A Circle of Gentlemen - a once secret Jacobite society

Dressed in periwigs, kilts and jackets of the richest velvet, key members of A Circle of Gentlemen gather in the opulent surroundings of Culloden House where their allegiance to the Jacobites is sworn by the flicker of candlelight.

Friday, 19th May 2017, 10:51 am
Updated Sunday, 4th June 2017, 9:51 pm
The once secret Jacobite society of Circle of Gentlemen meets to swear in new members. While it now has 200 members worldwide, the council prefers to stay anonymous. PIC: Robert Perry/ TSPL.

A glass of claret - the signature drink of the Stuart cause - is passed over a bowl of water in a blessing to the “King Across the Water”, with a bronze Medusa, which became an emblem of the movement and in this case has one eye shut, passed and rubbed by the thumb of council members.

“That’s all I can tell you,” said Circle Commander Matthew Donnachie. “The Circle is like an old house. You can open part of it to the public but not all of it. If you do, you betray the cause. The Medusa has one eye closed. Betray the circle, and it will open,” he added.

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Culloden House, meeting place of A Circle of Gentlemen. PIC: Contributed.

A Circle of Gentlemen dates to the 18th Century and formed following the Battle of Culloden as a secret society for supporters of the Stuart cause.

Members mostly met in Edinburgh, usually in taverns in the Grassmarket and off the Royal Mile, and documents relating to its early days are hard to find.

“Every single document would have been treasonable so not an awful lot was written down,” Mr Donnachie, a clinical dental technician, from Nairn said.

The Circle of Gentlemen in 2009 at a meeting at Balgonie Castle in Fife. Matthew Donnachie, circle commander, is pictured front centre in blue. PIC Robert Perry/TSPL.

The society, which now champions the history and culture of the Jacobites, is said to have once had a membership interlinked with The Hellfire Clubs of the same era which allowed high society rakes to indulge in a mix of immoral acts without fear of censure.

But the business of the Circle was altogether a more serious affair, Mr Donnachie added.

“You wouldn’t hang from the end of a rope for being a member of The Hellfire Clubs, but you would if you were found to be a member of A Circle of Gentlemen,” Mr Donnachie added.

The club faded out in the late 18th Century but was set up again in the 1990s by a group of Jacobite enthusiasts

Culloden House, meeting place of A Circle of Gentlemen. PIC: Contributed.

Mr Donnachie, a clinical dental technician who lives near Inverness, said the circle’s elite council of 10 counts doctors and solicitors within its ranks although most preferred not to be named in public.

The decision was taken around 2011 to drop its secret status given “nobody was trying to usurp the Queen anymore,” he added.

Now, it has around 200 members worldwide with France, Germany, Ireland and the United States represented within its rolls.

The dress of its members is central to the circle’s identity. Mr Donnachie tends to model his style on Bonnie Prince Charlie, while other members emulate other key Jacobites, such as Cameron of Lochiel, Lord George Murray and Lord Elcho.

The Circle of Gentlemen in 2009 at a meeting at Balgonie Castle in Fife. Matthew Donnachie, circle commander, is pictured front centre in blue. PIC Robert Perry/TSPL.

“Accuracy is everything,” said Mr Donnachie, who can spend anything up to £1,000 on an outfit.

The circle has its own seamstress who can readily design a piece from a portrait with dirks and swords custom made in Edinburgh.

Mr Donnachie said: “You have to have this stuff custom made. When you go out as a circle member, you are waling back in the footsteps of time. The clock is going back - and you are keeping that heritage alive.

“It’s almost like putting on an armour or like being an actor in a disguise. When you put one of these outfits on, it like and electricity goes through you.

“My wife says to me I have more clothes than she does - but nothing normal to wear. You do start to become a bit of a peacock.”

Mr Donnachie said many members of the circle had fine collections of Jacobite relics, which used to be shared of the society’s website until it was hacked.

Its work in promoting and preserving the heritage of the era stretches from buying items at auction, such as a piece of tartan hanging from the bed slept in by Bonnie Prince Charlie at Culloden House the night before battle, to the cleaning of Jacobite graves.

“If these things aren’t done, they are lost,” he added.

A Lament of Culloden was also devised to perform on the anniversary of the battle with Mr Donnachie performing his own show - The Jacobite Officer - at the Edinburgh Fringe.

The circle commander has no time for detractors of Bonnie Prince Charlie, who led men to defeat at Culloden with the systematic, often brutal, dismantling of Highland culture to follow.

“I don’t think you can view 18th Century politics through 21st Century eyes. Then, it was about the divine right of Kings and people were passionate. They either believed in one side or the other.

“Wade’s roads were coming into the Highlands and the clan chiefs knew their end of life was coming to an end. They understood that modern politics was changing the world.

“When you look at Bonnie Prince Charlie, you have to ask yourself, how many 24-year-olds could set foot on Eriskay and lead an army to the point that he did and march to Derby? He was no mere boy. He was courageous.”

Mr Donnachie became impassioned by the cause following a trip to Skye where he heard an account of a twin girl hanged during the 1745 uprising.

“The woman’s hands were white as she told the story. I will never forget it. I went back home still feeling shocked about what I heard. It upset me but it lit a torch paper too.”

With each velvet button, yard of plaid and hair of a periwig, the acclamation of the Jacobites by A Circle of Gentlemen remains as faultless as ever.