University of Portsmouth's History Blog

The domestic colonisation of eighteenth-century Scotland

Third year student Kathryn Watts chose an original focus for her dissertation in investigating the eighteenth century attack on Scottish culture. As she argues below, colonialism is often looked at in the global context, but the domestic colonialism of Scotland (and Ireland) predated it, and provided a prototype for many of the colonialist ideas of racial hierarchy and methods of cultural indoctrination which followed.  It has been fascinating supervising Kathryn’s dissertation journey – ed.

The devil dressed in tartan and playing the bagpipes

In this 1766 satirical print, the devil is shown wearing tartan and playing the bagpipes: British Museum print J,1.111

On April 16, 1746, the bloody battle of Culloden ended with Jacobite defeat; the rebellion of Bonnie Prince Charlie, crushed. This date became synonymous with the decimation of Highland culture, as pro-Government forces sought to destroy Jacobite support, which was equated with the Highlander.  My dissertation, entitled Demonisation and Appropriation: Transitions of Scotland Post-Culloden, 1746-1784, explored the impact of appropriation of highland culture by wealthy lowland and English elites.  I organised my chapters into three, exploring the historiography first, then examining domestic colonialism and then romanticism respectively.

I chose this topic as my dissertation, having had prior interest in the Jacobite movement, and noting the romantic approach taken by historians, I was interested in examining the ways in which Scottish culture, but in particular Highland culture, was decimated. This was achieved through a concept of domestic colonialism within British borders, an approach taken by both lowland Scottish and English elites who felt they were racially superior to the supposedly ‘uncivilised’ Celtic highlander.[1]  Both lowland and highland Scots were demonised, but highlanders especially were designated as the ‘uncivilised’ brute that both lowland and English perceptions sought to change.

After the battle of Culloden, whether through satire, religion, language, or culture, the highlanders were demonised at the same time as legislative reforms were put in place to strip the highlanders of their culture. The Disarming Act of 1746 specifically ordered the ban of the use of tartan and the Highland costume – the kilt – which was identified as a symbol that became equated to the Jacobite movement. It further demanded the removal of the use of bagpipes citing them as a weapon of war.[2] Breaking this Act faced severe punishments: to break the act first time meant six months in prison, a second time could mean transportation for seven years.[3] This Act was not enforced strongly everywhere: most convictions were in towns or villages that were near garrisons.[4]

Scotsman sitting on a toilet, 1745.

This 1745 etching caricatures the Scots using a folkloric legend of the cannibalistic Sawney Bean.  Whilst the legend dates back much earlier, it was used in the mid eighteenth-century to accentuate the Scot as primitive. Entitled Sawney in the Boghouse, the uncivilised Scot is shown sitting on the toilet, but unable to properly use the ‘lavatory pans’.


Furthermore, the Heritable Jurisdiction’s Act of 1747 stated that any Jacobites’ land would now be in control of the government, and destroyed the former clan structure. The government had observed how clan leaders were able to rouse Highlanders into fighting for the Jacobite cause (though it is contested on how well they were actually able to do this).[5] By removing the clan leaders, the government felt they could then ‘civilise’ the Highlanders by destroying their political structure, and instead anglicise it.

Methods of anti-Scottishness was also introduced through schooling of children. Extra focus was placed on removing the Scottish Gaelic language, and instead teaching English to highland children – implanting dominant English culture over the Highland culture.[6] This was implemented by the missionary group entitled the Scottish Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge (SSPCK). The form of teaching that the SSPCK used in highland schools was a prototype for what would later be used in the global colonial settings, where punishment was strict, and the enforcement of English culture was to be dominant.[7] Whether it can be said to be successful is doubtful. Rumours, for example, spread that if any person had attended at a school on the Earl of Lovat’s land, they would immediately be transported to the colonies, which dramatically lowered the attendance of that school.[8]

Portrait of Colonel William Gordon in tartan, 1766

Pompeo Batoni, Colonel William Gordon of Fyvie, painted 1766, National Trust for Scotland, Fyvie Castle, Aberdeenshire, personal photo.

After a series of successive laws that removed the highlanders of their culture, wealthy elites of both England and the Lowlands sought to appropriate their culture for their own personal benefit. Within this period, paintings such as Pompeo Batoni’s Colonel William Gordon of Fyvie (as seen below; figure 1) became common amongst the wealthy classes, removing the connotations of tartan from Jacobitism to a romantic fashionable item. Batoni’s painting is one example of this. The man featured in the painting, Colonel William Gordon of Fyvie, is dressed in both a British uniform jacket married with a philibeg costume (a traditional kilt that was worn over the shoulder). Furthermore, Batoni features classical influences, such as the background behind Colonel William Gordon, suggesting he is the epitome of the civilised gentleman.

However, it was only after British colonialism had decimated Highland culture, and the Jacobites were no longer a threat, that highlanders began to be considered romantic, antiquarian freedom fighters who had lived in a primitive lifestyle. They were ‘uncivilised’ but they were also now romantic. Books such as James Mcpherson’s Ossian, published in the 1760s, benefited from this new perception of the highlanders. Through portraits, literature, poetry, and clothing and particularly the later work of Burns and Sir Walter Scott in the mainstream of the Romantic period, the highlander came to be seen from a restrained Lowland/English perspective – tamed of his former ‘brutish’ manners.

Whilst this is an under-researched topic, I found this dissertation to be extremely rewarding. Scottish colonialism in the eighteenth-century is an under-developed scholarly field, which, in attempts to decipher, unravels a whole lot more about the context of early Scottish enlightenment. Where there is information about the highland clearances, this is often looked at from an economic perspective, rather than the damage to highland culture. Colonialism is often looked in the global context, but there should be greater emphasis placed on domestic colonialism where not only the English, but lowlanders too, saw themselves as racially superior to that of the highlander.

[1] Robert Knox, The Races of Men. A Fragment, (Philadelphia, PA, 1850), 18. Quoted in Iain MacKinnon, “Colonialism and the Highland Clearances,” Northern Scotland 8 (2017): 35.

[2] Fitzroy Maclean, A Concise History of Scotland (London: Thames and Hudson, 1970), 182.

[3] T. M. Devine, The Scottish Nation: A Modern History (London: Penguin, 2012), 233.

[4] J. Telfer-Dunbar, History of Highland Dress (London, 1962), 6-8; NLS, MS 5129, fo. 42 (Disposition of Troops in the Highlands, April 1749). Quoted in Charles W. J. Withers, Gaelic Scotland: The Transformation of a Culture Region (London: Routledge, 2016): 83.

[5] Devine, The Scottish Nation, 47.

[6] Peter Womack, Improvement and Romance: Constructing the Myth of the Highlands (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1989): 4.

[7] Silke Stroh, “The Modern Nation-State and its Others: Civilising Missions at Home and Abroad, ca. 1600 to ca. 1800,” in Scotland in the Colonial Imagination: Anglophone Writing from 1600 to 1900 (Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 2017), 67.

[8] Deposition of John Grant, January 17, 1753, British Library Add. 35, 447, 379. Quoted in Geoffrey Plank, Rebellion and Savagery: The Jacobite Rising of 1745 and the British Empire (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006), 113.

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