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Byways of Scottish Story
"Bonnie Jeanie Cameron"

A Heroine of "The '45"

AMONG persons concerned in the last Jacobite Rebellion of whom tradition still lingers in Edinburgh, not the least romantic figure is that of the lady popularly remembered as "Bonnie Jeanie Cameron." Apparently her story was well enough known in her time. She is referred to even in Fielding's "Tom Jones" more than once. Yet, probably just because the events of her career were so commonly known then, they are indistinct and uncertain now. No "life" of the lady has been written, and all that remains to tell of what must have been a dramatic and eventful story are a few scattered references of somewhat conflicting sort. By means of these, however, if gathered together, it may still be possible to throw some light upon a detail of the rising which does not receive much attention in the histories-the after-effect on thee lives and fortunes of individuals concerned.

To begin with, the references in Fielding's masterpiece, to which allusion has been made, are interesting but tantalisingly vague. It will be remembered, for example, how, when Sophia Western lies fainting in an inn parlour, in the eleventh book, the concern and sympathy of the landlady are greatly stimulated by the supposition that the fair sufferer is "hiss Jenny Cameron." From so scant an allusion not much is to be gathered. Nearly all that can be inferred is that the Jenny Cameron mentioned must have been young and lovely. Further, when "Tom Jones" was written, about the year 1749, a reference to hiss Jenny Cameron apparently was a matter as plain and obvious as it is now obscure, and, from the whispered style of the allusion, her name evidently possessed some kind of forbidden interest.

These conclusions, scant as they are, from Fielding's reference, find exact corroboration in what remains of popular tradition in Scotland on the subject. The popular account- of the story of Jenny or Jeanie Cameron is contained in an old ballad, which only the other day found its way into print. ["Ancient Scots Ballads, with their Traditional Airs." Glasgow: Bayley & Ferguson.]


Yell a' ha'e heard tell o' Bonnie Jeanie Cameron,
How she fell sick, and she was like to dee
And a' that they could recommend her
Was ae blithe blink o' the Young Pretender.
Rare, oh rare, Bonnie Jeanie Cameron !
Rare, oh rare, Jeanie Cameron !

To Charlie she wrote a very long letter,
Stating who were his friends and who were his foes;
And a' her words were sweet and tender,
To win the heart of the Young Pretender.
Rare, oh rare, Bonnie Jeanie Cameron !
Rare, oh rare, Jeanie Cameron !

Scarcely had she sealed the letter wi' a ring,
When up flew the door, and in cam' her king ;
She prayed to the saints, and bade angels defend her,
And sank in the arms o' the Young pretender.
Rare, oh rare, Bonnie Jeanie Cameron !
Rare, oh rare, Jeanie Cameron !

According to two accounts, however, " Bonnie Jeanie Cameron" was by no means so young at the time of the Prince's coming as popular tradition, and the rumour of the time, embodied in " Tom Jones," would make her out to be. One of these accounts, a most circumstantial one, furnished amply with dates and details, appears in Ray's "Complete History of the Rebellion" (Bristol, 1752). In this account the lady's character certainly does not suffer from any excessive charity on the historian's part, but Pay, it is only fair to note, was a strong Hanoverian. Jenny, according to this writer, was the favourite daughter of Cameron of Glendessary, and was born about the year 1695. When no more than sixteen years of age, it appears, she made her first slip from the paths of rectitude. This occurred while she was attending school in Edinburgh, and, to bury the scandal, her relatives hurried her off to a convent in France. Her conduct among the nuns, however, proved no more circumspect than it had been at home, and several further incidents, all more or less compromising, are recorded of her there. Four years later she was back in Scotland, and on the death of her brother, who meanwhile had succeeded to the family estates, she secured the appointment of "tutor" or guardian to her nephew, the new laird, who was of doubtful intellect. She was still guardian at the time of Charles Edward's landing in 1745, and upon that event, urged by motives of intrigue no less than of loyalty to the Stuart cause, she raised two hundred and fifty of the clansmen, marched with them to the Jacobite headquarters, and in person offered their services to the prince. Her devotion, we are led to infer, met with a warm enough return, and she remained for some time in the immediate following of Charles. Ray refers to her again when describing the retreat of the Jacobite army from Stirling in 1746. "From thence," he says, "the Mock Prince fled with so much precipitation that he neglected to carry off his female Colonel Cameron, who was taken, and, some time after, sent to Edinburgh Castle."

Ray's account, so far as the age of the heroine is concerned, finds support in a slight reference in the volume of "Jacobite Memoirs," edited from the Forbes papers by Robert Chambers. In the matter of the lady's character, however, the account in these memoirs, taken from the statement of an eye-witness nearly concerned in the affairs of the rising, has another thing to say. In a description of the raising of the prince's standard in Glenfinnan, shortly after the landing on the mainland, this writer says, "Here a considerable number of both gentlemen and ladies met to see the ceremony. Among the rest was the famous Miss Jeanie Cameron, as she is commonly, though very improperly called, for she is a widow nearer fifty than forty years of age. She is a genteel, well-looking, handsome woman, with a pair of pretty eyes, and hair as black as jet. She is of a very sprightly genius, and is very agreeable in conversation. She was so far from accompanying, the prince's army that she went off with the rest of the spectators as soon as the army marched; neither did she ever follow the camp, nor was ever with the prince but in public, when he had his Court at Edinburgh."

The statement contained in this last sentence is hardly borne out by the single reference to the lady in Chambers's "History of the Rebellion." It appears in the passage describing the relief of Stirling by the Duke of Cumberland. The castle there had been besieged by the Jacobite army for some time after the return from the Raid to Derby, but the siege was raised on the approach of the duke. At this entry into the town, says the historian, "a considerable number of straggling adherents of the Chevalier were taken prisoners, including a lady whom popular report assigned to Charles as a mistress the celebrated Jeanie Cameron. The prisoners were all sent to Edinburgh Castle." Chambers gives as his authority for this capture the Edinburgh Evening Courant of 3rd February, 1746. The Scots Magazine for November contains the notice that Miss Jeanie Cameron was admitted to bail on November 15, after lying a prisoner nine months.

As to the subsequent fate of the Jacobite heroine testimony appears to be equally at variance. In the "History of Rutherglen and East Kilbride," by the Rev. David Ure, 1793, occurs an account which makes her latter days out to have been as respectable as her earlier ones had been unjustly maligned. The worthy minister, writing evidently from personal acquaintance, describes his parishioner as "Mrs. Jean Cameron, a lady of a distinguished family, character, and beauty, whose zealous attachment to the House of Stuart, and the active part she took to support its interest in the year 1745, made her well known throughout Britain." Her enemies, indeed, he allows, had taken unjust freedom with her good name; "but what," he inquires, "can the unfortunate expect from a fickle and misjudging world?" The lady's life, at any rate within his pastoral charge, appears to have been . irreproachable. On a small eminence named Blacklaw, in East Kilbride, she built a house named Mount Cameron. In that solitary retirement, notwithstanding a prevailing melancholy, she displayed an occasional vivacity and shrewdness which, with her good breeding and her remains of striking beauty, seemed sufficiently to account for the notice which she had previously attracted among the adherents of Prince Charles. Ure's claim for her of a character above reproach finds some support from a statement which he adds. In her retirement, it appears, the old lady was visited with much attention by her brother and his family. This would hardly have been the case if she had been guilty of the faux pas generally laid to her charge. She died at Mount Cameron, according to Ure, in the year 1773, and was buried amid a clump of trees in the grounds of the house.

If the matter stopped here there would be no difficulty for the historian. The differences between the accounts of the heroine furnished in the Forbes Memoirs and by Ure and Ray and by Fielding and popular folk-song could all be reconciled by an allowance for the vagaries of popular tradition and political bias. Popular rumour, it might be said, would be certain to endue a heroine of Mistress Cameron's achievement with youth and loveliness, and to add to her patriotic and loyal motive in supporting Charles, the warmer and less disinterested one of a personal attachment. It is in these directions that popular tradition works. Popular instinct is never satisfied with impersonal and disinterested motives, especially where transactions between individuals of opposite sex are concerned; and more than one old ballad, such as "Young Waters," could be pointed to in which exactly some such personal and passionate motive as that attributed to Jeanie Cameron has been read into proceedings which were matters of absolutely impersonal and dispassionate State policy. On the merits of the case, therefore, and making these usual allowances, the historian would probably be quite ready to acquit Mistress Cameron of any impropriety of conduct, to accept Ray's statement that she was born in 1695, the statement of the "Jacobite Memoirs" as to her appearance and demeanour at Glenfinnan, and Ure's account of her latter days at Mount Cameron, and her death in 1773. Unfortunately, however, there are two other accounts of her final fate, which go far to lend credence to the more popular -version of her story.

In the family by which the ballad already quoted has been preserved, there has been handed down a story bearing on the subject. A member of the family was, it appears, buying snuff in a shop in Edinburgh when beggar came in. Without speaking a word the shopkeeper handed the beggar a groat, which the latter as silently took and departed. But the customer had noticed an unusual delicacy in the hand extended to receive the coin. He mentioned the circumstance to the shopkeeper, where-upon the latter informed him, to his surprise, that the beggar was no man, though in man's clothes, but a woman, and no other than Jeanie Cameron, the prince's too ardent sympathiser in the '45. She had, it seemed, followed Charles to France, only to find herself neglected and cast off; and when she returned, forlorn enough, to Scotland, it was to be met by her relatives with set faces and closed doors.

This story finds striking corroboration in Chambers's "Traditions of Edinburgh," 1825. In a footnote in his second volume the author says, "Jeanie Cameron, the mistress of Prince Charles Edward (so often alluded to in 'Tom Jones'), was seen by an old acquaintance of ours standing upon the streets of Edinburgh, about the year eighty-six. She was dressed in men's clothes, and had a wooden leg. This celebrated and once attractive beauty, whose charms and Amazonian gallantry had captivated a prince, afterwards died in a stair-foot somewhere in the Canongate."

Thus the matter seems to rest. It would almost appear as if there had been two individuals, both of whom laid claim to the equivocal honour of having been the "Bonnie Jeanie Cameron" of the '45.

[Among productions of the more dubious character in which the name and fame of Bonnie Jeanie Cameron were turned to account. one may be referred to here. Its title is "Memoirs of the Remarkable Life and surprising Adventures of Miss Jenny Cameron, A Lady who, by her Attachment to the Person and Cause of the Young Pretender, has render'd herself famous by her Exploits in his Service, and for whose Sake she underwent all the severities of a Winter's Campaign." Its author was the Rev. Archibald Arbuthnot, one of the Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge, and 'Minister of Kiltarlity, in the Presbytery of Inverness. It was published in 1746 as a true biography of the lady, but notwithstanding its reverend authorship, it can be regarded as nothing else than au imaginary story of the amours of a loose woman, to which the name of Jeanie Cameron was attached to attract popular attention at a time when that name was in every one's mouth and memory. The various scenes and passages of the work are so gross as to be unquotable.]

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