Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites (4 stars)

Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites

John Pettie, Bonnie Prince Charlie Entering the Ballroom at Holyroodhouse

The National Museum of Scotland takes on one of Europe's most turbulent periods

Flawed romantic heroes from Scottish history make for good summer exhibitions; this was more than proved by NMS's hugely successful Mary Queen of Scots show in 2013. Bonnie Prince Charlie will draw the crowds in a similar way, but this rigorous and thorough exhibition might give them more than they bargained for.

The first thing we see, on entering the space, is Pettie's portrait of Charlie arriving at a ball at Holyrood. This never happened, we are reminded. It was painted 150 years later, based on a scene from a Walter Scott novel. This is how most of us have learned about the Jacobites, as tragic heroes from books and films, rather than hearing the story in its true complexity.

The real story begins when James II & VII was deposed in 1688 in favour of his (Protestant) daughter Mary, and ends a century later with the death of Bonnie Prince Charlie, more than 40 years after his disastrous defeat at Culloden. He is buried in the Vatican with a gravemarker (on show here) naming him Carolus III, the royal title he aspired to all his life.

It's a story which takes in a century of turbulent European history and no fewer than five uprisings, as the Jacobite court-in-exile moved from the grandeur of Saint Germain-en-Laye (the palace vacated by Louis XIV when he finished Versailles) to more reduced circumstances in Rome, and has more to do with power, politics, religion and clashing concepts of kingship than conflict between the English and the Scots.

The curators do their best to tell a complicated story clearly and succinctly. Text panels (of which there are many) have been written with care, to give a sense of the story's arc. Film is used sparingly and effectively: the catastrophe at Culloden is conveyed through the Gaelic lament of one soldier's widow. Despite there being over 300 objects here, notably weaponry, silverware, some very fine portraiture and the Bonnie Prince's tartan frock coat, one never feels overwhelmed by a preponderance of them.

The danger is that visitors coming for a whiff of the romantic Charlie will leave with their heads birling with names, dates and places. At least they will have a sense that the story of the Jacobites is richer and more complex and perhaps more interesting than they first imagined.

Bonnie Prince Charlies and the Jacobites, National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, until Sun 12 Nov

Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites

  • 4 stars

Major exhibition telling the real story of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the rise and fall of the Jacobites, drawing on a rich wealth of material to tell the story of the doomed rebellion.

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