Bonnie Prince Charlie, born in exile in Rome in 1720 and buried there in 1788, spent a mere 14 months of his life in Scotland; in 1745-6 and a brief clandestine 1750 return visit. However, he left behind legends and a true legacy of history and Catholicism. This fascinating exhibition provides a comprehensive narrative exploring the lives and events of the Jacobites and their attempts to reinstate the deposed Catholic Stuart king, James VI and II, and his heirs to the throne after his exile to France. Exhibits are drawn from public and private collections across Britain, France, Italy and Vatican City, forming the largest exhibition of the Jacobite era for some decades.
The exhibition is themed on the five Jacobite challenges to the throne, culminating in the doomed 1745 campaign and its bloody end at Culloden, and Charlie’s famous escape to the Isle of Skye. Entering the exhibition to airs of the Skye Boat song, visitors may feel they have fallen into a time shift like the heroine of TV’s Outlander. For those of us who encountered the Jacobites in school, it’s a visualization we might wish we didn’t have to wait 70 years for. It is the visual that is essential here, because Jacobitism reflected more the human passions and feeling in the Scottish enlightenment sense than rationalist ideas and argument.
The academic theory of material culture is very present, as the exhibition helps us to understand the objects of the Jacobite rebellion, their production, consumption of Jacobite items and their afterlife. Objects on display including paintings, costumes, jewellery, documents, weapons and glassware, illustrating the secrecy of Jacobite allegiance, the depth of feeling for a fading notion of royalty, and their material culture. Most striking is a gold communion set, encrusted with diamonds, belonging to Charlie’s younger brother Henry, who became a Cardinal; the York Chalice on loan from the Vatican Collection which has never left Rome before; and, a tartan frock coat said to have belonged to Charlie. Other highlights are weapons and shields used in the Battle of Culloden, the official order for the massacre of the MacDonalds at Glencoe, a Gaelic bible, an execution block, and marble grave markers. Most touching is a letter by Charlie, aged eight, apologising to his father for upsetting his mother.
An impressive collection of Jacobite portraits starts with the familiar John Pettie Victorian romantic portrait of Charlie entering the ballroom of Holyroodhouse, and includes a towering portrayal of James II, a striking portrait of Flora MacDonald and a sketch of a forlorn-looking Charlie in his mid-fifties. The exhibition wonderfully captures the breadth of the rebellion, the depth of Catholic feeling, and how close Scotland came to changing the course of religious history.
The original text was first published in The Catholic Herald here