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Tartan truth: How Scotland was rebranded a Highland paradise

24 June 2019

Highland dress and rugged landscapes have become images synonymous with Scotland. WILLIAM COOK visits the Wild and Majestic: Romantic Visions of Scotland exhibition, which explores their origins and reveals how writers and monarchs created a sentimentalised version of reality.

(L) Pompeo Battoni, Col William Gordon of Fyvie, 1766 | © National Trust for Scotland, Fyvie Castle (R) Edwin Landseer, The Monarch of the Glen, National Galleries of Scotland | Photo: Malcolm Park/Alamy Live News

At the National Museums Collection Centre, on the green edge of Edinburgh, curator Patrick Watt is showing me an extraordinary range of artefacts: some crockery Samuel Johnson used on his grand tour of the Hebrides; a flute which Robert Burns acquired on one of his journeys to the Highlands, and a portrait of Colonel David Stewart, who transformed King George IV's visit to Edinburgh into a lavish carnival of Highland regalia.

Wild & Majestic challenges some of our most cherished assumptions about Scottish heritage and culture

What do these curios have in common? They're relics of Scotland's romantic past, a story whose factual origins have become buried beneath a mountain of fictitious whimsy.

They all feature in a new exhibition called Wild & Majestic: Romantic Visions of Scotland, a show which challenges some of our most cherished assumptions about Scottish heritage and culture.

"There's been a longstanding idea here in Scotland that we know our history, that we know the symbols of Scottishness," says Watt. "Bagpipes, warrior culture, beautiful dramatic landscapes, Highland dress… We wanted to understand where this romantic view sits in relation to the reality of Scotland. Is this romantic view of Scotland real?"

Wild & Majestic focuses on the period between the Battle of Culloden in 1746 and the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, an era in which Scotland experienced enormous social change. Cities like Glasgow became centres of vast wealth and awful poverty – yet Scotland's public image became increasingly bucolic and nostalgic. How did this mismatch come about?

Basket hilted broadsword presented to Lieutenant Colonel David Stewart of Garth 1808 by officers of the battalion and worn by him during King George IV's visit to Edinburgh | © National Museums Scotland
Sporting double rifle by Alexander Henry presented by Queen Victoria to her Highland Servant John Brown as a Christmas gift in 1873 | © National Museums Scotland

Scotland's reinvention as a pastoral idyll was an astute rebranding exercise, a PR campaign to present Scotland as a loyal and integral member of the Union. Bonnie Prince Charlie's Jacobite revolt against King George II had started in the Scottish Highlands and after the Jacobites were defeated at Culloden Highland culture was brutally suppressed.

The images of Scotland that you see today are essentially images of Highland Scotland. They’re not images of Glasgow or Edinburgh, or the Borders
Patrick Watt, curator

However by the start of the 1800s the Jacobite threat had receded, and so the British establishment began to view Highland culture in a more sentimental light.

Walter Scott's novels repackaged the Highlands as a medieval nirvana, and when George IV visited Edinburgh in 1822 (the first British monarch to visit Scotland since the Act of Union) Scott was appointed to stage manage the event, alongside Scottish soldier and historian David Stewart. The festivities they devised owed less to fact than fiction. It was an inspired piece of public theatre, and a pioneering example of political spin.

Scott and Stewart staged a series of spectacular cavalcades, and urged everyone who came along to wear tartan. This made for a stunning spectacle, but it wasn’t remotely authentic. Edinburgh was an international city, a centre of the Enlightenment. Its leading lights were doctors, lawyers, bankers and academics, not Highland lairds and chieftains.

Most of the worthies at these balls and banquets were Lowlanders, for whom tartan was anathema. Yet most people were happy to play along and so the image stuck.

"It's at this point that Highland culture becomes synonymous with Scottish culture," says Watt. "The images of Scotland that you see today are essentially images of Highland Scotland. They’re not images of Glasgow or Edinburgh, or the Borders."

Ironically, it was Lowland writers like Scott, Burns and Byron who promoted and preserved this Highland imagery. "There was very little that was distinctive about Lowland culture when compared to the culture of other parts of the British Isles."

Woman's high-waisted dress of silk supposed to have been worn by Mrs Macpherson of Cluny Scottish, 1832 | © National Museums Scotland
Painting of the Laird of Grants Piper William Cumming, by Richard Waitt, 1714 | © National Museums Scotland
Artist John Knox captured the beauty of the Trossachs and Loch Katrine, as described by Sir Walter Scott in his poem 'The Lady of the Lake'. Its publication in 1810 boosted the number of visitors to the area. John Knox, Landscape with Tourists at Loch Katrine, oil on canvas, 1815 | © National Galleries of Scotland

George IV began this reinvention, but it was Queen Victoria who secured it. She came to Scotland as a sightseer, to visit the Highland sites in Scott's novels. The Highlands became her holiday home, a refuge from the affairs of state. She rented a castle in Balmoral and liked it so much she bought it. Her German husband Prince Albert rebuilt it in gothic style, adding a layer of Teutonic fantasy to this Caledonian pastiche. A century after Culloden, the tartanisation of Scots culture was complete.

A century after Culloden, the tartanisation of Scots culture was complete

"If you look at the Highland dress that we would wear to a wedding now in Scotland, it’s essentially exactly the same as the uniform of the Balmoral Highlanders that Queen Victoria was getting her staff to wear in the 1870s," says Watt.

Victoria's patronage made Scotland attractive to the English upper classes, who followed her to the Highlands to paint, hunt, shoot and fish. Yet this depopulated landscape was actually an artificial construct, forcibly cleared of its inhabitants (many of whom were forced to emigrate) to make way for more lucrative deer and grouse.

Scotland was becoming increasingly industrialised and urbanised. Only wealthy foreign visitors could afford to regard it as a rugged wilderness. This image was cemented in iconic pictures like Landseer's Monarch of the Glen. It's an image that persists in modern movies like Braveheart. Then as now, myth and reality were worlds apart.

In the independence debate, this imaginary Scotland has become increasingly politicised, an image employed and exploited by Unionists and Nationalists alike. For some, it's a symbol of Scotland’s status as a distinct and separate nation. For others it's a sign that English hegemony has reduced Scottish culture to a trite and simplistic stereotype.

Highland dress outfit once belonging to John Brown servant to Queen Victoria | © National Museums Scotland courtesy of The Scottish Tartans Authority
Horatio McCulloch, an unidentified painting showing deer and stags standing on the rocky terrain of Glencoe, Scotland, 1864 | Photo: Buyenlarge/Getty Images

Love it or hate it, in the tourist trade Scotland has become synonymous with the Highlands. This romantic image has become a powerful and lucrative advertising brand. Like all cultural clichés the origins of this aesthetic are authentic, but they’ve been elaborated and distorted, seized on by souvenir shops and reduced to gift shop tat.

The romantic visions of Scotland, for me, are still real – they happened. It’s not based on nothing
Patrick Watt, curator

However there's also a positive side to this appropriation and simplification of Highland heritage. It's not just the story of an ancient culture, emasculated by commercialism. It's also the story of the triumph of the underdog. In 1746 Highland dress was banned, the uniform of a failed rebellion. Three centuries years later it's ubiquitous, embraced by punk rockers and the Royal Family alike. It's both a symbol of rebellion, and a symbol of the status quo, and that's what makes it so enduring.

"One of the things that this exhibition shows is that really complex relationship between romance and reality," says Watt, a native Highlander. "The romantic visions of Scotland, for me, are still real – they happened. It’s not based on nothing."

Wild & Majestic – Romantic Visions of Scotland is part of Edinburgh Art Festival and is at the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, from 26 June to 10 November 2019.

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