“Memoirs of the rebellion in 1745 and 1746” – media and intelligence in James Johnstone’s autobiography
James Johnstone, a Scottish army officer in the service of Charles Edward Stuart during the 1745 Jacobite rebellion, has left one of the rare rebel autobiographies in early modern history.
His memoirs were first published in an English translation in 1820 and provide a lively account of the Jacobite military campaigns and Johnstone’s hazardous flight after the battle of Culloden in 1746.
Even though details of place and time are not always credible, James Johnstone does not only perpetuate the names of many Jacobite soldiers and clandestine Stuart partisans, but also gives important evidence of Charles Edward’s media policy and eventual miscommunication.
Already on the day of his landing in Scotland, the young Stuart prince is said to have published two proclamations to his purported ‘subjects’, duly prepared and printed in Rome. And during his advance south, Charles Edward released further instructions in order to establish a new administration and win over hesitant supporters:
“He there [Edinburgh] published several edicts, one of which prohibited all public rejoicings on account of the victory obtained over General Cope, as it was purchased at the expense of the blood of his subjects. In another he granted a general amnesty for all treasons, rebellions, or offences whatever, committed against him or his predecessors, since the revolution of 1688, provided the aggressors repaired to the palace of Holyrood-house within the space of four days, and made a declaration in presence of his secretary, that they would live in future under his government as quiet and peaceable subjects. He also sent circular letters to the magistrates of all the towns in Scotland, commanding them to repair immediately to Edinburgh, to pay their proportion of the contributions which he imposed on every town; and he dispatched other letters to all the collectors and controllers of the land-tax and customs, ordering them to bring to his palace their books and the public money in their hands, on pain of high treason.“
As soon as the Jacobite troops had crossed the English border, however, dissension arose in regard to the envisaged march on London. The Young Pretender’s public profiling seems to have ebbed away. According to Johnstone, even pro-government media had overestimated possible Jacobite partisanship in London before the Scottish vigour ceased. Therefore, Charles Edward’s failure to appeal for further compliance may have facilitated the convincibility of anti-rebellion reporting.
Ironically enough, Johnstone had to rely on these adversarial media when his regiment dispersed after the Battle of Culloden. Direct communication between the scattered rebels was no longer possible, and the only life signs which Johnstone got of his former comrades in arms were to be found in the newspapers.
After several years on the run, James Johnstone came to Canada in 1750 and joined the French-Canadian army. He died some time after 1791, supposedly in Paris.
Book record for the first edition of Johnstone’s memoirs, printed in London, 1820: Memoirs of the rebellion in 1745 and 1746, Houghton Library, Harvard
English biography and bibliographical information: Dictionary of Canadian Biography
French biography and bibliographical information: Dictionnaire Biographique du Canada