Blog

Image for the news item 'The Clans of the Scottish Highlands (1845)' on 22 Sep 2021

The Clans of the Scottish Highlands (1845), a book of hand-coloured lithographs in Emmanuel’s Graham Watson Collection, is a witness to the enduring Romantic fascination with the Highlands’ wild places and their culture. The lithographs each show a figure wearing the tartan of a particular clan, together with a text on the history of the clan. Published on the centenary of the Jacobite rising of 1745, the book is suffused with Jacobite nostalgia for the days of Bonnie Prince Charlie.

The pictures are by Robert Ronald McIan (1803-1856) who started as an actor (Dickens thought one of his performances ‘quite wonderful and most affecting’). McIan often played Highlanders at a time when Sir Walter Scott’s novels had fired enthusiasm for Highland history and culture. But from 1833 onwards McIan concentrated on his career as an artist, painting many scenes from the Highland past. His wife Fanny Wheeler (1814-1896) had eloped to marry him in 1831; she was not only a recognized artist in her own right (teaching McIan to paint) but was also a pioneer of art education for women, the first superintendent of the Female School of Design (1842), founded to teach middle-class girls to design for industry and enlarge the field of employment for women.

The dramatic picture representing the MacDonalds of the Isles imagines one of the medieval Lords of the Isles dispensing justice with his barons around him. [Plate 1]. He wears chain mail over a leather jerkin and, under that, tartan garments on his arms and legs. McIan’s depictions are assembled with an antiquarian’s eye for details from surviving artefacts: the skull cap is copied from old Gaelic effigies on Iona; the eagle’s feather is authorised by the supposedly ancient Highland poems of Ossian (actually a forgery).  In the picture depicting the Chisholm clan the chief’s enormous out-of-scale pistols faithfully record the proportions of some antique pistols belonging to a Victorian member of the clan [Plate 2:  The Chisholms]. Atmospheric images depict a representative of each clan posed against Highland landscape and weather, whether a forester shooting wildfowl while perched vertiginously on a crag, a Highlander fishing (successfully) for salmon, or a shepherd battling through a snowstorm to locate lost sheep. [Plates 3: 'Highlanders', 4: 'The Gordons' & 5: 'The Sutherlands'].

Only a handful of women are depicted in clan attire: here is a gentlewoman of the Lamonds shown in late eighteenth-century fashions, for McIan’s pictures range over fashions of the past centuries in pursuit of depicting clan tartans. [Plate 6: 'The Lamonds'] The splendid representative of Clan Drummond is shown entirely encased in tartan and boasts a whole fitted suit in tartan fabric. [Plate 7: 'Clan Drummond']. Various clan representatives are depicted in battle with the Auld Enemy. A bare-chested Macmillan is shown ‘defending himself with fierce resolution against … one of Cromwell’s soldiers … Highlanders retained the practice of stripping off their plaids when hotly engaged’. [Plate 8: 'The Macmillans'] A Mackenzie is depicted as a cornered fugitive from the battlefield of Culloden, still wearing on his bonnet the white cockade of the Stewarts, desperately fending off the Hanoverian soldiers whose weapons bristle below him. [Plate 9: 'The Mackenzies'] The representative of the MacBains is a historic figure, the heroic Gillies Macbain shown at the moment he was shot by a soldier at Culloden. [Plate 10: 'The MacBains']

It follows that other clan figures represent the long aftermath of the sufferings of the Highlands and the clans, lamented by the Mac Cruimins who were hereditary pipers. [Plate 11: 'The Mac Cruimins']  A shepherd of the Cumins poses moodily against a tree in what is stressed to be contemporary dress. [Plate 12: 'The Cumins'] Several images show Highlanders posing mournfully by stones inscribed with Gaelic: the figure illustrating the Macdonalds of Glencoe ‘represents a young man plunged in deep and afflictive emotion, beside the sad memorial of the death of his ancestors’. [Plate 13: The Macdonalds of Glencoe;] His costume is of the early eighteenth century, and hence decades after the notorious massacre at Glencoe. The representative of the Logans, muffled in a large plaid, wears the white cockade of the Stewarts, and is shown as if mulling over ‘some curious legend’ about those whose graves are around him. The Gaelic inscription on the stone refers to James Logan who supplied the text for McIan’s pictures. [Plate 14: 'The Logans']

McIan’s final image is of Bonnie Prince Charlie in the Stewart tartan, accompanied by a fond account of his attempt to retrieve the crown, drawing the book to a close in a fittingly nostalgic spirit. But if McIan was at heart a Jacobite, his publishers Ackermann were businessmen, and so it was the publishers who dedicated the book to Queen Victoria, whose own mania for all things Scottish would help propel the cult of the Highlands into the future.  

Barry Windeatt (Keeper of Rare Books) & images by Helen Carron (College Librarian)

Back to All Blog Posts