment and then they drop and smash the precious canoe. Now they are lost in  the middle of uncharted wilderness, with no means of transport and no guide.

Burke reports that, with the advent of these adversities, the Master became even more savage than usual and railed with particular bitterness against his brother. For the first time he tells Burke about the toss of the coin which sent the Master off on the ill-fated Culloden campaign, led him into a life of piracy and now has led him to certain death, without canoe or guide or food, lost in the barren wastes of America. He pledges to take revenge against the brother who ‘betrayed’ him.

Burke’s narrative takes the reader deep into the vast untamed forests of the East coast of America. It resonates powerfully of the ‘Leatherstocking’ series of novels by James Fenimore Cooper, the most famous of which is The Last of the Mohicans, which is set in almost exactly the same year (1757).

Back in Scotland

And that is where we leave Burke’s narrative – on something of a cliffhanger – to return to ‘the present’ in Scotland.

The three members of the family listen to all this with very different emotions, but its main effect is to create bitter division between Mr Henry and his wife, Alison, who only married him out of pity when she thought the dashing Master was dead. Now a great animosity grows between them. Burke has brought with him letters for the Master which are designed to sow and foment dissension between the three members of the family. The one to Mr Henry is full of accusations and recriminations about how he has ‘stolen’ that Master’s patrimony.

Burke leaves the Master’s contact details in Paris (where he and the Master both now safely live) and Mr Henry, with a misplaced sense of duty, decides to pay the Master a regular allowance.

More years go by and the narrator explains how conscientious Mr Henry gets a reputation for penny-pinching and miserliness, not only in the neighbourhood but within their little household, where his embittered wife treats him with more and more scorn – what no-one realises is that he is pinching the pennies to fund the lavish, spendthrift lifestyle of his distant brother. It is not a happy house.

The Master returns

After seven years the Master returns, set ashore by the local smugglers who have been periodically referred to throughout the book as a local feature.

The passenger standing alone upon a point of rock, a tall, slender figure of a gentleman, habited in black

‘The passenger standing alone upon a point of rock, a tall, slender figure of a gentleman, habited in black.’

He announces his return to a startled Mackellar, Henry, Alison and old Laird, and proceeds to re-establish himself in the manner to which he’s become accustomed. The narrative paints him as an unmitigated cad – hypocritically presenting himself as a kind and loving son to the old Laird and Miss Alison – but whenever he is alone with Henry, taking every opportunity to jeer and insult him, blaming him for everything that’s gone wrong in his life, completely heedless of the way Henry has bled the estate dry to fund his lifestyle.

Enraged by the treatment of his good honest master, Mackellar breaks into James’s correspondence and discovers letters which prove that the Master long ago sold out the Jacobite cause by becoming a spy for the Hanoverian government – all the time boasting to his father, to Alison, to the servants and peasants of the heroic risks he is running by returning to Scotland. What a bounder!

Eventually he goes too far by telling Henry to his face that  his wife, Alison, has in fact always preferred him, James, and is still in love with him.

Taunted beyond measure, Henry punches the Master in the face and insists on a duel. A terrified Mackellar helps them get swords off the wall and walk out to a patch of flat lawn in the grounds. Here they fight and Henry’s steady controlled anger begins to tell over the Master’s flash flourishes. At the climax of the duel, the Master cheats, grabbing Henry’s sword, and making a lunge – but Henry pulls his sword free of his grip and plunges it right through the Master’s body.

Illustration for the 1911 edition of The Master of Ballantrae by Walter Paget.

Illustration for the 1911 edition of The Master of Ballantrae by Walter Paget.

Appalled, Mackellar establishes that there is no sign of life. The Master is dead! They stagger inside and tell first the old Laird and then Alison. But when they finally return to the duelling ground to remove the body… it has gone!

They follow a trail of blood and broken bushes down to the bay and realise that the smugglers must have removed the body – for the Master had timed his worst taunts and insults for the very night he had arranged to flee Durrisdeer and the pirates have kept their part of the bargain, carrying him off dead or alive.

The Master gone

The old Laird sickens and dies. Henry and Alison have a child, Alexander. Mackellar shows Alison the letters of the Master proving he is a spy and hypocrite but she appals him by burning them. On the upside the letters reveal to her what a cad the Master is and she is finally reconciled to her husband. But it is too late: Henry has changed drastically since he killed his brother. He is now a haunted man, sometimes almost unhinged. On the rare occasions when the subject is raised, Henry is almost demented, claiming his brother is a devil and that nothing can kill him. Years later Mackellar finds Henry showing his young son the patch of ground where the duel took place and explaining that it was here that a man fought a devil. Mackellar worries for his sanity.

In India

Mackellar’s text is then interrupted a second time by an excerpt from Colonel Burke’s memoirs. It is a much shorter snippet which describes how chance took him to India, where his path crossed James Duries’s once more. The Master is in company of a wiry Indian named Secundra Dass. I was hoping that the Indian adventures would be as long and convincing as the pirate and Leatherstocking escapades of the American section – but this episode is disappointingly brief – only really long enough to introduce Dass, who will turn out to be a key character in the story’s final scenes.

Slight return

In the spring of 1764 James returns once more to Durrisdeer, accompanied by his Indian familiar, Dass. Now the old Laird is dead, the Master is harsher and more abrupt than before. He swears he will be a vengeance on the house and a plague to the family. Goaded beyond endurance, Henry has his wife pack all their things and in the dead of night they flee the house. Next morning the Master is incensed to discover their flight and, in Mackellar’s presence, swears to track them down and destroy them.

It doesn’t take long for him to discover that Henry, Alison and Alexander have taken ship to New York. Remember Alison’s family inheritance? It included land in New York, thither they have now gone to build a house and live in peace. But the Master sets off after them, accompanied by Mackellar.

The crossing of the Atlantic is one of the most vivid things in the book. After Henry and family have fled, Mackellar is left alone with the Master and they develop a peculiar relationship, Mackellar hating and detesting the Master for his selfishness and wickedness, for the way he has persecuted his good brother – and yet part of him admires and warms to the Master’s indomitable refusal to be beaten, his genuine charisma.

This ambivalence feels very Stevensonian; although the plot moves from drama to melodrama and then into Gothic horror and a lot of the characterisation is hysterical and stagey – nonetheless, there is something very penetrating about the love/hate, or admiration/disgust, relationship which grows up between the honest retainer and the dastardly villain.

There is a particularly vivid moment on the ship over: Mackellar is recounting tales to the Master who is sitting on the bilges of the ship as it heaves and yaws in a big swell and at a particularly low plunge, Mackellar, obsessed with the Master’s evil determination to harm Henry and his family, lashes out with his foot, aiming to push the Master overboard and be done. The Master leaps cannily out of the way.

Illustration of The Master of Ballantrae by William Brassey Hole (1896)

Illustration of The Master of Ballantrae by William Brassey Hole (1896)

The scene itself is dramatic but what raises it is the way Stevenson makes the Master thereafter respect Mackellar for taking positive action to defend his lord. And for his part Mackellar, though he tried to kill the man, cannot repress feelings of respect and attraction for his mastery. For me, this odd relationship between Mackellar and the Devil is one of the most interesting things in the book.

New York

When they arrive in New York the roles are reversed. The Master finds Mr Henry well established with a tidy house, servants, and having established good friendships with the governor and other authorities. All the Master’s barbs, taunts and attempts at public humiliation rebound on his own head.

Stymied in his attempt to pull rank, the Master adopts a different tack and sets out to humiliate the family. He secures a shabby shack and sets himself up as a tailor, sitting outside under a big sign which proclaims his parentage and asserts his degradation at the hands of his brother.

But Henry is now – in public – a much changed man, more confident, less feeling. He routinely strolls along to his brother’s shack and sits there quite comfortably, sunning himself, ignoring his brother’s remarks and even existence, but quietly enjoying his humiliation.

However – in private – Mackellar finds Henry liable to hysterical outbursts when his brother is mentioned. Part of his mind really does believe James is the Devil, an unkillable spirit sent to torment and pursue him to the grave.

And it is now that the Master reveals another plan, to journey back into the wilderness. Way back in Colonel Burke’s long account of their wanderings after escaping the pirates, it’s mentioned that the pair buried their treasure, the loot they stole from the pirate ship. Now James asks Henry for money to fund an expedition to find that treasure, buried out in the wilderness. Henry, now passed beyond normality into a realm of pure obsessive hatred, organises for the Master and Dass to set off accompanied by a gang of low cut-throats who he commissions to murder him.

In the wilderness

Having despatched his devilish brother into the wilderness with a pack of murderers, Henry discovers that an official expedition is setting off along much the same route, led by Sir William Johnson. Mackellar and Henry get themselves invited along.

Some days into the journey they encounter the only survivor of the Master’s expedition, an obvious cut-throat named John Mountain.

In a particularly egregious bit of test-stitching, Mackellar explains that the account of the expedition we are about to read has been pieced together from several sources:

  • A written statement by Mountain
  • Conversations with Mountain
  • Two conversations with the key player, Secundra Dass

Briefly, the Master quickly realises that he’s been despatched into the middle of nowhere with murderers commissioned to kill him. Mountain is impressed at his attempts to defuse the conspiracy by playing the crooks off against each other, planting suspicions that their leaders are planning to betray them etc. On one occasion the Master tries to run away, only to be caught and brought back, once more at their mercy.

Finally, the Master plays his last trick and falls ill, wasting away over many days and finally dying and being buried by the loyal Dass. On his deathbed the Master reveals the whereabouts of the treasure and off the murderers go to find it.

Mountain’s account now goes on to describe how one by one the members of the expedition are murdered, their bodies discovered each morning, horribly scalped. Maybe a solitary Indian brave is proving his manhood by picking them off. Maybe, it crosses the reader’s mind, the Master’s spirit is taking some kind of supernatural revenge. Certainly, the sequence of uncanny deaths in the fearful wastes takes the story across a border into the realm of Gothic horror – a kind of cross between Edgar Allen Poe and the Blair Witch Project.

Finally, only Mountain is left alive and he gives up the treasure hunt, turning tail and fleeing the wilderness, travelling day and night back towards civilisation in a blind panic. And this is the condition he’s found in by the well-armed and well-provisioned Johnson expedition, and by Mr Henry and Mackellar.

As John Mountain gives this detailed account to Mackellar, Johnson and Henry, Mackellar is horrified to see the impact it has on his good sweet master: the once-solid Mr Henry snaps, upon hearing of the Master’s death, he rolls his eyes and is almost gibbering. At the end of the tale Henry refuses to believe his brother is dead, convinced he is a supernatural spirit and that nothing can kill him.

Ignoring these outbursts, the solid Sir William Johnson orders Mountain to take them back along the trail, to the place where they buried the Master.

Dead and alive

And here in the Gothic horror climax of the whole tale, the expedition comes to the burial place only to find the Master’s loyal Indian servant, Secundra Dass, working feverishly with a spade, up to his knees in the grave, digging up his master’s body.

As they watch in horror, they see Dass uncover the Master’s body and pull it up to the surface. When our chaps enter the clearing and confront him, Dass ignores them in his frenzy and carries on trying to revive the Master. In his Indian accent he explains that this is an old Indian trick he and the Master agreed on (aha, the reader realises – the entire rather spindly excuses for Dass’s presence were all designed to build up to this artifice). The Master’s sickness was feigned and Dass taught him the Indian trick of swallowing his tongue and going into a state of suspended animation.

And as Dass chafes his hands and body the Master, sure enough, opens his eyes and his mouth begins to move.

And at that moment Henry, at the end of a long tormented life, driven beyond sanity by the jeers and bullying and haunting of his brother, gives up the ghost and drops dead on the spot. But the Master’s eyes moving was itself only some kind of reflex action, for he too expires despite all Dass’s efforts.

And it is left to Mackellar to bury both brothers there in the wilderness, leaving a wooden sign over their graves, and there the narrative comes abruptly to a full stop.

A key factor in the book’s success is the immediate establishment of Mackellar as the recognised authority for this tale and a brisk spinner of prose. Although other texts intervene, Mackellar’s is the main manuscript and the dominating voice for the majority of the story.

The full truth of this odd matter is what the world has long been looking for, and public curiosity is sure to welcome. It so befell that I was intimately mingled with the last years and history of the house; and there does not live one man so able as myself to make these matters plain, or so desirous to narrate them faithfully.

June the 1st, 1748, was the day of their marriage. It was December of the same year that first saw me alighting at the doors of the great house; and from there I take up the history of events as they befell under my own observation, like a witness in a court…

The narrative voice is four-square and candid, sharing with us all his impressions in an open, winning style with many vivid Scots expressions and turns of phrase thrown in:

My pen is clear enough to tell a plain tale; but to render the effect of an infinity of small things, not one great enough in itself to be narrated; and to translate the story of looks, and the message of voices when they are saying no great matter; and to put in half a page the essence of near eighteen months—this is what I despair to accomplish…

Such was the state of this family down to the 7th April, 1749, when there befell the first of that series of events which were to break so many hearts and lose so many lives…

This brings us to the use of –


The narrative is given added tension by frequent use of prolepsis or the anticipation of events, generally using variations on the ‘little did we know then…’, ‘if only things had been different…’ formula which give the reader an enjoyably thrilling sense of dread and expectation.

Such was the state of this family down to the 7th April, 1749, when there befell the first of that series of events which were to break so many hearts and lose so many lives…

… it is a strange thought, how many of us had been storing up the elements of this catastrophe, for how long a time, and with how blind an ignorance of what we did.


So much has been written about the double or Doppelgänger in adventure fiction that I won’t add to the pile. Stevenson’s strict Calvinist upbringing is often blamed for giving him a starkly dualistic sense of the world, hordes of upright holy elders concealing a seedy world of sin and vice; and plenty of commentators have lined up to say that the Edinburgh of his day was a city divided between the clean, rational elegance of the New City and the filthy, vice-infested slums of the Old Town. With this upbringing some critics make it seem almost inevitable that he’d go on to write novels about the divided self, of which Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde is the classic example and this  rambling Gothic yarn is the longest example.

Maybe. But:

  1. A lot, probably most, of Stevenson’s fiction isn’t about doubles.
  2. Two is the smallest number. Two is an easy number to manage. For example, a doubleist could argue that The Black Arrow is about two sides in a conflict and young Dick Shelton must decide which side he’s on. But civil wars tend to have two sides, there was no real psychological doubling involved. Similarly, in The Wrecker, the narrator, Loudon Dodds, becomes friends with the entrepreneur Jim Pinkerton, and their characters are fairly different. But this doesn’t mean they represent opposite aspects of something; just that a novel, a story, a narrative, tends to focus on a handful of characters, and two is the smallest possible number of characters, and so a preponderance of pairs is inevitable in all forms of narrative.

Related links

A Stevenson bibliography

An Inland Voyage – An immensely entertaining, witty and thoughtful account of Stevenson’s trip by canoe, with a friend, along the canals of Belgium and south into France, observing rural life and types along the way.
Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes – More gritty than the Voyage, the Travels record 12 days walking with a recalcitrant donkey through south-central France in a book which has moments of freewheeling nature worship but comes to be dominated by Stevenson’s interest in the bloody Protestant revolt which took place in the region a century earlier.
Virginibus Puerisque and Other Papers – Essays including: Virginibus Puerisque i-iv including ‘On Falling in Love’, Crabbed Age and Youth, An Apology for Idlers, Ordered South, Aes Triplex, El Dorado, The English Admirals, Some Portraits by Raeburn, Child’s Play, Walking Tours, Pan’s Pipes, A Plea for Gas Lamp.
The Old and New Pacific Capitals – Essays on the climate and history of Monterey and San Francisco.
Familiar Studies of Men and Books – Essays on: Victor Hugo’s Romances, Some Aspects of Robert Burns, The Gospel According to Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau: His Character and Opinions, Yoshida-Torajiro, François Villon, Student, Poet, Housebreaker, Charles of Orleans, Samuel Pepys, John Knox and his Relations to Women.
New Arabian Nights – A sequence of thinly-linked and not too impressive short stories.
Treasure Island – One of the most famous adventure stories of all time. Andrew Lang says it single-handedly established the financial viability of a new type of short, action-packed story and inaugurated a golden age of adventure yarns from the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle and Henry Rider Haggard.
The Silverado Squatters – Another travel book, following immediately after the Atlantic crossing described in An Amateur Emigrant and the trans-America train journey described in The Open Plains, this one describes Stevenson and new wife Fanny’s honeymoon in an abandoned mining camp high on the flanks of Mount St Helena, north of San Francisco.
Prince Otto – An action romance set in the imaginary Germanic state of Grünewald.
More New Arabian Nights: The Dynamiter – co-written with Fanny Van De Grift Stevenson
A Child’s Garden of Verses Classic volume of children’s poetry.
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – One of the most famous fictions of all time about an Edinburgh scientist who devises a potion which releases his unconscious urges, his animal self, an alter ego which threatens to take over his personality.
Kidnapped – Gripping historical novel about young David Balfour plunged into a series of adventures in the aftermath of the Jacobite Rising of 1745.
The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables – Six short stories: The Merry Men, Will O’ the Mill, Markheim, Thrawn Janet, Olalla, The Treasure of Franchard.
On the Choice of a Profession – An essay.
Underwoods (poetry)
Ticonderoga: A Legend of the West Highlands (poetry)
The Black Arrow: A Tale of the Two Roses – Historical adventure novel set during the Wars of the Roses as young Master Richard Shelton escapes from his wicked ‘uncle’ and rescues the girl he loves, young Joanna Sedley.
The Master of Ballantrae – Two brothers end up on opposite sides of Bonny Prince Charlie’s rebellion of 1745, the Master being the one who goes into exile and adventures in America and India before returning to haunt the stay-at-home brother, until both are driven to a macabre and gruesome fate in the New World.
The Wrong Box – Comic novel mostly written by his step-son Lloyd Osbourne, but revised by Stevenson.
Father Damien: an Open Letter to the Rev. Dr. Hyde of Honolulu Stevenson’s angry defence of Father Damien, Catholic priest to the leper colony on the island of Molokai, against a detractor.
The Bottle Imp – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a magic bottle and the love of two South Sea island natives.
Ballads – poems
The Wrecker (co-written with Lloyd Osbourne) – An immensely long rambling narrative telling the life story of American Loudon Dodds, from his days as a failed art student in Paris, to his business ventures with brash Jim Pinkerton in San Francisco, to the long puzzling case of the shipwrecked Flying Scud whose mystery dominates the second half of the book and, in the final pages, reveals a gruesome and bloody tragedy at sea.
The Beach of Falesá – (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) A powerful short story about a rough white trader and the harsh revenge he takes on the fellow trader who tries to get him expelled from the island.
A Footnote to History, Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa – factual history
Across the Plains – Travelogue following straight on from The Amateur Emigrant (which describes RLS’s 1879 journey by steamship from Glasgow to New York) and describes his ongoing journey by train from New York to California.
The Isle of Voices – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a lazy South Sea islander who falls foul of his father-in-law who is a warlock with magic powers.
Catriona, aka David Balfour – A sequel to Kidnapped.
Island Nights’ Entertainments (aka South Sea Tales) – Contains the three stories referred to above.
The Ebb-Tide – A novella, the third collaboration with Lloyd Osbourne, describing the ill-fated trip of three beach bums at the ends of their tethers, who unexpectedly get the opportunity to crew a schooner, plan to steal and sell it, but then meet their nemesis in the shape of a supernaturally powerful white trader.
—-December 1894 Stevenson dies, aged 44, on the South Sea Island of Vailima—-
Vailima Letters – 44 letters Stevenson wrote to his friend Sidney Colvin, who published them with a preface and epilogue.
The Amateur Emigrant – A short intense account of Stevenson’s journey across the Atlantic in 1879, with descriptions of the squalid conditions of ‘steerage’ class passengers and reflections on the condition and character of the British working classes.
Weir of Hermiston – Unfinished at Stevenson’s death, this fragment of nine chapters describes the childhood and young manhood of Archie Weir, sensitive son of the hanging judge old Adam Weir, how his father removes him from Edinburgh University for his subversive views and exiles him to the country estate of Hermiston where he falls in love with a local beauty, Christina Elliott – at which point a student acquaintance comes to stay, who it is hinted will become Archie’s bitter love rival – and the manuscript breaks off. Contains much mature and insightful portrayal of its characters especially, for the first time in Stevenson’s fiction, of its women characters.
In the South Seas – A collection of articles and essays describing Stevenson’s travels in the Pacific islands.
Songs of Travel and Other Verses – Poetry.
Records of A Family of Engineers – A personal history of his own family of lighthouse-building engineers, unfinished at his death.
St. Ives: being the Adventures of a French Prisoner in England – A long novel which Stevenson had almost completed and was finished after his death by Arthur Quiller-Couch.

Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography by Claire Harman

%d bloggers like this: