22 September 2021

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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.A coloured drawing of a man sitting on a rock, wearing long chain mail and a large silver helmet, holding a sword

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—R: 'MacDonalds'). 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; A coloured drawing of a man in red tartain and a feather-topped cap, leaning against some carved stonethe 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—L: '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. (Plate 3—Below L: 'Highlanders', Below C: 'The Gordons', Below R: 'The Sutherlands').


A coloured drawing of a man in a burgundy jacket and green tartan kilt, fishingA coloured drawing of a man leaning over a rock, wearing green and red tartanA coloured drawing of a man struggling against wind, wearing a mustard yellow top and green tartan kilt

A coloured drawing of a woman in green tartan, with a yellow bustleA coloured drawing of a man with his leg up on some straw, in red tartan and with a black hatOnly a handful of women are depicted in clan attire. A gentlewoman of the Lamonds is 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— Far L: '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—L: 'Clan Drummond').

A coloured drawing of a man on top of a rock, fighting spears that are rising from below. He is wearing a green kilt and jacket, with a red undershirt



A coloured drawing of a shirtless man in a yellow, red and green kilt, sword-fighting with a man in full uniform, and a round silver helmetVarious 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—L: '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 A coloured drawing of a man in a red tartan kilt and blue jacket, holding a sword and shield, being shot by a man from behind a rock in the distanceand desperately fending off the Hanoverian soldiers, whose weapons bristle below him (Plate 9—Above R: '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—R: '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—Below L: 'The Mac Cruimins'). A shepherd of the Cumins poses moodily against a tree, in what is stressed to be contemporary dress (Plate 12—Below R: 'The Cumins').

A coloured drawing of a bagpoper, in a mustard yellow jacket and a green tartan kilt. He is holding a blue flag with a white castle on itA coloured drawing of a man in a green tartan shawl, leaning against a tree



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—Below R: 'The Macdonalds of Glencoe']. 

His costume is of the early eighteenth century, and hence decades after the notorious massacre at Glencoe.

A coloured drawing of a young man in a white jacket and green kilt, with a black hat, leaning against a gravestone, which is covered at the top in weeds and grass

A coloured drawing of a man in green and red tartan, reading a letter, while leaning against an engraved rockThe 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—L: '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)

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