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RKD STUDIES

7.1 Scottish Historical Context

Scotland experienced great economic success during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This was in part because of the Scottish union with England in 1707 that gave Scotland access to many new economic opportunities in the British Empire. With the union, the concept of Unionism-Nationalism emerged to redefine Scottish national identity and can be explained as Scotland submitting to English rule for economic ends, but at the same time retaining an independent national identity that already existed in the pre-Unionist period. Scottish dissatisfaction with British rule grew, however, and protest against the Union developed in the form of a distinctive national trend. The trend was called Highlandism and focused specifically on the Scottish Highlands, from its rocky mountains to its warriors.1

Scottish paintings increasingly depicted desolate Highland scenes where historic events had taken place. According to John Morrison, these images were meant to promote and construct Scottish identity.2 Horatio McCulloch's painting Glencoe is a good example of a mid-nineteenth-century painting that shows a Highland landscape, with its imposing rocky mountains and wildlife [1].

1
Horatio MacCulloch
The valley of Glen Coe in Scotland, 1864 dated
canvas, oil paint 110,5 x 182,9 cm
Glasgow (Scotland), Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum

These paintings helped popularize the Highlands, with Scottish Lowlanders travelling up north in search of this exotic landscape and people. The paintings depict the inhabitants in local dress standing in natural settings surrounded by various animals. According to Trevor R. Pringle, a Victorian Highland myth emerged as a result of these paintings, ‘...a myth in which the contingent and historical are lost in an image of tranquil natural order.’3 The idealized depiction of rural Highland life became fashionable in Scotland during this period and extended to England as well [2].

The Highland myth, with its romanticized depictions of Scottish life, hid profound social and economic unrest in Scotland between the 1830s and 1850s. There was a massive migration of landless peasants from the Highlands to the urban centers, such as Glasgow and Edinburgh, where there was poor sanitation, chronic overcrowding and an inadequate supply of drinking water. Thus, Highlandism was propagating an increasingly inaccurate image of rural Scotland. The urban middle and upper classes, who created and consumed this myth, were increasingly being confronted by the reality of what life was really like for proletarian Highlanders who flooded the urban Lowlands in search of work and a better life. The Lowland bourgeoisie could no longer uphold the clichéd image of the Highlands, and this resulted in a crisis of representation.

2
Edwin Henry Landseer
Royal sports on Hill and Loch, 1850 dated
canvas, oil paint 124,7 x 79,1 cm
Aberdeen (Scotland), Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums


Notes

1 See S.G. Checkland and E.O.A. Checkland, Industry and ethos. Scotland 1832-1914, London 1984 (The new history of Scotland, vol. 7).

2 J. Morrison, Painting the Nation. Identity and Nationalism in Scottish Painting, 1800-1920, Edinburgh 2003, p. 78.

3 T.R. Pringle, ‘The privation of history. Landseer, Victoria and the Highland myth’, in: D. Cosgrove and S. Daniels (eds.), The iconography of landscape. Essays on the symbolic representation, design and use of past environments, Cambridge 1988 (Cambridge studies in historical geography, vol. 9), p. 143.

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