Reflections: Art, Life and Love | Depicting Scotland

What do you picture when you think of Scotland? Bagpipers? Dramatic crags? Misty lochs? Maybe it’s the opening scenes from Trainspotting or architecture by Charles Rennie Mackintosh?

As the National Galleries of Scotland are currently developing a new suite of exhibition spaces to showcase the national collection of Scottish art, episode two in our series examines what it means to belong to this nation. Ewan Bremner introduces a discussion of how artists have depicted Scotland in recent times.

The Monarch of the Glen

We hear different viewpoints on this iconic, evocative and also problematic artwork of a lone stag by the English artist Sir Edwin Landseer. Tricia Allerston Elliston, Deputy Director of European and Scottish art at the National Galleries of Scotland explains that this painting is very popular with visitors, all wanting to be photographed next to the recognisable image. She mentions that it was bought Dewars and used to advertise whisky for many years; a sign of the image’s versatility rather than something to be criticised, she believes.

John Morrison, Head of the School of History and Heritage at the University of Lincoln explains why the image is problematic for many and a ‘curious’ choice to celebrate Scottish culture. Although it was painted during the Highland Clearances, it does not directly refer to them, he says, rather it depicts a very small part of culture in Scotland; the landowners or power elite who use Scotland as a sporting playground, excluding large parts of the population from their own 

Horatio McCulloch Inverlochy Castle 1857

Romanticised visions of Scotland

Different examples of Scottish art are discussed, including the very slightly altered realities of Horatio McCulloch, or the writings of Sir Walter Scott, which offered a non-English identity that was very attractive at a time when Scotland was keen to establish its own identity. John Morrison discusses the Scottish renaissance of the 1920s and 30s, when a new identity began to emerge. He talks about more recent depictions of Scottishness, where some artists have taken a more working class, left wing stance, or played up Scottish stereotypes in a knowing, self-mocking way. They’ll maybe wear and like kilts, he says, but they are aware of the romanticised picture they are painting of the country. Events like Tartan Week in New York cash in very successfully on Scotland’s Highland identity, helping to sell whisky and boost tourism.

The podcast ends with Scotland-based artists Louise Scullion and Matthew Dalziel, who describe themselves as environmental or ecological artists, focusing on the relationship between nature and humans. Dalziel brings up Sir Harry Lauder, a Scottish singer often pictured in a kilt, leaning on a walking stick. He represents a type of Scottishness that panders to what people down south or abroad may want, suggests Dalziel, or reduces Scotland to a type of entertainment. Tweed is also brought up as an example of something very clichéd and Scottish – it is associated with tourists visiting Scotland for shooting trips, says Dalziel, but as Scullion points out, it’s also a revolutionary fabric which must be handcrafted in small batches using no power in order to be officially classified as Harris Tweed. Dalziel believes that identity is a concept invented by humans – something that nature and animals are completely oblivious to – and the starting point for their work.


Sir Edwin Landseer The Monarch of the Glen 1851