This is the true story of Bonnie Prince Charlie who led Scottish Highlanders in a rebellion against the English in 1745, and then had to flee back to France and Italy as described in the Sky Boat Song.
Read by Bertie.
Proofed and audio edited by Jana Elizabeth.
Hello, this is Bertie and I’m here with a little bit of history from Scotland.
Many people have heard the name Bonnie Prince Charlie, and perhaps seen his dashing portrait, but do not know the details of his remarkable adventure in the year 1745, when he led the clans of the Scottish highlands in a rebellion against their English rulers.
So this is his story. And if you listen to the end, you will learn how I, myself, have a remote connection with Bonnie Prince Charlie.
First, let’s explain a little about Bonnie Prince Charlie’s background.
He came from a family of Scottish Kings and Queens called the Stewarts. For a while the Stewarts ruled England as well as Scotland, but they had trouble getting on with the English Parliament. In fact, a civil war broke out between king and parliament, which ended in 1649 when King Charles I was beheaded on the balcony of Whitehall in central London.
By the time Bonnie Prince Charlie was a young man, the English king was George II whose family, the Hanovers, came from Germany. The Scottish Stewarts were out of the picture exiled in Italy, but they still believed, with some good cause, that they should be reigning over their homelands.
Prince Charles believed that his father should be crowned James III. In the Summer of 1745 he secretly sailed to Scotland, determined to make that dream a reality. He sailed with two ships; one of them carrying his soldiers. But that ship was intercepted by the English navy. Charlie sailed on and when he reached a Scottish beach, he had just twelve men with him - one of whom was a priest.
The first highland chief who met Charles told him to ‘go home’. He replied, “I have come home.”
He was just 24 years old, but he had royal blood in his veins, good looks, and a persuasive personality. It was said of him,
“If this prince once sets eyes upon you, he would make you do whatever he pleased.”
Like most of the Stewart family, he was highly cultured. He spoke Italian, French, English and German, and he was musical too. He dressed with a blue sash to represent his blue royal blood. You can see how his dash, charm, and daring nature led to his nickname, Bonnie Prince Charlie.
By August of 1745, he had, persuaded the Highland Chiefs to gather 1,200 men on the shores of Loch Shiel. These were the clans with names like the Macdonalds, Chisholms, Macleans and Frasers. Each clan lived in a particular area of Scotland under their own chief. Those who came from the mountains of West Scotland endured tough lives and made particularly hardy and brave soldiers. They were famous for their kilts and their red checked tartan, and for their much feared battle tactic, the Highland Charge.
Charles read out a message from his father, James, promising a Scottish parliament, lower taxes and independence from England. The clansmen loudly cheered. Then Charles rose his father’s red flag with a white cross in the centre. This was the moment the revolution began. His followers became known as the Jacobites from the Latin name for James.
At first things went well for the Jacobites.
Charlie’s men sneaked into Scotland’s capital, Edinburgh, through a narrow gate in the walls. Once inside, they raised their swords and cried out as if charging into battle but they were met with no resistance. Soon the streets of Edinburgh were lined with 60,000 supporters cheering Bonnie Prince Charlie and his revolutionary army. Charles set up his court in Holyrood Palace, but the Government forces loyal to the English King George, still held out in Edinburgh castle at the other end of the street called the Royal Mile.
The Jacobite rebels were yet to fight a proper battle, but that soon changed. A Government army led by Sir John Cope was coming after the young prince. The Jacobites attacked Cope’s troops early one morning before they were fully awake and defeated them within 15 minutes. A Jacobite song romanticizes this famous victory - it goes something like.
“Hey, Johnnie Cope, are ye waking yet?
Or are your drums a-beating yet?”
Charles spent six weeks in Edinburgh, where there were frequent balls and endless meetings to discuss what to do next.
The handsome and charming prince was much admired by lady members of court, who clutched fans decorated with his portrait.
All the time he was losing the element of surprise. Eventually, at the end of October, his army marched into England and laid siege to the city of Carlisle. Both the city and its castle surrendered without a fight.
By November 1745, the Jacobites had reached Derby, just 120 miles from London. The English cartoonist, Hogarth, depicted the mad panic that gripped Londoners when they heard that the Scots were so close to home. London was poorly defended, and Charles could see victory in sight. He wanted to attack immediately. But his generals were not so bold. When news came that two large English armies were marching towards them, they insisted that the Jacobites retreat back to Scotland. The Prince was dismayed by this cowardly idea, but as all his generals were against him, he had no choice but to go back North. It turned out that the reports of the English armies were not even true. It is an example of how a false rumour can be more powerful than an army.
The English Government now had time to muster its forces and to recruit Scots loyal to King George to help them take on the Jacobites led by Prince Charles. The Jacobite dreams died at the battle of Culloden Moor in Inverness in North West Scotland in April 1746. This was where the Government army under the Duke of Cumberland caught up with them.
Prince Charles ignored the advice of his commander, George Murray, and chose to fight on marshy land. The result was an almost total massacre when the Jacobite soldiers charged into the muskets and cannon of Cumberland’s army. After the first round of easy slaughter, Cumberland hunted down survivors killing many, including the wounded lying on the ground. For this brutality he earned the nickname, ‘The Butcher of Cumberland’.
Charlie fled the scene.
For the next six months he roamed the highlands, pursued by the English redcoats. Some of the time he went under the disguise of ‘Mr Sinclair,’ a ship-wrecked merchant. He also hid out in a mountain cave with a highland chief called Cluny MacPherson - the hideaway became known as Cluny’s Cage.
Later in 1746, a young highland scots woman called Flora Macdonald decided to help Charlie. She dressed the pretty faced prince up as a woman. And then she passed him off as her servant, Betty. At one point, he was almost discovered when he hitched his skirts up to cross a stream. Flora then smuggled him aboard a ship which took him to the Isle of Skye. Eventually he fled back to France. His escape was immortalised in a song written 150 years later.
Speed Bonnie boat
Speed, bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing,
Onward! the sailors cry;
Carry the lad that's born to be King
Over the seas to sky.
The defeat was a catastrophe for the Scottish Highlanders. The English decided to break up the Clans, which they saw as a threat to their security. They banned highland culture, including the wearing of kilts, and eventually cleared the highlanders out of their homes to make way for new farmers raising sheep.
Within Scotland, it was treason to support the exiled Stuarts, so the Jacobites came up with coded phrases, rituals and symbols to show allegiance. The most famous was the toast “to the king over the water.”
And in a way, I am directly connected to this story. I have lived in England all my life, but my family name is Fraser, and my ancestors belonged to a Scottish highland clan. They fought at the battle of Culloden, and one of them was an attendant to the clan chief, Simon Fraser, the 11th Lord Lovat nicknamed, "the Fox". Lord Lovat was captured by the English, tried for treason, and beheaded in the Tower of London on the 9th of April 1747. He was the last man in Britain to be executed by beheading, although beheading was not formally abolished in UK law until 1973. My ancestor accompanied Lord Lovat to the scaffold to wish him goodbye. Lord Lovat gave him a small gift, a horn in which he kept his snuff or tobacco for sniffing. This horn has come down in my family. My father gave it to me many years ago, and Lord Lovat’s snuff box remains in my safe to this day.
I do hope that you've enjoyed this history of Bonnie Prince Charlie and you can always hear more stories and history and songs at Storynory.com or on our podcast, available in iTunes and on Google podcasts and in all good podcast apps.
For now, from me Bertie, goodbye!