Happy to die for a ‘cowardly Italian’?

Written By: Ian Hernon
Published: April 16, 2016 Last modified: October 25, 2016


by Jacqueline Riding



When Prince Charles left the field of Culloden, a battle he had botched through pride and inanity, Lord Elcho called out: “There you go for a damned cowardly Italian!” He left behind the bloodied bodies of between 1,500 and 2,000 Jacobites killed or wounded in a one-sided clash which had lasted less than an hour. That hardly sat square with the Prince’s vainglorious boast that “they won’t take me alive”.

The latter, however, was true – he escaped after scurrying through the heather, sometimes in women’s clothing, helped by loyal “subjects”, and spent the rest of his life in pampered dissipation in France, Rome and Florence, his plotting undermined by hard drinking and sexual frolics. Not the story of a folk hero, you might think. But the myth of “Bonnie Prince Charlie” proved enduring, bringing together doomed romanticism and nationalism in a narcotic cocktail. How that happened is explored by a historian who advised Mike Leigh on his film Mr Turner. She relies heavily on contemporary accounts – some backing up the myths, others debunking them – and weaves a more complex tale than is taught in schools either side of the border.

When Tom Deacon was hanged, with many other fellow Jacobites, his final words, suppressed by the authorities, were: “I think myself happy in having an opportunity of dying in so just and so glorious a cause.” He saw his duty to “God and king” and found his fate “as being little inferior to martyrdom itself…” Such quasi-religious humbug was sin­cerely felt by Jacobites and few would recognise that they were dying for a would-be monarch who held them in little regard. And so the myth was born.

In this page-turning, impeccably researched account, Riding leaves readers to come to their own conclusions. But her sympathy for her main subject sometimes obscures the savage reprisals suffered by Highlanders who flocked to the Prince’s banner. When, 14 months after first landing and five months  after the Culloden bloodbath, he finally departed John MacDonald sardonically remarked that he had left the clans “in a worse state than he found us.” That was a massive understatement, but a good epitaph for a privileged loser.

About Ian Hernon

Ian Hernon is Deputy Editor of Tribune