I took up my Residence in a romantic Village in the Highlands of Scotland where I have ever since continued, and where I can, uninterrupted by unmeaning Visits, indulge in a melancholy solitude my unceasing Lamentations for the Death of my Father, my Mother, my Husband, and my Freind.
Jane Austen, Letter the 14th in Love and Friendship, part of her Juvenilia
Jane Austen never traveled to Scotland, but the country always had a place in her heart. As a teenager she was a great admirer of Mary, Queen of Scots, great-grandniece of Henry VIII. She also shared a romantic fascination for the Scottish Highlands, as can be seen in the Juvenilia excerpt above.
The first decades of the 19th century were a time of intense change in Britain. Against the upheaval of the industrial revolution, many yearned for simpler times. Romantics like poet Lord Byron (pictured right) offered exactly that.
The romantic movement was all about rediscovering wilderness and nature, and reconnecting with raw and authentic emotions. The stars of the show were the power of the natural world and the drama of bravery, heroism and unwavering loyalty.
The Romance of the Scottish Highlands
The Scotland Highlands had everything to fuel the romantic imagination: rugged and windswept landscapes, dreamy and turreted castles, and to top it off, fearless heroes with long fighting traditions.
Writers such as Walter Scott were quick to spot this. Already a famous poet, Scott published his novel Waverley anonymously in 1814. A gripping tale of war and love against the dramatic backdrop of a rebellious Scotland, Waverley became a bestseller.
The Highlanders in Waterloo and Beyond
Following the Waterloo campaign, for a few months Paris was occupied by troops from Prussia, Russia, Austria and Britain. They all wore different uniforms, but there was one that caused a particularly great sensation: that of the Highlanders
As well as their reputation in battle, the Highlanders had the added interest of wearing a very peculiar and immediately recognisable type of dress.
Highlanders and Tartan as Unlikely Fashion Icons
Kilts were unlike anything else worn by other soldiers, and they became a source of fascination for Parisian women, as this satirical print from The Black Watch Museum attests.
The presence of the Highlanders also drove a fashion for tartan, which became a popular choice for gowns, shawls, fans, ribbons and accessories. Tartan was becoming more popular, but after Waterloo it really took off. (Interestingly, the first attempt to codify clan tartans, detailing the colours worn by the different families, dates back to 1815.)
The trend became established in following decades, with Queen Victoria as a firm devotee. Since then, tartan has come in and out of fashion every few years, and I dare say it will continue to do so for many more.
Have you worn any Scottish-inspired tartan in your life? Perhaps a pleated skirt or a hair ribbon in a Douglas or MacDonald print? I’d love to hear your stories!