Susan here. Two hundred and one years ago this week, in August 1822, King George IV arrived in Scotland, landing at Leith Harbor and making his way into Edinburgh. The huge fanfare included not just thousands of people lining the streets to cheer and watch, but began with a greeting party of scores of dignitaries that included the Lord Provost of Edinburgh and civic officials, dukes, earls, peers of rank, clan chiefs, as well as Sir Walter Scott, who had organized much of the celebration that took place over the days of the king’s visit.
King George IV Lands at Leith Harbor, detail. Alexander Carse, 1822. Leith Hall.
My newest novel, Laird of Rogues, in part centers on the king’s visit to Scotland that hot, rainy August, when a whisky-smuggling laird and accused prisoner is invited to meet the king–striking great fear of embarrassment in city officials and requiring immediate etiquette lessons courtesy of an official’s daughter. But this laird has another matter to take care of, more important to him than meeting the king.
George IV, the first English king to visit Scotland (without waging war) since Charles II’s visit in 1651, spent that whirlwind visit—called “daft days” by one witness at the time—meeting prominent Scots, including Sir Walter Scott, government officials, peers, Highland chiefs and their entourages, and their ladies. He greeted so many ladies at a special assembly held in honor of Scotswomen that he was said to have kissed (enthusiastically, with wet smacking kisses, it was widely said) literally thousands of women in one afternoon. The king was the guest of honor at receptions, dinners, parades, and balls, and was celebrated, lauded, toasted, cheered.
He was also the subject of satire, caricatures, and tittering laughter from the Scots. Although George IV made a real effort to connect with the Scots and to admire and experience the Scottish culture, he had some bumbling moments and made a faux pas now and then—most notably wearing a pair of pink woolen tights with his kilt and gear of Royal Stewart tartan, rather than expose his legs in the proud traditional manner of the Scots.
David Wilkie's flattering portrait of King George in Scotland did not include the king's pink tights.
Although excited to welcome King George to the north, historically the Scots were not big fans of the English. Some were skeptical about the visit, given the long cultural memory of centuries of conflict and oppression under pressure from the English – and eventually English rule with the Acts of Union in 1707, which joined the Scottish and English Parliaments and placed Scotland under English rule with the formation of Great Britain. That was followed by the Jacobite
wars and Culloden in 1745, with Jacobite sympathies lingering among some for generations – fueling political and ideological differences between the Tories and the Whigs – and the Highland Clearances, spanning more than a century of struggle primarily for Highland people tossed out of their homes as lands were sold or leased to those who preferred using vast, beautiful Highland acreage for hunting and country houses rather than raising sheep and cattle.
In this political atmosphere, during the hot, steamy, rainy August of 1822, King George IV arrived on a ship that sat outside Leith Harbor for days until rough waters abated to allow him and his enormous party of courtiers and support people to land. The crowds were immense, the cheers uproarious, the heat intense and the rains incessant. The streets of Edinburgh were so congested that the throngs of people could hardly move. For weeks, the city had been preparing for the momentous arrival of the monarch; there was hardly a corner left for city visitors to sleep, with rooms renting out for a week at the outrageous price of a year’s lease.
Sir Walter Scott was deeply involved in organizing the visit, having met the king on several occasions. He paid attention to every detail, working closely with a newly formed Celtic Society, a sort of royal visit committee, as well as with Scottish government officials. He was so determined to showcase the Scottish culture and create a magnificent spectacle
at every opportunity that he was referred to as “the Pageant Master”—not in the nicest way—and his elaborate plans to present every aspect of Highland and Scottish culture was described by skeptical peers as the “Celtification of Scotland”—again not the most flattering. His plans and suggestions were elaborate, expensive, and sometimes over the top. He wrote an anonymous booklet (although his authorship was no secret, like his supposedly anonymous and wildly popular novels) with everything laid out in deep detail. Gentleman, for example, were encouraged to wear a bright blue jacket and white trousers, the colors of the Scottish saltire flag, though most opted to wear either elegant formal evening attire, or a military uniform if they carried a rank–or full Highland dress if they had a clan association.
Sir Evan Murray-MacGregor, Chief of the Gregorach and war hero, led the Highland contingent. He was said to be the most handsome man in Scotland despite distorting scars from war injuries.
A massive contingent of Highlanders flooded the city in full Highland gear representing many clans–MacGregor, MacDonald, Campbell, Gordon, Grant, Stewart, MacDougall, and more. They arrived with chiefs, chieftains, and a tail of Highlanders limited to 50 men each. Sir Walter encouraged Highlanders to appear in complete Highland kit, including plaids (traditional belted plaids or the newer, smaller pleated kilt), with tartan stockings, jackets, bonnets with feathers (three for a chief, one for a chieftain), badges, sporran—and weapons. Pistols, dirks, swords, and targe shields were recommended to be carried in the presence of the king and courtiers. The visiting English saw full-blast the Highland spirit, pride, and theatre on display, fulfilling Scott's dream.
Ladies were not forgotten in the festivities or in Scott’s elaborate vision. The king was to host an assembly for the ladies, and Scott’s pamphlet defined their wardrobe recommendations as well—including nine ostrich feathers in the headdresses, and trains several feet long. Just imagine being in the midst of a gathering of ladies and escorts numbering in the thousands, crammed into Holyrood Palace on a hot summer day, with feathered headdresses waving and silken trains sweeping the ground as guests waited hours to be introduced to the king briefly, receiving a rapid greeting and a smacking, slobbery kiss.
To his credit, King George was eager to celebrate the Scots and appreciate their culture. He even dressed on one occasion in full Highland kit himself—including a ludicrous pair of salmon-pink silk pantaloons beneath his red Stewart tartan kilt and tartan stockings, as he would not bare his legs like the Highlanders. Even worse, his kilt hem was too short. One Scottish duchess commented that as the king was there so short a time, it would do to see more of him.
Critics of the whole over-the-top “Celtified” pageantry of the royal visit poked fun at the king's unfortunate fashion choice and made merciless jokes at his expense. George’s beefy physique did him no favors in Highland dress–some Scots referred to him as “Fat Geordie,” and caricaturists had a field day representing the absurdity of it all.
King George did not know much about Scotland, but he loved its whisky. He was exceptionally fond of Highland malt whisky, and by habit took a dram every night. When he came to Scotland, he requested to meet the maker of one of his favorite whiskies, Glenlivet. Its maker, one George Smith, was hastily found and presented to the king as requested. At this point in time, most Highland uisge beatha, or water of life, was illicit and subject to harsh laws and taxation that resulted in an effect quite opposite the law—smuggling was the only way to get Highland whisky, an exceptional liquor far superior to Lowland and English make, out of the country at a profit. Ironically, the whisky King George so favored was likely smuggled into London, making the very king marginally complicit in the smuggling trade that his own laws condemned. The Scots, always up for a good joke, had a great snicker over this.
The king’s visit—described by one contemporary wag as “twenty-one daft days”—became the historical basis for my newest novel, Laird of Rogues, Book 3 of The Whisky Lairds series. Along with adventure and romance, the story also features the handsome Sir Evan Murray-MacGregor and the chaos and craziness surrounding the royal visit.
Ronan MacGregor, distiller of a Highland whisky favored by King George, is invited to meet the king, but for one hurdle: MacGregor is in prison on smuggling charges. Though he appears to be a rough Highlander, he hides his identity as a lawyer and viscount's heir, he has a good reason for misbehaving—and he’s not keen on meeting the king. But the Lord Provost Mayor insists, so the notorious rogue is released into the custody of the deputy provost mayor and his daughter, Ellison Graham, who is required to turn this frog into a prince quickly, unaware he is more a gentleman than some around her. Spending time with a Highland smuggler suits Ellison just fine, as she is secretly writing a romantic adventure novel. Soon she discovers the man is a Highland peer searching for the scoundrels who stole his valued whisky stash–and then both are pulled into an adventure and a love that neither expects. (I hope you’ll enjoy the book!)
Have you visited Edinburgh? Can you imagine the excitement of King George’s visit in August 1822, with the streets crammed with cheering crowds, with not a bed or chair to spare in the city, and in summer heat and rain? And the ladies enduring what were described as wet, sloppy kisses from the king – ugh. Those were some intrepid Scots!