Taking the hint

David Craig

  • The King’s Jaunt: George IV in Scotland, 1822 by John Prebble
    Collins, 399 pp, £15.00, November 1988, ISBN 0 00 215404 8

During my own tartan phase (c. 1939-1943), when my parents used to dress me up in Highland costume for special occasions such as the family banquet on Christmas Eve, the visit to the Sick Children’s Hospital to hear the King’s speech through the PA on Christmas afternoon, and visits to wealthy patients of my father’s some way up the twin river valleys from Aberdeen, I might well have run away screaming, tearing off my Graham of Montrose kilt and matching trews (tartan underpants), the blue-green Harris-tweed jacket and waistcoat with staghorn buttons, the bottle-green Balmoral stockings and tooled black brogues and seal-fur sporran, had I been able (aged nine) to find out from such a book as this latest work of John Prebble’s that all these tartans were nothing but hype: a stunt devised chiefly by Scott to make George IV’s visit to Edinburgh in August 1822 as splendiferous as possible. In his anonymous shilling pamphlet ‘HINTS addressed to the INHABITANTS OF EDINBURGH AND OTHERS in prospect of HIS MAJESTY’S VISIT by an Old Citizen’, Scott dubbed a principal event of the visit (the dance at the Assembly Rooms in George Street) a ‘Highland Ball’ and warned all citizens that ‘no Gentleman is to be allowed to appear in any thing but the ancient Highland costume’ – ‘this noblest of all British costumes’. George himself turned up in a field-marshal’s coat and blue pantaloons, plus the riding boots he had worn at a military parade in the morning, and he left after a couple of hours: the dances played by Nathaniel Gow the fiddler’s band at once ‘became less Highland and more fashionable’. Perhaps the corpulent King had been appalled by his own image in the mirror before the levee at Holyrood, when he had worn ‘full Highland dress’, described by the painter David Wilkie as kilt and hose ‘with a kind of flesh-coloured pantaloons underneath’ and by a Lowland laird as ‘the Royal Tartan Highland dress with buff-coloured trowsers like flesh to imitate his Royal knees, and little bits of Tartan stocking like other Highlanders halfway up his legs’.

The whole thing was an expensive farce. In the opinion of one of the few recorded sceptics among the ranks of huzza’ing sycophants (a Perthshire gentleman who had recently been acquitted of killing Boswell’s son in a duel), ‘Sir Walter had ridiculously made us appear a nation of Highlanders, and the bagpipe and the tartan was the order of the day.’ Not only of that day but of the six generations since, as I found to my boyish embarrassment forty years ago. The irony of it all is bottomless. The dress of the people in the Highlands and Islands, a belted tweed plaid, had been forbidden by Act of Parliament after Culloden in 1746 – after Butcher Cumberland’s search-and-destroy missions had almost wiped out the civilisation of Gaelic Scotland. Its men had been cut to bits, its women raped, its houses great and little dismantled, its cattle butchered, its language banned, its orchards rooted out, its manuscript and printed texts burnt on bonfires. This was the most drastic event in Britain since the Black Death and is described with unbearable force in Prebble’s previous book Culloden (1961). But now – in the aftermath of the anti-Revolutionary wars in which great droves of Highlandmen had died of disease and injury (they made up 3 per cent of the British population and supplied 38 per cent of its infantry, as Prebble’s Mutiny recorded in 1975) – the culture of clans and chiefs and warriors, of tartans and castles, of blackcock plumes and skirling bagpipes, was suddenly a Good Thing: harmless and colourful.

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