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  Doctor Barbara's Column


The art of the Highlands 

I write this in the atmospheric setting of Torridon in the North West Highlands. The mountain of Liathach towers from the glen. Dark and sweeping into the clouds, its sides like those of a sleeping animal who beckons, welcomes and comforts but demands ultimate respect. Her summit is hidden by a veil of grey cloud and her valleys are cut by furious white streams running down to the river and then to the sea at Loch Torridon. The rain is a cool drizzle producing a grey mist before the eyes. Today there are no wild deer to be seen. A solitary eagle glides alone against the sky and the dawdling sheep sleepily stand and stare. 

My mind is taken to the 18th and 19th century Scottish Romanticists, the group of authors, poets and painters who idealised this harsh environment and changed the idea of an uncivilised and wild Scotland, of a degraded country emerging from the recent Jacobite rebellion to a country of myth, mystery and romance.

In 1730 an Englishman named Edmund Burt wrote of the mountains around Inverness: (they are) dismal, gloomy brown drawing on a dirty purple and most of all disagreeable when the heath is in bloom. (This was written before the Romantic view of Scotland developed). (Womack, 1989)Ossian's Dream, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, (Ingres, 1813)

 In 1746 the Jacobites were finally defeated and the rebellious estates were forfeited to the crown of England. The Scottish people were regarded as uncontrolled, with no government or authority, they were known to run protection rackets and be involved in cattle rustling between the highlands and lowlands. But law from the South came with vengeance and in a psychological backlash the lairds of the highlands become regarded as romantic and rebellious.

The Romantic movement in Scotland may have started (officially) in 1760 when James MacPherson published a set of magical poems which were said to be based on an ancient Gaelic myth by Ossian (a blind 3rd century bard). The poems told of the heroic exploits of Ossian and his father Fingal, king of Morven. They brought to International awareness a great and heroic Scottish past.

 (The poems of Ossian were so popular at the time that even Napoleon carried a copy with him claiming the poems contained: “the most animating principles and examples of true honour, courage and discipline, and all the heroic virtues that can possibly exist." (Scotland.org, 2015)    

Napoleon commissioned Ingres to paint an image entitled “The dream of Ossian” In this painting Ossian sits in the centre, his head resting on a harp, to the right in armour

 is his son Oscar and his wife Eviralina sits behind holding a bow. In the background Ossian’s father leads warriors, many of whom are draped about by naked beauties. (Napoleon.org, 2016) 

The Romantic era in art in Europe spanned the late 18th to mid19th centuries and gave freedom to the emotions incorporating ancient folk art and the beauty of nature. Its appeal peaked around 1780-1830 through the reigns of George the third and fourth but continued for many years beyond.

 In Scotland, Robert Burns and Walter Scott both followed MacPherson’s lead in producing Romantic poetry and novels which glorified the Scottish spirit setting the stories of love and loss against the highland backdrop of wild country. Burns wrote in the Scottish dialect (1759-1796), perhaps in his radical political way, rallying and rehabilitating the defeated Scots. Walter Scott’s Waverley 1814 is a romantic novel set against the backdrop of the Jacobite rebellion and includes Bonnie Prince Charlie himself.

Standing in Glen Torridon gazing at the loch I imagine I can hear the steed of gallant Lochinvar as he escapes with his stolen bride of Netherby.  Walter Scott (1771-1832) (Scott, 1808)

Or the cries of the daring chieftain who drowns with his love as they cross the wild loch escaping from her father Lord Ullin whose armoured men can be heard galloping down the storm-beaten glen (poem by Thomas Campbell 1777-1884) (Campbell, 2003-2014) 

These are two poems that I grew up with and can recite from memory, favourites of my father who had learnt them off by heart at school in the 1930s.

The ghost of Robert Louis Stevenson ‘s (1850-1894) Alan Breck (a true character of the Jacobite rebellion of 1745) strides across the heather intent on revenge, carrying the misfortune of the Scottish line of kings on his shoulders.

These free-living and loving individuals in their natural and wild environments contrasted with the hardships of those trapped by the budding industrial age (the industrial revolution) in most of England (and still today the hard-pressed leave their stressful jobs to return to a life close to the natural in both environment and psychology by moving to the wilds of Scotland.)

Along with the poetry and stories, paintings provided food for the eyes depicting the Romantic landscape and hunt of the wild animal which appealed to the natural human instinct.

Scottish art had taken a downfall in the eighteenth century as there was little call for portraiture as the rich patrons moved south and Scottish art schools struggled. It was both fashion and need that took many Scottish artists to the continent to complete their studies.

The Runciman brothers, Alexander (1736-1785) and John (1744-1768) both travelled to Italy for many years. John died in Naples after having been a predominantly religious painter influenced by Rembrandt (1606-1669) but Alexander returned to Edinburgh where he was responsible for the decoration of Penicuik House with images from the poems of Ossian (only sketches remain). (Wikipedia, 2007-2017)

In 1787 Alexander Nasmyth painted the portrait of Robert Burns. Nasmyth had spent time in Italy and been influenced by the work of the romantic landscape artist Claude Lorrain (1600-1682) and when he turned to landscape painting in Scotland he introduced similar techniques into his paintings. Although his work romanticized the Scottish countryside, it did so in a soft warm Mediterranean manner, to me, lacking the more rugged grandeur of the later painters. (Amblard, 2011)

  (Nasmyth, circa 1822)

In the BBC series “The story of Scottish art” Lachlan Goudie introduces us to the “romantic, wild and dramatic paintings” of Horatio McCulloch (1805-1867).  (Goudie, 2015)

Horatio was born in Glasgow in 1805 and developed the Romantic paintings of the Scottish Highlands without ever leaving Scotland. His images are soft and warm with sunlight playing on misty lilac mountains and dark detailed foregrounds depicting landscapes including rivers, rocks, trees and bright shining lakes with the infrequent introduction of people or animals making the scenes warm and serene but lonely and somewhat desolate. (Wikipedia, 2012)  

Sourced on line October 2017 from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horatio_McCulloch#/media/File:McCulloch,_Glencoe,_Argyllshire.jpg

McCulloch, H., 2006. Glencoe Argyllshire 1864. [Art] (National Gallery of Scotland).

Beauty could be said to relate to the basic instincts of the human. The desire for sun, for open spaces and green rich fertile lands with grazing animals that would ensure our survival if we returned to our ancestral beginnings. (Dutton, 2010)The ideal painting would depict these and this is what I feel was visualised in these images of Scotland up to the nineteenth century. Many use a high and distant view point and make the viewer the laird of all they survey,

With the wave of Romanticism, (and the accessibility by rail) Scotland attracted the well to do from England, The Royal family, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert first visited in 1842 and holidayed there walking, riding, fishing, hunting and shooting and eventually building Balmoral in 1848. Victoria 1837-1901.

Perhaps she was captivated by Burns' poem of 1789:

My heart's in the Highlands, my heart is not here,

My heart's in the Highlands, a-chasing the deer;

Chasing the wild-deer, and following the roe,

My heart's in the Highlands, wherever I go.

Queen Victoria’s favourite artist was Sir Edwin Landseer (1802-1873) who is well-known for his painting “Monarch of the Glen” in which the noble stag stands with his head raised proudly displaying his crown of antlers like a brave warrior defending the beautiful softly painted mountains behind him. A fine challenge to the hunter and to the South perhaps.


(Landseer, circa 1849) Landseer, E. H., circa 1849. The Monarch of the Glen. [Art] (National Galleries Scotland).


Notably, the Accrington mill owner John Bullough had followed suit and when he died in 1891 his son George Bullough inherited not only half of Howard and Bullough’s Mill (now the Globe centre) but also the Isle of Rum (Inner Hebrides) where in 1898 he built Kinloch castle as his sporting estate. (Crossley, 1930)

But I feel Romanticism has changed. “Honour, courage and discipline” have given way to respect and environmental sensitivity.  Romanticism is said to idealise reality, to make it more perfect than it is, less threatening and more mysterious but what is more romantic than the world in all its rawness?

In the late nineteenth century, Impressionism swept Europe. The paintings were done outside and quickly with ready mixed paints. Romanticism was in the colour, in the capture of light and shade and the expression of the artist's energy and freedom in his depiction of the scene. The Scottish artists studied in France and brought back to Scotland the ideas and techniques with the evolution of the Scottish colourists. Their depiction of the mountains was colourful, bright with contrasting soft pinks and bright blues painted in a rough and "painterly" fashion.

But my love for Scotland coincides more with the words of Edmund Burt in 1730 who found Scotland dark and foreboding and because of that, images which truly reflect the dark and magnificence of the hills appeal to me. It is a form of Romanticism in which man has a purpose in combating and respecting the challenge of his environment.

An artist who depicts these feelings and is said to have produced the sensation of “wanting to turn up your collar and run for home against the weather" is the Norwegian artist Ornulf Opdahl. He depicts the fjords of Norway, with weather and light similar to that of the mountains of Scotland. The images contrast light with dark, sweeps of paint cover the main image. Mountains peep through the rain and snow and a hint of small lights indicates a warm human dwelling, a retreat from the weather. He uses his paint to give an overall feel of the environment, it swirls around you in a “Turneresque” manner leaving you searching for the warmth of a home.

See his paintings at : http://www.purdyhicks.com/display.php?aID=3#3   (Hicks, 2015) 

Contrasting with these ideas of man's battle against the environment, I also love the images of the Scottish artist, Barbara Rae. They consist of intense colour in abstraction giving the feel of the sun on sea or on the golden, russet or purple heather set against the distant deep coloured mountains. This is a Romanticism of colour and warmth, the bright shades of Asia in Scotland. Unlike Ornulf's overpowering and threatening weather and mountains, Barbara Rae's views are from a long distance and don't enclose you in cold and dark. They are about the “tartan” of the colours seen in the glen and hill.

See paintings at:  http://www.barbararae.com/  (Rae, 2014) 

For me the images of Ornulf Opdhal “feel” like the wild and unforgiving mountains and produce a romanticism in their challenge to one's bravery and in their depictions of home and warmth set in the threatening world. The images of the eighteenth and nineteenth century feel distant as though looking at a Georgian ideal of “Rule Brittania”, the Norwegian artist on the contrary produces an all enclosing feel of being out on the hills with the environment as the ruler. The Georgians were at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and control through industry was an exciting future. Perhaps we have now reached a point where that control has gone too far and respect and awe should be our new Romanticism.

The mountain of Liathach from Torridon   Oct 2017 by Barbara E. Milne Oil on paper

For Doctor Barbara's image sources and bibliography, please click here


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