The Lady of Eilean Donan

The earliest known work of art directly associated with the Mackenzies is the extremely exciting find during an archaeological excavation at the ancient Mackenzie stronghold of Eilean Donan Castle conducted in 2016. This is an exquisite object which has been dated to the 14th century. It was recovered from the remains of a rubbish heap near the curtain wall.  The find is made of polished animal bone and is identified as a hair-parter, or gravoir, used for styling a woman’s hair.  It represents an aristocratic lady with headdress, veil and decorated headband holding what appears to be a book.  Such hair-parters are rare and this example is believed to be the only one known which is from mediaeval Scotland.

The item possibly formed part of a toilet-set including a hair comb and mirror in a decorative case.  Mediaeval French accounts dating to 1316 mention a set purchased for the Royal family.  It is possible that the Eilean Donan hair-parter was part of such a set, given as a love token or wedding gift, to a high-born lady living at Eilean Donan in the 14th century, quite possibly during the time that the Mackenzies of Kintail held the castle.

The find was amongst a small group of personal items, including ivory and bone knife handles, which feature iconography of aristocratic figures in a variety of themes.  There are only about 100 examples known from across north-western Europe, most of which are associated with centres of wealth.  Their costume and hair styles indicate they are fashionable aristocrats. There are at least three known examples of this particular type, with a woman clasping a book, all found in France or attributed to French workshops.  It is not clear whether the Eilean Donan hair-parter was acquired from the Continent or was produced in Britain, but it clearly indicates that Parisian fashion and sophisticated taste were also appreciated and enjoyed in 14th-century Highland Scotland. It is expected that this important artefact will go on display at the National Museum of Scotland.

Ever since when I was an undergraduate and wrote a dissertation on the subject of the last Lord Seaforth, I have sought to stress how this family played a role at the forefront of European history, despite their origins in what is regarded as an extremely remote part of the British Isles.  This view was instrumental in my brother, Kevin, and I going on to write a wider history of the Clan, May we be Britons?  Our very title highlighted the keen desire among many members of the family to integrate into the wider culture of the British Isles.  In this work I concluded: “It is my view that present day Scottish nationalists might do well to celebrate their ancestors’ positive achievements in this respect and resist the tendency to dwell on a perceived resentment of themselves as underdogs.  By giving a greater emphasis to one family’s active participation in some of the most important movements that helped make the world we know today, I hope this study will contribute in some small way to redressing the balance.” 

The longstanding romantic depiction of the Clan, which dates from the 19th Century, was most famously adopted in the legend of Seaforth’s Doom, which told of the prophesied and inevitable demise of the once powerful Mackenzie Clan.  Historians have since regarded such Highlanders as marginal, even irrelevant to the mainstream of what is perceived as historical progress in the modern era.  I believe this to have overshadowed a very different reality.  And nowhere is the family’s contribution to history more tangible than in their artistic patronage:  a field of activity that, as a picture specialist with Bonhams the auctioneers, I could not fail to appreciate.  It is only natural for me therefore to highlight the family’s contribution to the arts in the period in which I specialise professionally:  that is, from the late 15th to the early 19th Century.

Other than in architecture and sculpture, relatively few remains of artistic patronage prior to the 16th Century survive from England, let alone the Highlands.  Remarkably, alongside the recently discovered 14th century finely hair-parter (The Lady of Eilean Donan, see p….), we find the Mackenzies at the very start of their rapid political, social and economic ascendancy making a major contribution, of international quality, within this genre. 

The earliest known artistic representation of a Mackenzie is that of ‘Dominic Kenythus/Kyenichus’, who was Abbot of Iona between 1421 and 1465.  Along with his life-size stone effigy in the Abbey, Dominic is remembered for restoring the fortunes of the Abbey after a period of MacKinnon abuse, and he was responsible for much of the building which survives today. 

Abbot Dominic Mackenzie’s effigy in the Abbey Church of Iona

It was the man that was most likely his nephew, the Mackenzie Chief, Kenneth “of the Battle”, who was then responsible for the next major artistic commission by the family:  his life-sized monument in Beauly Priory:

The effigy of Kenneth “of the Battle” above his tomb in Beauly Priory, which dates from 1491

The Mackenzie chapel at Beauly Priory. From the time of Kenneth of the Battle it was the burial place of a number of members of the family, including his brother, Duncan, John of Killin, Kenneth na Cuilc, Colin Cam and the later Mackenzies of Gairloch

Fortrose, the Mackenzies’ “capital” on the Black Isle.  The imposing gabled building in the centre is Chanonry Castle


When the Mackenzie chiefs were elevated first to the rank of Lord Kintail at the end of the 16th Century and then to that of Earl of Seaforth at the beginning of the 17th, their now illustrious status demanded to be matched by a corresponding outward display.  The former Bishop’s Palace at Chanonry, acquired by the first Earl’s grandfather, Colin Cam, was his first major building project, whereby he improved the “stately well contrived commodious house”, and where he is said to have lived “in great state and very magnificently”.  This statement is supported by the inventory of the contents and furnishings sold by Smythe of Methven in the 1650s:  silver gilt, velvet curtains with gold thread, Arras hangings and petit point are amongst the items calculated at Chanonry as totalling a cost (in early 17th century terms) of £108 12s 10d.  Colin also rebuilt the Castle of Stornoway on Lewis from its former ruin.  But these projects were not enough for such a passionate builder.  It was the intention of the “Red Earl” to build a complete new residence entirely his own.  As with Chanonry, this was intended as far more than a defensive construction.  The site he chose was in the valley of Strathconon, at Brahan, where he created “one of the most stately houses in Scotland”, and established it as the seat of the Mackenzies.  The ambitious Castle doubtless owed much to the influence of Colin’s father-in-law, the Earl of Dunfermline.  Dunfermline’s father, Lord Seton, was “one of the greatest builders in that age”, and was responsible for such works as the Seton Tower at Fyvie and the Painted Gallery at Pinkie.  Both of these buildings would have been familiar to Colin and his wife.  At the end of the 18th Century Brahan was greatly changed by the last Lord Seaforth, but the earliest surviving watercolours show a very different building, and the portrait in Fortrose Town Hall of Countess Frances, which dates from the very beginning of the 18th Century, shows a large turreted edifice in the background with a certain resemblance to Fyvie Castle.  This latter suggests that Dunfermline had a direct influence on the design of the building.

The Golden Bed of Brahan, now at Falkland Palace, which was presented by Captain Daniel Mackenzie to Earl George

A consequence of the early cosmopolitan links which, through their military and commercial pursuits, the family had at this time was the gift for his chief which Captain Daniel Mackenzie brought back from his exploits in the Thirty Years’ War.  On returning to Scotland in the 1630s “to see his country and friends before he died”, he took with him what “because of the gold trappings, gilding and embroideries that were upon the sea-green coloured furniture belonging to it” has since become known as the Golden Bed of Brahan.  This particularly fine example of Dutch East India Company craftsmanship remained at Brahan until the 1880s, when the Prince and Princess of Wales stayed at the Castle.  It now provides a centrepiece in Falkland Palace’s Collection.  Interestingly, sea green was the colour King Charles I favoured in his dress, and the choice of colour scheme obviously reflected the royal taste.

Before the demolition of Brahan Castle, Country Life in 1916 featured an article which recorded the former glory of the house, appropriately noting in particular how the 5th Earl William’s luxurious Tapestry Room (whose Brussels tapestries were designed by Urbanus Leynier) married the baroque and the mediaeval:  “It is difficult to think of any other room in Scotland which used tapestries in this spectacular floor-to-ceiling way with no architectural support, reminiscent of the mediaeval practice of humanising rough and ready castles in remote spots with hangings and carpets that travelled around with the family”.  During his exile in France in the first decade of the 18th Century, William had benefited from an education during his exile in France where he would have had access to what was then considered the most cultivated court in Europe.  Hence the surviving group of family portraits from the period, which now hang in Fortrose Town Hall, include a number by François de Troy and his studio – de Troy being principal portraitist to the Jacobite court at St Germain, as well as being one of the foremost artists employed by the French King Louis XIV and his family.  In particular, the portrait of the 5th Earl (and 2nd Jacobite Marquis) of Seaforth, Uilleam Dubh, shows no ordinary nobleman.  That he chose to be painted with a coatimundi (a south American rodent whose amazing life story is the subject of a book which my brother, Kevin and I are currently writing) and in front of the Château of Saint Germainshows an individualistic sophistication whose ambition looked far beyond the clichéd aspirations of even a highly cultivated English magnate of the time.  This is also a mark of William’s fascinating hybrid nature, which defies the stereotypical image of the coarse Highland savage that was promoted by both the Lowland Scots and the English well into the 18th Century.  After receiving the most refined polish to his education at St Germain, he brought back with him on his return to his wild and remote homeland a classical French harpist, called Melvin. At the same time he chose to continue to employ his personal bard, Murdoch Matheson in order to recite old tales in his native tongue that celebrated the heroic deeds of the Chief’s ancestors.  Matheson is reputed to have been in Glencoe on the night of the famous massacre.

Kenneth Mhor, 3rd Earl of Seaforth, by John Michael Wright – now in Fortrose Town Hall

Following Cromwell’s iconoclastic rule, the Restoration of King Charles II had seen the revival of the Seaforths’ fortunes, as can be seen in the 3rd Earl’s commissioning John Michael Wright to paint his portrait.  Wright was an artist of international repute who served as court painter to both Kings Charles II and James II.  This crucial period in the ascendancy of the family also found a number of other Mackenzies playing their part at the forefront of patronage.  With the restoration of Episcopacy, in no small part thanks to the advocacy of the 1st Earl of Cromartie, and which in 1662 allowed my own ancestor, Murdoch Mackenzie, to become Bishop of Moray in 1662, the latter marked his new found status by renovating the Bishop’s residence, Spynie Palace just outside Elgin, and for this he was granted £1,000 by Parliament for repairs.  In this grand new palace he proudly displayed his coat of arms, the Mackenzie deer’s head with a star between the antlers, where we are told the device “occurs frequently”.  Then in 1676 he was transferred to the even wealthier diocese of Orkney, where he spent his last days amid the splendours of the Earl’s Palace of Kirkwall.  This palace was one of the most magnificent residences in the whole of Scotland.  It was characteristic of a man who was admired for his wit, open-mindedness and charity that in response to those Puritans who criticised his transferral Murdoch replied with irony: “A goose is good and the fatter the better”.

It was James II’s appointment of a group of such highly educated and cultivated Episcopalians, many of whom were to retain an important place in Scottish society even after they had lost public office in 1688, that effectively cemented the roots of the Scottish Enlightenment.  The 1st Earl of Cromartie’s patronage of the Royal College of Physicians is significant, since historians have drawn attention to it as a symbol of the enlightened court that surrounded the future King James II and VII’s vice-regality in Edinburgh when he was Duke of York.  Central to this important artistic and intellectual movement were the ideals of Freemasonry.  Also sharing James’s interest in the revival of chivalry, Sir George Mackenzie of Rosehaugh published a treatise on The Science of Heraldry, which paid tribute to the “auld alliance” with France and defined many themes that would later emerge in the knightly decrees of Jacobite Ecossais Freemasonry.

A strong tradition of building in the family was rooted in this Scottish Masonic identity.  Both Sir Georges – of Rosehaugh and of Tarbat (the future Earl of Cromartie) – indulged at a personal level in architecture, and the designs each commissioned for his tomb, respectively in Greyfriar’s Kirkyard and Dingwall, display the most up-to-date classical sensibilities. 

The memorial to the first Earl of Cromartie, Dingwall  

Sir George Mackenzie of Rosehaugh’s Mausoleum in Greyfriar’s Kirkyard

The celebrated architect, Sir William Bruce, was a cousin of the Earl, as was that other great gentleman architect, the Earl of Mar.  Cromartie’s elegant house at Royston on the outskirts of Edinburgh betrays stylistic affinities with Sir William Bruce’s peculiarly Scottish brand of classical architecture.   The two end pavilions of the noble south façade, for example, have ogee roofs reminiscent of many of Bruce’s buildings.  Royston also appears to owe a clear debt to Vaux-le-Vicomte, the French mansion that inspired Versailles, and which Bruce is known to have visited.  Bruce’s most recent biographer, however, has emphasised the part Cromartie himself played in its design, and John Gifford wrote that “the South front is without parallel in Scotland, the general outline is French, the detail Edinburgh.”  To illustrate Cromartie’s unusually cosmopolitan taste for the period, we know that amongst his furniture at Royston, as well as the ubiquitous japanned cabinets were, unusually, Indian and Ottoman pictures and tapestries.  These pictures most likely included the 48 portraits of Turkish kings that were recorded at Tarbat House during his grandson’s time.

Royston House, near Edinburgh

The future Earl of Cromartie was involved in the reconstruction of Holyroodhouse, from which he diverted materials and labour to Royston to work on the fine plasterwork, for example

We also know that at this time Mackenzie sensibilities extended to the art of gardening.  In Rosehaugh’s poem ‘Caelias’ Country House and Closet, of which he sent a copy to John Evelyn in 1688, he wrote:

“O happy Country-Life, pure like its Air,

Free from the Rage of Pride, the Pangs of Care!

Here happy Souls ly bath’d in soft Content,

And are at once seciure and innocent …”.

Schooled abroad on the Arcadian literature of Madame de Scudery and Jean de la Fontaine, Rosehaugh’s vision anticipated the Augustan idyll of John Dryden, Alexander Pope and William Kent.  As well as writing what is regarded as the first Scottish novel, we know that the Lord Advocate had a deep love of gardening.  At his country seat of Shank in the 1680s, he employed John Reid – a time when this celebrated gardener published his innovative Scots Gard’ner – and it is surely no accident that this poetic spirit was reflected in the name he gave to the Black Isle estate from which he took his territorial designation:  Rosehaugh, the meadow of wild roses.  It was said that Sir George was so fond of the surrounding walks that he used to call it rudeness and want of taste on the part of any of his friends or acquaintances for them to ride along them on horseback. 

It is interesting that gardening was to remain a particular interest amongst a number of Mackenzies into the 18th Century.  One member of my own branch of the family, Daniel Mackenzie, was himself a botanical artist who accompanied Sir Joseph Banks to the Pacific with Captain Cook.  These men’s relationship with the last Earl of Seaforth can be illustrated by the Earl’s fascinating encounter with the celebrated Tahitian, Omai.


In the 1720s in his A Tour Thro’ the whole Island of Great Britain, the English journalist and novelist, Daniel Defoe challenged the “there be dragons” perception of the part of the world that lay north of Inverness:  “Our Geographers seem to be almost as much at a loss in the Description of the North part of Scotland, as the Romans were to conquer it; and they are oblig’d to fill it up with Hills and Mountains, as they do the inner Parts of Africa, with Lyons and Elephants, for want of knowing what else to Place there.  Yet this Country is not such difficult Access as to be pass’d undescrib’d, as if it were inpenetrable.”  He continued:  “Nor are the Inhabitants so wild and barbarous as perhaps, they were in those Times, or as our Writers have pretended.  We see every Day the Gentlemen born here; such as the Mackenzies, McLeans, Dundonalds, Gordons, McKays, and others who are nam’d among the Clans as if they were Barbarians, appear at Court, and in our Camps and Armies, as polite and finish’d Gentlemen as any other from other Countries, or even among our own in many Things, especially in Arms and Gallantry, as well Abroad as at Home.” 

During his exile to the French Court, William Dubh, 5th Earl and 2nd Jacobite Marquis of Seaforth would have encountered the fines artistic sensibilities of the age and it would have been from his tenure of Brahan that its tapestries date. The now long-vanished castle was at the time described as “one of the stateliest houses in Scotland”, boasting – along with other newly acquired fashionable furnishings – rooms draped from ceiling to floor with rich tapestries in the style of those which can now be seen at Blenheim Palace and apparently dating to around the 1700s or early to mid-17 teens. The tapestries were edged with sumptuous baroque borders featuring almost life-sized lions (which as we have seen were William’s maternal, Herbert family device) and other animals, “questing through fleshy arabesque foliage”.  Before the building’s demolition, Country Life in 1916 featured an article which recorded the former glory of the house, appropriately noting in particular how William’s luxurious Tapestry Room married the baroque and the mediaeval: “It is difficult to think of any other room in Scotland which used tapestries in this spectacular floor-to-ceiling way with no architectural support, reminiscent of the mediaeval practice of humanising rough and ready castles in remote spots with hangings and carpets that travelled around with the family”. 

The Tapestry Room at Brahan Castle

In the 18th century the family’s most renowned artistic connoisseur and patron was the 5th Earl of Seaforth’s grandson, Kenneth Mackenzie, the last Earl. It was his long exile on the European Continent that initially encouraged him to become the Grand Tourist par excellence, engendering in him a remarkably cosmopolitan outlook. Representing those many Scottish Jacobite émigrés who from 1688 onwards settled in France, Spain, Russia and Italy, making a major contribution to the economic, military and, in his case, the intellectual and artistic life of these host countries, he may be regarded as one of “the first Europeans.”

In his fellow Scot, Sir William Hamilton, the British Envoy to Naples and a fellow member of the Society of Dilettanti, Seaforth found a kindred spirit and the two men formed a close and lasting friendship. They shared a passion for Roman antiquities and were among the first to realise the importance of the discoveries of Herculaneum and Pompeii. Both also had a love of music and were active patrons of contemporary Neapolitan painters.

Sir Joshua Reynolds’s depiction of the Society of Dilettante with the last Earl of Seaforth (third from the left)

On 6 November 1770, Seaforth gave a “sumptuous musical feast”, a lavish entertainment for the visiting musicologist, Dr. Charles Burney, at which the castrato, Caffarelli, sang and the violinist, Emanuele Barbella, played. One of a pair of paintings which the last Earl of Seaforth commissioned from Fabris, now in the National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh, portrays just such a scene with a chamber concert in progress in Seaforth’s Neapolitan residence. The host, standing with his back to us, is listening to William Hamilton and the composer, Gaetano Pugnani, both playing the violin, while Leopold Mozart and his young son, Wolfgang, who visited Naples in May 1770, accompany the two gentlemen on the harpsichord.  Seaforth’s protégé, the Neapolitan composer, Niccolò Jommelli, has been further identified as the man writing at the green-covered table in the companion painting. Jommelli had earlier written a Passione for Charles Edward Stuart’s brother, Cardinal York; Farinelli sang for him and he had been part of that Jacobite circle whose members in England gravitated towards Frederick, Prince of Wales.  I happen also to have personally handled for auction a View of the Bay of Naples from Posilippo by Pietro Fabris at Bonhams which I have been able to identify as a view of the outside of Seaforth’s villa, painted during one of his morning bathing trips and concert parties.

By the close of the eighteenth century we see the Mackenzie family doing far more than simply integrating into British high culture but taking a leading role in shaping that culture.  Colonel Colin Mackenzie, the first Surveyor-General of India was a pioneer in the West of the study of Hindu culture.  Despite being educated in a small school in supposedly remote Stornoway on the Island of Lewis, Colin also owed his extraordinarily cosmopolitan career to the particular intellectual background of his family. Mackenzie himself explained the origins of his interest in a letter to his friend, Sir Alexander Johnston: “On the chief predisposing causes of a cause so foreign to the habits of military men … it were unnecessary for me to enlarge. I must however attribute some part of the early seeds of passion for discovery and acquisition of knowledge and to ideas first implanted in my native isle.”  Indeed, to put his background in perspective, even Colin’s kinsman, Sir Alexander Mackenzie, who attended the same school in Stornoway just eleven years later, together with the latter’s cousin Roderick, founded a library in the howling wilderness at their depot on Lake Athabaska on the Arctic circle, for which reason it was dubbed the “Athens of the North.”

Thomas Hickey’s portrait of Colonel Colin Mackenzie

Colin also published several papers on historical and topographical subjects. As we have seen, the first Earl of Cromartie had been one of the very first Europeans to display a fascination with the East, and even in the time of Colin the Orient was a mystery to the West, Orientology being a hobby only of the eccentric. While it was normal to make a career out of the East India Company and return home to live in comfort or participate in politics on the security of a fortune made in India, Colin’s remarkable nature was such that he pursued this path out of a love of learning. The consequences were of great historical value and have come to benefit our knowledge of both Orient and Occident. It has even been said that “our knowledge of the literature and early history of Southern India is almost entirely due to the Mackenzie manuscripts”.

As well as an establishment in London, as a Scottish peer the Mackenzies’ chief by the close of the century, Francis Humberston-Mackenzie, last Lord Seaforth also kept a house in Charlotte Square, the most fashionable address in Edinburgh’s New Town and totally rebuilt the family seat at Brahan, which had been derelict since 1725 when General Wade’s men took the roof off.  Inside, the house was furnished with the paintings of Sir Thomas Lawrence and Benjamin West.  From the latter Seaforth commissioned at the cost of 800 guineas the historical scene of epic size and character depicting Alexander III rescued from the fury of a stag by the intrepidity of Colin Fitzgerald which now hangs in the National Gallery in Edinburgh, a work of art that perfectly reflects how by this time ancient Highland culture was now the very height of modern fashion.

The spectacular painting that Lord Seaforth commissioned Benjamin West to paint

In the light of this family’s intellectual affinities over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, one might justifiably conclude that, contrary to the widely accepted stereotype, many of the Mackenzies came to identify with Jacobite – and later – Highland culture precisely because of their cosmopolitan and cultivated background.  But it is ironic that the traditional “Whig” approach to history, which has tended to view the Highlanders and Jacobites as having a peripheral culture that inspired them to resist progress, came itself out of a particular perspective that belonged to a number of members of the Mackenzie family: a perspective that viewed society in terms of a preferred social and economic structure and which followed naturally out of an intellectual tradition that went back to the first Earl of Cromartie and Sir George Mackenzie of Rosehaugh.

So how did this perception of two cultures come about?  In the middle of the 18th century in his Essay Upon Several Subjects Concerning British Antiquities, the Enlightened Edinburgh economist, Lord Kames gave momentum to a fundamental attitude that modern commercial society softens and polishes men, uniting people, disposing them to peace, by establishing in every state an order of citizens bound by their common desire of supplying their mutual wants. Ironically this approach was shared by a contemporary Mackenzie historian who was a member of my own particular branch of the family, Dr James Mackenzie, a physician who went on to conduct an extremely successful career in England.  In his History of Health, he wrote how the “gradual advances made by the human mind in cultivating the sciences” meant that English society represented a standard to which Scotland should aspire, linking commercial society with a more refined existence. In a letter to his cousin the Edinburgh lawyer, John Mackenzie of Delvine, he asserted that “England indeed gives greater Encouragement to Industry than any other Nation I know.” Thus, while feeling a strong obligation to use his wealth and influence to support those numerous nephews who hailed from the place of Dr. James’s birth in Sutherland in the far north of the Highlands, his attitude towards them was ambivalent, frequently referring to them in his correspondence as “useless blockhead”, “Brutes”, “worthless” and a “Rabble of Hottentots.” 

The great irony of this world view was that by endorsing it, such enlightened Highlanders as Dr. James Mackenzie  – Sir George Mackenzie of Rosehaugh was another case in hand in his social and political commentary – were participants in laying the seeds of an historical perspective that viewed the Highlands as part of an anachronistic culture. On the one hand many writers on Scotland from the middle of the eighteenth century came to regard the Highlanders as uncouth barbarians, fuelling the prejudice that came to demonise a stereotype accelerated even further during the ’Forty-Five Rebellion and its aftermath; while conversely and most interestingly others began to debate the cultural costs of capitalism.  Dr. Johnson wondered during his famous Scottish tour with James Boswell whether any society benefited from becoming entirely “commercial” in its mentality and attitudes. Adam Smith himself drew attention to the decline of the martial spirit in capitalist society; and Adam Ferguson, comparing the Highlanders to the Homeric warriors and the ancient Spartans and Roman legions, asked whether Scotland was not the poorer for the destruction of its traditional way of life and whether there was a price to be paid for losing the qualities of courage, honour and loyalty in the face of a purely commercial society. His book Essay on the History of Civil Society acknowledged that progress involves losses as well as gains, seeing an “imminent tension between material progress and moral advance”. His “noble savage” is possessed of “a penetration, a force of imagination and elocution, an ardour of mind, an affection and courage” beyond that of civilized man.

Somewhat paradoxically, therefore it was Enlightenment values that sowed the seeds of a Romantic perception of the Highlands that came to most obvious prominence with the extraordinary reception surrounding James MacPherson’s Ossianic poems and subsequently with the historical novels of Sir Walter Scott which were to transform later histories.

It was from Scott himself that subsequent popular histories derived the idea of a clash of cultures: Scotsman versus Englishman, Lowlander versus Highlander, Presbyterian versus Episcopalian. Coming from a circle that comprised Robert Burns, Henry Mackenzie, John Home and Robert Ferguson, men who were trying to save what they could of their country’s Gaelic and Scots heritage, Scott’s romantic leanings were part of the cosmopolitan intellectual interest in primitivism that goes back to the Royal Society’s scientific concern with Highland curiosities in the seventeenth century, which involved their correspondence with men like the first Earl of Cromartie.

Marketed as Scotland’s answer to Homer, MacPherson’s The Tales of Ossian were translated into several languages and had phenomenal international success. MacPherson’s admirers included Schiller and Goethe; his works were even said to have been among Napoleon’s favourite reading. The last Lord Seaforth’s son-in-law and Scott’s friend, the sentimental novelist, Henry Mackenzie, was subsequently the editor of the famous Ossian Report of 1805, which was commissioned to examine the authenticity of the poems.

MacPherson’s heroes are precise representations of what were to become romantic ideals of honour and loyalty to be celebrated by elite European thinking and it might serve us to employ a more nuanced, less black-and white approach to cultural identity at the time. The point about educated Highlanders such as Dr James Mackenzie, Colonel Colin Mackenzie and the last Earl of Seaforth (and if space allowed I could mention many more kindred spirits in the family) that they firmly challenge any preconceptions about a dichotomy between such “Highlanders” and the Enlightenment, which saw the rebellious upheavals of the eighteenth century as a fundamental and irreconcilable clash of cultures.  Indeed, a study of the Mackenzies sheds light on the complex nature of their social circle,  a circle that was as at ease with both Highland and Jacobite traditions as it was with the freshest ideas of the European intellectual élite.