Redemption of the Gàidhealtachd: The Formation of Highlandism from 1745 to 1822

April 29, 2020   /  

Student: Isaiah Corso-Phinney
Major: History
Advisor: Jeff Roche, Christina Welsch

Isaiah Corso-PhinneyDuring the mid-18th century to the early 19th century in Scotland, Highland cultural symbols such as the Kilt, Tartan, and bagpipes came to be symbols of Scottish national identity. This process, called Highlandism, came to represent a form of Scottish Nationalism. Highlandism was started by the Highland Regiments, who wore the Kilt and Tartan with their uniforms. Robert Burns, the national bard of Scotland, also promoted Highlandism with his sympathetic and egalitarian views of the Highlanders. Finally, the great Scottish Romantic novelist Sir Walter Scott cemented Highlandism with his Romantic stories of the Highlands while bringing it to the physical sphere by infusing Highland imagery in George IV’s visit to Scotland in 1822. This was an ‘invention of tradition’ by the Scots who wanted to maintain cultural independence within the United Kingdom.


My project explores how such cultural symbols as the Kilt, Tartan, and bagpipes became associated with Scottish national identity. Those symbols were not native to the whole of Scotland. Rather, they came from the Scottish Highlands, a region in the northwest of the country. For a long time, the Highlands and its inhabitance were thought of as barbarians by the rest of the country. It was only until the mid-18th century that these opinions began to change. Through a period of about 70 years, the culture of the highlands was “rehabilitated” and came to be symbols for Scottish Nationalism. This movement was called Highlandism. My I.S. investigates how the raising of Highland regiments, military units that were composed of Highlanders, first started this transition of public perception. The project also looks at how influential Scottish writers Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott promoted Highlandism through their works. Burns through his poems that showed sympathy to the Highlanders and Scott through his Romantic works of Lady of the Lake and Waverly. In addition, Scott is important because he stage managed the visit of George IV and embedded Highland imagery throughout the king’s visit.

As a bagpiper myself, I was very much interested in Highland culture and how such Highland symbols came to be quintessentially Scottish. My interest only deepened when I had the opportunity to study abroad in Scotland at the University of Aberdeen in the Spring of 2019. It was with pride that I wear both my family tartan and the MacLeod tartan that the College of Wooster uses. However, it surprised me to find out that the Kilt, Tartan, and bagpipes were seen in a negative light for centuries. Why was this the case? Why were the Highlanders seen as barbarians in centuries past whereas now people all over the globe with Scottish ancestry look to the Tartan and sound of the pipes as symbols of their ancestor’s homeland? Questions like these spurred on my research and it has produced this work which sheds light on how Highlandism was triumphant.

Isaiah will be online to field comments on May 8:
4-6pm EDT (PST 1pm-3pm, Africa/Europe: late evening)

89 thoughts on “Redemption of the Gàidhealtachd: The Formation of Highlandism from 1745 to 1822”

    1. Thank you very much! So what’s next for me is that I hope to do a year with AmeriCorps working with High School students to prepare them for College.

  1. So interesting to read that Highlanders seen as barbarians! My ancestors are from Isle of Skye and proud barbarian highlanders – Did you study find pride in those who identify as Highlanders?

    1. Hey there! I hope to return to Scotland someday and the Isle of Sky is on the list! I found an instance of a Highland Piper named Kenneth MacKay who played the pipes during the battle of Waterloo and this shows a sense of pride for native culture. But he isn’t the only one! There are tons of examples of Highlanders wearing kilts and playing the pipes with pride wherever they went.

  2. Nice job Isaiah! Never knew that the bagpipes and tartan were at one time a negative symbol. Congrats and Best Wishes!

    1. Thanks! Hey, it was a shock to me as well when I found out. You never know what you’ll find by digging through some old history books!

  3. Really cool and interesting topic, especially given Wooster’s heritage! Thank you for sharing!

    1. Cheers! Wooster’s heritage was indeed one of the reasons that spurred me on to research this topic.

  4. Isaiah, I can’t think of a more appropriate topic for a College of Wooster student. I’ve always loved, as well, how the kilt would not have become so nationalist for the Highlanders if the British hadn’t treated it with such scorn and forbidden it. Nice job!

    1. Thanks Professor Bostdorff! I’m very happy Wooster has a Scottish Heritage that it remembers. Seeing not only many members of the British nation but also the Lowlanders having scorn for the Highlanders was such a strange fact!

  5. Great job Izzy! I know how hard and personally invested you were in this topic. What fact did you learn that surprised you the most?

    1. Hey Emily! Aww thanks, it means a lot. I think the fact that I learned which was most surprising was how Highland symbols were incorporated into George IV’s visit to Scotland. This happened in 1822 and the king himself wore a kilt!

  6. It is such a pleasure to read more about your conclusions after hearing you and Dr. Roche discuss this all year!
    Do you see a resurgence of Highlandism and other forms of Scottish nationalism in the aftermath of Brexit? If so, what forms has this taken?

    1. Thanks Professor Holt! It was a pleasure to have you as my advisor Sophmore year. After Brexit, there was a resurgence in the idea of Scottish Independences which was voted on and defeated in 2014 (No – 55%, Yes – 45%). At many of these pro-independence rallies, there were kilts, bagpipes, and tartan abound as symbols of Scottish nationalism. So I would have to say that there was indeed the use of Highland symbols at these independence rallies after Brexit.

  7. Fascinating project, Isaiah!

    Did you come across the alleged poet “Ossian,” most likely a fabrication of the 18th century author James Macpherson? In the process of researching my own senior thesis on medievalism I remember thinking how awesome it was that the public could get so excited about poetry, whether “authentic” or not. I also appreciated your comment about the “stage managing” of a political visit. That reminded me of the importance of understanding political pageantry and spectacle. There are some interesting studies about late medieval and Renaissance theater in France as a vehicle for political resistance, for example. Best of luck in your future studies and keep on piping!
    Lisa Perfetti

    1. Thanks Professor Perfetti! So in my research, I did come across references of Ossian in terms of renewed interest in Highland culture in the mid 18th century. If I were to do my I.S. again, I would defiantly include it into my examples of the literary influence within Highlandism. I would tie it into my chapter on Robert Burns, as he was most likely influenced by Ossian (or James Macpherson). It is fascinating how poetry has such a large influence in history. What is interesting in your comment about political pageantry is that there was very little in historiography on the visit of George IV to Scotland, even though I would argue that it was such a defining moment in Highlandism.

  8. Dear Mr. Corso-Phinney,

    I had no idea about this history. I echo Professor Bostdorff’s comment: what an appropriate topic for a Wooster student.

    1. Hello! This history was only introduced to me less than two years ago and I still marvel at the transformation of how Highland culture was perceived. I am glad that Wooster looks to its Scottish ancestry!

  9. Isaiah, you chose a topic sure to fascinate all of campus. I’ve always assumed these Scottish traditions were ancient. It’s good to know their origins. I recently was surprised to discover that my DNA shows 4-6% Scottish and/or Irish, so now I’m even more linked to the COW.

    Congratulations on this culmination of your years at Wooster. I will miss your smiling face, your amazing bagpiping, and our stimulating chats. What’s next for you?

    1. Hello Dottie! The Highland traditions certainly are old. But welcome to the Scottish ancestry club! I’ll certainly miss all of you. Working at Galpin was so wonderful because the people there were so kind to me. I’ll miss you! So I hope to work at AmeriCorps next year and help students in High Scool navigate the tumultuous area of applying for college.

  10. Great job, Isaiah. You’re definitely very Wooster Spirit. Congratulations!

    1. Thanks Amber. Lots of credit goes to you as you’ve significantly helped me through my Wooster journey. If we cross paths again, I’ll buy you some good beer!

  11. What an interesting topic and findings. I look forward to checking out the suggested readings–especially the literary influences. Thank you, Isaiah.

    1. Thank you! If you are interested in the topic, I would defiantly look into the suggested readings. But make sure to drink some Scotch while you read!

  12. A very interesting topic Izzy. One thing I am curious about is whether this resurgence of Scottish nationalism, in part encouraged by the English, was seen as either detrimental or good for a united Britain. In other words, do you think this Scottish nationalism clashed with being ruled by England? Given that the kilt was banned in 1746, why were highlander regiments allowed to wear it during the Seven Years War?

    1. Why thank you Cormac! So the major figures in Scottish nationalism had differing ideas about Scotland’s place within the Union. Some people (I argue Robert Burns) had a more radical view that Scotland’s history and culture were separate from a wider British heritage. Others (Sir Walter Scott included) saw Scotland as unique but as a wider part of the British nation. Highlandism was successful in tieing Highland symbols as essentially Scottish but during the 19th century, Highlandism was used to tie Scotland’s unique heritage within the Empire. The Highland regiments were allowed to wear the kilt during the Seven Years War because they were essential “tools” of the British state. The British government saw value in letting these formerly rebellious warriors wear kilts because instead of fighting for Bonnie Prince Charlie, they were fighting for George II/III.

  13. Very nice project, Isaiah. How appropriate for the College of Wooster! We’ll miss your smiling greeting at the President’s Reception area. I bet Diane Viacava would be intrigued, as well!

    1. Hello! Thank you very much! The Scottish heritage of Wooster definitely inspired me to do this project. I will also miss you! Working in Galpin was one of the best jobs I’ve ever had because of the wonderful people that I interacted with. Tell Diane that I say hello!

  14. Great work, Izzy! I also thought of Ossian, the faux Scottish poet Dr. Perfetti mentioned above–his poems were super trendy in the late 18th century and would be an intriguing counterpoint to looking at Scott and Burns. Congratulations!

    1. Thank you Professor Beutiner! The tale of the fictional Ossian is a very interesting one. If I were to do my I.S. again, I would make mention of it in my chapter on Robert Burns because I am certain that he was influenced by the Ossian writings.

  15. Isaiah,
    Thanks for sharing your project with us. I have enjoyed getting to see this I.S. unfold and wish you the best in your life beyond Wooster!

    1. Cheers! You greatly helped my research for both my Junior and Senior I.S. and I am beyond grateful. Thank you for all of your help!

  16. This is such a fantastic topic. I have to know- what is your family’s tartan?! Congratulations and thank you for sharing!

    1. Hello! Thank you for your interest and my family tartan is MacKenzie (it’s from my Dad that I get my Scottish Heritage). They are from a county in the Northern Highlands called “Ross shire.”

  17. Nice work, Izzy! I’m so glad you were able to combine your love of bagpipes with your love of history. I definitely think you win the award for most school spirit.

    1. Thanks, Claire! I was very happy to include both my love of history and Scottish culture into my I.S.

  18. Congratulations, Isaiah! This is fascinating! I had no idea that the symbols we associate now with Scottish identity were once viewed so negatively. Understanding the role that the highland regiments played in shifting this view provides a very interesting perspective on many things…. including MacLeod Tartan! Hold Fast, and Go Scots! It’s been great working with you, and I wish you all the best for great bagpiping and a great future.

    All my best,
    Pres. Bolton

    1. Thank you, President Bolton! It was a pleasure working with you these past few years. I have learned so much about leadership and Higher Education by watching you, Sally, and Angela. Bagpiping at Wooster has been one of my favorite things and I was so happy to include my love of Scottish culture in my I.S. Under your leadership, I am excited to see where Wooster will be in a few years!

  19. Congratulations Isaiah👨🏻‍🎓🎓📚💫✨ very distinguished work, keep going like that, what’s next for you?

    1. Thank you very much! So I hope to work with AmeriCorps next year helping High Scool students navigate the college application process.

      1. I wish you the best in your new job, and again congratulations 🎓✨💫

  20. Hi Isaiah. Thank You for inspiring the sense of romanticism that talking about the Scottish culture brings to mind. Definitely interesting how the tartan kilt and bagpipes went from negative to positive cultural symbols. It show the dramatic effect that positive thinking has on a situation through the works of Burns and Scott.

    1. Cheers! It was such a surprise to me that the kilt, tartan, and bagpipes were viewed as negative before they became symbols of Scottish national identity. Buns and Scott had such a positive effect on the “rehabilitation” of Highland culture.

  21. Great work, Izzy! As other said, what an appropriate topic for History majors at Wooster!
    It was great to work with you in the NT course, and I wish you the best as you are beginning the next chapter of your life journey!

    1. Thanks, Professor Park! Your NT class was one of my favorites during my Sophmore year. I also wish you the best in the future!

  22. Great work, Isaiah! I had a fantastic time learning about the Highland history and culture from you this year. You should be very proud of your final project. I know you have ambitions to work in higher education– has your IS process prepared you for that future in any way?

    1. Oh Lynette, I can’t stress how much you helped me in my I.S. Thank you so so so much for helping me. I promise that I will come back to Wooster just to give you a pack of delicious craft beer for all of your help. But yes! I do want to work in Higher Education and I would say that the large amount of writing, researching, and revising I had to do for I.S. will help me in a career within Higher Education as those are extremely valuable skills to have.

    1. Awwww thanks boo. Your poetry certainly makes me blush 😉

  23. Izzy,
    I know what an assest you’ve been to the Pipe Band. Great topic to explore. I’ve read How the Scots invented the Modern World so I know some reference to your work. We’ll tune in to watch you!
    Ann Briggs (Gemma’s Mom)

    1. Thanks Mrs. Briggs! Being a piper at Wooster was a dream come true. I’ve heard of that book but haven’t read it!

  24. This is a really cool project! Guess we should be the Fighting Highlanders instead, eh? Great job!

    1. Thank you! Ha well, it would definitely be more historically accurate…

  25. Great topic! As a history major who also spent semesters at Aberdeen, I was excited to see an IS that covers this topic.

    1. Thank you! It was a joy to be in Aberdeen for a semester and I loved it! When I go back to Scotland someday, I’ll return to the granite city.

  26. Hi Isaiah,

    So proud of you for doing the virtual IS Symposium. I have to admit that while reading your poster, images and sounds of Wooster popped into my head. Because, of course, Wooster cannot do anything well without its bagpipers. I felt as if I were back on campus with the Woo community, listening to the bagpipers lead the football team down the hill…And, that’s how it should be…

    Great job finishing IS, on the Symposium, and finishing finals. -SJ

    1. Hello! Thank you very much for your kind words. It was a pleasure to play the Bagpipes at Wooster and I will truly miss it but I will always keep a bit of Wooter with me wherever I go.

  27. This is such a treat to read, especially as a fan of your great sense of Highlandish style that I got to enjoy in the Halls of Galpin! Thanks for sharing this fascinating history & I can’t wait to hear the Pipe Band again once we can gather together to celebrate. Congratulations!

    1. Thank you so much! I will certainly miss going to Galpin every day and it was a pleasure to see all of you work so hard for the College. I’ll be very happy to come back once again!

    1. Thanks!!! Best of luck to you next year! Go hit a home run for me.

  28. Izzy, Very good paper. Lots of information, truly enjoyed reading it, Congrats!!

  29. Isaiah! What an extraordinary contribution of research from an extraordinary student. So much I did not know. Also, thank for being such a reliable and weclome student presence in Galpin!

    1. Thanks, Dean Brown! I’ll miss chatting with you as you come in for your weekly meetings in the office. Take care of yourself and I wish you the best of luck!

  30. Nice work! I enjoyed reading the poster and your text. Hard to imagine that some of these Highland Pipers played while in battle.

    1. Thanks, uncle Urban! As you can guess, I am a true lover of Scottish culture and this was a pleasure to write.

  31. Hi Isaiah–thanks for this fascinating project, and for some great music this year for those of us passing through Spink Street! This seems likely to be outside the scope of your project, but I’m wondering about developments for Highlandism in British culture after your formation period and if you have any insights or examples that interest you. I’m thinking, for example, of Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 Kidnapped (one of my favorite books!), and of the 2006 play Black Watch, about the regiment’s history and its service in Iraq in 2004. And then there’s the fascinating 1964 film Culloden . . . Congratulations on all your hard work!

    1. Thank you, Professor Eager! It’s always a pleasure to play the pipes for people. While Highlandism completed its formation by 1822, its full effect wouldn’t be felt until the reign of Queen Victoria, who had a special love for Scotland. It was during her time that the “tartan craze” happened, when the distinctive clan tartans were created. She fully appreciated the Highland splendor! In one of the articles I read during my research phase, Kidnapped was mentioned as a book that was in the vein of the type of stories written by Sir Walter Scott.

  32. Isaiah……a job well done and congrats on your IS. Through you, I have been able to truly appreciate and learn about the magic of Scotland, the traditions and culture of the Scots, and the symbols of the Highlands.

    Intriguing IS project.

    Best wishes as you embark on the next part of your life’s journey!

    ps…… your bagpiping 🙂

    1. Thanks, Mom! I love you very much and your encouragement helped me along the way to complete my project. It is from you that I have my passion for music. Tuo figlio 🙂

  33. Isaiah,
    I am so happy to have this opportunity to see your I. S. project. Congratulations, and I am so proud of you! Best wishes to you!

    1. Thank you, Lynette! It was a pleasure to connect my love with Scottish culture and love of history. I hope you are doing well!

  34. Isaiah,

    You have generated so much enthusiastic interest that I wasn’t sure I could scroll down far enough to locate a box where I could also congratulate you; enthuse about your wonderful project; agree with Eileen that I will miss your joi de vivre and keen wit around the President’s Office (and throughout campus); and, finally, reminisce a bit photographically about how you have personally championed these symbols on campus. Here are two of my favorite snapshots of you around campus this year in Scot regalia!

    1. Welcoming the newest Scots last fall :–first-year-student/i-Kzf8ZpK/A

    2. Mix-and-matching Highland and modern styles at Scot Spirit Day:

    May the rains fall soft upon your fields, Isaiah.


    1. Thank you so much Ari! Its been a pleasure for me to have been able to know you these past years. Your passion for Wooster was always inspiring to me! You have been far more than the college’s First Gentlemen, you have been an example of its proactive spirit. I’ll save those photos and keep them with me.

      May the road rise up to meet you, and may the wind be ever at your back.

  35. Hi Izzy! It is so special to see how you turned your love for Scotland into a fully realized research project. It is really cool to see how much literature played a role in your analysis. What was your favorite part of the process? Was there anything that you learned that stood out as being the most surprising or exciting?

    1. Hey Sarah! Thanks so much. It was wonderful to incorporate classic English literature into my historical research and it added so much to my analysis. My favorite part was learning all of the interesting things about Scottish culture and Highland culture. I would have to say that the most exciting is that people today are Highland symbols not only to show an independent culture but are also using it as a basis to argue for Scottish Independence.

  36. Isaiah,
    I’m thankful that at least one of my sons has embraced our Scots heritage. McLeod, McKenzie, they’re both worthy of pride.

  37. Izzy,

    Your topic is so fascinating! I could hear your perfect narration voice while reading this! You know so much about history and I could listen to you talk about it all day (especially the Mansfield Reformatory). You have such a bright future ahead of you and can’t wait to see where life takes you!

    1. Thanks, Sam! Your words are very kind. I also can’t wait to see what exciting future you and Spencer have ahead of you! I wish you both the best of luck and remember: “Get busy living or get busy dying.”

  38. Isaiah,

    I loved reading about your project. How fascinating and interesting! I wish you the best of luck in your future. I will certainly miss you now that you are moving on, and I have so enjoyed talking to about books and history this past year.

    Best Wishes,

Comments are closed.