Romantic Empires; Romantic Identities
RA Conference 2018
Aviemore, Scottish Highlands, 26-28 July 2018
The Scottish Highlands play a particular role in the Romantic era. There were recent memories of the Jacobite uprising, primarily by the Highland clans, which sought to put Charles Edward Stuart on the throne. The defeat of the uprising in 1745 at Culloden was followed by the supression of Gaelic language, tartan, clan structures, and even the bagpipes. Even some castles were razed, with their destruction forming a physical image of the destruction of Scottish culture. After this, the clearances saw massive displacements of people, often under harsh circumstances, and often leading to the victims immigrating to Australia, New Zealand, Canada or the USA, thus creating the "Scottish diaspora".
On the other hand, the Scottish regiments were allowed to maintain their traditions, and came to play a crucial role in the British imperial military, with a famous example being the charge of the Scots Greys at Waterloo in 1815. It is a notable historical irony that they charged using their warcry "Scotland Forever" against the French, who had been theoretical allies in the Jacobite uprising (though they failed to lend much practical support). But it is also notable more generally that the displacements of Scottish people helped to populate the British colonial empire, as well as its armies.
The Romantics themselves took a great interest in this history and in the terrain. Many (including Coleridge and Keats) undertook tours of Scotland. James "Ossian" MacPherson created a Europe-wide literary sensation by publishing translations of Gaelic poetry, along with the infamous fragments of Fingal, a supposed Gaelic epic to rival Homer. He was accused of largely faking Fingal, but the wave of Ossianic influences proceeded unchecked, or perhaps even enhanced by this controversy. Paintings depicting scenes from Ossian became a fashion in themselves, and now grace many museums and galleries throughout Europe.
Following this, "romanticised" images of the "savage" Scots proliferated, including romanticised images of Charles Edward Stuart himself. Sir Walter Scott published his novels mostly set in the Scots borders, and many other Scottish authors came to prominence, and some to lasting fame, such as Robbie Burns. Sir Walter Scott played a particularly stunning role in reviving tartan, rediscovering the lost Scottish Crown Jewels, and even convincing George IV to wear a kilt in 1822.
But more widely the Romantic era, and the Napoleonic wars, were marked by these kinds of issues of identity and empire. It saw the rise of the French and English empires as colonial powers. But these empires were themselves based on either the supression or accomodation of minority cultures, and the appropriation of concepts of citizenship and society from various sources, including Rousseau's Social Contract, and the contemplation of historical and classical models. Indeed, the relentless grappling with the past that characterises much Romantic thought and writing, is marked precisely by this awareness of the issues of individual and society, race and culture, and intergration and independence that were thrown up by contemporary war, revolution, and social change.
A conference in Aviemore, just a few miles from Culloden, will allow us to explore these issues against the backdrops in which they played out -- in the very terrain that was one of the forges of empire and identity during the period.
It will also serve as an excellent starting-point for individual participants to further explore Scotland.