Social studies

Scottish identity: Who decides who we are?

This is one of a series of resources exploring the theme Scottish identity: who decides who we are? This section uses Monarch of the Glen and other relevant artworks to focus on social studies, offering images, questions and activities for learners of all ages to explore.

Sir Edwin Landseer, The Monarch of the Glen, (about 1851).

The ancient Palace of Westminster by the Thames in London was burnt down in October 1834 and the new Houses of Parliament, which still stand today, were built in its place. The prime minister at the time set up the Fine Arts Commission to decide which works of art should hang in the new building. The commissioners were mainly members of the Houses of Parliament, artists and art collectors.

They commissioned historical subjects and grand themes, inspired by Italian Renaissance, for most of the building. They decided that the dining rooms should be decorated with views of important and remarkable places, or rural scenery. 

Landseer was asked to create a series of three paintings for the dining rooms. Traditionally, animal painting had a lowly status, far below themes from human history and myth; so Landseer had to make his picture uplifting and celebratory.

Due to concerns about rising costs, the three paintings were never completed and never hung in the Houses of Parliament. We do not know what Landseer planned to create for the other two paintings.

In Victorian Britain the natural world was seen as something that humans controlled for pleasure, sport or resources and was regarded by many as a gift from God. There was also a growing awareness of the issue of animal welfare, and scientific understanding of the natural world was soon to make a profound leap forward with the theory of evolution.


Scottish Parliament art collection, includes images which are intended to embody the unique spirit and character of the Scottish nation. You can also find out about the art collection of The Houses of Parliament in London.



We wonder…

  • what kind of art do we find in our country’s most important places?
  • who makes decisions in our country and how do their decisions shape our lives?


What do your students wonder about the role of art in our society?

Ask your students to come up with questions, or try some of the questions below.

About you

What do you have in your school’s dining room? Is there any art?

What has nature got to do with you?

Who makes decisions about your life?

What do we have now that we didn’t have in 1850, when Monarch of the Glen was being painted?

Picture power

Is a stag a suitable animal to show in a dining room in the Houses of Parliament?  What would and wouldn’t be suitable?

Should art in the Houses of Parliament reflect the past, present or future?

How have animals been used as symbols of status or power?

Are some artworks more important than others? Which ones deserve to hang in important places?


Who should decide what art we see in our country’s important places?

Who designs our towns, cities, workplaces and homes?

Who decides who we are?


Here are three ideas that explore social studies through art. We have purposely suggested activities that are not aimed at a particular level as we believe in teachers’ professional judgement; you can adapt activities to suit any group and any time frame.

Show me power

Murdo MacLeod, Tom Kitchin, b. 1977. Chef, 2010, © Murdo MacLeod.
  • Show pupils a large selection of images, newspapers, magazines, postcards etc
  • In groups, ask pupils to create a collage of  images or words they think show  ‘power’
  • Discuss ‘what is power? ’Who has it?’ What power do you have?
  • Now tell the class there is new source material to draw upon: their school. Invite pupils to take photographs, draw or write about situations they find in the school environment that they think show power in various ways.

Creativity skills being developed include being curious, problem solving and exploring multiple viewpoints.

Possible links to the Curriculum for Excellence are politics in Social Subjects and speaking in Literacy.

The missing paintings

David Mach, Gavin Hastings, b. 1962. Rugby player, 1996, © David Mach
  • Introduce Monarch of the Glen and the fact that it was intended to hang in the Houses of Parliament along with two other paintings commissioned by the same artist i.e. as part of a triptych.
  • What subject matter is suitable for the Houses of Parliament?
  • What do you think the other two paintings might have looked like?
  • In groups create a new artwork to complete the trilogy that reflects today’s society

Creativity skills being developed include imagination, problem solving, being flexible, adaptable and functioning well with uncertainty.

Possible links to the Curriculum for Excellence are history within Social Subjects, visual art in Expressive Arts, and speaking within Literacy.

Art in your community

Richard Wright, The Stairwell Project, 2010, © The Artist
  • Set pupils the task of finding artworks in their local area and locate them on a map.
  • Ask the group to investigate the different artworks.  Ask them to find out who they were commissioned by and what they were commissioned for. 
  • What is the impact of the art in these places? E.g. attracts tourists, commemorate an event or person, decorates the space etc
  • Decide on new sites that lack art and come up with ideas for art to fill the gaps. 
  • Go back to the map and add your ideas to reimagine how the local area would look.
  • The new artwork could be made and placed in the different spaces to see how their community responds to children and young people making decisions on the aesthetics of a public space. 

Creativity skills being developed include researching productively, persistence, registering patterns and anomalies.

Possible links to the Curriculum for Excellence are local history in Social Subjects, Expressive Arts, and geography in Social Subjects.

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