Highland: Views and Visions

RSA Library


Highland: a definition:
[Relating to]…the mountainous district of Scotland lying north and west of a line drawn approximately from Dumbarton to Ballater and thence to Nairn, and enclosing the territory formerly occupied by the clans and speaking the Gaelic language; extended to mean the inhabitants of this region.


W Grant & D D Murison, The Scottish National Dictionary (Edinburgh 1960)

Defined by geology, the term 'Highland' conjures up a variety of images. Foremost is the ever-present terrain of mountains, moorland, coast and islands, the landscape of the picture postcard. Yet even landscapes can tell stories of their own; ranging from the crofting way of life to the abandonment of the land in favour of the highland sporting estate.


Central to highland culture is its history and also music, poetry, song and story. Passed down the generations, these art forms have enjoyed periods of revival. In the eighteenth-century James MacPherson created the blind bard, Ossian, as the spokesman of a Celtic tradition. In the nineteenth century academic studies were spearheaded by the likes of Professor John Stuart Blackie and by writers such as William Sharp. In the mid-twentieth century a young artist from Edinburgh called James Cumming immersed himself in the way of life of the Isle of Lewis and translated his experience into a series of paintings. And in recent years Calum Colvin has revisited the story of Ossian.

With the breakup of the traditional clan structure and depopulation many changes have taken place over the last three hundred years. Crofting and local industries have been overtaken by tourism as the most widespread economic activity. Highlanders, in full tartan rig, have become an iconic part of the British army and respected around the world. Emigration has emptied swathes of land but has also spread the memory and love of highland culture to distant continents.


The paintings, drawings, prints and books on display in this room have been selected from the permanent collection of the Royal Scottish Academy.