One of the earliest-known images of a warrior in Highland dress secured for the nation

John Michael Wright's painting of Lord Mungo Murray has gone on display at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum.
John Michael Wright's painting of Lord Mungo Murray has gone on display at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum.
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One of the earliest-known paintings of a warrior in Highland dress, which depicts a teenager being groomed for greatness to fight for his country 17th century Scotland, has been secured for the nation.

Glasgow museums chiefs have acquired an iconic “coming-of-age” image of a folk hero killed during the ill-fated attempt to set up a Scots colony in South America.

Thirteen-year-old Calum Murray from the Glasgow Gaelic School helped unveil the portrait of Lord Mungo Murray

Thirteen-year-old Calum Murray from the Glasgow Gaelic School helped unveil the portrait of Lord Mungo Murray

The museums service claims the portrait of Lord Mungo Murray - which depicted him when he was only 15 - wearing a belted plaid in tartan is even said to pre-date the “invention” of kilts and clan tartans.

The 1683 painting of a member of one of the nation’s most powerful 17th century political dynasties is by an English artist, John Michael Wright, the son of a London tailor.

Worth around £600,000, the “Highland Chieftain” image shows Murray dressed for hunting holding a flintlock sporting gun, carrying two pistols in his belt, with a ribbon basket sword by his side.

Born in Garth, in Perthshire, Murray was the son of John Murray, the 1st Marquess of Atholl, who rose to take office as Keeper of the Privy Seal of Scotland, a role which dated back to the 14th century.

However after being spurned by Margaret Campbell, the daughter of Ayrshire politician Sir George Campbell, whom he had hoped to marry, Murray set sail on the ill-fated expedition to Darien in 1699. Shortly after his arrival he was killed by Spanish forces who had laid claim to the territory.

Described as a “hugely significant image” of Scottish culture and national identity, the painting is now gone on display at Kelvingrove gallery..

A spokeswoman for Glasgow Museums said: “The large-scale work presents Lord Mungo Murray as a powerful Highlander warrior, standing in a mountainous landscape, with his servant in the background carrying his master’s longbow and fur-decorated targe.

"He is clothed with an exquisite paned wool doublet embroidered with silver and silver-gilt threads, which demonstrates his wealth and status as an aristocratic and cosmopolitan Highland Scot.

“He proudly holds a long gun made for hunting, sports a brass basket-hilted sword of ribbon-hilt form and a lavishly-decorated dirk, the ornamental knotwork of which is unique to the Gàidhealtachd (Gaelic speaking regions) and wears a brace of steel pistols, complete with rams-horn’ shaped butts hooked on each side of his belt, a design that was exclusive to Scotland.”

Dr Jo Meacock, curator of British art at Glasgow Museums, said: "People will maybe assume when they first look at this painting that the sitter is wearing a kilt. But he is really wearing what later developed into the kilt as we know it.

"It was really just a length of plaid which was wrapped around the waist and worn over the shoulder, and belted to hold it in place. It was a very practical outfit, which was worn by both rich and poor people.

Because it is made of wool it would offer everyday Highlanders very good protection from the weather. It’s a really important painting, because it’s the earliest known painting of someone wearing Highland dress like this.

"The artist received commissions from both Charles II James VII – he was a really important painter of the time, and very well known in court and aristocratic circles. He paid great attention to detail, which is such a gift to cultural historians today. Everything is so precise about the Highland dress of the period.

"Mungo Murray’s family were a very important family in Scotland in the 17th century. They were the political movers of their day and were very much on the side of the Stuart monarchy. They were also called in to quell various skirmishes around Scotland in the 1680s and 1690s.

It’s quite a complex portrait - it’s really quite theatrical. Everything he is holding and wearing are all about showing his position in society. It’s basically a very masculine coming-of-age portrait - showing the kind of man his family want him to become, a powerful Highlander. But he is only 15 and is quite baby-faced. It makes you think of the weight of responsibility on his shoulders."

The National Lottery Heritage Fund, Art Fund, Friends of Glasgow Museums and the National Fund for Acquisitions funded the purchase of the painting, which previous belonged to Hong Kong-based financier and Scottish art collector Allan Murray, to ensure it could be seen by the public for free.

Dr Meacock added: "It’s a really interesting time for us to be unveiling this painting with what is happening with Brexit and how people in Scotland are feeling. It is a painting which really celebrates Scottish heritage and culture, but it is also really outward-looking European and cosmopolitan.

"The way Mungo Murray is standing, with his hands on his hips, like a classical sculpture suggests he has an awareness of European culture. At this point in history, Scotland was looking out towards the rest of Europe."

Stephen Deuchar, director of the Art Fund, said: “‘Lord Mungo Murray’s fine portrait draws on the ideology of the brave and fearless warrior, so much part of Scotland’s history and identity. It’s an excellent addition to Glasgow's permanent collection, enriching the story of one the most celebrated of Highland Chieftains.”

Deputy council leader David McDonald said: “Our successful acquisition of this hugely significant painting for Scottish culture and national identity ensures it remains accessible to the public.

"Visitors can learn more about the painting and the artist through a programme of events and activities that will accompany its display in Kelvingrove.”