I went recently to an exhibition at the museum, called Wild and Majestic: Romantic Visions of Scotland, which was looking at 18th and 19th views of the Highlands in particular. It turned out not to be particularly what I expected, which was something more ‘romantic’ in a strict sense – scenic landscapes and ideas of the picturesque and how people reacted – it was more, really, about fashions, and a bit about the changing ways in which the highlands saw itself.
There were three sections, divided up more or less chronologically.
The first of the the sections was the earliest, and the one where I found most to interest me, dealing with a period from just after Culloden up to about 1800, where a highland society which is already changing begins to be deliberately dismantled in some ways and simply left behind in others, as opportunities more similar to those available elsewhere begin to open up.
Over this time, Highland societies begin to grow up in the cities, as those who have moved away, the elite in particular, realise what is being lost – encouraging Highland dress, collecting patterns of tartan, and standardising and encouraging the playing of bagpipes.
This was also the period of the Ossian controversy, with the stories and characters becoming hugely fashionable on the one hand, and the arguments over authenticity dragging out on the other.
I was especially interested in the relationships of Highlanders to the British army. Everyone Knows that the Gaels were encouraged into the army by being allowed to wear highland dress, and in order to keep them away out of the road, but you don’t generally hear how quickly army service becomes interesting in its own right, as the first soldiers return with money and tales of adventure, so that by about 1790 local companies are being enthusiastically raised.
The second section dealt with George IV’s visit to Scotland in 1822, and looked at the way highland dress started to represent of Scotland as a whole, with lowlanders dressing in tartan outfits because it was fashionable, or exotic, while the highlanders mostly stayed away. The third section was mostly later again, looking at the Victorian interest on Scotland which followed Queen Victoria’s purchase of Balmoral, as well as the strictly ‘romantic’ reactions – Mendelssohn’s music and Turner’s paintings, and the Byron poem which gave the exhibition its name.