IT is an epic story of a land torn apart by warring families competing for the right to rule from the warm southlands to the desolate frozen north, and the bloody carnage suffered by the people as a result.
A story spanning centuries, complete with murderous kings, peasant revolt, an exiled ruler trying to reclaim the throne, as well as a wealth of betrayal and deception.
It might sound like the plot to fantasy writer George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones – but this is in fact the story of Scotland’s turbulent history and the Jacobite uprising that shaped our future. And now it is being retold in an exhibition which lays bare the shocking truth behind some of our nation’s less than illustrious past and gives people the chance to see first hand the documents and orders which shaped a nation.
The Game of Crowns exhibition marking the 300th anniversary of the 1715 Jacobite uprising is on show at the National Library of Scotland on George IV Bridge, and at its heart is a document which gave the order for the sort of treachery and horror even Martin might have struggled to invent – the massacre of Glencoe.
The handwritten order on now faced and slightly curled parchment is as chilling in its simplicity as the massacre was horrifying for a generation and more, opening with the simple command: ‘You are hereby ordered to fall upon the rebels, the MacDonalds of Glencoe, and put all to the sword under seventy.’
That bleak February day in 1692 saw 38 MacDonalds suspected of being Jacobite sympathisers slaughtered by 120 government soldiers who had earlier accepted their hospitality, spending the previous two weeks being fed and sheltered by the families. Worse, the family homes were burned to the ground and some 40 women and children later died from exposure in the freezing conditions.
The MacDonalds’ “crime” was that they had been slow to swear allegiance to new Protestant monarchs William and Mary who had deposed the Catholic James VII (James II of England) and it’s repercussions stained the land in blood over the next half-century, while the memory of the massacre remained in the Scottish consciousness for generations.
“It shows the people that the government were not to be trusted,” said Robert Betteridge, the curator who has worked on Game of Crowns. “As the document shows, this was an order from the King, drawn up by the Lord Advocate and carried out by government troops. You can’t get much closer to history than this.”
Large parts of Scotland remained sympathetic to the Jacobite cause in the years after the massacre and the fuse for the uprising was lit in 1714, when the German-born George I was chosen to rule over Britain in preference to James Edward Stuart, the son of James VII, who many saw as the rightful heir to the throne.
James — known to history as the Old Pretender — had spent all his life in exile abroad. In September 1715, his standard was raised by the Earl of Mar at Braemar. The Jacobite uprising was born and sympathisers, in England as well as Scotland, rallied to the cause.
The story, complete with dynastic, political and religious wrangling within a network of royal families, fed by the Catholic and Protestant sympathies of the time, is brought vividly to life through original letters from some of the key figures involved, contemporary manuscripts, books, maps, portraits and songs, and Robert admitted the aim of highlighting the comparisons between the epic fantasy of George RR Martin and our own turbulent history was to entice more people to learn about the events.
“The stories do share quite a few similarities, and so we felt it would be a way to get the idea out to people of what this was all about,” he said. “Most people will know bits and pieces of the history but may be less familiar with the full story. Many people may think about it as Jacobite Highlanders against the English but it is much more complicated than that. What we hope to do is paint a picture of what Scotland was like at this time.
“If the Crown had passed down the Stuart line, there would only have been two monarchs in James’s lifetime. In reality there were seven.
“It truly was a Game of Crowns.”
• Game of Crowns: The 1715 Jacobite Rising runs until May 10, 2015 at the National Library of Scotland, George 1V Bridge. Entry is free.