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Daniel Szechi


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The Carnegy Letters


This project is the latest stage in my exploration of the Jacobite mind.  Early Eighteenth century Britain was a brittle polity.  Behind the facade of political stability, politeness and commercial prosperity were deep ideological tensions that periodically expressed themselve in major uprisings.   These enemies of the established order are conventionally lumped together simply as “Jacobites”.  Such a lumping is, however, highly misleading.  Jacobitism was an evolving political movement and its meaning thus metamorphosed from decade to decade.  Just as importantly, its disparate constituencies each had their own agendas.  Though all Jacobites agreed the restoration of the Stuarts was a sine qua non, the political objectives they sought through the medium of such a restoration were wildly divergent.  The objectives pursued by patrician Anglican Jacobites, for example, differed radically from those of plebeian Irish Catholics and bourgeois Scottish Episcopalians.  The mentalité which moved each constituency was thus distinct from its peers and research on their mindsets must deal with each group on its own terms.


            Over the past twenty years I have explored the Jacobite mind in a series of books and articles; now I will extend my exploration into the Jacobite heart of darkness.  For at the irreducible core of the Jacobite cause in mainland Britain lay the Scottish Roman Catholics.  The tiny Scottish Catholic minority was strikingly more activist and directly instrumental in making Jacobite events happen than any other group in the Jacobite movement.  They were amongst the first to embrace the Stuart cause and amongst the last to desert it. Yet their role and their vision has been obscured by both contemporaries and posterity.


            My primary vehicle for this exploration is a particular individual: James Carnegy, a priest in the underground Catholic church in Scotland.  A regular part of his duties was to write to his superiors in Europe describing the state of the mission, news, gossip and anything else that seemed appropos.  He duly wrote at least 616 letters, creating a unique archive of ideal materials for the analysis of a mentalité.  These letters constitute a major portion of the Blairs Letters collection held by Aberdeen University Library, which are basically the entire surviving record of the Scots College in Paris, the major training centre for Catholic priests in Scotland from the early seventeenth to the late eighteenth century.  The College was destroyed by a mob during the French revolution and only a small proportion of its archives were saved.  Hence the special quality of the Carnegy correspondence.  There is nothing like it remaining from this period.


            There is, however, a major problem with Carnegy’s correspondence.  Carnegy was the physical embodiment of the neuroses of the prevailing regime in the British Isles.  To prevent people like him communicating with their co-religionists overseas the governments of the three kingdoms regularly intercepted overseas correspondence.  Carnegy accordingly wrote the great majority of his letters allusively — as if he was a merchant writing from Britain to partners on the Continent — and in a cant code, where the identities of those referred to were masked by innocuous invented names.  Many of his codelists were subsequently lost, and the context that would enable Carnegy’s readers to understand what he was talking about when he refers to the sale of particular types of merchandise, lawsuits won and lost, etc, has receded into obscurity.  The consequence has been that this rich source has proved difficult to use even for a scholar steeped in the relevant sources.


            I propose to tackle this problem by approaching the writing of a book on Carnegy and the Scottish Catholic mindset in two stages, as I did with my book on George Lockhart of Carnwath.  Stage one will be the preparation of an edition of the Carnegy letters.  Carnegy was an energetic man who added two new rôles to that of mission priest: spy and Jacobite agent.  Using the Catholic underground he moved about unobtrusively assessing the mood of the country and reporting on people, events and the disposition of government forces.  In consequence his letters, when deciphered, contain a plethora of material on everything from contemporary marital relationships to theological controversies, and opening this resource to historians of early eighteenth century Britain will significantly boost the breadth of sources available to scholars working in this era.

            I will publish the correspondence in electronic form, with Aberdeen University Library and the British History Online project hosted by the Institute of Historical Research.  Ultimately I plan to present the reader with a densely annotated, edited transcript of each letter juxtaposed to the scanned original, thus maximising the transparency of the editorial process and allowing revisions whenever necessary.  By the time the edition of the letters is complete and on the web I hope fully to comprehend Carnegy’s vision of the world, and will be able to turn to stage two, the ultimate goal of the whole project: writing the analysis of his, and the, Scottish Catholic Jacobite, mentalité.



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