Location: Abbotsford, the Home of Sir Walter Scott, Melrose
Description: This small and relatively unassuming painting of Abbotsford reads like a picturesque painting by numbers, with the long shadows and repoussoir tree in the foreground, an ethereal light falling on the house in the middle distance, and the receding outlines of the Eildon hills beyond, enveloped in cloud. Three figures are visible in the foreground: one astride a horse, another intently sketching or reading on the riverbank and the other casting for a fish in the Tweed. They are a curiously disconnected group of people, with the two that face the house very much ensconced in their inner worlds. On the opposite side of the riverbank, a flock of sheep complete the pastoral idyll, congregated around the Italianate stable block with its pitched roof. Above that, the house rises out of a crop of well-established shrubbery and tree cover. The building itself is executed remarkably accurately in its architecture and scale.
However, all is not quite as it seems. All the evidence suggests that this startlingly accurate painting predates the completion of the house’s east extension. What you are looking at is not so much documentation as something that is, or at least became, a very powerful piece of Romantic propaganda.
Location: Archives & Special Collections, University of Glasgow Library, Hillhead Street, Glasgow, United Kingdom. Part of the Bannerman Collection donated by J. P. Bannerman and G. W. MacFarlane in c. 1937.
Description: Writing to David Hume from Toulouse in September 1765, Adam Smith forcefully tried to dissuade him from settling in Paris. Written in Smith’s hand, this letter opens with the amicable salutation “My Dear friend”, unusually intimate at this date between a younger man and an older one, and ends on page four with no subscription (final greetings) and no superscription (address). The signature on the verso has been cut out, probably by an autograph-hunter with the result that several lines are missing. However, as the sender’s name “Adam Smith”, written in Smith’s own hand, remains intact on the same page (upside down), I would suggest that the decimated part could instead pertain to the “hold their tongues” section on page three, where there were possibly allusions to politically sensitive names and material. This letter expresses a proto-Romantic nationalism and regionalism asserted in the face of transnational cosmopolitanism generated by émigré experiences and European encounters. It also epitomises the medium of exchange that extended salon culture transnationally.
Description: These slippers were gifted to Sir Walter Scott in 1830 by a friend, Lady Honoria Louisa Cadogan, and her two daughters Augusta Sarah and Honoria Louisa. Like Byron’s and Shelley’s locks of hair, Walter Scott’s slippers are objects which point to the physicality of their owners. They are also signifiers for the appreciation and devotion invested in a revered male Romantic author. When Lady Cadogan and her daughters visited Scott in his home, Abbotsford, in the Borders, they were appalled at the state of his footwear – perhaps Scott’s appearance reminded them of the description of the unkempt Minister Josiah Cargill in St Ronan’s Well (1823), “whose feet were thrust into old slipshod shoes which served him instead of slippers”. Back home, Lady Cadogan’s daughters crafted spectacular slippers for him, allegedly using a centuries’ old tartar design going back to Ghengis Khan which had come through Lady Cadogan’s family. The slippers were sent to Scott with the following note: ‘The only thing we did not admire at Abbotsford was a (pair) of ugly, uncomfortable slippers we saw in (your) study so my daughters hope you will replace them by theirs.’ (https://www.historyscotland.com/news/sir-walter-scotts-slippers-go-on-display-at-the-writers-museum-in/)
Location: Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh, Scotland
Description: The painting The Monarch of the Glen (c. 1851), by Sir Edwin Landseer (1802-1873), has become a quintessentially Scottish image. The most ‘[…] potent, visual evocation of Scotland’s impact upon the popular imagination’, according to Scottish artist Lachlan Goudie, ‘it’s right up there with bagpipes, tartan and a mouthful of shortbread’. Until 2017, The Monarch of the Glen remained in private and corporate collections. Following a public appeal in 2016, the National Galleries of Scotland purchased the painting from the Diageo drinks conglomerate for £4 million.
Its iconic dimension set aside, The Monarch of the Glen is also a late expression of the Romantic era, and Sir Edwin Landseer’s homage to Highland Romanticism. The English romantic artist became a regular visitor to Scotland from 1824 onwards, combining hunting expeditions with sketching trips. Commissioned to hang in the House of Lords refreshment rooms, The Monarch of the Glen was painted in Landseer’s studio in London, and is considered a triumph of Victorian Romanticism. The English work crystallised romantic representations of the Scottish Highlands, with its wilderness, its sublime landscapes and sweeping vistas, castles, waterfalls, and herds of deer.
Description: This item is a mahogany-framed elbow chair with a sloping scooped back, of the type often found in late-Georgian libraries. The seat itself has always been assumed to be real leather, but in fact it may be a very early example of imitation leather, made of layers of pulped paper coated with preservative. The seat is deep, even for a man of some stature, and it is a curiously relaxed choice to combine with the versatile architect’s desk that Walter Scott commissioned from Gillows of Lancaster in 1810. One cannot help but see a seating position more conducive to thinking or reading rather than hours spent at ‘the task’ of writing voluminous histories and novels. Although a plain piece of furniture overall, the chair has some reeded detail on the front of the frame and down the tapered legs. Evidence of a sparsely buttoned back survive in a series of small pin holes and clumps of threads, with none of the true buttons now remaining. The seat is heavily worn and the whole piece exudes an aura of robust rusticity. The maker of the chair and the exact time of its purchase is unknown, although it is likely to have been purchased from William Trotter of Edinburgh. The piece was certainly in position in Scott’s Study at Abbotsford by 1826 and may have been relocated to the property, alongside the desk, after the sale of the family’s Edinburgh home following the financial crash of 1825-6.
Almost as soon as the interior of Scott’s Abbotsford Study was finished in 1825, there was an intense interest in the space as the place from which his stories emanated, and this enthusiasm naturally settled most enthusiastically on his desk and chair as a kind of secular altar. As early as 1826, in The Border Tourist, we find the author making himself comfortable in Scott’s elbow chair where he tells us the writer is still “accustomed to sit.” Musing whilst surveying the writing paraphernalia surrounding him, he declares that future generations will “look on with an interest approaching adoration.” This was prophetic of one aspect of Scott’s transition into a cult figure of the Romantic movements across Europe and beyond.
Location: Old Military Road, by Dunkeld, Perth & Kinross PH8 0JR, Scotland UK
Overlooking a small but dramatic waterfall complete with leaping salmon, there stands this curious stone gazebo or folly, reached by a pleasant woodland walk. Originally named the Hermitage, as ‘Ossian’s Hall’ this became one of the most visited sites in all Romantic Scotland.
Description: This beautiful, good-as-new instrument, made of pine and sporting a flower-like red, green and black design on the back, is displayed in the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, Alloway, as ‘the fiddle of William Gregg’. Born in 1766 in Ayr, Gregg learned to play the vioin at a very young age, eventually becoming what was called a “Dance Tutor” or a “Master of Manners”, based in Tarbolton, Ayrshire. In 1779, he accepted a most peculiar pupil: Robert Burns.
Location: National Trust, Isle of Staffa, Inner Hebrides, Scotland; Thomas Pennant, Tour in Scotland and Voyage to the Hebrides in 1772, 2 vols (2nd ed., London 1776), f.p.301. ‘Fingal’s Cave in Staffa’: engraving by Thomas Major, based on a drawing by James Miller.
Description: In the late summer of 1772, just a year or so after his return from exploring the Pacific with Captain Cook, Joseph Banks mounted his own expedition to Iceland via the Hebrides. On 13th August, Banks and his party, including the artist James Miller, explored, measured, and drew Staffa. The account we have is excerpted from Banks’ journal, edited and published in his friend Thomas Pennant’s Tour in Scotland1772; poor weather had prevented Pennant from landing on the island earlier that summer, so Banks’ account supplied that deficiency. Banks claimed to have discovered ‘a cave, the most magnificent, I suppose, that has ever been described by travellers.’ ‘We asked the name of it,’ writes Banks. ‘Said our guide, “The cave of Fhinn”. “What is Fhinn?” said we. “Fhinn Mac Coul, whom the translator of Ossian’s Works has called Fingal.” How fortunate that in this cave we should meet with the remembrance of that chief, whose existence, as well as that of the whole Epic poem is almost doubted in England.’ To this account may be traced the birth of one of Scotland’s leading tourist destinations in the romantic era.
Description: John Wilson of Kilmarnock, the printer of Robert Burns’ debut work, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (1786), produced only 612 copies, of which this copy is one of the only 84 that survive worldwide. Over half of these are now located in North America (Young & Scott, 2017). This should come as no surprise: an edition of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect appeared in the United States of America as early as 1788 (first in Philadelphia, and then in New York). In contrast, it might be tempting to think that Burns must have had a comparatively limited effect on mainland Europe given that only one surviving copy of this book survives there, in the Fondation Martin Bodmer Library, in Cologny, Switzerland. The provenance of this particular copy is something of a mystery, but the story of Burns and Europe is less obscure than it might suggest.