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Sophie Cooper, ‘Outlander’ and the Victorian resurgence of Highland romanticism

2015 July 20

Sophie Cooper is a second year PhD student and William McFarlane Scholar at the University of Edinburgh. She is studying Irish communities in Melbourne and Chicago between 1850 and 1890, specifically in relation to situational influences on identity formation and nationalist thought. Sophie tweets using the handle @SophcoCooper and more information can be found on her academia page.

The growing popularity of Amazon Prime’s recent Starz acquisition ‘Outlander’, an adaptation of Diana Gabaldon’s 1991 book, will undoubtedly lead to a surge in interest in Highland romanticism. The series follows Claire Randall, an English trauma nurse who after being reunited with her husband Frank after World War Two and their trip to Inverness. One morning Claire, played by Caitriona Balfe, is caught up in a bit of Samhain magic and, after touching a stone, is transported back to 1743. Claire must then survive in a Scotland where she is suspected of being a Sassenach spy by her Jacobite saviours, and is being hunted down by her husband Frank’s evil Redcoat ancestor. Romantic Highlandism is encapsulated by the landscape with its sweeping vistas, castles, waterfalls, and deer. ‘Outlander’ does for the Highlands what Poldark did for Cornwall’s landscapes, so much so that one review called the show ‘a romance not just between a woman and her two men, but a TV show and VisitScotland’.[i] A Highlander, Jamie Fraser, is also used to represent the romance of this particular Scotland. Played beautifully by Sam Heughan, Jamie is a plaid-wearing, Gaelic-speaking, natural fighter, and member of the MacKenzie clan, who also has a price on his head. He is a ‘born storyteller, like most Scots’ (in the words of Claire), loyal to his clan, but also a romantic who would lay down his life for Claire and his family.

Figure 1: Balfe and Heughan as Claire and Jamie in 'Outlander

Figure 2: Jamie, Claire, and some of Clan McKenzie leaving Castle Leoch

The Cross Stitch/Outlander books were so popular in the United States that special tours of the Highlands have been created in the last ten years, taking tourists to the locations mentioned in the books. This is not the first time that popular culture has created a surge in interest in all things Highland and tartan. The 1822 visit of George IV to Edinburgh was the first time that Highlandism was used to represent a united sense of Scottishness, distinct but part of British identity.[iv] It was all stage managed by Sir Walter Scott, who encouraged all (male) participants in the celebrations to wear traditional Highland dress. After the 1745 Jacobite Rising, traditional Highland dress for men and boys was banned by the Disclothing Act of 1747. Exempt from this Act were Scottish military units, the military successes of whom over the next century ensured the connection, in the minds of many, between Highlandism and military prowess. The ability for Highland elites to use tartan as a brand to entice prospective soldiers was an important one for the elites, politically and economically.[v] Scott’s 1822 publication of Hints Addressed to the Inhabitants of Edinburgh included detailed suggestions for outfits to be worn at each royal event. While Scott’s dress code suggestions were central to creating the image of a unified Scottish identity, the ‘affectation of Celticism’ and exclusion of Lowland tradition from what constituted ‘Scottish’, irritated many.[vi]

Victoria’s ascendancy to the throne in 1837 continued Britain’s affair of the heart with the Highlands. Victoria’s love of Scotland, at first influenced by Scott’s novels and continued after her 1842 visit, began a phenomenon which has been called ‘Balmorality’, a social and material fashion in which the Highlands took central stage. Alex Tyrrell has described the phenomenon as a set of beliefs and practices where ‘the monarchy took pride of place in a romantic, backward-looking vision of Scotland as a society that was characterized by clan-based hierarchical loyalties and distinctive Highland rituals.’[vii] The British press was key in presenting the Highlands as the last garrison for the values of an old paternalist society where the values of loyalty to traditional hierarchies, hospitality, and bravery were highly prized. These values, though in conflict with the monarchy of the time, are central to Outlander where clan and familial hierarchies are pushed against but ultimately adhered to.

Buckingham Palace’s pavilion had a room named after Sir Walter Scott and was decorated with scenes from his work in 1845. Society events around Britain from the early 1840s increasingly included Scotch Reels, piped music, and the wearing of tartan scarves.[viii] These increased after Queen Victoria and Prince Albert bought the Balmoral estate in 1848, and their castle was built in 1853. Both Albert and Victoria designed their own Balmoral tartans, and often clothed their children in it, with the princesses wearing plaid dresses and scarves, and the princes wearing kilts.[ix]

The increased accessibility of the Highlands to tourists and sportsmen from elsewhere in Britain added to the visibility of the region.[x] Artistic representations of the Highlands added to this knowledge and understanding, even though it was often a sanitized and romanticized version, which focused on the scenery and wildlife, and excluded the people who lived in the area.[xi] Just as Outlander captures the landscapes of the Highlands with sweeping camera shots, the newspapers of the 1840s sought to present their readers with a romantic image of the Highlands:

The forest of Balmoral, which is about 54 miles from Aberdeen, affords a rare combination of mountain, wood, field, and flood. The deer-forest extends to the summit of the far-famed poetical Loch N-Na-gar [sic]. The mosses of this district abound with grouse, and the beautiful mountain itself is the resort of abundance of ptarmigan and the white hare. The whole forest includes an area of from 15 to 20 miles. The castle, which has been recently built, is most felicitously situated on a rich platform, on a winding of the river Dee, possessing in its immediate neighbourhood a most charming contrast to the noble and rugged scenery with which the forest abounds.[xii]

The development of railways and steam-powered travel made Scotland a holiday destination. Balmoral and the prominence of the royal family’s love for the country were vital in bringing the Highlands into the homes of Britain. Victoria’s annual visits and the reporting that accompanied these trips were central in reinforcing the image of Scotland that had been developed by Walter Scott, as well as artists such as J.M.W. Turner[xiii]and Horatio McCulloch[xiv], in the early nineteenth century (which had reflected the wider intellectual movement of Romanticism at the time). The prominence of the Highlands as silent, noble, and beautiful, filled with (invisible) hospitable and brave Highlanders helped to create a form of national identity which avoided interacting with the varieties and problems of the inhabitants, especially regarding the area’s Jacobite history, the Highland Clearances, and the death and poverty brought about by the Great Highland Famine of the 1840s and 1850s.

‘Outlander’, it has been said, does for 1743 Scotland what Downton Abbey does for 1912 Yorkshire.[xv] Whether it will lead to an influx of plaid-clad men around Great Britain, I’m not sure. However, I do know that all of a sudden, I feel rather more interested in learning about the Jacobites and the Battle of Culloden.


[iv] Sally Tucket, ‘National Dress, Gender and Scotland: 1745-1822’, Textile History, 40:2 (November 2009), pp.140-151

[v] Matthew Dziennik, ‘Whig Tartan: Material Culture and its Use in the Scottish Highlands, 1846-1815’, Past and Present, 217 (November 2012), pp.117-147

[vi] Tucket, ‘National Dress, Gender and Scotland’

[vii] Alex Tyrrell, ‘The Queen’s ‘Little Trip’: The Royal Visit to Scotland in 1842’, Scottish Historical Review, 82:213 (April 2003), pp4.7-73

[viii] Tyrrell, ‘The Queen’s ‘Little Trip’’

[ix] Helen Rappaport, Queen Victoria: A Biographical Companion (2003), p.53

[x] Richard W. Butler, ‘The History and Development of Royal Tourism in Scotland: Balmoral, the Ultimate Holiday Home?’ in Phil Long & Nicola J. Palmer (eds), Royal Tourism: Excursions Around Monarchy (2008), p.56

[xi] Ewen A. Cameron, ‘The Scottish Highlands and the conscience of the nation, 1886 to 2003’, in Pamela O’Neill (ed), Celts in Legend and Reality: Papers from the Sixth Australian Conference of Celtic Studies, University of Sydney, July 2007 (Sydney Series in Celtic Studies 9, University of Sydney, 2010), pp.255-284

[xii] Her Majesty’s Visit to Balmoral’, Standar, 5 September 1848

[xiii] http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/turner-details-of-highland-dress-d17580 – Turner took detailed notes about Highland dress from the 1820s.

[xiv] McCulloch’s ‘My Heart’s in the Highlands’ (1860) was engraved for inclusion in the book Illustrated Songs of Robert Burns which was published in 1861

3 Responses leave one →
  1. Kelly Tribble permalink
    July 28, 2015

    Excellent article! I had not considered how much of the “Scottish” look and tradition was emphasized to the exclusion of Lowland traditions. I have barely any distant Celtic blood in me (one grandparent of Scottish descent), but do enjoy wearing the kilt when the wife lets me. Now, you’ve piqued my interest in those lesser-known “Lowland” traditions. To the library…!

    Thanks for sharing.

  2. Catriona Paul permalink
    May 31, 2016

    Good article. Researching the period for a course at Edinburgh College and glad to find a link / hook to contemporary culture. Thanks, Catriona

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