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Friday, April 02, 2010

Phoney Prince Charlies who pulled the wool over a countries eyes | Caledonian Mercury - Heritage


Victorian-era print of the Sobieski brothers
Tartan might seem as Scottish as bagpipes, but in common with many symbols of Scottish heritage, its provenance is dodgy, to say the least. Dig deep and it is revealed to be as much about the Victorian fetish for romanticising all things Scottish as a true representation of the “hielanman’s” attire.
Although a number of people are to be thanked for the 19th-century vision of Scottishness, Walter Scott for one, it is two brothers, imposter princes, who did much to perpetuate the myth of clans and their associated tartans.
John Sobieski Stuart and his brother Charles Edward Stuart arrived in Edinburgh around 1822. The similarity between their names and the Young Pretender, Bonnie Prince Charlie, was no coincidence. These two brothers declared themselves the closest direct descendants from the Jacobite Pretender, and set about living a life appropriate to their heritage.
Their lineage, they said, could be traced back to Charles Edward Stuart through his daughter Charlotte. The Scottish nobility drank it all in. The Earl of Lovat provided them with a purpose-built house on the River Beauly in Inverness-shire where they held court seated on thrones. They converted to Catholicism, as any good Jacobite would, and taught themselves Gaelic, all the better to understand their history.
The brothers made an impression on everyone they met and the effect that they had on Scottish society was pronounced. Elizabeth Grant of Rothiemurchas wrote of them in her Memoirs of a Highland Lady that they always wore the Highland dress, kilt … and looked melancholy, and spoke at times mysteriously. They were feted to their hearts’ content.”
In 1829 they met Walter Scott, and tried to convince him of the authenticity of what they claimed was a 15th-century manuscript that belonged to Bonnie Prince Charlie and illustrated a number of clan tartans. Scott was unconvinced, but the brothers persuaded others of their claim and used this document as a reference for their two books; Vestiarium Scoticum, in 1842, and two years later years later an even more detailed account of the Costume of the Clans. These works, by their own words of “immense scholarship”, set out the various tartans and attributed them to specific clans. With it the notion of clan tartans took hold, gaining a readership keen to follow Queen Victoria’s love of all things Scottish.
It’s a shame, then, that the books are regarded today as being little more than a fantasy.
Shortly after publication, the whole deceit of the brothers began to unwind. The Quarterly Review, a well-respected magazine of the time, questioned their story and although the brothers rebutted their article, they were soon forced to leave Scotland in disgrace.
Their true identities were later revealed as John Carter Allen and Charles Manning Allen, two brothers who were born in Wales in the late 18th century to Thomas and Catherine Allen. Their mother died when they were young and Thomas and his new wife and family spent many years travelling around Europe, escaping, some said, a long line of creditors.
In her Memoirs, Elizabeth Grant wrote of the widespread surprise when the brothers’ deception was laid bare:Nobody was more astonished at their assumption (that they were descendants of the Prince) than their own father, a decent man.”
The brothers spent much of the rest of their lives travelling. John died in 1872 in London, followed by Charles, who died onboard a steamer in 1880. Both bodies were returned to Scotland where they were buried in Eskadale churchyard, close to their Highland “court”.
What caused the brothers to conjure up such a rich fantasy can never be known. It is thought that their mother might have worked for some members of the Stuart family in Italy, which may have provided the seeds of the deception. Ironically, rather than dismiss it completely, there are some who consider the work the brothers did on their two books to be important, suggesting that they did indeed round up and collect some interesting insights into clan costume and tradition.
Perhaps, they suggest, without these two Welsh imposters with their outrageous claims, much of what we regard as Highland dress may have been lost. Or, depending on where you sit on the argument, never have been invented.
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