The King’s visit and a day that changed Scotland
Quite simply, no one had ever seen anything like it before. It is perhaps true that Scotland has never been viewed quite the same way again.
To many, the visit of George IV to Edinburgh in August 1822 was the pinnacle of a new expression of Scottish romanticism which endures to this day.
Thousands of tartan-clad spectators, following a dress code set out by author Sir Walter Scott, lined the streets of the capital to welcome the King in a carefully orchestrated extravaganza. The carnival-style occasion went on for two weeks to mark the first visit of a monarch north of the border in 189 years.
After arriving in Leith, the monarch was ushered through the city in a parade loaded with pageantry, regimental might and Highland chieftainship as this new Scotland welcomed the king.
Edinburgh flooded with tourists for the occasion, with a new industry in souvenirs opening up and people paying money to secure the best spot for a look at George IV, who wore a kilt for the occasion. It was much too short, however, and he had to wear pink tights to cover his legs.
Rosie Waine, is one of the curators of the current exhibition Wild and Majestic, Romantic Visions of Scotland at National Museum of Scotland.
She said: “It was a fantastic spectacle and people were quite dazzled by it, with reports appearing in both the national and international press. This romantic vision of Scotland was seen as controversial to some. People saw it as being unauthentic. It is a controversy that still persists today.”
The event was organised at a time of ailing popularity of the King when Scotland was also in recoil from the 1820 Radical Wars, a worker’s insurrection prompted by the intense economic hardship left after the Revolutionary and Napolenic Wars in France.
Ms Waine said: “He wasn’t a popular king and he was involved in many social and political scandals. If you were coming from a pro-Union view like Scott, this was an incredibly important symbolic event. It was symbolically rich for a country steeped in Jacobite history.”
Along with Sir Walter Scott, the event was executed by historian David Stewart of Grath, whose work on Highland culture and regiments did much to create the image of the romantic Highland warrior, a picture which emerged from the ashes of the state dismantling of Gaelic culture post-Culloden. Many Highland chiefs refused to attend the 1822 visit.
Among those who chiefs who did take part was Evan John MacGregor, chief of Clan MacGregor, who arrived wearing a “fantastic” tartan suit. His clan and surname was banned by James VI in the early 1600s.
MacGregor carried a sword that had been in his family for more than 200 years and used during the 1745 rising. It was refashioned for the King’s visit and decorated with clan symbolism, silver and citrine quartz. Like many others, MacGregor used the occasion to assert his status in Scottish society, Ms Waine said.
She added: “The people involved in he 1822 visit were not trying to invent a past. They were trying to create something for the future. The MacGregor sword, for example, was a family heirloom with a history of its own which MacGregor refashioned to extend its life and give it a new historical chapter. It wasn’t about inventing tradition- but to prolong what already existed.”
Tartan, which was broadly banned post 1745, became fashionable after the 1822 visit with ads appearing in both the London and European fashion press.
Ms Waine added: “The visit put a particular brand of Scotland on the world stage. It was such a large and loud affair and it echoes on because it was so divisive over whether it was an authentic view of Scotland. I don’t think that question will end anytime soon.”