British and Irish Literature The Highlands
Murray Pittock
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0029


The “Highlands” is a key imagined space in British literature, art, and culture. The lasting power of the region—or rather, the image of the region—resides to a significant extent in a series of confusions over whether it is a physical, political, social, cultural, ethnic, or linguistic reality. These categories underpin the notion of a Highland “reality,” which helps to deter close questioning of the imaginary qualities of place that are much more evident in most representations of the Highlands and Highlandism. Many books on the Highlands suffer from one or more of three flaws: they are exceptionalist, regarding the Highlands as a defined space with a unique civilization that existed separately from both the rest of Scotland and Europe; they are “emplotted,” telling a narrative from a predetermined framework; or they are partial and enthusiastic in their use of evidence. There is, however, an exceptionally good body of work on Highland history and place in a broader context, and this is the approach taken in this article. In the Art, Landscape, and Tourism and British Literary Culture sections, the importance of the image of the Highlands constructed by outsiders is examined; in Clearances in History, Literature, and Culture and Jacobitism, the fate of the real Highlander who accompanied the era of the romanticized Highland image is explored, and in Empire, the role of the Highlander in the British Empire is examined. The Geography section, the various sections on History, and the Literature of the Gaelic World section enable the reader to get a sense of the nature of Highland culture in its environmental, historical, and linguistic contexts, focusing in the History sections on its place in the wider world. The Literature about the Gaelic World section shows the use made of the “Highlands” as an idea in anglophone literature, while Music, Religion and Belief, and Tartan and Tartanry once again focus on the culture of the Highlands themselves, using wider referents when appropriate. Tartan, in particular, is an area where good quality critical work has been heavily outweighed by partial and enthusiastic writing, and where the student needs to tread with care. While recognizing that this is primarily a literary bibliography, even in literature what is being imagined or represented as “Highland” is often—indeed, usually—linked to a strongly historical, visual, or cultural model. The potency of the Highlands as an imagined space is very strongly derived from the impact made by the 1745 Jacobite Rising, Macpherson’s Ossian poems of the 1760s, and Enlightenment historiography and theories of the picturesque from the same era. Collectively these transformed the “Highlands” from a political and military player, whose threat was known but whose culture was often unknown, to a locale that was intensely imagined as variously primitive, savage, glorious once but now in decline, supernatural and fey, romanticized while being oppressed and exploited both in real and imagined terms, as classically argued in Womack 1989 (cited under Art, Landscape, and Tourism).

Art, Landscape, and Tourism

As the imagined (and to some extent real) locale of the last serious armed resistance to the British state on the island of Great Britain, the Highlands were a natural location for the heartland of sublimity, as Romantic ideas of landscape began to take hold in the latter half of the 18th century—as noted in Womack 1989 and Durie 2003. Forbidding landscapes, bad climate, and limited visibility helped to create an idea of a wild place, the details of which were barely discernible in most weathers, which, in its turn, inclined the inhabitants to a belief in the supernatural, or perhaps even allowed the supernatural to survive in reality (Campbell 1999, cited under Literature of the Gaelic World). As detailed in Durie 2003 and Grenier 2005, an internal exotic location, the Highlands, came into its own during the era of the Napoleonic Wars, as travel to the Continent was curtailed. In Scotland the “Highlands” became a space that was traditional to the point of being primitive: wild in both scenery and politics (Morrison 2003), a home of the noble savage, and the source of ferocious fighting men, whose success in defending the British Empire provided an example to other primitive peoples of their possible future integration. Publically available Scottishness became increasingly “Highland” in order to present a public face to the world of Great Britain itself as home to a savage and exotic people (McCrone, et al. 1995). Meanwhile, internal stereotypes of the Scot focused much more on “Lowland” virtues of probity, education, and the scientific, business, or medical qualities of the professional Scot, who was seldom thought of as a Gael (as described in Pittock 2009). In terms of more general approaches, Macmillan 2000 is the best general history, Morrison 2003 is theoretically astute and closely focused on period, while Miller 1985 provides an excellent visual study of the process of Balmoralization.

  • Durie, Alastair J. Scotland for the Holidays: Tourism in Scotland, c. 1780–1939. East Linton, Scotland: Tuckwell, 2003.

    Durie provides an extensive discussion of the development of tourism in Scotland and its origins in the cultural changes of the late 18th century (as well as their influence on external perceptions of the country).

  • Grenier, Katherine Haldane. Tourism and Identity in Scotland, 1770–1914: Creating Caledonia. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2005.

    A significant and detailed study of the creation of the Highlands—and indeed all Scotland—as a tourist locale in the long 19th century.

  • Macmillan, Duncan. Scottish Art, 1460–2000. 2d ed. Edinburgh: Mainstream, 2000.

    The general standard work on Scottish art, with good coverage of genre painting and other representations of the Highlands in the 19th century.

  • McCrone, David, Angela Morris, and Richard Kelly. Scotland—the Brand: The Making of Scottish Heritage. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1995.

    An account of the modern marketing of Scotland, a process in which certain images of the “Highlands” remain prominent.

  • Miller, Delia. Queen Victoria’s Life in the Scottish Highlands: Depicted by Her Watercolour Artists. London: P. Wilson, 1985.

    An entrancingly immediate account of the mythologization of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in the Highlands in the era of their restoration of Balmoral.

  • Morrison, John. Painting the Nation: Identity and Nationalism in Scottish Painting, 1800–1920. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2003.

    Morrison argues that the peopling of empty landscapes in the Highlands marked a shift in attitudes toward them as the 19th century progressed.

  • Pittock, Murray. “‘To See Ourselves as Others See Us’: The Scot in English Eyes since 1707.” European Journal of English Studies 13.3 (2009): 293–304.

    DOI: 10.1080/13825570903223475

    This article identifies the development of “Scottish,” “Highland,” then “Lowland” and “Highland” stereotypes of the Scot, suggesting that the stereotypical image of the Scot today has reverted to the cultural imagology of the earlier 18th century in the face of recent political challenges.

  • Womack, Peter. Improvement and Romance: Constructing the Myth of the Highlands. Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan, 1989.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-349-08496-8

    One of the most influential books on the Highland question since 1980. Womack charts the taming and assimilation of the Highlands as a rebellious province into a romantic locale, noting that the imagination of the Highlands as a romantic place is itself an aspect of their repression.

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