Art review: Wild and Majestic exhibition explores how potent images of Scotland were created

From tartan to dramatic landscapes, Wild and Majestic at the National Museum explores how potent images of Scotland were made

'Landscape with Tourists at Loch Katrine', an 1815 painting by John Knox, is on display as part of the exhibition at the National Museum

Wild and Majestic: Romantic Visions, National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh *****

Our Infinite Land, Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh ****

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Like all Scottish monarchs, Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, was, as her familiar title makes clear, sovereign of a people, not a place. The Scots were among the first to identify themselves that way, but it had a downside.

Detail of 'Col Alastair Ranaldson Macdonell of Glengarry', a circa 1812 portrait by Sir Henry Raeburn

Identified by a sentiment, when the supporting political structure was removed with the Union in 1707, sentiment was all that was left. It is volatile. It can easily become sentimentality and indeed it did. How it did is in part the subject of Wild and Majestic at the National Museum (the title is from Byron). It is only part because the Scots’ early identification of themselves as a nation was complicated by the fact that they were not one nation but two, Lowland Scots and Highland Gaels, and in a curious metamorphosis as the Lowlands became dominant at the expense of the Highlands, they adopted an imaginary version of the Highland identity as their own.

Tartan was the key, but the Lowland lad who now proudly shows his knees in a kilt at his wedding would only a few generations ago have mocked any kilt-wearing Highlander as a miserable teuchter, or mere keelie, originally a racial slur derived from the Gaelic ghillie. Attitudes didn’t change much, either. A punch bowl shows a kilted Highlander, baffled by a two-seater latrine, sitting, kilt up, with a leg in each hole.

Nevertheless, fashion gradually took over all things Highland and in a fascinating display, especially of costume, the exhibition traces this process of absorption and reinvention. It begins with magnificent portraits of William Cumming, piper of the Grants, and of Alastair Grant Mor, their champion, painted by Richard Waitt in 1714. Dressed in full plaid, a single piece of tartan belted at the waist, they are the real thing. Both are wearing the same pattern, too, but as liveried servants of the Grants rather than for clan identity. That was a later invention. A modern costume nearby is still colourful, but nevertheless looks rigid beside the flowing lines of the real thing.

Then there was the Forty-Five. Tartan was the badge of rebellion. A beautiful tartan suit made for an unknown Jacobite went to England as spoils of war. Then in 1748, Highland men were forbidden to bear arms, or to wear plaid, kilt or trews. The exceptions were soldiers in the British army, highlanders on the Hanoverian side. Then, with a startling switch of loyalties, former Jacobites fought in Canada and on the Hanoverian side in the American War of Independence and took their tartan with them. A beautiful banner decorated with Scottish symbols belonged to Piper Neil McLaine of the 84th Highlanders, the Royal Highland Emigrants. For Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat, whose father had been executed in 1747, forming two regiments to fight in America was an act of conspicuous loyalty. It worked. He got his lands back.

William Gordon, Colonel of the 105th Highlanders, was painted in Rome by Pompeo Batoni in 1763. He is in kilt and plaid, but his kilt seems to be made of silk. An astonishing painting, it is already an image of a fantasy Highlands and is exactly contemporary with that other great Highland fantasy, James Macpherson’s Ossian. Publication began in 1760. It was not entirely fantasy, however. Rather, in the manner of the time, Macpherson “restored” actual Gaelic fragments. He had real sources and his collection of Gaelic manuscripts is a treasure of the National Library.

In spite of much debunking, Ossian stuck. Never out of print and translated into more than a hundred languages, its ancient Gaelic world caught the popular imagination. Tours to the Highlands became fashionable. Burns, Boswell and Johnson, and later Felix Mendelssohn, all made them and, on the way, Mendelssohn also visited Alexander Runciman’s Hall of Ossian in Penicuik House. Described by antiquarian David Laing as “truly national designs,” Runciman’s decorations were destroyed by fire in 1899. Drawings here suggest how brilliant they were. The cult of the Highlands was not all tartan fad and fashion. It could certainly also be creative.

The Highland Society was formed to campaign against restrictions on Highland dress and to preserve and foster all things Gaelic. In 1782, the society succeeded in getting the ban lifted. Isobel McTavish’s wedding dress and plaid in full tartan made in 1785 is both beautiful and touching.

The valour of the Highland regiments during the Napoleonic wars was marked by all sorts of memorabilia. Among the most distinguished units in the British army, they also turned tartan into a uniform, deriving the modern, tightly pleated kilt from the loose Highland plaid. Piping suffered the same military discipline. You wonder how it might have evolved without it, but then we might never have had pipe bands. On very slender grounds, but following this military model, the Highland Society codified tartans according to clans and families.

Raeburn painted Alastair Macdonell of Glengarry in full tartan in 1812 just as the next great wave of Highland fashion was launched by Walter Scott’s poetry and novels. Then in 1822, stage-managing George IV’s visit, Scott realised his fantasy Scotland. Tartan was themed throughout. A superb tartan suit and kilt was made for a Lowlander, William Blackhall. Wilkie drew a group of similar gentlemen in their fancy dress and Lowlanders have liked to show their knees on special occasions ever since. Women’s fashion also embraced tartan. In one beautiful example, a silk plaid trails over a pretty white dress. Nor was this limited to Scotland. A fashion plate shows tartan was just as much à la mode in Paris.

Queen Victoria’s passion for the Highlands began with reading Scott as a girl. A tartan dress made for her as a teenager bears witness to it. Later she and Albert lived out their Highland fantasy at Balmoral. Albert fancied himself in the kilt, too. A painting by Carl Haag shows him kilted delivering a dead stag to Victoria by torchlight. In the same mode, Landseer painted the Duke of Atholl, his sister and little nephew, all in tartan, with dead deer, black grouse and ptarmigan. Landseer was the principal chronicler of this side of Highland life, but his paintings, though full of posh folk, deer and other creatures, dead or alive, are largely empty of ordinary humanity. Unless they are privileged servants like Victoria’s John Brown – an expensive, double-barrelled rifle was a present from his royal mistress – the natives are largely absent. Even the occasional landscapes by Horatio McCulloch included here are empty of people. This wasn’t just the Clearances, though it illustrates the attitude that made them possible. In the whole tartan phenomenon, except for the soldiers, anyway expendable, those to whom tartan really belonged simply disappeared. So perhaps this show is timely and as we reclaim our politics, we can recover those missing people and our real past and lay to rest these sentimental ghosts that hijacked our identity.

If so, then the aim of Our Infinite Land at the RSA is timely too. Its aim is to celebrate the Scottish landscape, not as tourists see it, but imaginatively as our artists see it. The works by 41 academicians are certainly diverse. Some like Henry Kondracki, Sandy Moffat, Adrian Wiszniewski or Leon Morrocco paint straightforward landscape, recognisable places even, while John MacKechnie makes beautiful prints of the sparkling sea. Others like Marian Leven and Glen Onwin conjure the dynamics of a landscape, but not its specifics. Francis Convery and Paul Furneaux manage to evoke mysterious landscapes with abstract patterns of colour. Doug Cocker, on the other hand, manages to suggest clouds and rain with nothing but an uncompromising wooden construction. Mary Bourne uses stone to create beautiful, miniature standing stones. There is much more and it is all lively and refreshing. - Duncan Macmillan

Wild and Majestic until 10 November; Our Infinite Land until 21 July