The Highland myth as an invented tradition of 18th and 19th century and its significance for the image of Scotland

Seminar Paper, 2005

28 Pages, Grade: 2


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Main Part
2.1. Invented Tradition – An Outline of the Creation of the Highland Myth
2.2. A Break in Continuity – The Destruction of the original Highland Culture in the 18th century
2.3. The Rediscovery of the Highlands and the Creation of the Highland Myth
2.3.1. James McPherson’s Ossian (1760)
2.3.2. The Historic Novels of Sir Walter Scott
2.4 The Invention of Traditions - The Highland Bagpipes and the Tartan Philibeg
2.4.1. The Scottish Highland Bagpipes
2.4.2. The Tartan Philibeg The Kilt Differentiation of Tartan Patterns by Clans
2.5. The Spreading of the Myth

3. Conclusion and Further Worthwhile Topics of Investigation

Bibliography / Works cited

The Highland Myth as an Invented Tradition of the 18th and 19th-century and its Signifi-cance for the Image of Scotland

1. Introduction

If people around the globe are asked what they associate with Scotland or the Scots, tartan kilts, bagpipes, clans and the Highlands are the most common answers. Especially tourist interest concentrates on these landmarks of Scotland, which are said to be insignias of Scottish tradition, glory and identity, and which dominate the image of Scotland.

But are these landmarks really linked to a tradition from times immemorial? Do they really represent a link to Scotland’s Gaelic roots? This paper will investigate this question by introducing Eric Hobsbawm´s term of “invented tradition” to denote and to outline the process of creation of these Scottish symbols. The following portrait of the historical background will show the social, political and economic developments in the 18th and 19th century which led to the invention of tradition as part of the creation of a Highland myth as a result of and as reaction to Scotland’s union with England in 1707. Furthermore, the worldwide spreading of the Highland myth, which has determined the image of whole Scotland ever since, will be described. The paper will finish by showing contemporary parallels to the historic developments and trends, and suggesting further topics of investigation.

2. Main Part

2.1. Invented Tradition – An Outline of the Creation of the Highland Myth

In order to denote and to assess the historical developments of the bagpipes and the tartan kilt in terms of continuity or novelty, Eric Hobsbawm´s notion of an “invented tradition” is handy. It shows that some cultural practices, which appear old from a contemporary view, are often quite recent in origin and can be differentiated from genuine and naturally matured traditions. It is also a good outline of the forthcoming investigation, which puts the main ideas in a nutshell.

Hobsbawm uses a broad definition of “invented tradition” which includes traditions which are actually invented, constructed and formally instituted, or emerging in a less easily traceable manner within a brief and datable period.[1] These traditions consist of a set of practices which are governed by overtly or tacitly accepted rules and rituals of symbolic nature which seek to inculcate certain values and norms of behaviour by repetition.[2] Due to the fact that traditions automatically imply continuity with the past, invented ones try to establish continuity with a suitable past, which is largely factitious.[3] In fact, the appearance of new traditional movements or the revival of such movements is an indication for a break in former continuity.[4] The forthcoming explanations will show that the rediscovery of the Highlands and the focus on the bagpipes and the tartan kilt in the 18th and 19th century occurred at a time when the original Highland culture had already ceased to exist and the link to the past had already been destroyed.

The sense of invented traditions is to respond to novel situations by referring to old situations or to establish their own past by quasi-obligatory repetition. They are an attempt to react to the constant change and innovation of the modern world by structuring at least some parts of social life as unchanging and invariant.[5] The rediscovery and revival of certain parts of the Highland culture was a reaction to the massive social, economic and political changes connected with the Act of Union in 1707, which triggered a reorientation to a deliberately contorted past.

Furthermore, invented traditions are seldom concerned with substantial actions, but rather with formal paraphernalia and ritualized practices which often carry ideological connotations.[6] Objects or practices can thereby be subject to full symbolic and ritual use if they are no longer bound by practical use. Thus, the invention of tradition occurs more often when a rapid transformation weakens or destroys the social patterns for which the old traditions had been designed, or when old traditions and their institutional carriers and promulgators are inadaptable, inflexible or otherwise destroyed.[7] The occupation with the bagpipes and the tartan kilt was a retrospective approach to establish a culture based national Scottish identity within a British context. This approach had no ideological or political consequences, which was one factor of its success, and the destruction of the genuine Highland culture due to the punitive policies after the battle of Culloden paved the way for the unhindered utilization of elements of the highland dress.

Finally the acceptance or toleration of invented traditions is determined by their practical consequences on the ideological and economic efficiency of a society, the lower the effects the greater the tolerance.[8] As stated above, the Scottish efforts to establish a cultural identity had no severe political consequences for Britain. Different to their Irish neighbours, the Scots did not demand political independence or sovereignty, which granted English tolerance for this traditional movement.

2.2. A Break in Continuity – The Destruction of the original Highland Culture in the 18th century

The developments of late 18th and early 19th century are only comprehensible on the background of Scotland’s previous history. A distinction between Scottish Highlands and Lowlands has to be made in order to understand the immense image change of the Highlands.

Up to the eighth century the Highlands were more closely related to Ireland than to the Saxon Lowlands. A strong political cohesion between the Western Highlands and Ireland existed, and the Highlands were racially and culturally “a colony of Ireland”.[9] In the mid-seventeenth century the Plantation of Ulster under English authority and the rise of the Campbells to hegemony in the Western Highlands broke that political cohesion, but the cultural unity continued, although it was weakened.[10] In the 18th century the Highlands and the Islands of Scotland were still a “cultural dependency” of Ireland; the Gaelic spoken on the Western Islands was even described as Irish.[11] Also the prevailing patriarchal clan-system had its origin in former Norwegian and Irish kingdoms, from whose kings the clan chiefs derived their decent.[12] Due to this, Celtic Scotland had no independent, genuine tradition.[13] In addition the Highlands were culturally depressed by the rule of the Scottish crown, which was culturally rooted in the Saxon Lowlands.[14]

Although being a mystery to the rest of Britain’s population, the people of Northern Scotland were feared because of their periodical descents to prey on the Lowlanders.[15] The image of the Highlands in the 18th century was therefore marked by backwardness, hostility and barbarism,[16] and closely connected to the Gaelic language.[17] In addition, indolence and primitive laziness was associated with the image of Highland life.[18]

The highlanders´ participation in Jacobite rebellion against the Union of 1707 added to the negative image. After revolts in 1715 under the Earl of Mar, and 1719 in the West Highlands, the government started to lace the Highlands with military roads in 1724 and to demilitarize the clans as good as possible.[19] It also tried to weaken the clans by altering the political balances promoting the Clan Campbell.[20] Other approaches concentrated on the teaching of English in order to eliminate the Gaelic language and to reduce the isolation of the Highlands.[21] Finally, the political aftermath of the Battle of Culloden in 1745, which marked the end of Scottish ambitions to political sovereignty, sealed the fate of the clans. For supporting Charles Edward Stuart, so called Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Highlanders had to face a “policy of elimination” aiming at the destruction of the clans, which were the central feature of the highland culture.[22]

The Hanoverian establishment wanted to reduce the isolation of the Highlands and to mix its culture with the rest of Britain.[23] It quartered troops in the region and to constructed further military roads in a grand scale.[24] Additionally, the traditional territorial jurisdiction of the Lairds was abolished and substituted by British law.[25] The Disarming Act of 1746 outlawed the Highland garb, and attempted to break up the distinct Highland way of life in order to integrate the Highlanders into modern British society.[26] The garb was seen as a badge for the Highland culture, a symbol of separation and identification, which had to be disposed.[27] The ban referred to kilts, plaids, bonnets, and weapons (sword, dirk, pistol and bagpipes) and aimed at the extinction of the associated ideas by declaring the use of the garb as highly penal.[28] Another measure of “integration” was taken by William Pitt the Elder, who solved strategic and military problems as well as the Highland menace by embodying clansmen into his army and creating the Highland regiments. Thus, he gained hardy and intrepid troops, and achieved a reduction of the population in the Highlands, which could have been a threat to the rule of the house Hanover.[29] All those policies were highly effective and resulted in the destruction of the former patriarchal clan-structures[30] and in mass emigration.[31]

Internal social and economic factors contributed to the effectiveness of these external measures. In the 18th century the clan chiefs began to feel attracted by the ways of the Lowland life and sent their sons into the Lowlands for education.[32] While mixing with British society, they abandoned their native ways.[33] Anglicised in speech and thought, they now wanted to live in London or Edinburgh, what required a sufficient amount of money, and they therefore sought ways to translate their local wealth into British wealth.[34] But the old communal economy of the clan, in which rent was paid in kind and in blood in form of periodic military service, was not designed to satisfy the needs of the new way of live.[35] In order to raise revenues, the Lairds adapted the agricultural habits of their time and abandoned multiple tenancies, partitioned their land between tenants and concentrated on sheep breading.[36] Due to the dissolution of patriarchal bonds between chiefs and clansmen they began to treat their people as a resource.[37] Their profit aspirations, being fatal to the old communal way, demanded greater areas and lead to the enclosure of communal land, to evictions and to violent depopulation.[38] These processes culminated in the greatest Highland clearances between 1811 and 1820, which were carried through by Elizabeth, countess of Sutherland and her husband George Leverson-Granville, marquess of Stafford. These “assaults on a living culture by exploiters”[39] lead to further emigration, to an influx to the Highland regiments, and to migration into the overpopulated industrial centres.[40]

The dissolution of the communal ways also dealt the deathblow to another already moribund pillar of Highland culture, the literary tradition connected with the bards.[41] The Bards were essential for the Celtic Scottish society by being responsible for the transmission of traditions and history by oral poetry, and served as genealogists for the clans.[42] The institution of bards also underlines the strong relationship between the Scottish Highlands and Ireland, as Scottish bards were trained in Ireland.[43] The bardic tradition had already fallen into decline in the 17th century, mostly due to the continuing disintegration of clan structures and to the decreasing numbers of clans who retained bards.[44] Its place was taken over by a thriving vernacular poetry, which had great similarities with English poetry, peaked in the mid-eighteenth century and then abruptly disappeared.[45] With the disappearance of the bards not only an artistic genre was lost, but also a classical tradition with very strong historical associations that had effects on the spread of the Gaelic language.[46]

In conclusion, it can be attested that the genuine Highland culture was utterly destroyed in the beginning of the 19th century, while the traditional garb, which will be focus of the new traditional movement, had ceased to exist by the time when its ban was repealed in 1782.

2.3. The Rediscovery of the Highlands and the Creation of the Highland Myth

The Highlands were rediscovered from the period of the Scottish Enlightenment on and converted into a myth till the middle of the 19th century. This process has to be regarded a reaction to the political, social and economic changes that the Union with England had initiated.

With the Union Act of 1707, Scottish parliament eliminated itself and ceded political sovereignty to Westminster while Scotland retained considerable civil autonomy,[47] for example independence in educational and cultural matters, and the acknowledgement of their Kirk. Scotland remained politically “semi-independent” and its landed, clerical and legal establishment received a high degree of effective devolution as compensation for their assent to a placeman-dominated parliamentary representation.[48] In addition, economic aspirations connected with the Union outweighed political concerns.[49] Being interested in patronage and promotion in the south, established social forces tried to overcome any cumbersome Scottish distinctiveness.[50]

The intercultural and cosmopolitan attitude of mind during the period of the Scottish Enlightenment from 1750-1780 did not encourage national political thinking either.[51] It drove Scotland away from historic Scotland and into Europe,[52] making Edinburgh the European centre of a cultural, intellectual and philosophical movement which believed in reason, progress and improvement.[53] Additionally, the actual economic improvement and steady commercial development[54] created a climate of relative prosperity which levelled the loss of the parliament, at least for the ruling class Thus, political life stagnated due to the impossibility of political self-fulfilment[55] and due to a lack of interest and necessity.


[1] Eric Hobsbawm, „Inventing Traditions“, The Invention of Tradition, ed. Eric Hobsbawm / Terrance Ranger, (Cambridge, CUP, 12th edition 2004) 1

[2] Hobsbawm, 1

[3] Hobsbawm, 1f

[4] Hobsbawm, 7f

[5] Hobsbawm, 2

[6] Hobsbawm, 3

[7] Hobsbawm, 4f

[8] Hobsbawm, 9

[9] Hugh Trevor-Roper: „The invention of Tradition: The Highland Tradition of Scotland”, The Invention of Tradition, ed.Eric Hobsbawm / Terrance Ranger, (Cambridge, CUP, 12th edition 2004), 15

[10] Trevor-Roper, 16

[11] Trevor-Roper, 16

[12] Fitzroy MacLean. Kleine Geschichte Schottlands. (Herford, Busse and Seewald, 1986), 66

[13] Trevor-Roper, 16

[14] Trevor-Roper, 16

[15] Peter T. Murphy: “Fool’s Gold. The Highland Treasures of McPherson’s Ossian“. ELH Vol.53, 1986, 567f

[16] Trevor-Roper, 15; Peter Sager, Schottland: Geschichte und Literatur, Architektur und Landschaft. (Köln: DuMont, 2nd ed. ,1980 )262; MacLean, 70

[17] Alexander Murdoch / Richard B. Sher, “Literary and Learned Culture”, People and Society in Scotland. Vol. I (Edinburgh, 3rd ed. 1994), 128

[18] Murphy, 572

[19] Christopher Harvie: Scotland A Short History. ( Oxford, OUP 2002 ), 116

[20] Harvie, Scotland, 116

[21] Murphy, 568

[22] Murphy, 568; MacLean, 182; Trevor-Roper, 24

[23] Murphy, 568

[24] Murphy, 568

[25] Harvie, Scotland, 119; Murphy, 568MacLean, 182;

[26] Trevor-Roper, 21

[27] Murphy, 568

[28] Murphy, 569

[29] Harvie, Scotland, 121; MacLean 197, MacDonald, 26

[30] MacLean, 192

[31] Mac Lean, 182

[32] Murphy, 569

[33] Murphy, 568

[34] Murphy, 569f

[35] Murphy, 569

[36] Harvie, Scotland, 141f; MacLean, 193; Martin McDonald: “Die Highlands: Mythos und Wirklichkeit.“Merian 32 Nr.4,.1977), 26

[37] Harvie, Scotland,141

[38] Murphy, 570; MacLean, 193, MacDonald, 26

[39] Harvie, Scotland, 142

[40] MacLean, 193; MacDonald, 26f;

[41] Murphy, 570

[42] Murphy, 570f

[43] Murphy, 570; Trevor-Roper, 16

[44] Murphy, 571

[45] Murphy, 571

[46] Murphy, 571

[47] Uwe Zagratzki: “A Small Nation’s Dilemma – Scotland’s Struggle for a Cultural Identity“Scottish Traditions , Vol. 21 ( Ontario 1996 ), 11 with reference to David McCrone

[48] Christopher Harvie: „Scott and the Image of Scotland“, Patriotism: The Making and Unmaking of British National Identity. Ed Raphael Samuel ( London, Routledge, 1989 ), 175

[49] Harvie, Scotland, 115, Zagratzki, 5

[50] Harvie, Scott, 175, Murdoch / Sher 130

[51] Murdoch / Sher, 127

[52] Harvie, Scotland 131

[53] Zagratzki, 13

[54] Murdoch / Sher, 131

[55] MacLean, 199

Excerpt out of 28 pages


The Highland myth as an invented tradition of 18th and 19th century and its significance for the image of Scotland
University of Hannover
Peripheries in British 19th-Century History: Scotland and Ireland
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Hausarbeit eines PS Kulturwissenschaften, Benotung 2+
Highland, Scotland, Peripheries, British, History, Scotland, Ireland
Quote paper
Dipl.Jurist Marco Sievers (Author), 2005, The Highland myth as an invented tradition of 18th and 19th century and its significance for the image of Scotland, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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