On 15 August 1822, King George IV came ashore from the ship which had brought him up the east coast of Britain from London, and began a historic visit to Edinburgh and the Scottish Highlands which would help to kick-start a new age for Scotland.
Prior to this, Scotland had been thought of pretty consistently as England's poorer, wilder, more rebellious, less civilised neighbour. The uprisings of the eighteenth century had helped to cement a perception of the Scots as troublemakers who resented the union with England - and it's true that there was a significant degree of ill-feeling towards the governing powers, who had made the ancient language of Gaelic illegal in Scotland, had banned the wearing of the national dress, and had systematically dismantled the centuries-old clan system of the Highlands.
Such was the national disconnect between Scotland and England, the Scots hadn't even been visited by their monarch since 1650 - Charles II had been the last king to visit Edinburgh, and although the grand New Town development from the 1760s onwards had been broadly named for George III, he had never actually visited the city itself.
That changed in 1822, when George IV was invited to visit Scotland and to travel around the country - a grand tour masterminded by Sir Walter Scott, who at that time was reaching the peak of his status as Scotland's greatest literary export. Indeed, 15 August - the first day the king would spend ashore in Scotland - was Walter Scott's birthday, and Scott had planned out the visit with no opportunity for pomp and circumstance neglected.
Key to getting George IV to Scotland was an appeal to his family heritage. Scott had charmed the king with stories asserting the Jacobite lineage from which he was descended, quelling any fears that the people of Scotland would reject his presence or his rule. He assured the king that not only was his royal connection to the Scottish throne a legitimate one, but that he could dress himself in the traditional attire of the Scottish Highlanders. Neither of these assertions might be considered entirely true, but in doing so Scott inadvertently created not one but two traditions which continue to appeal to visitors to Scotland: the romantic appeal of family connection to Scottish history, and the wearing of a form of Highland dress that isn't entirely authentic.
Scott had commissioned the production of the equivalent of £120,000 worth of tartan ahead of the king's visit, and from this vivid red and gold pattern - the Royal Stuart as it is known today - he oversaw the creation of all manner of decorations and dress items for the king's visit.
But the version of the kilt that Scott created in 1822 was a far cry from the original form of Highland dress, which was far less decorative and much more practical - a rough and substantial swathe of material that would have been worn with a belt and doubled as a blanket for protection during the harsh Highland weather.
It was Scott who was responsible for the modern tradition of a family having its own tartan design, or sett, and for the various forms and styles of kilts and tartan that have since become synonymous with Scottish history and culture. It often comes as a surprise for visitors to learn that this 'ancient' tradition dates all the way back to 1822...!
King George was a fairly portly man, with a figure not naturally suited to wearing such garb as a kilt. Some contemporary estimates put his height at about 5' 2" (1.57m), with a 51" (1.3m) waist and at around 20 stone (280lbs) in weight. He chose to wear bright pink silk stockings under his kilt, to help conceal the varicose veins and other unsightly features on his legs, and was alleged to have worn the kilt about six inches above his knee - a terrible look for a man of that size and shape!
At least one cartoon of him at the time gives a vivid visual sense of the effect created...
During his visit to Edinburgh, George IV attended a number of events, intended to show the king to as many people as possible, in a carefully coordinated programme that befits an exercise in a kind of propaganda. Having not seen their monarch for nearly two centuries, Scots crowded the streets and travelled from all around to catch a glimpse of their king in his splendid costume.
A high society ball in the New Town was catered by a local man named Ebenezer Scroggie, a well-known and well-liked figure who imported fine wines from Europe and was noted for hosting the grandest and most generous parties. He would later be an inspiration to the writer Charles Dickens, and would help to give the world the figure of Ebenezer Scrooge.
Another creation of George IV's visit was the notion of the royal bodyguard in Scotland. The Royal Company of Archers had been granted recognition by Queen Anne in the eighteenth century, and for George IV's visit they attended the king's presence and acted as his 'official' bodyguards. George was so enchanted by their presence and style that he formally appointed them the sovereign's bodyguards in Scotland.
The Royal Company of Archers continue this function in royal visits, and can occasionally be found practising their skills on the Meadows, south of the Royal Mile, near Archer's Walk, or spotted in the gardens of the Palace of Holyroodhouse when dignitaries are staying there. (You'll also find the face of an archer above the entrance to No.1 High Street, on the Royal Mile.)
The visit of George IV was a watershed moment for Scotland. Just as today some people look to British royals as influencers of fashion or taste, so it was in the nineteenth century. Reports of the king wearing a kilt affirmed that it was now not just legal to wear kilts again, but actually fashionable, and so the modern fixation with kilted attire began to form. Similarly, the king visiting Scotland assured people that it was a place worth visiting, no longer to be considered a barren wilderness of rebellious and uncivilised natives.
Just fifteen years later, George's niece would become Queen Victoria, who embraced the interest in Scotland that her uncle had ignited, and whose purchase of the Balmoral estate in the Highlands would solidify the connection between the monarch and the Scots, and with it the introduction of what we would recognise today as tourism to Scotland.
So George IV's visit to Edinburgh was not just important at the time, but in the context of the later growth of Scotland's visitor industry. George was not otherwise considered a popular king - a profligate and womaniser, he had grown fat (literally) on the wealth of Britain's nobles, and embraced a life of excess and debauchery - but the statue of him which stands grandly at one of the major junctions in Edinburgh's New Town today reminds us of his place in creating the modern sense of Scotland.
Explore more royal history with my private city walking tours!
Search the blog archive...