A study of the emergence of a particular kind of
Scottish cultural consciousness in the years
after the Union of 1707.
Setting the Scene
The Artists


The emergence of a new cultural consciousness in eighteenth century Scotland.

DavisonIn the seventeenth century, because certain shipping routes were closed to Scotland, the nation traded chiefly with the Low Countries. Scottish wool and lead were sent to Holland and from Holland came iron to be forged in Scotland. To complete their education, or for further training in medicine or law, Scots went to the Dutch universities of Leyden or Utrecht, and from Holland came painters, craftsmen and builders, and added their contributory influence to the mainstream of Scottish art. While Scotland had hundreds of years of tradition in poetry and music, there had never been a truly indigenous tradition in painting. The influence of Dutch painters and craftsmen in the seventeenth century in Scotland can be said to have laid the foundations for the building of a national tradition in the following century. Since religion was one of the dominant controlling factors of life up till the eighteenth century, and since Holland was central in importance to reformist Northern Europe, it is seen that Dutch art in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries holds very closely to various ideals of protestant philosophy. The simple, direct portraits of this period echo the protestant outlook of attempting to see life exactly as it is, as opposed to contemporary Southern European portraits (idealism), showing life as it was amongst a privileged aristocracy, or as it might be in some idyllic other world. The dignity and individuality of the sitter in Dutch portraits was more important than the wealth and status required by similar French, Italian and Spanish paintings. Oliver Cromwell, when having his portrait painted, uttered his famous dictum, "Warts and all, or not at all". Rembrandt, a contemporary of Cromwell and the greatest protestant painter of the seventeenth century, could have had the same thought in mind while painting what Duncan MacMillan calls "the most intensely specific accounts of individuality and individual experience that have ever been produced"[1]. It was this same philosophical, political and religious belief with which Scotland met the beginning of the eighteenth century, as she was one of the three main centres of Calvinism, along with Switzerland and Holland.

The Union of Parliaments in 1707 eventually produced a new prosperity in Scotland in the second half of the eighteenth century which caused a wider distribution of wealth. This enabled many professional men to make the "Grand Tour" to Italy, and it was said that in Rome the "interpretation and exaltation of classicism"[2] was very much a Scottish virtue. As early as 1762 Voltaire said, "It is from Scotland that we receive rules of taste in all the arts." It was during the mid-eighteenth century that many Scots were to become "Europeans" and to adhere to a concept of a European High Art. While the economic advantages of the Union are rarely disputed, the eighteenth century also saw the beginning of a long struggle to maintain a national identity and culture because of the shift of power from Edinburgh to London. Robert Fergusson, the Edinburgh poet, was one of many people who were worried that the poetry, music and song of Scotland were taking second place to modern European influences. In his "Elegy on the Death of Scottish Music", he writes:

"Now foreign sonnets bear the gree
And crabbit, queer variety
O' sounds fresh sprung from Italy
A bastard breed!
Unlike that saft-tongued melody
Whilk now lies dead.

Could lav'rocks, at the dawnin' day,
Could linties, chirmin frae the spray,
Or todlin' burns that smoothly play
Owr gowden bed,
Compare in Birks o' Invermay?
But now they're dead."

And in "The Daft Days" he askes fiddlers to "banish vile Italian tricks" and play the music of their own country. What Fergusson is saying is that the fashion for the merely ornamental, inessential parts of the music from Italy was threatening the simple excellence of Scottish song and instrumental art, and was only used to provide the musicians with a chance to show off. As Alexander Law says, Fergusson's "Elegy" draws attention to the "incongruities produced by juxtaposing foreign and home-bred elements in poetry, and invites the reader to arrive at similar conclusions in music."[3]

The same can be said about Scottish painting in the eighteenth century, when the emergent Scottish tradition with Dutch ancestry increasingly loses ground to the new classicism. Alexander Runciman, while attempting what Duncan MacMillan calls "truly national designs"[4] in his Ossianic series of paintings at Penicuik, must surely miss the mark by painting supposedly traditional Scottish themes in a very untraditional Italian style. This can be thought of as being more the case when one learns that the artist's first proposal for this monumental task was the life of Achilles, then an Homeric series, and the change to an Ossianic scheme seems to have happened at a late stage.

Basil Skinner says of David Allan, an eighteenth century genre painter: "If his 'Penny Wedding' or 'Highland Dance' are landmarks of domestic painting in Scotland, their skipping figures are but tartaned transpositions of the dancing girls and youths of Italy". One cannot help wondering whether Runciman's Ossianic paintings are not but tartaned transpositions of Italian Homeric paintings and historical paintings. Ossian was supposedly an ancient Scottish or Irish bard, and certain manuscripts were "discovered" by one James MacPherson. The affair turned out to be an impudent fraud by MacPherson and not, as was claimed, the unearthing of ancient Scots literature. It is perhaps ironic that Runciman should choose Ossian for the mentioned series, for the paintings are not as conscious of Scottish tradition as they might appear.

A distinction must be made between painters belonging to a tradition in Scottish painting and painters who are merely Scottish. After all, can we include such artists as Gavin Hamilton in terms of a Scottish renaissance in the arts in the eighteenth century when that artist spent the greater part of his life in Rome, and painted in the then new neo-classical style? There was, however, a body of eighteenth century painters and poets who were truly Scottish, and who preserved and developed Scots culture; who drew their inspiration from the ordinary lives of the people around them. These artists established a Scottish consciousness and a feeling of national identity which survives to this day.


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