Tuesday, February 16, 2016

1810, What a Year It Was, Part 2: The Lady of the Lake and the Hughland Revival

Just in case you think that media having a profound effect on popular culture is a modern phenomenon, I have five words for you: The Lady of the Lake.

In 1810 a Scottish lawyer named Walter Scott who had been slowly building a name for himself as a poet writing about Scottish history and lore published his third narrative poem, called The Lady of the Lake. His previous efforts, The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805) and Marmion (1808) had seen moderate popular success. But for some reason, the May release of The Lady of the Lake turned Scott into a household name, selling 25,000 copies that year alone.

The poem’s story is a dramatic one, with three suitors vying for the hand of the fair Ellen Douglas, a disguised king reconciling with an estranged old friend and supporter (who happens to be the father of the aforementioned Ellen), and war between the king and his Lowland Scots versus the Highland Clans led by one of the (also) aforementioned suitors. There are bards and druidic prophets and old feuds affecting the present and one-on-one combat and lots and lots and lots of description of the wild beauties of Scotland...and the origins of the song we now know as “Hail to the Chief”!

So, popular book, sold lots of copies, blah blah blah. But The Lady of the Lake also sparked something known as the Highland Revival, a sort of craze for Scottish history and culture (or at least what people thought was Scottish culture). Don't forget that Scotland had been in eclipse through most of the 18th century, ever since the last Stuart uprising in 1745 had led to the horrible slaughter of the Battle of Culloden, decades of sanctions against the Scots, and widespread emigration to America. Scotland as a topic was ripe for romanticization and exploitation; it had already begun with the publication in 1760 of what purported to be epic poems by an ancient Scottish bard, Ossian, by one James Mcpherson. They were an international sensation: people from Thomas Jefferson to Napoleon counted them as favorites. Alas, it turned out that they were not ancient, but Macpherson's own work. Still, the seed had been planted, fertilized by the passion of the late 18th and early 19th centuries for the wild and picturesque. 

Scott knew a good thing when he saw it; he followed up the success of  with a series of historical novels set in Scotland, and the craze only grew. The Prince Regent was an enthusiastic subscriber; he invited Scott to dinner in 1815 after reading his novel Waverley, published the previous year, and ended up visiting Scotland in 1822, the first reigning monarch to do so since 1650. He also had his portrait painted wearing a kilt to commemorate the visit.  The Highland Revival would eventually find its apotheosis in Queen Victoria’s buying a house in the Scottish Highlands, decorating it from cellar to attic in tartans and deer antlers, and trying to spend as much time there as possible, much to the dismay of her ministers.  And long-time NineteenTeen readers may recall my poking gentle fun at the Scottish craze in an April Fool’s Day  post a while back.
And it all more or less started in 1810. ☺

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