Wild and Majestic: Romantic Visions of Scotland examines how Scotland became established in the popular imagination as a land of wilderness, heroism and history, and how tartan, bagpipes and rugged, wild landscapes became enduring, internationally recognised symbols of Scottish identity. It spans the period from the final defeat of the Jacobites at the Battle of Culloden in 1746 to the death of Queen Victoria in 1901. Over 300 objects are on display, telling a story with a stellar cast, including Queen Victoria and Prince Albert; King George IV; Sir Walter Scott; Robert Burns; JMW Turner; Henry Raeburn; Felix Mendelssohn; William and Dorothy Wordsworth; Ludwig Van Beethoven and Lord Byron, whose 1807 poem Lachin y Gair (Lochnagar) is quoted in the exhibition’s title. The exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland (NMS) has included the work of textile researcher, Dr. Rosie Waine, who spoke with The Fountain about the work in more depth.
TF: You have been involved in the exhibition in NMS, Wild and Majestic, in what capacity?
I am one of the lead curators working on the exhibition. Over the past year I’ve been responsible for curating the costume displays that feature in Wild and Majestic: Romantic Visions of Scotland, drawing fromour own collection of historic dress and making connections with various lenders across the UK.
TF: Wild and Majestic is no doubt what it says but what is the gist of the exhibition?
During the era of European Romanticism, Scotland was catapulted into the global imagination by the work of cultural influences, royal patrons, and native mythmakers. The Ossian sensation, the poetry and prose of Sir Walter Scott, the paintings of Sir Henry Raeburn, the music of Felix Mendelsohn, and the tartan extravaganza of George IV, all positioned a romanticised ideal of Highland culture as the enduring emblem of a wider, pan-Scottish identity.
Wild and Majestic: Romantic Visions of Scotland explores some of the defining images of Scotland that were popularised during the 18th and 19th centuries – such as dramatic Highland landscapes, tartan, bagpipe music, and heroic histories of warrior clanship – and asks the visitor to think again about their origins, meaning, and continued relevance today. We don’t take the line that these aspects of national identity are ‘invented tradition’ constructed during the Victorian era. Rather, we have worked to show that these elements are rooted in historic reality stretching back centuries.
TF: And what drove the project, where did the influences come from with this exhibition?
In shaping the exhibition content and narrative, we took our lead from the primary sources – the objects, artworks, literature, costume, and music of the age – and delved into the personal experiences of the people behind them.
One of the things that quickly became apparent was just how much of it has a firm basis in reality. The overblown nature of the material tends to blind people to the fact that those who created Romantic works were often taking their inspiration direct from life, history, from the physical world around them. It was never a matter of pure invention.
The title of the exhibition, for example, is a quote from a poem composed in 1807 by one of the key Romantic influencers of the era, Lord Byron. The poem was inspired by his childhood excursions to Lochnagar – an imposing mountain that overlooks the River Dee in Aberdeenshire – which left a long-lasting impression upon him. The resulting poem really captures the sense of awe in the natural landscape that drew people to the Highlands from all over Europe in the later 18th and early 19th centuries, and encouraged them to explore the rich history and culture of the region:
‘England! thy beauties are tame and domestic / To one, who has rov’d on the mountains afar / Oh! for the crags that are wild and majestic / The steep, frowning glories of dark Loch na Garr’.
TF: With your role as researcher, how did you come to be involved in this?
Wild and Majestic presented National Museums Scotland with the opportunity to engage with costumes from its collection on a grand scale, including several pieces specifically purchased for the show and which have never been displayed to the public. When I joined the curatorial team in 2018, Highland dress was earmarked as an important aspect of the exhibition, but the question of how we would interpret it was still unclear. As a textile and dress historian, I was brought in to fill that gap.
With Wild and Majestic, I wanted to curate displays of Highland dress and tartan fashion that demonstrated a broad range of interaction with this richly symbolic attire, and which would give the visitor an insight into the intimate connections between people and their clothing. Perhaps more than any other museum object, costume embodies the past in a way that anyone can relate to. Even after hundreds of years, garments still bear the physical marks of their original owners, with many carrying alterations and repairs capturing the lives of multiple generations of wearers. Studying it up close allows you – in a tangible way – to connect with the concerns of historic individuals.
For this exhibition, we felt it was important not only to relay how tartan became a symbol of Scotland in the Romantic era, but also to show how people interacted with it on a personal level. We didn’t want to dwell exclusively on the episodes of pageantry associated with the fabric, such as the widespread adoption of Highland dress during the visit of George IV to Edinburgh in 1822. We also wanted to illustrate the commercial, military, and everyday qualities of tartan, illustrating its broader appeal.
TF: And what are you presently working on aside from Wild and Majestic?
With the generous support of the William Grant Foundation, I’m currently undertaking a two-year project to survey the Highland dress collection held by National Museums Scotland, which you can find out more about by clicking here.
At the end of the 18th century, Highland dress was undergoing a transformation driven by fashionable taste. Highland elites brought what had been a predominantly rural form of traditional dress, associated with the warrior culture of Gaelic society, in line with dominant male clothing styles in Europe. I’ve found that the collection is particularly rich in material from this period, when tartan emerged as a popular fashion fabric in Britain and when Highland dress became known as the national costume of Scotland through its association with the Romantic movement. Later costumes dating from the Victorian era showcase the step away from wearing complete suits of tartan to combining coats of dark, contrasting colours with kilts and plaids of matching clan tartans, worn with a fixed array of accessories – much like the formal style of Highland dress still in use today.
A pleasant surprise for me has been the discovery of so much women’s and children’s wear in the collection, dating largely from the 19th and 20th centuries. Tartan and Highland dress has traditionally been considered a masculine pursuit. This new programme of research is helping to shed light on underexplored avenues in the history of tartan, such as female engagement with the fabric and its role in family life in Scotland.
Wild and Majestic: Romantic Visions of Scotland is on at the National Museum of Scotland, Chambers Street, Edinburgh until 10 November. For more information and to book, visit www.nms.ac.uk/wildandmajestic