Wild and Majestic: Romantic Visions of Scotland has a huge scope, looking at a period in history from the Jacobite uprising to the Victorian era. There are various themes and topics explored, each of which could generate a whole exhibition in themselves; there is an impressive amount of detail.
The exhibition begins with the aftermath of the battle of Culloden and the impact this had on Highland culture. A strength of the exhibition is that it explores many perspectives; for instance this impact was felt not just by the defeated Jacobites but also by the Scots on the Government side who were not all exempt from the ban on wearing Highland dress.
A common theme emerging throughout the exhibition is the adoption – or appropriation – of Highland culture by lowland Scots and aristocracy. The exhibition raises many interesting debates around class, commercialisation and culture. It offers an interesting exploration of whether Scottish Romanticism was about commercial gain or a genuine desire to protect and restore Highland culture. Sir Walter Scott, George IV, and many fascinating characters from the Duchess of Gordon to Queen Victoria all had a role to play in the Romanticism of Scotland.
The exhibition doesn’t shy away from looking at the darker parts of Scottish history, such as the Highland Clearances and the Crofters War. The discussion around whether Romanticism was applied to Scotland, specifically the Highlands, but not necessarily to the Highland people is interesting. It is good to see many viewpoints, controversies, and nuances of Scottish culture explored. Another positive is that Contemporary Gàidhealtachd voices are not neglected – a Gaelic voice is heard throughout the exhibition.
As well as providing an insight into a complex period of Scottish history, the exhibits are well chosen and often striking. A velvet plaid dress belonging to Princess Victoria, ceramics, a gun belonging to John Brown, and a rather bizarre necklace made from stag’s teeth are among the highlights. There are of course stunning images of Scottish scenery, ranging from an oil painting by Romantic artist Sir Edwin Landseer to spectacular film footage of Highland landscapes.
One highpoint is the display exploring the curious story of Ossian, the Gaelic poet whose works were ‘rediscovered’ – or arguably fabricated – by James Macpherson. Macpherson’s 1760 publication was translated into many languages and was instrumental in attracting other writers, artists and musicians to Scotland.
Overall, the exhibition was a fascinating investigation into cultural commodification. The Romantic movement still has influence on how people see Scotland – and what it means to be Scottish – to this day.
Wild and Majestic: Romantic Visions of Scotland is at National Museum of Scotland, Exhibition Gallery 1, Level 3
From 26 Jun until 10 Nov 2019
Book tickets here
This exhibition runs as part of the Edinburgh Art Festival
Image: Pompeo Battoni, Col William Gordon of Fyvie, 1766, credit National Trust for Scotland, Fyvie Castle