August 13th 1822
Walter Scott re-creates ScottishnessIt had been 170 years since a reigning monarch had been seen in Scotland, and when it was announced that George 4th was coming north there was understandable excitement curiosity and panic. It was known that George was no longer young (he would be sixty during his Scottish visit), that he was fat, enjoyed a succession of mistresses (also on the plump side) and was deeply unpopular in England. But though he had only been King for two years he had already made a successful visit to Ireland and it seemed logical that he might make a similar journey north.
The establishment in Scotland had already been badly frightened by the outbreak of Radicalism which followed the end of the war with France. Of course, the ill-armed and ineffectual rising at Bonnymuir had been satisfactorily crushed with the ringleaders hung and many other “dangerous radicals” transported to Botany Bay, but the fear of insurrection remained. What better way of appealing to the inherent good sense and loyalty of the common people and dealing a death blow to the subversive doctrine of radicalism than to have a regal tour of Scotland.
It was when the tour was finally announced that the panic started, the more so when it was discovered that the King proposed to venture no further north than Edinburgh. The Lord Provost, at a loss to know how to proceed, asked Sir Walter Scott for help. He was of course famous, not only as an author of best selling novels but also as an authority on Scottish history and traditions.
He took up the challenge with enthusiasm and the ‘Committee for the Visit’ was formed with himself as chairman. There was no doubt that much of the success of the visit was due to Sir Walter. Where there were ancient Scottish ceremonials he resuscitated them, where there were none he invented them.
The Royal Company of Archers became the ancient bodyguard of the kings of Scotland though they were formed long after the last Scottish king left the country. Through Sir Walter’s efforts, the Scottish regalia had been re-discovered at Edinburgh Castle and an elaborate ceremony was devised for presenting the articles of the regalia to the King at Hollyrood. The Usher of the White Rod made an unexpected and probably un-historical entry into the proceedings. But it was above everything the magnificence of the costumes which caught the attention of the public. It was already known that King George, while still in London, had ordered a complete Highland dress at a cost of £1354.18s. Sir Walter was pleased to call these accoutrements the 'Garb of Old Gaul' though such wonders, such theatrical vulgarity, had never before (or since) been seen in Scotland. It did however set the tone for the visit.
Many of the Highland chiefs arrived with impossibly expensive and completely bogus costumes, often accompanied by their ‘tails’ or followers. The MacGregors, once again a legal clan, though scattered, were present with their Chief Sir Evan MacGregor and his volunteers from Atholl, Balquhidder and Breadalbane.
Lord Breadalbane himself came with fifty men from his estates in Lochtayside, but the Duke of Atholl retained a healthy cynicism about the whole affair. He had been prepared to welcome the King to Blair Atholl; now that was no longer a possibility the King had compounded the Duke’s disappointment by timing his visit at the start of the shooting season. The Duke, of course, came to Edinburgh but brought no tail with him believing that there were already too many Highlanders in the capital.
He did not, unfortunately, communicate this information to his factor until the visit had already started. His own followers who had been recruited as a bodyguard for a projected Royal visit to Blair Atholl continued to drill in preparation for the call to Edinburgh that never came. In spite of his reservations the Duke enjoyed his visit, though he commented on the “madness for the Highland garb” and Sir Walter’s determination to invent fantastical costumes for those taking part.
Sir Walter was indeed a romantic, and he was given the privilege of re-creating or rather of creating a Scotland with an imaginary and idealised region inhabited by proud Highland chiefs and their Gaelic followers. The Highland chiefs were delighted to play their part in this charade, swathed in tartans specially invented for the occasion. The scene presented of them attended by their devoted clansman was a scene that in reality had died by 1745. By 1822 the Clearances were well under way, most of the chiefs were no longer living in the Highlands and their attitude towards their clansmen were in the majority of cases merely the attitude of a grasping unfeeling absentee landlord.
For all that the visit was a huge success. In a strange way, the people of Scotland re-discovered their Scottishness. After 1707 and more especially after 1745 there had been a deliberate and conscious effort by the people to think of themselves, not as Scottish, but as North British. Sometimes even the word English was used by Scots as a synonym for British.
But the visit of 1822 confirmed to them that they were indeed different. They took a new pride in their heritage or what they conceived to be their heritage. Because it was their King who came to visit them he also was transformed. No longer was he a German Hanoverian but a Jacobite “Lineally descended from our renowned Bruce.” “We are all Jacobites. Our King is the heir to the Chevalier in who’s service the Scotch suffered so much”
It was not such a fanciful concept. Both competing branches of the monarchy traced their ancestry from Charles 1st and by this time neither had much Scottish blood in their veins.
The King played his part too. He was an intelligent and very sentimental man and he was genuinely much moved by the welcome he received. The magic of the pageants affected him deeply. He identified himself most willingly with his title of Chief of the Chiefs.
At the civic dinner that took place on the last Saturday of the visit he spoke briefly of his welcome. “I consider this one of the proudest days of my life, and you may judge, with what sincerity, and with what delight I drink all your good health’s.”
There is every reason to believe that he was absolutely sincere in what he said. On his final night in Scotland the hope was expressed that it would not be his only visit. In the euphoria of the moment the King promised to visit Scotland not once more but “frequently” .
Alas, like many passionate holiday friendships, the ardour cooled with separation and the King never returned. However, there was a legacy left from his visit. There was a new pride in the British Monarchy, a new pride in being British but a re- discovered delight in being Scottish too, a coming together of Highlands and Lowlands as one nation, a proud and historic nation, one of the important partners of the United Kingdom.
Unfortunately what was also created was a Scottish myth. A land smothered in tartan with pseudo- historical traditions, a picture postcard Brigadoon sort of country. It is still with us today. Scotland is a beautiful country with fine people. It should not be necessary to project to the world such a false, cloying, romanticised, Granny’s Heiland Hame version of the past. It is not healthy either that we should believe such nonsense.
The past is important but it is more important to look with hope towards the future.