When considering Scotland, one cannot help but imagine kilts, bagpipes, Highland games, and clan tartans. However, the Scotland as we know it nearly faded from history two centuries ago until a Regency-era writer saved it nearly singlehandedly.
To understand the context of Scotland’s fall and rise, we must travel back in time. Scotland warred with England for centuries, led by familiar heroes such as William Wallace and Robert the Bruce. During that period, Scotland devolved into effectively two cultures: Highland and Lowland. Highland culture featured the romanticized life of clans we associate with Scotland today. The more populous Lowlands largely reflected the culture of English cities, distinct from the Highland culture. During the 1500’s, Protestantism swept through England and the Scottish Lowlands. The Scottish Highlands remained staunchly Catholic. When young Mary Queen of Scots inherited the Scottish throne, the Lowlanders did not accept her Catholic roots. They eventually deposed her in favor of her infant son, James, who was raised Protestant.
When Queen Elizabeth I of England died in 1603 without heirs, James also inherited the English throne, making him the first king of England, Wales, Ireland, and Scotland. His great-grandson, James II, converted to Catholicism while exiled in France during the English Civil War. When he finally ascended the throne, Protestant England rebelled and he fled into exile once again. His Protestant daughter, Mary, and her Dutch husband, William, ruled jointly in his place. However, many in Scotland and England longed for the return of James II. Their reasons were diverse: religious, political, nationalistic, sexist, and economic. Regardless of reasons, this group called themselves Jacobites, taken from the Latin name for James. Over the course of the ensuing decades, Jacobites launched a series of unsuccessful rebellions to return James II or his male descendants to the throne. During that period, England and Scotland unified into the United Kingdom in 1707 under Queen Anne (of the recent film, The Favourite). This union further agitated Jacobites throughout the kingdom.
In 1745, the grandson of James II, Charles, arrived in Scotland to start a new Jacobite uprising. The charismatic “Bonnie Prince Charlie” amassed a loyal army and enjoyed surprising success. His army routed royal forces, invaded England, and drove to within 120 miles of London. However, expected Jacobite support in England never materialized, so the army retreated to Scotland. In 1746, Bonnie Prince Charlie’s army was utterly destroyed at the Battle of Culloden, recently made world famous by the Outlander novels and television series. Prince Charlie escaped and was smuggled to the island of Skye by Flora MacDonald, an event immortalized by the Skye Boat Song (the theme song for the Outlander series, incidentally). Regardless, the rebellion had ended in failure.
In the aftermath, the British government took a hard look at what had caused the Jacobite rebellions. Despite the complex reasons and Jacobite support in all corners of the kingdom, the government wanted a simple answer with a simple solution. They decided that the Scottish Highland way of life was to blame for all the kingdom’s ills, and passed laws effectively banning Highland culture. Concurrently, the government began the Highland Clearances, a depopulation of the Scottish Highlands. This latter practice lasted a century, reducing the population of the Highlands from 1.5 million to 300,000 through starvation, forced emigration, and transportation. Many Highland Scots ended up in America and Australia, playing critical roles in the founding of those nations. The net effect, though, was the near-extinction of the Highland culture in Scotland. By the Regency era, Highland culture was perhaps a generation away from disappearing from the collective memory, and Scotland was on its way to becoming merely Northern England.
Enter Walter Scott. Already a famous poet, Scott harbored higher ambitions as a writer. While growing up in the Scottish borderlands, he obsessively collected stories of Scottish lore and desired to somehow novelize them. In 1814, he published the first of his Waverley novels. The story follows an English soldier during the Jacobite rebellion who falls in love with the Highlands and switches loyalties to the Jacobite cause. The novel became a smash success across Britain and romanticized the public perception of the Scottish Highlands and its people. Among the book’s most ardent fans was Prinny himself, the Prince Regent. The prince demanded to meet the “author of Waverley” and thus became one of the few to know the author’s identity.
When the Prince Regent was crowned King George IV, he quickly called for a state visit to Scotland, driven largely by his love of Scott’s novels. No English monarch had visited Scotland in nearly two centuries, so this was an astonishing turn of events. George appointed none other than Walter Scott to prepare Edinburgh for his visit. However, Scott faced a serious problem. The Scotland of his novels no longer existed due to the aforementioned laws to erase Highland culture. Not to worry. With a royal carte blanche in hand, Scott pulled together a Highland pageant the likes of which Scotland had never seen before, complete with clans, kilts, bagpipes, and Highland games. King George was delighted by the display, and even appeared in public wearing the kilt of his Stuart ancestors (at Scott’s convincing). Although British media lampooned his appearance in a kilt, the grateful Scottish people went wild for it. George found in the Scots something he failed to find elsewhere in his kingdom: adoration.
The aftermath of King George’s visit proved dramatic. The royal house and the beau monde began adopting Scottish traditions, particularly kilts and bagpipes at formal events. The people of England began viewing Scotland as a romantic place rather than a backwater. Most importantly, the Scottish people rediscovered their national identity. Not only did Highlanders resurrect their traditions, but Scottish Lowlanders embraced the Highland traditions as their own. In short, the Highland culture came to define all of Scotland and influence the nobility of the rest of the kingdom.
George’s niece, Queen Victoria, followed in her uncle’s footsteps. Also an avid fan of Scott’s Waverley novels, she wasted little time in making Scotland her favorite holiday spot, and purchased Balmoral Castle as a royal family hideaway. She is even said to have given the order to raise soldiers’ kilts from below the knee to above the knee. She claimed it eased their movement in battle, but you decide her motives. Victoria’s embrace of Scotland created an explosion of tourism from other parts of the kingdom. Soon, all of the British empire became enamored with Highland culture, a culture that defines Scotland to this day.
In gratitude to Walter Scott, the Scots built him a striking monument in Edinburgh. At 210 feet in height, it is the tallest monument to a writer in the world. The monument is appropriate for a best-selling author of the Regency era who had rescued his homeland’s culture from oblivion. After centuries of war, Scotland was saved not by a sword and the fire of a cannon, but by a pen and the fire of imagination.