inauthentically yours

[“The Secreting of Donald the Hammerer,” from Burt (1822), vol. 1]

An English soldier named Edmund Burt tells a story about traveling through the Highlands in the 1720s:

Upon one of my peregrinations, accompanied by a Highland gentleman, who was one of the clans through which I was passing, I observed the women to be in great anger with him about something that I did not understand: at length, I asked wherein he had offended them? Upon this question he laughed, and told me his great-coat was the cause of their wrath; and that their reproach was, that he could not be contented with the garb of his ancestors, but was degenerated into a Lowlander, and condescended to follow their unmanly fashions (Qtd. in Foyster and Whatley, A History of Everyday Life in Scotland, 145-6).

This anecdote seems like a good place to begin, if you wished to understand just how closely enlightenment and improvement were associated in this period.  The Highland gentleman, secure in the presence of his English companion, laughs off the reproaches of the old women, who accuse him of abandoning the “garb of his ancestors” and following the Lowlanders’ “unmanly fashions” instead.  And what would convey more status and authority at this point in time, a tartan or a great coat, to his new and expanded range of acquaintances?  The unending forces of improvement, which install modernity, desire, and the marketplace into the heart of an always evolving social order, help to produce new definitions of masculine authority as surely as they do new patterns of dress for a moneyed elite.  And who is more “authentically” Scottish, the gentleman who embraces the changes wrought by improvement, or the women who fruitlessly reproach him and the changes he represents?

Scottish history has been shaped by both impulses for a long, long time.


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