The cult of all things Highland

The traditions that we today consider as distinctively Scottish, such as the bagpipes and the kilt, are all of Highland origin. But until quite recently the Highlands was a place the civilized Scots would have nothing to do with. In their eyes, the barbarous inhabitants of the Highlands were not unlike their surroundings: wild and unpredictable. Indeed, even in the beginning of the nineteenth century many Lowlanders still looked down upon Highlanders as ‘bare arsed savages’ and being a Highlander was equalled to being a thief and rebel. Ironically, in the course of the nineteenth century the traditions of the poorest part of Scotland came to represent the whole of Scotland.

After the Highland rebellions of the eighteenth century, the army was the most important institution in which the Highland traditions were maintained. In an attempt to annihilate the danger the Highland clans presented to the British state, the English had forbidden Highlanders to wear Highland dress or carry arms (including bagpipes, as these were also considered weapons of war). The only exception were Scottish soldiers serving in the British army. This almost destroyed the distinct Highland culture.
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In the nineteenth century the British came to look upon Highlanders more favourably because of their important role in empire-building. Distinctively Scottish with their kilts and bagpipes, the Highland regiments became synonymous with the Scottish contribution to the British Empire. When Lowland regiments too started wearing tartan trews and Highland-style doublets this strengthened the idea that there was one integrated Scottish identity, symbolized by Highland icons.

At the same time, under the influence of the Romantic movement, Scotland’s Celtic past was rediscovered. The Industrial Revolution led many to look back upon the rural past with nostalgia. Increasingly, this rural past was identified with the Highlands. No longer able to threaten the British state, the rapid disappearance of the Highland culture combined ‘the romance of a primitive people with the charm of an endangered species’.

Highland culture became very popular in the nineteenth century. Traditionally the garb of the Highland poor, the kilt increased in prestige because of the successes of the Highland regiments abroad, and the nobility too started wearing it. The Highlanders came to represent the ‘spirit’ of the entire nation, not just of the Highlands. And even though nowadays we associate the kilt and bagpipes with all of Scotland, the Lowland adoption of Highland symbols as their own is of a relative modern origin.


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