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The Disarming Acts – myth and reality

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In 1707 the Parliaments of Scotland and England were brought together in the Acts of Union, just over 100 years after James VI and I had taken the throne of England after the death of his cousin, Queen Elizabeth.

This blog was written by Jenn Scott the Secretary and Archivist of the Stewart Society, Edinburgh and a Trustee of the Scottish Battlefields Trust.

Image of a bound document open showing two pages. There are red seals beside signatures on the right hand page.
Articles of Union between England and Scotland, 1707, Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/JO/10/6/106/2307

In the years after the Union, even before the 1715 Jacobite Rising, it was obvious that there was increased dissatisfaction with the Union among many Scots particularly the elite who viewed much of the new state of affairs to be more advantageous to England than Scotland. Tensions were high. There were reports of pro- Jacobite demonstrations in Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Perth and elsewhere[1]. In August 1714, white gloves with the word liberty on them were sold in Edinburgh. White being a colour that had been associated with the Stuarts since at least Charles I. The year after, a printer called James Watson was charged with ‘wearing a cockade in his hat’ and in London;  Jacobite sympathisers were making bonfires and wearing cockades[2].

Portrait engraving of a young man wearing armour.
John Erskine, 22nd or 6th Earl of Mar
by John Smith, after Sir Godfrey Kneller, Bt
mezzotint and engraving, 1703
NPG D38217
Licence: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs National Portrait Gallery

The Earl of Mar. one of the original Scottish commissioners for the union had now turned against it. He raised his standard for the Stuarts at Braemar under the cover of a hunting party and thousands of men from all over Scotland flocked to fight for the Jacobite cause. While many of these men wore Highland clothes, probably only a third of them were actually Highlanders[3].  The army was described as being ‘all in Highland cloaths tho’ mostly lowland men’. In general the Highlands by the beginning of the 18th century was not full of hairy kilted men armed to the teeth ready to fight at the drop of a hat or even a blue bonnet adorned with a white cockade as many of the Jacobites wore to show their allegiance to the Stuarts; the clan feuds and cattle raids of the previous centuries in the Highlands were for the most part over. Indeed, it is possible to argue that the situation and ‘barbarity’ in the Highlands was exaggerated by the Scottish elite in an attempt to obtain more support and money from the government in London[4]. This idea was certainly to be seen in the legislation that followed the 1715 Rising which claimed that it was ‘the custom of the Highlanders of having their arms in their custody and using and bearing them in travelling abroad in the fields and public meetings; has greatly obstructed the civilising of the people; has prevented their applying themselves to husbandry, manufactories, trade’[5]. It was clear from the Act that despite the Jacobite army being only a third recruited from the Highlands, defined in this case as being from ‘the shires of Dumbarton on the north side of the water of  Leven, Stirling on the north side of the river of Forth …to Caithness’[6] that the Highlanders were to bear the brunt of the blame for the Rising.

Oil painting of a man wearing a red coat.
John Campbell, 2nd Duke of Argyll and Greenwich by William Aikman
oil on canvas, circa 1720
NPG 737
Licence: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs National Portrait Gallery

Notwithstanding the loss of the hoped for French support for the Jacobites, the battle of Sheriffmuir in November 1715 was only a tactical success for the Government forces led by General John Campbell, the Duke of Argyll. Mar, in spite of having superior numbers, failed to take any advantage of this and withdrew from the fight, which was claimed as a victory by both sides. Nevertheless James arrived at Peterhead in the North-East of Scotland in December, although by February 1716 it was clear that the Jacobites having surrendered after the battle of Preston in England had lost heart, and Mar and he left Scotland. The subsequent 1716 ‘Disarming Act’ (II Geo I.c26) banned the holding of weapons by Highlanders and was intended ‘for the more effectual securing of peace of the Highlands’. This proved ineffectual at least in the eyes of the Government since there was another Jacobite Rising in 1719 in the Highlands with Spanish assistance, the first time a foreign power had successfully landed in Britain since the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of the previous century and the Jacobites had been able to arm themselves with guns. So despite the Jacobite defeat at Glenshiel another Disarming Act ( 11 George I, c. 26) was brought in 1725 however it was suspected probably unfairly that Jacobite clans were hiding arms and clans like the Campbells who were loyal to the Government had no access to arms.  Andrew Fletcher, Lord Milton, the Lord Justice Clerk wrote that the act:-

has been found by experience to work quite the contrary effect from what was intended by it, and in reality proves a measure for effectively disturbing the peace of the Highlands and of the kingdom…For all the disaffected [e.g. Jacobite] clans retain their arms and ammunition concealed  them at the first disarming, or have provided themselves since at the first disarming, or have provided themselves since at the same time that the dutyfull and well affected clans have tamely submitted to this measure of the government and Act of Legislature and still disarmed or have no quantity amongst them.’[7]

Milton’s words were found to be true at the time of the last Jacobite Rising in 1745 when the loyalist Duke of Argyll struggled to arm his Argyllshire militia initially since there were few arms available to him legally.

There were fourty stand of arms [ this normally meant a musket, bayonet, bayonet scabbard, bayonet frog, belt and cartridge box] in his Grace’s service lying at Ardkinglass which the Duke desires may be put in order, and used for the defence of the castle of Inveraray or to supply the newly raised companys. In short where ever they are most useful[8].

However, the Jacobites also struggled initially with arming themselves so the concealed arms were not as plentiful as Lord Milton had supposed.  John Home described the Jacobite Army prior to its first major battle  as being ‘armed with firelocks with broadswords, that their firelocks were not similar or uniform, but of all sort and sizes, muskets, fusees and fowling pieces, that some of the rest had firelocks with swords, and some of them swords without firelocks’[9]. Other men carried the obsolete Lochaber axes or farming tools until after the battle of Prestonpans where the defeat of the British Army and the abandonment of their baggage train allowed them to collect thousands of guns, tents and other equipment.

Tartan wasn’t banned

Crop of the bottom part of the right hand page in a book.
Disarming the Highlands Act 1746, Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/PU/1/1745/19G2n60

After the Jacobite defeat at Culloden in April 1746 destroyed the Jacobite cause forever. The final Disarming act of 1746 ( XIX George II, c39) again sought to disarm the Highlanders and in a change from the previous acts also banned Highland clothing  from being worn by men and boys in Scotland  unless part of the British Army although this was inconsistently enforced. Elite men were not punished for wearing Highland dress and men in areas that had not been seen as Jacobite tended to be able to wear their traditional dress with impunity. Nonetheless this was resented and poor men were charged for wearing it for some years after the Rising. Gaelic poet, Alasdair MacDonald in  his poem Brosnachadh Eile do Na Gaidheil [Another Incitement to the Gaels] wrote of the Act that  ‘Gach aodach us tartan/Gunn feannar sinn asda/ ‘S gun sparrar oirnn casag gu buirt oirnn [ Our dress and tartan/will both be stripped from us/And black coats forced on us us to mock us.][10]. However contrary to what MacDonald says here tartan was not in fact banned. The authorities were concerned with preventing Highland dress from being used as a de facto uniform as the Jacobites had done. Jacobite sympathisers post Culloden continued to have themselves painted wearing Highland dress, there was also a very popular tartan gown called the ‘Betty Burke [ after the Prince’s servant girl  persona in Skye ] which sold well in Edinburgh among the Jacobite ladies there. So tartan and highland dress continued to be associated with the Jacobite cause.

The idea that all Jacobites were Highlanders meant that all Highlanders did suffer regardless of their actual affiliation since the whole of the north of Scotland was blamed and considered to be in some way guilty of rebellion. The aim after Culloden was certainly to so ‘effectively subdue this country …the rebellion will not in haste raise up its head again’[11].  Although the Acts themselves weren’t repealed until 1782. They were less strictly enforced from the 1760s by which time many Highlanders had proved their loyalty to the British crown by service in British Army and Highland Dress was no longer only associated with the rebel Jacobites but the British Army as the  uniform worn by the Scottish regiments.

Jenn Scott is the Secretary and Archivist of the Stewart Society, Edinburgh and a Trustee of the Scottish Battlefields Trust. She has written about the Jacobite period. Her most recent book is I am Minded to Rise: The clothes, weapons and accoutrements of the Jacobites in Scotland was published by Helion in March 2020.

[1] M. Pittock, The Myth of the Jacobite Clans , (Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2015), pp54,145

[2] J.Scott, I am Minded to Rise , The Clothing, Weapons and Accoutrements of the Jacobites in Scotland 1689-1719 (Warwick, Helion, 2020) p53, J Allardyce (ed) Historical Papers Relating to the Jacobite Period 1699-1750 (Aberdeen 1895,) vol 1 p28

[3] Pittock, The Myth of the Jacobite Clans, p55

[4] See for example A. Mackillop, More Fruitful than the Soil, Army, Empire and the Scottish Highlands, 1715-1815, (East Linton, Tuckwell, 2000) pp20-1

[5] D.Pickering  (ed) The statutes at Large from the Twelfth Year of Queen Anne to Fifth Year of King George I (London, 1764) pp306-9

[6] Ibid p307

[7] J. Home, The History of the Rebellion in the year 1745 (Edinburgh, P.Brown, 1822) pp 67-8 As the Lord Justice Clerk, Milton was the second most senior judge in Scotland at that time.

[8] Sir J Fergusson of Kilkerran, Argyll in the Forty-Five, (London, Faber & Faber, 1951) p25

[9] Home, The History of the Rebellion p75

[10] J.L.Campbell (ed) The Highland Songs of the Forty-Five, (Edinburgh, Scottish Academic Press, 1997) p141

[11] UNMSC, NE 1725; Letter from General Humphrey Bland to Henry Pelham, Fort Augustus, 9 June 1746

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