Imagining Scotland’s Past: Epic and Satirical Illustrations from the 18th and 19th Centuries.

As UofGASC begin to welcome a new cohort of placement students, it seems a fitting opportunity to publish the work of one of last year’s Museum Studies students.

Guest blog post by Antonios Chaliakopoulos, Museum Studies placement student

I completed a placement in the Special Collections department of the Library, jointly supervised by the Hunterian Museum, to research material for a future Hunterian exhibition, ‘Old Ways and New Roads’. This exhibition is programmed to open on the 14th of August and close on the 29th of November 2020, and will deal with the theme of early travelling and tourism in Scotland over a period of 100 years from 1720 to 1822. Working for such a project presented me with the opportunity to immerse myself in Scottish history and some beautifully illustrated editions currently held in Special Collections. During this work placement, I studied approximately 50 books, but only a few made such a strong impression on me, namely David Allan’s “Plates to illustrate the poems of Ossian” (Edinburgh: Printed for J. Elder No.7 and T. Brown No.1 North Bridge Street, 1797) and William Combe’s “The Tour of Doctor Prosody” (Glasgow: W. Turnbull, 1821.). To these works I would like to devote the next lines of this blog post.

Figure 1: Fingal’s cave (Pennant, 1790: 263) [Sp Coll Mu6-d.2].

During the decades that followed the 1707 Act of Union, Scotland faced a confidence crisis, struggling to define ‘Scottishness’. Over the same period, there was a gradual change in attitude towards Scottish history and landscape. The influence of romanticism, which would grow to become the dominant aesthetic movement of nineteenth century Britain, had already begun transforming Highlanders to romantic savages and the Highlands into an Arcadic Utopia. During the 1770’s travellers – real, such as Thomas Pennant (1772), William Gilpin (1776), Samuel Johnson (1773) and imaginary, such as Matthew Bramble and his family in Tobias Smollett’s “The Expedition of Humphry Clinker” (1771) – started searching for picturesque views and ruins of past civilisations, which Scotland could offer without fail. James Macpherson’s ‘discovery’ of legendary Gaelic bard Ossian could be interpreted within the general context of a Scottish cultural identity struggling to find confidence in its own past, both real and imaginary.

Ossian, as the Caledonian Homer, offered an epic past which, among others, altered the way landscape was being experienced. A good example of this is the rebranding of a picturesque but previously unmythologised sea cave into Fingal’s cave (Fig. 1), after the mythical king of Morven and father of Ossian (Crane and Fletcher, 2015; Leask, 2016). The Scottish landscape was now echoing the Ossianic epic poetry. David Allan’s “Plates to illustrate the poems of Ossian” are unique as they give us a hint on how Macpherson’s work would be imagined.  The classical and archaic references of the plates are unsurprising for a painter like David Allan, who was known for his historical paintings. Furthermore, Allan was illustrating an epic poem paralleled with Homer’s epics. In that sense it would be hard to resist the archaic elements. The plates depict different moments in the story of the epics and are accompanied by the poem’s name above the image and the verse below. All the plates respond to the heroic and epic ideas the poems called for. Figure 3 depicts Fingal’s fight with the spirit of Loda in the poem Carric-Thura. Allan has illustrated the moment where Fingal, right before advancing against the spirit of Loda, says: “And shall the Sons of the wind frighten the king of Morven? No! He knows the weakness of their arms!”.

Figure 3: Plate from Allan, 1797 [Sp Coll T.C.L. 3234].

William Combe’s “The Tour of Doctor Prosody” immediately stands out with its humorous and colourful illustrations. Dr. Prosody is a satire of the British intellectual touring Scotland, which, several decades after the tours of travelers such as Pennant, has become so fashionable as to be considered clichéd. He is Oxford-educated and travels “in Search of the Antique and Picturesque Through Scotland, The Hebrides, The Orkney and Shetland Isles”, as the subtitle informs. Despite his best intentions, he always finds himself in unexpected adventures that often have a mild didactic tone. In one of the many episodes of the story, Dr. Prosody and his company visit Iona, where they discover a grave with an inscription in Gaelic. Even though they cannot read Gaelic, they assume that the grave belongs to Ossian, which leads Prosody to proclaim:

“Joy! Joy! My friend! I’ve found it out,

This puts the thing beyond all doubt,

That Ossian liv’d in ancient times,

And sung in erse delightful times,

And ne’er to Ireland ow’d his lot,

But was a very Highland Scot;

And here, without another word,

I’ll prove th’ heroic bard interr’d.”

Figure 4: Dr. Prosody clears up the antiquities of Iona (Combe, 1821: 160) [Sp Coll RQ 1264].

The company immediately began excavating the grave but was soon stopped by a mob of angry locals who were disturbed by the foreigners’ disrespect for the grave calling them Goths, Huns and Vandals. To ‘calm’ the locals, Prosody announced:

“It well befits you to run down

Those men to whom you owe renown;

Barbarians, Vandals, Goths, yourselves.

Not long ago, ye ign’rant elves,

These monuments by you invaded

To stables and cow sheds degraded,

Were pull’d to pieces and destroy’d,

And to repair your huts employ’d;

‘Till Johnsonn and such men as I

Towards them drew the public eye,

And taught them that amidst Time’s ravages,

Iona harbour’d more than savages.”

The crowd replied to this cultural superiority by throwing pebble-stones. Realising the direness of the situation, one of Prosody’s friends spoke and successfully convinced the locals that Prosody was a madman deserving sympathy. The episode ends with Prosody angry at his friend for making his reputation bleed and drinking a “dram o’ whisky” to calm down. “The Tour of Doctor Prosody”, through its satire, provides a valuable insight into the growing demand for picturesque landscapes and romantic ruins. It also sketches a vivid image of travellers in Scotland, whose imagination would see Ossian in every gravestone with a Gaelic inscription.


Allan, D. 1797. Plates to illustrate the Poems of Ossian. Edinburgh: Printed for J. Elder No.7 and T. Brown No.1 North Bridge Street, University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections, Sp Coll T.C.L. 3234.

Carter-McKee, K. C. 2018. Calton Hill: and the Plan for Edinburgh’s Third New Town. Edinburgh: Birlinn Ltd.

Combe, W. 1821. The tour of Doctor Prosody: in search of the antique and picturesque, through Scotland, the Hebrides, the Orkney and Shetland Isles. London: Matthew Iley, Somerset Street. University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections, Sp Coll RQ 1264.

Crane, R. and Fletcher, L. 2015. Inspiration and Spectacle: The Case of Fingal’s Cave in Nineteenth-Century Art and Literature. Isle: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment. 22(4): 778-800.

Holloway, J. 1978. The discovery of Scotland: the appreciation of Scottish scenery through two centuries of painting. Edinburgh: National Gallery of Scotland.

Leask, N. 2016. Fingalian Topographies: Ossian and the Highland Tour, 1760‐1805. Journal for Eighteenth Century Studies. 39(2): 183-196.

Monkhouse, W.  2004. Allan, David (1744–1796), portrait and genre painter. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Pennant, T. 1790. A tour in Scotland and in the Hebrides. London. University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections Sp Coll Mu6-d.2.

Wickman, Matthew.  2011. Travel Writing and the Picturesque. In Pittock, M. ed. The Edinburgh companion to Scottish romanticism. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Categories: Archives and Special Collections, Library

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