‘Hidden Detail? The Human Element in Visual Responses to the Highland Landscape, c.1750-1850’

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On 2 October 2013, the Centre was pleased to welcome Dr. Anne MacLeod, who began our weekly seminar series with ‘Hidden Detail? The Human Element in Visual Responses to the Highland Landscape, c.1750-1850’. Below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.

Dr. MacLeod based her lecture on her book, From An Antique Land: Visual Representations of the Highland and Islands 1700-1800The aim of her presentation was to assess landscape paintings/prints to understand how the Highland people were perceived by the artists, and perhaps wider society. Some have argued that the people are overwhelmed by the landscape in these paintings, or ignored completely. The famous paintings by Horatio McCulloch have been accused of overlooking the human aspect and presenting an image of the Highlands in which human life and activity is almost entirely absent. Dr. MacLeod focused on three forms of employment: agriculture, fishing and cattle-droving.

Dr. MacLeod began her assessment by looking at mid-18th century military maps. William Roy’s ‘Military Survey of Scotland,1747-55’, made in the wake of the ’45 Jacobite Rebellion, goes to considerable lengths to represent the human element by depicting inhabited villages. This is in contrast to other military maps which generally just represent a network of military buildings. Matthew Stobie’s ‘Survey of Strollamus, Skye, 1766’ follows Roy’s approach by adding in incidental decoration of human activity such as people crossing the bay on small skiffs. However, the surrounding uninhabited landscape is presented as a white, featureless expanse, as if the villages were chipped from marble.

Moving onto the representation of agriculture in paintings, Dr. MacLeod noted that many examples from the 18th/19th century only featured the faint suggestion of past labour and never get close enough to actually see the people. Examples of this include extracts from Thomas Penannts A Tour of Scotland 1772, John Fleming’s, ‘Swan’s Views of the Lakes of Scotland’ and Thomas Oliphant’s, ‘View from Knockfarrel’ of 1852. Many of William Daniell’s paintings only feature humans in agricultural scenes as marks of scale in the picturesque landscape. McCulloch’s paintings of Loch Maree and Loch Lomond from 1866/1861 are incredibly detailed but people can only be seen in the very far distance. Dr. MacLeod argued that this did not mean the people were being ignored, in fact, the opposite, as the painters went to the effort of incorporating them into the scene when they could easily have left them out. Nevertheless, they are clearly not the focus of the painting and often blend into the background.

Moving onto the depiction of fishing, Dr. MacLeod noted that this was the ‘Highland job’ most frequently painted; it was the ideal frame for the picturesque. James Barnet’s View of Village of Stornoway of 1798 focuses on the development of the new port, yet does feature fishing boats in the foreground. The work of James Shore and Edmund Crawford often feature fishing scenes with castles in the background, providing a more eye-catching vista. The contrast between the romantic past as represented by the castles, and the new economic development of the Highlands as represented by fishing, could present a striking contrast.

Into the nineteenth century, cattle-droving became an increasingly common activity in these paints. The popularity of this motif may originate with Sir Walter Scott’s 1827 short-story, ‘The Two Drovers’. Some of the paintings of droving may be attempting to suggest the alleged indolence of the activity, as they feature some of the drovers apparently lazing around. Alternatively, this may simply have been part of the aesthetics of the scene. As time went on, the focus shifted away from the drovers and onto the actual cattle, as the Highland cattle became an increasingly romanticised visual shorthand of the Scottish Highlands.

Paintings of deer-stalking frequently presented the Highlander as a young, vigorous male perfectly at home in the rugged wild of the Highlands. This view was echoed by Queen Victoria who described her ghillie as having been ‘moulded’ by the landscape.

Dr. MacLeod concluded by arguing that the Highland people were not hidden, even if they were not always the focus of these paintings. The art often depicts the Highlander as adapting old new skills and learning new ones. In many ways, the shifting developments of pictorial representations of Highland employment act as an index of the perceptions of the painters.

Summary by Ross Crawford (PhD Researcher)

The Centre seminar series will continue next Tuesday 8 October with Professor Richard Finlay (University of Strathclyde) ‘Scotland’s Forgotten Imperial Legacy: The War Against Islam in the Late Nineteenth Century’. This will be held in Room 202 of 3 University Gardens at 5.30pm. This presentation will open the seminar mini-series ‘Scotland and the Commonwealth’ which will run all year.

For the full schedule, visit our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/scottishceltic

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