The development of Scotland’s landscapes as a repository of the mysterious and ghostly, and its emergence as a designation, has been thoroughly intermingled from the very beginning of modernity. The very earliest tourists, who began to journey to Scotland from the middle of the eighteenth-century onwards, were English. They were drawn to this destination and its landscape in a search for extraordinary sensations and sights which they believed could not be found at home.
The apparently highly prosaic nature of life in England, as perceived by these elites, arose as a result of profound social structural and mental changes affecting English society in the period. (That such changes were also occurring at that time in Scotland, especially in the urbanized lowlands, was a fact largely ignored by these early tourists). The transition in England, as in most other European countries, from feudalism to modernity was experienced by elite groups of the time as involving the abolition of older modes of superstitious beliefs in spectres, fairies, goblins, and the like, as the Western world became increasingly “disenchanted”. Through a mixture of scientific empiricism and the dawning of Enlightenment, attention was drawn to that which was previously dark, and the phantoms of the (primarily peasant) imagination were exorcised by the rationalizing mentalities of an enlightened aristocracy and a resolutely worldly bourgeoisie. Western European topography came at this period to be seen in a new light.
From the spook-haunted forests and troll-infested mountains of the dim and distant past, Europe was felt to have moved, starting in the later enlightenment-century, towards a condition resembling a landscape of geometrical order. European space increasingly was seen by elites as a terrain of straight lines and trimmed symmetries where unreason and mysticism had been banished, and into which only material bodies susceptible to the investigation of positivist science might enter. As a result of such developments, ghost beliefs diminished in England and other advanced capitalist nations throughout the century. As Thomas notes, people in general and elites, in particular, had “stopped seeing ghosts” in their own lives and locales (1991:724). As rationalism became the primary mode of elite perception of the world and the entities that existed within it, the ghost was banished to the peripheries, both mental and geographic.
The worldview of the English upper classes in the later part of the century was more prosaic and matter-of-fact than that of their ancestors. Arguably this view of everyday life as determined by primarily commercial, money-driven considerations, created an absence in the life of the English elites of the more ineffable aspects of the experience. The longing for an obscure object that would fulfil the lack of the ethereal and spiritual dimensions of human existence was turned upon Scotland, partly for reasons of geographical proximity, and partly for political reasons. By the Act of Union of 1707, Scotland had become part of the United Kingdom, and thus part of an aggressively expansionist state, fuelled both by a burgeoning capitalist economy and by growing imperialist ambitions (Devine 2000). But at the same time, it was not quite part of the nation-state thus constructed, in part because the natives (or rather, certain elites among them) had put up an often bloody struggle against the territorial expansion of English elites. With the defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s rebellion in 1745, Scotland came to figure as a highly ambiguous site as far as English elite perception was concerned. It was part of the same political entity as England, and thus to a degree “familiar” territory, and yet unfamiliar too because it had before 1707 been a separate country. Therefore, Scotland was perceived to be in important ways “different” from England, particularly in terms of its cultural habits and practices.
For an admixture of reasons, the English upper classes looked to Scotland to meet their needs for something beyond the prosaic matters of everyday life. They travelled there in search of what they believed could not be found at home. Thus, it is to a large extent the “tourist gaze” (Urry 1990), viewed in the context of English/Scottish relations over several centuries, a juxtaposition which has played a very important part in the creation of Scotland’s distinctively ethereal international reputation. The landscape was being read from the very beginnings in ways that fitted with the outsider’s demand to be stimulated both by unusual sights which life “back home” did not furnish and by experiences that were out of the ordinary.
Eighteenth-century English tourists were attempting both to glimpse aspects of human existence beyond those accounted for by science, and to catch the past experientially before it was exorcised and Scotland, in line with England, was catapulted into the conditions of modernity. A famous early English tourist, Samuel Johnson, while himself not very interested in the Scottish physical landscape, travelled around the Highlands and the Western Isles in 1775 in search of odd and unusual phenomena (Keay and Keay 1994). Like other English tourists, Samuel Johnson came to witness what he felt was the passing of an older traditional way of life into the new commercial order prevalent in England, and to witness its last evanescent glimmerings before it disappeared forever. He was sceptical about the possibility of the existence of the powers of second sight which supposedly enabled Highland seers and oracles to predict the future through their glimpses of ghostly doubles of living people (Thompson 1997). Nonetheless, he heard enough convincing stories to make him write that: “I never could advance my curiosity to conviction; but came away at last only willing to believe” (Johnson 1775:112). Thus, Scotland’s reputation for the strange and literally super-natural could be found, even by a sceptic like Samuel Johnson, to at least have some justification.
Samuel Johnson was not alone in his capitulation to the apparently paranormal nature of Scottish life. Mystical and fantastic qualities were widely ascribed by late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century English tourists to the Scottish landscape, partly as a result of their having read stories of an apparently mystical Celtic past. The popularity of Celtic-inspired tales in England at this time was part of a general Romantic reaction against the rationalist modes of thought associated with the intellectual project of Enlightenment. While Romanticism is notoriously difficult to define (Berlin 2000), part of this cultural tendency clearly involved an interest in the irrational, with Romanticism’s offspring, the Gothic movement, possessing a particular fascination for the ghostly. Romantic attitudes were particularly espoused by poets and painters, searching for the sublime, beautiful phenomena that stood above and against the prosaic concerns of a rapidly industrializing society from which they were increasingly alienated (Holloway and Errington 1978).
One particularly important example of Romantic interest in Scotland centred on the figure of Ossian, who was supposed to have been a Celtic bard of the Dark Ages. Ossian wrote Homeric-style epic lays, combining the magnificence of Highland scenery with grand tales of chivalry. It was not until much later that it was proven that the works of Ossian were forged by James MacPherson, a minor poet of the later eighteenth-century. However, in the second half of the century, the popularity of Ossian’s poetry was immense, not just in England but all across Europe (Stafford 1988). The Ossian phenomenon was also one of the first instances of “literary tourism”, whereby tourists made a pilgrimage to places apparently mentioned by Ossian, and seemingly touched by the magic associated with his mystical vision of the Celtic past (Squire 1994).
The “picturesque” landscapes of those and other locales were subjected to highly romanticized representations, both in literature and painting of the period (Butler 1985). These artistic representations of Scottish terrain had a profound effect on how Scotland was viewed by tourists. It is partly as a result of Romantic notions of the landscape (as intimating that which exists above or beyond the human) that specifically Highland landscapes became synonymous with the whole of Scottish territory (Holloway and Errington 1978). The arable farmlands of lowland areas such as Dumfries-shire or Ayrshire, and the burgeoning industrial towns and cities of central Scotland, were conveniently ignored in favour of the vast and often pleasingly threatening vistas provided by the territory in the North and far West (Gold and Gold 1995). The emotional lack felt by English tourists, who dwelt in prosaic, primarily urban landscapes, and Romantic notions of how the Highlands were a magical and untamed place, propelled them on past the familiar urbanity of industrial Glasgow. Tourists were hungry to get to the Highlands where the “real”, that is to say, the mysterious, Scotland began.
Also published on Medium.