The Jacobite movement started when the Stuart King, James II was deposed in 1688.

Parliament, not wanting a Roman Catholic king gave the throne of Great Britain and Ireland to his daughter Mary II and her husband and first cousin William of Orange.

King James and his family left England and went into exile. The Stuarts were not without their supporters, however. There were people who thought that Parliament had no business interfering with the natural line of succession. These people became known as Jacobites – the supporters of James.

Jacobite support was strongest in parts of the Scottish Highlands, lowland northeast Scotland, Ireland, and parts of northern England. In England, support for James came mostly from Northumberland and Lancashire. James also had some supporters in Wales and southwest England.

To be a Jacobite supporter was a very dangerous game. The stakes were high. If you were discovered you would be guilty of treason, and the death penalty would undoubtedly await you. Expressing allegiance, therefore, had to be done covertly through secret rituals, secret symbols, and secret messages.

The Jacobites had many secret symbols, including the sunflower to symbolise loyalty, as a sunflower always follows the sun and moths or butterflies whose emergence from a chrysalis symbolised the hope for the return to power of the Stuart family. The Merovingian bee was adopted by the exiled Stuarts in Europe, and engraved bees are still to be seen on some Jacobite glassware.

The Jacobite White Cockade

In the years leading up to the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745 Jacobites were forced to meet and plot in secret, and the white rose or white cockade (a flower made from ribbon, often worn on a hat) was a way of identifying those who supported the cause.The emblem of the Jacobites was the White Cockade.

All 69 Scottish Nationalist Party members of parliament wore white roses in their lapels at the swearing-in ceremony of the Scottish parliament a few years back. When asked about the significance of the Nationalists wearing of the white rose Scotland’s First Minister at the time, Alex Salmond, denied that the flower was a reference to the Jacobites. Instead, he cited the poem “The Little White Rose”, written by the Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and claimed the rose stood for “all of Scotland”. MacDiarmid (1892-1978) was a committed Nationalist. In 1928 he helped found the National Party of Scotland, the forerunner of today’s Scottish National Party.

Rosa x alba grows all over Scotland. It is a bushy shrub-like rose with dark, grey-green foliage and a small five-petalled flower, similar to a dog rose, which can be white or pale pink. They only flower in spring and have a beautiful scent with notes of citrus. The plants are hardy, thrive in poor soil, can tolerate shade and drought and are for the most part resistant to disease.

The origins of the rose as a symbol are somewhat lost in myth and legend. It is said that one of the earliest references refers to the birth of James Francis Edward Stuart, son of the deposed King James II, who was born on 10th June in 1688, said to be “the longest day of the year in which the white rose flowers”. Another legend tells how Bonnie Prince Charlie plucked a white rose from the roadside and stuck it in his hat as he made his way south from Glenfinnan to start the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745.

English, Irish and Welsh Jacobites

Jacobitism was attractive to members of the English aristocracy who had chosen to remain Catholic after the Reformation.

About 2-3% of the English population remained Catholics at the time of the Glorious Revolution in 1688. The highest concentration of Catholics was in the north of England.

The movement also found support in the Catholic populations of Ireland and rural Wales because they hoped the return of a Stuart king would end their exclusion from many aspects of civic and political life under the Recusancy Acts.

In Ireland, James was supported for his 1687 Declaration of Indulgence or, as it is also known, The Declaration for the Liberty of Conscience. This declaration promised an Irish Parliament.

Scottish Jacobites

Catholic country gentry tended were James most ideologically committed supporters. Drawing on almost two centuries of suffering as a religious minority persecuted by the state they rallied enthusiastically to the Jacobite cause.

Highland clans such as the MacDonnels and MacDonalds of Clanranald, Keppoch, Glengarry and Glencoe; the Clan Chisolm, and the clan Ogilvy were largely still Catholic. Other clans, such as the powerful Camerons, were Episcopalian, and as staunch in their Jacobitism as their allies the Catholic MacDonalds.

Scottish Episcopalians provided over half of the Jacobite forces in Britain. As Protestants, they could take part in Scottish politics, but as a religious minority, they were repeatedly discriminated against in legislation which favoured the established Presbyterian Church of Scotland.  About half the Episcopalians supporting the Jacobite cause came from the Lowlands, but this was obscured in the risings by their tendency to wear the Highland dress.

In the Gaelic-speaking Scottish Highland clans, Jacobites were known as Seumasaich. The clan chiefs ran their own private armies and there was often conflict between them. This conflict was more about political power and money than religion as most were Catholic.

A significant source of friction was the territorial ambitions of the Presbyterian Campbells of Argyll. Another was James VII’s sympathetic treatment of the Highland clans. Monarchs since the late 16th century had been antagonistic to the Gaelic-Highland way of life but James had worked sympathetically with the clan chieftains. He had put in place the Commission for Pacifying the Highlands but that had now been abandoned. Some Highland chieftains, therefore, viewed Jacobitism as a means of resisting hostile government interference in their territories. These private armies would go onto provide the bulk of Jacobite manpower in both the 1715 and 1745 rebellions.

Although most support for the Stuart cause came from Tories there were some notable Whig exceptions most notably the Earl of Mar. Most sympathetic Whigs were merely keeping their options open in case the Stuarts returned.

Jacobite Romance

Jacobites were definitively romantic. They were the underdogs in the battle with the British state. They fought heroically for their rights and their country. They were brave and dashing in their Highland garb but they weren’t what would pass as the good guys today. They were distinctly unenlightened and un-democratic.

They believed in:

• the divine right of kings and the accountability of Kings to God alone;
• inalienable hereditary right; and the unequivocal scriptural injunction of non-resistance and passive obedience to the crown.


Scotland, A Concise History, Fitzroy Maclean, Thames and Hudson
Bonnie Prince Charlie, Fitzroy Maclean, Canongate Books Ltd.
The Jacobites, Britain and Europe 1688–1788, Daniel Szechi, Manchester University
The Myths of the Jacobite Clans, Murray G. H. Pittock, Edinburgh University Press

Julia Herdman writes historical fiction that puts women to the fore. Her latest book Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1. is  Available on Amazon – Paperback £10.99 Kindle £2.42  Also available on:

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