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Tartan tales: Exploring Scottish identity at National Museum of Scotland

a photo of a steel knight's helmet with painted wooden bare chested figure of a man on its crest

Crest for the helmet of Lord Glenlyon, depicting the Wild Man of Atholl. On loan from Blair Castle

The National Museum of Scotland launches a major exhibition exploring the Romantic fascination with the Scottish Highlands, from Culloden to Balmoral

Wild moorlands, bagpipes and the tartans of the clans – they’re all as Scottish as malt whisky and tossing the caber – but as this new exhibition at National Museum Scotland reveals – there’s a fascinating tale to be told about the origins of these mainstays of Scottish identity.

Wild and Majestic: Romantic Visions of Scotland unlocks the story of how these and other elements became enduring, internationally recognised symbols of Scotland and how the country became established in the popular imagination as a land of wilderness, heroism and history.

The story begins with the final defeat of the Jacobites at the Battle of Culloden in 1746 and travels through the Georgian and Victorian period, coming to rest with the death of Queen Victoria in 1901.

“This is a contested, complex history, and also a fascinating one,” says Dr Patrick Watt, exhibition curator. “There are competing claims, still, over the extent to which those symbols of Scotland we see today are Romantic inventions, or authentic expressions of an ancient cultural identity.”

a painting of a man in a kilt striking a pose

Batoni, Pompeo 1708–1787, Colonel William Gordon (1736–1816) 1766. National Museum Scotland

a photo of a small Victorian dress in dark plaid with short sleeves

Velvet plaid dress worn by Princess Victoria, 1835-7, Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

a photo of the open pages of a book handwritten in gaelic

Red Book of Clanranald, written in Gaelic by the MacVurichs, bards of Clanranald in the 17-18th centuries, containing poems and traditional genealogy and history of the Macdonalds. © National Museum Scotland

The efforts made to preserve and revive Highland traditions in the wake of post-Jacobite persecution, depopulation and rapid socio-economic change are explored as is Scotland’s relationship with the European Romantic movement, which transformed external perceptions of the Highlands and was central to the birth of tourism in Scotland.

These developments would in turn influence the relationship between the Hanoverian royal family and Scotland, particularly George IV and, later, Queen Victoria.

“Using material evidence, we will examine the origins and development of the dress, music, and art which made up the Highland image,” adds Watt. “We will show how cultural traditions were preserved, idealised and reshaped to suit contemporary tastes against a background of political agendas, and economic and social change.”

“Ossian effectively introduced the literary culture of the Scottish Highlands and Islands to the world”

Rich displays reflect the colour and flamboyance of the Highland image and visitors will encounter key developments such as the Ossian controversy, in which the poet James Macpherson published a series of Gaelic language poems in 1760, which he claimed to have collected from word of mouth sources, publishing them as translations.

Critics at the time were fiercely divided as to the authenticity of the poems and most scholars today agree they are a mix of Gaelic folk tales and Macpherson’s own poetic inventions. Nevertheless, they offered a powerful and very popular narrative of battles and windswept moors that continues to influence perceptions of Celtic-Scottish history and ideas.

Back in the 1760s, Ossian introduced the literary culture of the Scottish Highlands and Islands to the world and it captured the imaginations of thousands of people; the work was translated into multiple languages and admired by many influential European writers, artists and composers.

a painting of a piper in a kilt and red tunic playing the pipes

Painting of the Laird of Grant’s Piper, William Cumming by Richard Waitt, 1714. © NMS

a photo of a grey blue banner with inscription

Pipe Banner of the 84 Royal Highlanders with Gaelic inscription. © Rotherham Heritage Services

a watercolour illustration of two Scots figures in wild landscape

Joseph Mallord William Turner, Lochiel’s Warning. c.1835. © National Galleries of Scotland

A first edition volume features in the exhibition alongside artwork inspired by Ossian together with the Red Book of Clanranald, which is said to be one of the Gaelic manuscript sources Macpherson consulted.

Later Robert Burns picked up the mantle, travelling the Highlands, looking for poetic inspiration. His publisher, George Thomson, commissioned major European composers to set Scottish songs to music, including a version of Burns’ Highland Harry scored in the original hand of Ludwig Van Beethoven.

The Romantic period undoubtedly coloured perceptions, both at the time and today, to the extent that the popular images of Highland culture are sometimes dismissed as a 19th century fabrication. However, the exhibition reveals the deep historical roots underpinning the Romantic image.

“The Dress Act of 1746 was an attempt by the English government to ban the wearing of kilts and bring the clans under control”

From the late 18th century visitors were drawn to Scotland in increasing numbers, attracted to locations depicted in Romantic paintings, prints and literature. Many artists, writers and musicians visited, often on personal pilgrimages inspired by the lasting influence of Ossian, or the fame of Burns, Sir Walter Scott and others.

Works by major figures, including Wordsworth, Turner and Mendelssohn – all of whom met with Scott during their travels – inspired more people to seek out the places evoked in music, art and literature for themselves.

Dorothy Wordsworth’s travel journal, Mendelssohn’s sketchbook and his original score of the Hebrides Overture, and a silver urn gifted from Byron to Scott after the two literary giants met in 1815, all feature in the exhibition.

Other key moments in the history of the Scottish identity include the over-turning of the ban on Highland dress (the Dress Act of 1746), which was an attempt by the English government to ban the wearing of kilts and bring the clans under control in the wake of the Jacobite risings.

a plate engraving showing a craggy and bewigged Georgian figure

Engraved copper plate showing the execution of the Jacobite leader Lord Lovat, 1747, used for printing souvenirs. © National Museums Scotland

a photo of hinged steel box with a small pistol inside it

Sporran clasp of brass and steel with 4 concealed pistols, probably the model for that worn by Rob Roy in the novel by Sir Walter Scott published in 1818. © National Museums Scotland

a photo of a piece of tartan and uniform

Highland dress outfit once belonging to John Brown, servant to Queen Victoria, Image © National Museums Scotland, courtesy of The Scottish Tartans Authority

The heritage of clan tartans is also explored via portraiture in the extravagant dress of the Laird of Grant’s piper and champion painted by Richard Waitt in 1714. The bagpiping tradition is introduced by oldest known Scottish chanter, which belonged to Iain Dall Mackay, a piper and composer born on Skye in 1656.

Interestingly the ban on tartan did not apply to those men who enlisted in the newly raised Highland Regiments of the British Army. The heroic image of the tartan-clad Highland soldier – and ergo the pipes – went on to become an icon of the military power of the British Empire and the ideal of the heroic Highland warrior would recur throughout the nineteenth century.

It was the Highland Society of London that championed the image of the Highland soldier, commemorating military exploits through the commissioning of medals and trophies, and they eventually campaigned successfully for the repeal of the legal ban on Highland dress in 1782.

Another key factor in the development of the highland identity was the championing of the Stuart lineage of the Hanoverian Royalty leading to the pageantry King George IV’s visit to Edinburgh in 1822, which was spectacularly stage managed by Sir Walter Scott. The attendant Highland tourism boom leads the exhibition towards the story of the creation of the Romantic idyll for Queen Victoria at Balmoral castle.

Among the objects on display is a tartan dress worn by a young Victoria, a brooch she gifted to famed piper John Ban Mackenzie and a mourning pin she had made to commemorate her Highland servant, friend and confidant John Brown.

a photo of a red tartan cape

Woman’s cape in wool tartan, red with a broad green and white overstripe, high round neckline with a large fold-down collar c1810. © National Museums Scotland

a photo of a bone with holes drilled into one side

Bone chanter of the Stock-and-Horn as described by the owner Robert Burns in a letter to music editor, George Thomson, 19 Nov 1794. © National Museums Scotland

Wild and Majestic: Romantic Visions of Scotland is at National Museum of Scotland, Chambers Street, Edinburgh from June 26 to November 10 2019. See nms.ac.uk/wildandmajestic  for more.


National Museum of Scotland

Edinburgh, Lothian

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