‘If England were fairly polled, the present king would be sent away to-night,’ Dr Johnson announced in September 1777, during what Boswell calls a ‘violent’ after-dinner argument with his host, a Whig named Dr Taylor. George III had possession of the throne, Johnson admitted, but the Hanoverians could never rule by ‘inherent right’. That right remained with the house of Stuart, regardless of the expulsion of James II and VII in 1688, or the Catholic and pro-French sympathies of James and his heirs.
The Jacobite rebellion of 1745 came close to restoring the Stuarts – 120 miles, to be precise. Earlier that day in 1777, Boswell had reminded Johnson that Derby, where Dr Taylor lived, had been the southernmost point of the Jacobite advance from Scotland. ‘It was a noble attempt,’ Johnson said. ‘I wish we could have an authentick history of it,’ Boswell replied. ‘If you were not an idle dog you might write it,’ Johnson suggested.
Instead of Boswell’s history, we got Romantic fiction: Walter Scott’s Waverley novels and the Victorian mythology of clans and kilts. In the excitement, Jacobitism, the most significant internal challenge to the 18th-century British state, became a cartoon: Bonnie Prince Charlie and his brave but doomed Highlanders, ‘Butcher’ Cumberland and the