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Friday, April 19, 2024

A Portrait of The Unknown Jacobite Ladies by Anita R. Gillespie

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A.D. Press, 232 pages, £12

Being born and bred in the Highlands of Scotland, one is often reminded of The Clearances.  We ask, existentially, about the ‘why’ of those Clearances.  One leading North Highland thinker on this emotive subject recently reminded us that, “clearing, another word for ethnic cleansing, was an inevitable consequence of the doomed-to-fail, bampot, Jacobite coup d’état.”  To understand the Clearances, one must first understand the Risings, especially the 45, and the inevitable ethnic cleansing.  Like a meditative mystic, the historian must gently finger the chain of cause and effect backwards to a paradigmatic incident. Gillespie does this with elegance by stating from the outset that The Glorious Revolution in 1688 is her starting point.  A Jacobean Family Tree is appended to prove it.

Accepted history has largely ignored the key roles played by women in the Risings.  That was until 1997 when Maggie Craig published Damn Rebel Bitches.  Anita R. Gillespie’s A Portrait of the Unknown Jacobite Ladies now comes at a pivotal time as Scots question themselves deeply about the extent to which woman shaped our society. Gillespie’s work is of scholarly proportions which adds credence and academic discipline to her findings. Gillespie has succeeded in almost achieving an historical impossibility. She has ascended to the heights of the near ethnographic participant-observer viewpoint. She writes as if she had been there.  It is a rare accomplishment. The attention to the manifested historical detail is compendious and her psychological insights are spellbinding. This work was obviously a labour of love.

Gillespie’s modus operandi reminds this reviewer of Virginia Woolf the Essayist. A gracefulness of style, coupled with a captivating narrative, forensically question a critical proposition: to what extent were the Risings the work of women?  Gillespie is clear.  The Risings would have happened without women but they would not have achieved what they did achieve without those unknown Jacobite ladies.  Her conclusion is beautifully crafted based on considerable evidence showing how women, many in mutually respectful loving marriages, expressed their influence in a myriad of ways, including how to run a landed estate and inspire, even to allegedly force on occasions, those dependent on them for a living to fight for the Jacobean Court.  For every such landed lady Gillespie biographs, she introduces us to as many humble women who likewise bore shared unspeakable pain and sorrow as a necessary cost for a near-Divine cause.

This reviewer has commended A Portrait of the Unknown Jacobite Ladies to the University of the Highlands and Islands Centre for History’s  Gender and Family module. It is expected Gillespie’s work will be added to many more degree reading lists as ‘Essential’.

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