Saturday, 30 April 2011

Elcho of the ‘45 - a book review

Karen Nichols, a Dundee historian, has provided today's guest blog post. It was originally posted on Karen's own book Blog in March but with our recent series of Jacobite posts it is worth publishing on here too.

Elcho of the ‘45

With an insatiable appetite for Jacobitism I eagerly clutched the chance to delve deep into one man’s experience of being a follower to Prince Charles Edward Stuart literally on to the battlefield at Culloden.

Two hand-written manuscripts, one in fluent French, by David, Lord Elcho, are the basis of this book. The Fife based family of Wemyss have a lineage dating back to the 12th century when their service to kings began. With Presbyterian allegiances since the Reformation Elcho and his brother went against family tradition. They found themselves as accidental Jacobites due to a father’s leanings and a tutor who may have been a Jacobite agent. After the obligatory Grand Tour and training at a military college in Angers, France, Elcho rose through the ranks as a competent officer in the royal army.

Despite examples around him of men who joined the Bonnie Prince then became disillusioned Elcho continued to serve the man he believed was rightful king of the newly integrated Great Britain. His life before defeat at Culloden was socialising with a Who’s Who of the aristocracy. Once exiled in Europe and inextricably linked to both the Prince and Catholicism Elcho was in turns treated as an outcast or favoured guest.

Unfortunately, their relationship fell apart over the non-repayment of a loan that Elcho maintained he gave the Prince to fund the Rising. In defeat, these funds were sorely needed by Elcho to rebuild a life in exile but his request was stubbornly ignored by his Prince. This rift meant isolation from the company that he had known since birth. To add to the anguish, Elcho remained an exile whilst other Jacobite activists were pardoned by the English government. He was destined never to receive that pardon nor return to his homeland.

There is no doubt that Elcho was sorely used by his Prince and paid the price for his loyalty for the rest of his life. The Prince Charles that is hinted at in Elcho’s Journal is not the romantic ideal of nostalgic history but a headstrong, ill-educated, vain-glorious self-seeker. For this reason alone I would recommend reading this book. Despite severe provocation Elcho maintained the mindset of his period and did not write derogatory remarks about his master. However, what also comes across is that Elcho was a dry, factual writer with no hints at emotion. His contemporaries considered him irritable and slightly eccentric. Although I think his judgment of the Prince is accurate how much did Elcho contribute to his own loneliness?

Throughout the book there are several references to the fact that these narratives were not intended, by Elcho, for publication. With the double negatives and convoluted grammar I often found myself wishing that the editors had abided by that decision. This book is for scholars of the subject and for those well acquainted with Jacobitism.

Elcho of the ’45, Alice Wemyss. Ed: John Sibbald Gibbon, 2003, Saltire Society

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