highlandtarge

Jacobites, Georgians & Victorians: The Making of “Romantic Scotland”

“Romantic Scotland” is, today, an almost inescapable term. Scotland’s scenery, history, plaintive ballads and colorful traditions all seem like the definition of romance…

What, after all, could be more romantic than an elegant lady of yesteryear wrapped in a tartan sash? The reality of course… was a little less elegant. And far more beautiful.

Three hundred years ago few outsiders would have called Scotland “romantic” –& the modern notion of Scotland as a peculiarly “romantic” country is very much a product of the Georgian & Victorian age as well as a result of the efforts of Jacobite sympathizers to capture the peace even as they had failed to win the war.

Scotland in the 18th century was something of an enigma. The Highland Clans were still carrying on tribal feudal traditions that had been essentially abandoned by England and mainland Europe centuries earlier… & yet Scotland’s cities were home to some of the greatest writers and scientists of the Enlightenment. (Eighteenth century Scotland gave birth to Robbie Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Lady Nairne –respectively the Bard, the Novelist and the “Songstress” of romantic Scotland. But eighteenth century Scotland also produced the economist-philosophers Adam Smith and David Hume as well as the geologist James Hutton. All, in their own way, shaped the Scottish identity and a few changed, fundamentally, our understanding of the world.)

Nevertheless, while the defeat at Culloden and the failure of the Jacobite rebellion was particularly devastating for rural Scotland, it did not represent a victory of the “modern” over the traditional. The efforts made in the aftermath of Culloden to crush Scottish culture –by banning the wearing of the kilt, banning the wearing of tartan, confiscating traditional weapons & literally exporting a significant portion of the rural population– had mainly failed by the last years of George the III’s reign (better known as Mad King George). The Highland Clearances would continue almost unabated for a century & leave much of rural Scotland inhabited primarily by ghosts and sheep, but by the beginning of the 1820s Britain as a whole was about to go tartan mad.

Anyone who loves tartan today owes a (fashion) debt to Queen Vicotoria, her uncle, George the IV, and the Sobieski-Stuart brothers. (The Sobieski-Stuart brothers, a determined pair of Stuart pretenders to the throne who were beloved by the fashionable set in Scotland in the early decades of the 19th century, in a very real way re-invented (or simply invented) Clan Tartans in the 1820s, '30s and '40s. They wrote --from quasi whole-cloth-- the definitive book on Clan Tartans and were widely consulted in their day as experts by anyone looking for an "official" Clan Tartan.
Anyone who loves tartan today owes a (fashion) debt to Queen Victoria, her uncle, George the IV, and the Sobieski-Stuart brothers. The Sobieski-Stuart brothers, a determined pair of Stuart pretenders to the throne who were beloved by the fashionable set in Scotland in the early decades of the 19th century, in a very real way re-invented (or simply invented) Clan Tartans in the 1820s, ’30s and ’40s. They wrote –from quasi whole-cloth– the definitive book on Clan Tartans and were widely consulted in their day as experts by anyone looking for an “official” Clan Tartan.

The Jacobite cause had no hope of success after the defeat at Culloden and the flight of Bonnie Prince Charlie, but Jacobite sympathizers would continue to play a role in maintaining, and sometimes simply creating, Scottish traditions over the next seventy years. The kilt had always been the garb of the Highlander and often the poor clansman –rich men who rode horses wore trews. But, after the repeal of the Dress Act –which had proscribed the wearing of the kilt– in 1782, the kilt quickly became a symbol of Scottish identity and was as likely to be donned by a well-to-do Edinburgh barrister as by a poor Highland crofter.

The kilt, thus, became both a fashion statement and a political statement. The kilt-wearing Scots of the 19th century were, by and large, loyal subjects of the crown, but they were definitely and defiantly Scots-men not English-men. By the early 1800s the kilt, everything to do with the kilt, & Scotland itself had all become as “romantic” as one of Sir Walter Scott’s Waverly novels.
The Scots (and everyone else) had suddenly become hungry for tartan & the weavers of the lowlands were happy to oblige.

What the weavers of the Repeal Era –the wearing of the tartan had been banned for years after the Battle of Culloden, and once the legal proscription was lifted tartan had one of the greatest fashion come-backs in history– wove was, like the pieces we at Nagle Forge & Foundry make, often an interpretation of past designs rather than a simple re-creation. Sometimes we think we even manage to one-up the past.

By the time George the III finally died and was succeeded by his son George the IV the idea of Romantic Scotland was firmly established. And, a year later –in 1822– when the middle aged George the IV visited Scotland he donned a kilt and attempted –rather oddly– to don the metaphorical mantle of the Pretender, Bonnie Prince Charlie. The dress code of the royal visit was decidedly tartan centric –and with Sir Walter Scott organizing the festivities “romance” was the order of the day. Wits nicknamed some of the brightest kilts “hunting” plaids –they were what impoverished Scottish lairds wore to hunt heiresses in the Assembly Rooms & dazzle likely ladies as they took to the dance floor in full “traditional” Highland wear. Twenty years later when the youthful Victoria visited Scotland the Queen’s life long fascination with everything Scottish seemed inevitable rather than curious.