Scott, Visual Art and the Highlands [2010]

Murdo Macdonald

Rethinking Scott, Visual Art and the Highlands

[A revised version was published as: ‘Rethinking Scott, his Literary Predecessors and the Imagery of the Highlands’ in Brown, I., 2012, Literary Tourism, The Trossachs and Walter Scott, Glasgow: Scottish Literature International / Association of Scottish Literary Studies, 124-132. ISBN 978-1-908980-00-7]



I want to begin this rethinking by moving away from Landseer’s Monarch of the Glen. Scott’s own description of the stag in The Lady of the Lake, is, of course, much more challenging: he refers to ‘the antlered monarch of the waste’, a far more appropriate creature of the upper reaches of Glen Artney where Canto I of The Lady of the Lake begins.


But why do I want this different perspective? Why do we need it? What is the problem with seeing Scott through Landseer?


The problem is that Scott and Landseer have become too closely associated; they have become a conjoined stereotype of the Highlands from which neither can escape. That is not such a problem for Landseer, indeed, without his association with Scott he would be much less known today. But it is a problem for Scott, because Landseer’s image of The Monarch of the Glen has been visually conflated with Scott’s literary work in the minds of so many.


What I want to do here is to suggest visual alternatives for Scott in a Highland context. Complementing this I note that the response of artists to Highland geography and culture was established well before Scott wrote Lady of the Lake, not least with respect to the work of his two literary predecessors, James Macpherson and Robert Burns. Consider, for example, the etchings and murals produced by Alexander Runciman in response to Macpherson’s Ossian in the 1770s. This was pioneering Romantic art, developed in the age of neoclassicism by a Scottish artist, trained in Rome and responding to Highland material that had taken Europe by storm.


We need to take this wider history of Highland imagery into account. When we do so we can give value not only to Scott as an author who strongly facilitated the imagery of the Highlands, but also give value to the influence of those who blazed the trail for him.



Since I have begun by knocking one English artist, Sir Edwin Landseer, off his Scott-related pedestal, the least I can do in the interests of cross Border relations is to immediately reinstate another English artist as an interpreter of Scott. I refer to J. M. W. Turner, a far greater artist than Landseer and, indeed, an artist capable of matching Scott’s own greatness, so, from the point of view explored here, an artist of far more interest than Landseer. What is of particular importance is that Turner didn’t simply produce images related to themes in Scott, he produced numerous images made with the specific intention of being reproduced, as engravings, in books by Scott and within Scott’s lifetime. These include works such as Loch Katrine, a watercolour image Turner finished in about 1832, that was engraved by William Miller in 1833 and published in 1834 as the frontispiece of a new edition of Lady of the Lake.


It is important to note the extent of Turner’s work here. He produced numerous watercolours in response to Scott’s works. In total there were about 100 images, about 80 of which were made in the 1830s.


There were earlier links between the artist and the writer, in particular for the Provincial Antiquities in the 1820s, but the really important collaboration between Turner and Scott started in 1831, the year before Scott’s death, when Turner contributed to the new edition of the Poetical Works, thanks to being commissioned to do so by Scott’s Edinburgh publisher, Cadell. Turner continued to make work for Cadell’s editions of Scott after the author’s death in 1832. The relationship between Turner and Scott in the writer’s final years is of real importance. For example Turner’s image of Melrose shows not only Scott but his publisher Cadell and possibly Turner himself in the foreground, picnicking in one of Scott’s favourite spots. The thing to note is Turner’s interest in Scott himself as part of the landscape, and by extension the landscape as an essential part of Scott. Typically for Turner, it shows the place and the man; it is not only a response to the written word. One might call it total illustration.


Turner knew very well that Scott was dying, and that knowledge seems to have given an edge and an empathy to his images for the Poetical Works. They come together into a moving visual tribute to Scott through the places that were significant to him. Consider, for example, an image of a key location for Scott and, indeed, the place where he was buried, Dryburgh. It has an elegiac quality. It was carried out most probably in 1832, engraved by William Miller in 1833 and appeared as the frontispiece to Sir Tristrem published as part of the Poetical Works in 1834. Thus Turner had finished the image while Scott was still alive, but engraving and publication did not take place until after his death. There is much else that could be said about the Turner-Scott relationship and an absorbing account of it can be found in Gerald Finlay’s 1980 book Landscapes of Memory.


These images of Turner required the highest level of steel engraving, and they found it in the art of in particular William Miller, the Edinburgh engraver whom Ruskin later wrote of as Turner’s best engraver. Bearing in mind that Miller was an Edinburgh man, and that when he engraved these works in 1833 Scott had just died, he would have felt a keen responsibility to do his best not only for Turner, but for Scott, and indeed he did so.


Certainly, of all Turner’s images relating to literary subjects – among them illustrations of Byron, Milton and Thomas Campbell – Turner’s work for Scott in the 1830s stands out in its intimacy of engagement with both the author and his works.


Turner’s travels in the Highlands in pursuit of appropriate imagery for Scott also led to one of his most important full-scale oil paintings, Staffa, Fingal’s Cave. [1] This was painted in 1832 and Turner leaves one in thoughtful contact with a place rather than in possession of a stereotype. That is, of course, one of the underlying links between Turner and Scott, both were profoundly concerned with the spirit of place rather than with a simple verisimilitude.


Like Scott, Turner is sensitive to spirit of place wherever that place may be. Thus in an Italian context he painted The Golden Bough and in a Scottish context he painted Staffa: Fingal’s Cave. They both date from the 1830s. His painting of The Golden Bough went on to serve as a stimulus to Sir James Frazer, but it also serves to further illuminate his contribution to Scott, for so many of Turner’s works for Scott were not Highland or even Scottish in reference, they were European.


An image Brussels is a case in point. It was made for Scott’s Life of Napoleon. Again it was engraved by William Miller. Turner’s work for Scott thus ensures that we remember Scott’s role as a European writer not just as a commentator on the Highlands or indeed Scotland. If we see Scott through these images his European dimension is emphatic.


It is interesting to recall here that in 1825 Scott dined – and took a considerable interest in – one of Napoleon’s former senior military commanders, Marshall Macdonald, who was on the way to visit his father’s birthplace in South Uist. Napoleon’s enthusiasm for Ossian is well known, but whether he associated that work with his senior commander of Highland origin is unknown, or at least not known to me. It is however, worth noting that that very factors which led Macpherson to write Ossian in English, were the very factors that led Napoleon to have a senior commander with a Gaelic speaking father, who himself seems to have had some Gaelic. I refer of course to the Battle of Culloden and the cultural suppression that followed it.


So, if we do wish to see Scott through the eyes of an artist from south of the Border let it be primarily through the eyes of a great European like Turner. That is not to demean Landseer, he was, after all, one of the finest animal painters of his day, but we must see his contribution in context, for if we do not, the Monarch of the Glen stereotype will continue to limit our perception not just of Scott, but of Scotland.


Rejecting that stereotype enables us to explore the fact that Scott has a claim to being the greatest European writer of his day, just as Turner has a claim to being the greatest European artist. So the conjunction between these two men is an extraordinarily important moment in the cultural history of the 19th century, which deserves much more recognition as such.

But to return to the Highlands. It was as a result of his journeying to illustrate Scott’s Lord of the Isles, that Turner was inspired to paint Staffa. The actual frontispiece he made for the poem was of Loch Coruisk, given as Loch Coriskin, in Skye, and the remarkable watercolour from which it was engraved can be found in the collection of the National Gallery of Scotland. But Turner wasn’t just creating frontispieces. As we have seen he was also making outstanding title page vignettes. For example, opposite the Loch Courisk image was a vignette in which Turner shows Fingal’s Cave from it interior.[2]


I have already drawn attention to the importance of Macpherson’s Ossian in creating the conditions for imagery of the Highlands, so a point I should emphasise here is that Turner’s Staffa works also of course resonate – in the reference to Fingal – with the work of Macpherson. Macpherson’s Ossian, which was published in the 1760s,[3] was not a new interest for Turner. He first toured in Scotland as early as 1799 and one of his earliest recorded Scottish works, dating from 1802, refers to Ossian.


That landscape is now untraced but it was a view of the Ben Lomond range which had the subsidiary title The Traveller – Vide Ossian’s War of Caros.[4] There is thus no doubt that Turner’s initial reference point for Highland landscape was the work of James Macpherson. So perhaps we should regard Turner’s Staffa painting from 1832 as owing as much to James Macpherson as to Sir Walter Scott.


The second quarter of the 19th century was a time when Turner’s ability to produce illustrations for Scott’s publisher was helping to drive the art of steel engraving forward, with all the consequences that had for increased print runs of illustrated editions. Note that Turner’s steel-engraved Scott illustrations mark a notable increase in the availability of Highland imagery, simply because the durability of the steel plate enables more copies to be made.


The many engravings that William Miller made after Turner, included not only Dunstaffnage and Dryburgh but in 1834 a remarkable image of Glencoe. That was published as a frontispiece for another of the volumes of Scott’s prose works. [5] Turner’s stormy, jagged, exaggerated view of the glen is, one might argue again, as much inspired by Macpherson as by Scott. Although influential at the time – not least on the young Scottish painter, Horatio McCulloch – Turner’s radical experimental vision is still not sufficiently appreciated today with respect to the Highlands.


I emphasise Ossian here, for it allows me to remind you again that in any analysis of Scott, to forget James Macpherson is a mistake, for Ossian is one of the foundation works of modern European literature and Macpherson prepared the ground for the reception of Scott.


In this context, consider, for example, a pioneering image that begins make Macpherson’s dream Highland landscape a reality. This is Cascade Near Carril by Charles Cordiner.[6] Published in 1780, it shows Ossian in the foreground. Cordiner, who was minister at Banff, was a key figure in the development of the antiquarian tradition in Scotland, a tradition to which Scott was to make so much contribution in due course.[7]


I note in passing that a number of Cordiner’s images, including Cascade Near Carril were engraved by the London-based firm of Basire.[8] James Basire was an important engraver of antiquities, and the teacher of William Blake. And Blake was, in due course, an Ossian enthusiast. It is possible that he saw Cordiner’s images towards the end of his apprenticeship with Basire, which ended in 1779. Who knows, he may even have worked on the plates.[9]


Where Macpherson’s geographical references are elusive, those of Scott are precise. It important to bring Robert Burns into the discussion at this point. Burns’ works acted as a stimulus to artists to explore the actual detail of the Highlands in a literary context. In due course this current of activity was developed by artists working with respect to Scott.


Some of the earliest landscape illustrations of Burns are of Foyers near Loch Ness, a key stopping point on Burns’ Highland tour of 1787.

It is no accident that these are by one of Burns’ close friends – namely Alexander Nasmyth – an artist described by David Wilkie as the father of Scottish landscape, although most famous today for his portrait of the poet. In images dating from 1803 he was one of the very first artists to provide landscape responses to Burns.


The engravers of Nasmyth’s images, James Storer and John Grieg, were artists in their own right and Greig’s illustrations to Burns published along with Nasmyths in 1805 are among the finest of all responses to the poet.


While we can think of Storer and Greig’s Burns illustrations, which are copper plate engravings, as some of the first widely available images of the Highlands, because they were copper plate engravings there were not as durable as the steel engravings to come via Turner. Nevertheless, the publication of those engravings illustrating Burns in 1805 is a crucial moment in the development of Highland imagery. It gives context not least to painting strongly influenced by Scott, by Alexander Naysmyth’s pupil, John Knox.


This work Tourists at Loch Katrine is, of course, very relevant for us in the context of this conference. It dates from about 1820 and it may well not have been painted had it not been for the publication of The Lady of the Lake. However it should be pointed out that it could have been, for Knox was a visual explorer of the Highlands just as Scott was a literary explorer. What is interesting for us here is when these two media come together, as in this image.


Knox, through works such as this and his panoramas from Ben Lomond prepared the way for the next generation of Scottish artists that included both Knox’s student, Horatio McCulloch, and another important interpreter of the Highlands, D. O. Hill. McCulloch’s interpretation of Loch Katrine in 1866 is of interest here, for he has learned much from both Knox and Nasmyth, but his drive towards realistic portrayal is much clearer. Part of that is that he is painting in the full knowledge of that quintessentially Scottish science of the day, namely geology. One can also note that although McCulloch’s work is a full scale oil painting, he owes a great deal to Turner’s conception of Loch Katrine made on a much smaller scale to illustrate Scott’s Poetical Works.


It is interesting to note, therefore, that we find McCulloch’s image being driven not directly by Scott, but by Turner’s response to Scott and that again underlines the importance of giving Turner due regard. This is not to deny the potentially direct influence of Scott on McCulloch, it is just to give it a wider visual context. With respect to the direct influence of Scott on McCulloch one can note that it was McCulloch’s bother in law, the writer Alexander Smith, who made the often repeated comment that ‘Scotland is Scott-land’.


I am glad to be taken back here to Turner’s exploration in the 1830s of this ‘Scott-land’. It is important to make the point again that, because they are steel engravings made for popular editions of Scott, these landscape works of the Highlands by Turner would have been among the most widely distributed images of the Highlands from the 1830s onwards. So 20 years before Landseer painted Monarch of the Glen the most widely distributed images relating to Scott were experimental landscapes by the most experimental painter in Europe. To put it another way, these interpretations of Scott were on the cutting edge of the contemporary art of the day.


I suspect that the words ‘Scott’ and ‘cutting edge contemporary art’ have rarely appeared in the same sentence, but I hope I have convinced you that it is high time they did.


It is interesting to compare Turner’s ‘Scott-land’ to again use Alexander Smith’s term, with another visual art project this time responding to Burns, from later in the same decade. This was D. O. Hill’s Land of Burns project which was published in 1840. Hill had also contributed images to the Prose Works of Scott, alongside Turner, so there are direct connections here and if we are really trying to understand the evolution of imagery of the Highlands we need to look at visual interpretations of Burns and Scott together, with an awareness of Macpherson as a background. Many of Hill’s views for The Land of Burns show Highland scenes such as The Falls of Foyers and a number were also engraved by the great William Miller, for example, Loch Turrit. All refer directly to Burns travels or writings. For example The Falls of Bruar, refers directly to Burns’ poetical observation to the Duke of Atholl that more trees were needed, and by the time Hill made this image, they had indeed been planted. A few years later Hill distinguished himself as a pioneer of photography in partnership with Robert Adamson. In passing one can note that our first actual photographic records of Highlanders come courtesy of Hill and Adamson in the 1840s.


In beginning to come to my conclusion I wish to consider another Burns illustration, but one that brings Scott strongly to mind. It is an imaginary view of the Highlands by Horatio McCulloch from 1861. In its painted form it was originally entitled An Emigrant’s Dream of His Highland Home but, as engraved by William Forrest, it was published as an illustration to Burns’ song My in the Highlands.[10] Burns’ lines: ‘My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart is not here, / My heart’s in the Highlands, a chasing the deer,’ again remind us how important it is to recognise Burns’ role in developing imagery of the Highlands in a way which we might be more inclined to ascribe to Scott, but those lines of course predate Scott by a generation. As Meg Bateman has pointed out Burns is not so much constructing a romanticised view here but picking up on Gaelic sentiment, for such a desire to be in the Highlands forms the subject of many a Gaelic song, from the 17th century to the present.


But the connection with Scott is not just by analogy. That engraving was published in a portfolio of Burns illustrations under the auspices of the Royal Association for the Promotion of Fine Arts in Scotland, a body closely associated with the Royal Scottish Academy and dedicated to linking art and literature at a high level. These print collections, normally numbering 8 prints each, were bound up into portfolios for subscribers and they had print runs of at least 5000. There were produced from the 1850s to the 1870s. For the first ten years the key author was Robert Burns but in due course many of Scott’s poems and novels were the subjects of these portfolios For example McCulloch’s Inverlochy Castle painted in 1857 was engraved for A Legend of Montrose in 1877.


I do not have opportunity here to discuss these portfolios in detail but that underlines the point that I have only scratched the surface of my topic here. What I hope I have conveyed is the importance of seeing imagery related to Scott in a wider context than is normally the case.


Finally I want to return to Scott’s own lifetime and remind us again of James Macpherson’s attempt, in Ossian, to rehabilitate Gaelic culture in the years of ethnocide after Culloden. There is an intriguing title page image by Lizars of Edinburgh.[11] It shows an iconography that is equally appropriate to either Macpherson or to Scott, namely a deerhound, a red deer stag and, crucially – in the background – the instrument of the bard, the clarsach or harp. It is the title page of Alexander Campbell’s Albyn’s Anthology, ‘a collection of predominantly Highland melodies’ published in 1816. Scott was a contributor and Campbell had been Scott’s long suffering music teacher in Edinburgh. Another point to note here is that Campbell was born by Loch Lubnaig beneath Ben Ledi, that is to say at the heart of the geography that Scott explores in The Lady of the Lake. I presume that to be a significant connection.


So I end not with a simple conclusion about landscape and Scott but by noting the need for much more visual research with respect to Scott, this time not only with respect to landscape both Highland and European, but with respect to the iconography of the bard. That is a whole other area that can extend and give context to our perception of Scott in his true relation to, among others, both James Macpherson and Robert Burns.



[1] Yale Centre for British Art

[2] Engraved in this case not by Miller but by Edward Goodall.

[3] The two books that constitute Ossian, ‘Fingal’ and ‘Temora’ were published originally in 1762 and 1763 respectively.

[4] Wilton (1979), 339. Catalogue of watercolours, no. 346. Untraced (probably a watercolour). Exhibited in the library of the Royal Academy, London, 1802.

[5] Turner’s work is probably 1833, Miller’s engraving is 1836. Wilton (1979, 443).

[6] Cordiner was a key developer of the antiquarian tradition in Scotland, and it is interesting to note that the London-based engraver of this work was the firm of Basire. James Basire was the teacher of William Blake, and Blake was himself of course an Ossian enthusiast.

[7] Cordiner, C., 1780, Antiquities of the North of Scotland in a Series of Letters to Thomas Pennant, London: independently published.

[8] Cordiner also takes a strong interest in Pictish work. In one intriguing image a tartan clad Highlander leans on a Ross-shire Pictish stone. TITLE. That image bears interesting comparison with the title page of volume one of Francis Grose, 1797, The Antiquities of Scotland, London: Hooper & Wigstead.

[9] REF TO MY SSAH piece

[10] McCulloch, H., 1860, ‘My Heart’s in the Highlands’, Edinburgh: Royal Association for the Promotion of Fine Art in Scotland.

[11] My thanks to John Purser for drawing it to my attention.