Wild and Majestic: Romantic Visions of Scotland (4 stars)

This article is from 2019

Wild and Majestic: Romantic Visions of Scotland

John Knox, 'Landscape with Tourists at Loch Katrine', oil on canvas, 1815 / credit: National Galleries of Scotland

Ambitious and important show tells the story of how the brand of Scotland came to be

The story of how tartan, bagpipes, hills and heather became the brand of Scotland is a complex one, fraught with controversy. After all, those things which were systematically suppressed in the years after Culloden were being embraced as the height of fashion in London and Edinburgh less than 100 years later – in some cases by the same aristocrats who were still clearing highlanders from their land.

That makes it an ambitious subject to tackle in a major summer exhibition, and this show is a valiant attempt to do it justice. While the two best-known figures in the drama loom large – Sir Walter Scott, who bedecked Edinburgh society in tartan for the visit of King George IV in 1822, and Queen Victoria, who inspired a generation of nobility to spend their summers at Highland shooting lodges – other players are included. Ossian, for example, fake though he probably was, was revered across Europe. Beethoven scored a setting of a song by Robert Burns as early as 1814.

By the mid 19th century, Scotland was the romantic wilderness half of Europe wanted to visit. This is fleshed out with an embarrassment of riches: tartan outfits that would put Vivienne Westwood to shame, splendid artefacts, Mendelssohn's musical scores, Dorothy Wordsworth's journal, Turner's watercolours.

Some efforts are made to suggest other narratives: the destruction of livelihoods for sheep, then natural moorland for grouse and deer; the yawning gap between rich and poor; the backdrop of the industrial revolution and the unrest of 1820. Gaelic voices from Sabhal Mor Ostaig College offer a valuable further perspective, but too many of these strands are confined to touchscreen displays which many will miss. The subtext is in danger of remaining buried.

While more work is needed to tell this difficult story in all its fullness, this remains an ambitious, important show, and it is to be hoped that some of the tourists currently thronging Edinburgh's streets on today's tartan trail will think to pay it a visit.

National Musem of Scotland, Edinburgh, until Sun 10 Nov.

Wild and Majestic: Romantic Visions of Scotland

  • 4 stars

Displays and objects showing how some of the defining images of Scotland got created between the 18th and 19th centuries, including highland and military dress, landscapes, literature and other exhibits.