TARTAN. Kilted bagpipers. And rugged wild landscapes. They have become some of the strongest and most enduring symbols of Scotland and Scottish identity – thanks, most recently, to Braveheart and Outlander.

But what are the origins of these symbols and to what extent have they been invented? A new exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland seeks to find the answers by exploring Scottish stereotypes through its trove of costumes, weaponry, jewellery, paintings and other objects.

Ahead of the exhibition, Dr Patrick Watt, curator of modern history and military collections, has talked us through some of the objects that will go on show. To this day, Scotland’s image at home and abroad is influenced by the rugged, romantic ideals of the 18th and 19th centuries but there are competing claims over the extent to which the symbols of Scotland that are common today are romantic inventions or authentic expressions of our cultural identity. These historical objects can help us find the truth.


Painting of William Cumming, the Laird of Grant’s piper. 1714.

Look at this picture carefully because it helps bust one of the most persistent myths of Scottish history. William Cumming belonged to a family of Strathspey musicians who served the lairds of Grant for about 170 years but it’s what he’s wearing that matters.

Dr Patrick Watt says there is an idea that the popular and romantic image of the Scotsman in Highland dress was an invented tradition, constructed in the 19th century, but this picture of the piper helps refute that. Here is William Cumming at least a hundred years earlier in the full regalia.

“People have been wearing chequered clothes across Europe for millennia,” says Dr Watt. “What you get in Scotland, if you look back to the Jacobite period, what we think of now as clan tartans weren’t worn. You have people mixing and matching tartans and it was based on what you thought looked good.”

“There are still people who think the popular image of Scottish national dress is an invented thing,” he says. “There’s still contention and we still haven’t come to an agreement over this idea of the Scottish past. A lot of people will say ‘this isn’t real Scotland, real Scotland is people scraping a living’. But this is not an imagined past, it’s a real past.”


Punch bowl with an anti-Jacobite engraving c1785

The popular image of Scotland and the Scottish is not always positive – just take a look at this 18th century bowl. Produced not long after the Jacobite rebellion, it shows Sauney, a satirical character and nickname for a Scotsman with many of the same connotations as “Jock”. Sauney was unruly, uncouth, and drunken.

“Sauney was a well-recognised character,” says Dr Watt. “The bowl reproduces a print from the Jacobite rebellion showing a Highlander sitting on a latrine and they’re saying this is the first time he has ever seen a toilet. It’s saying he’s uncouth and barbaric and he was essentially a response to changing political attitudes in Westminster.”

Highland dress had also come to be viewed as a symbol of Jacobitism. “But it wasn’t,” says Dr Watt. “There were kilted soldiers fighting at Culloden on the government side.” Even so, the changing attitudes of the British government eventually led to the Dress Act 1746 which banned the wearing of Highland dress.


Tartan wedding dress, worn by Isabella Fraser in Inverness c 1785

Everyone knows that the moment you ban something, it becomes more popular and so it was with the ban on Highland dress.

“The way that the legislation was framed,” says Dr Watt, “Highland dress is banned and it’s a very particular style of dress associated with the Jacobites. They said, ‘ok, all of this Highland dress is banned for men and boys’ but it doesn’t mention women, so people could still wear tartan dresses and they did.”

The dress that will go on show at the National Museum is typical of the kind that was still being produced during the ban, possibly as an act of subversion - people saying ‘I am still going to wear the cloth of the patriot’. But during the ban, there was also an effort to subsume the symbols of Scotland into a different identity: north Britain.

“If you were a man and you joined the armed forces, you could still wear this traditional dress, but it was within the British army. It’s one of a series of things in which you start to see traditional highland clothes, weaponry, symbolism and language being incorporated into the British army. This is one of the ways that Scotland moves from being seen as Scotland to being seen as North Britain.”


Proclamation in Gaelic for the repeal of the prohibition of Highland dress, 1782

The ban was eventually repealed, but what was it like in Scotland to live under it? For some, it was a farce. Dr Watt tells the story of one man being arrested by soldiers for wearing highland dress – the soldiers put a great coat over him so he couldn’t be seen by others, but as they crossed the river he undid his kilt and it floated away and he said ‘what Highland dress?’ It was also known for men to get round the ban by stitching their kilt up the middle to turn it into a pair of shorts.

However, the incident does show that the ban was being enforced, although it very much depended who the local sheriff was – some were very sympathetic and some might have been ex-Jacobites and they would turn a blind eye. Others were incredibly staunch and someone convicted of flouting the ban could be fined, jailed for up to six months or sometimes transported to another country.

But did the ban work? Well, in some ways, all it did was further romanticise highland dress – Dr Watt says that during the period of the ban, from 1746 to 1782, having your portrait painted in highland dress was extremely popular. “Technically, they would have been breaking the law,” he says. “People have the popular idea that tartan disappeared during the ban, but that’s not true because we have evidence that people are still wearing it.”

And the ban did not last long. “As late as the 1770s, you still have people in Scotland being coerced into the army if they are caught wearing tartan,” says Dr Watt. “But by the 1780s, there was no threat and the idea of tartan being rebellious is no longer there.” The ban was eventually repealed in 1782.


Invitation to the 1822 visit of George IV to Edinburgh.

The year 1822 is very important in the history of Scottish imagery and symbolism – in fact, some historians say it was in 1822 that the popular romantic Highland image originated.

“There was still, at this point,” says Dr Watt, “an underlying idea of Scots being rebellious, untrustworthy and tainted with the brush of Jacobitism. So what better than to have this explosion of tartan in the capital of Scotland for the king.”

One of the masterminds of the visit was Walter Scott, the great novelist, who issued a pamphlet with instructions to the citizens of Edinburgh on what they should wear for the visit. People were being told to “dress like Highlanders because that’s the real Scotland”, says Dr Watt. “It really was like something out of a Walter Scott novel.”


Tartan suit commissioned for the visit of George IV

What would you call this suit? Tartan bling? Dr Watt compares it to the Bay City Rollers, but imagine some three to four thousand people wearing this or something similar to a ball to celebrate the king’s visit. Thousands of Scots had responded to Walter Scott’s call to “dress like a Highlander” and this brash, colourful suit was one of the results.

So, is this the source of the modern image of the highland outfit – in other words, did Walter Scott invent the whole thing? Dr Watt says no. “There is an idea that Scott invented it,” he says, “but that’s not quite true. He is taking things from the past, he is basing this on fact.” In other words, the Highland outfit might be an exaggerated tradition, but it is not an invented one.

And think back to that piper from a hundred years before: William Cumming. Dr Watt says the visit of the king was very much part of why tartan and the Highland image became more popular but Walter Scott was tapping into the past and forming the future. “You get more people seeing this idea of Scotland,” he says. “Tartan and Highland dress is no longer just Highland dress, it’s becoming Scottish dress.”


Velvet plaid dress worn by Princess Victoria, 1835-7

In many ways, says Dr Watt, it was Victoria’s view of the Highlands that standardised the view we have now. She first came to Scotland as a tourist with Prince Albert in 1842 and was reading Walter Scott while she was here. She also sailed up Loch Tay with a private piper playing for her all the way. “She had a real affinity for Scotland,” says Dr Watt, “and viewed it not as the place of barbarity of a century before, but as a place of solace.”

Dr Watt also points out that, although much of the modern image of romantic Scotland was constructed in the Victorian period, it has never stopped changing. “My parents got married in 76,” he says. “My father got married in a kilt, and people said why is he wearing a kilt? It was one of the ebbs and flows that tartan goes through.

“But the interpretation of the Scottish past we see in the exhibition is almost becoming the standardised version of Scotland for a lot of people, especially the diaspora. Lots of people wear kilts now but it’s a recent thing in the last 40 years. And the ideas of Scotland and Scottishness always depend on the people involved. They are constantly changing.”

Wild and Majestic: Romantic Visions of Scotland is at the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, from June 26 until November 10.