National Library of Scotland – Archives & Manuscript Collections

Diary of Captain O`Neil

Felix O’Neil (1720?-1795) was an Irish army officer who travelled to Scotland to serve under Charles Edward Stuart (1720-1788) in the Jacobite army. Although he did not arrive in Scotland until 1746 he was present for one of the most important battles in the 18th century, the battle of Culloden. He subsequently went on the run with the Prince and recorded his experiences with him up until the Prince made his famous escape to Skye with Flora Macdonald (1722-1790).

It is an unparalleled first-hand account of the defeat of the Jacobite army at a pivotal point in Scottish and British history, and an intimate eye-witness description of the flight of Charles Edward Stuart as he endured the trauma and stress of evading the government forces sent to capture him.

O’Neil’s narrative recounts their journey across the highlands and provides details on the first meeting between the Prince and Flora Macdonald. O’Neil describes how Macdonald reluctantly agreed to help the Prince flee across the water, and details how Charles was to disguise himself as Macdonald’s maid, Betty Burk, to avoid detection by the forces sent to apprehend him.

The diary itself is highly unusual as it was written on to a series of playing cards, supposedly in the possession of Captain O’Neil. Although employed in an unexpected way, the use of playing cards themselves conveys familiarity with objects recognisable to a present-day audience almost 300 years later. The traditional story is that O’Neil wrote on these cards when both men were on the run together, and as such, access to blank sheets of paper was not possible.

This may be a romanticised story that accompanied the narrative as a number of copies of the journal were known to exist by 1747, with slight textual variants. Bishop Robert Forbes (1708-1775), who compiled ‘The Lyon in Mourning’ (1747-1775) obtained a version of the journal which he included in his own history of the Jacobite rebellion.

The playing card journal has itself become part of the myth and legend of the Jacobite rebellion – a document possibly written in haste and secrecy using what meagre resources were to hand to record a poignant moment in the nation’s history. While it may look unusual as an archival object, its content provides intimate information on the aftermath of Culloden and key details that have been corroborated by later archival material, such as the journal of Flora Macdonald which confirmed O’Neil’s account of her first meeting with Charles Edward Stuart.