The Royal Publicity Tour that Reignited Scotland’s National Identity

George IV visit to Edinburgh
A painting by Alexander Carse showing King George IV landing on the Shore at Leith.

When King George IV landed in Leith in August 1822, his arrival marked the first visit of a monarch to Scotland since the reign of Charles II in 1651. And his visit was very well timed.

The 19th century equivalent of a publicity tour, the visit was intended to shore up support for the monarchy following an incident in Scottish history known as the Radical War – a turbulent period of civil unrest sparked by demands for electoral reform.

Political turmoil

In 1820, during the economic downturn in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars, calls for political reform in Britain grew louder, but were largely ignored. As a result, strikes and marches broke out across the country and unrest led to the deployment of troops in a host of towns and cities.

A swift crackdown occurred on a number of protests, and the famous Battle of Bonnymuir saw weavers clash with troops on the outskirts of Falkirk – an incident which ended with the execution of leaders Andrew Hardie and John Baird in Stirling.

Elsewhere, a protest march in Strathaven fell by the wayside amidst rumours that the army intended to ambush marchers. The leader of this protest, prominent revolutionary James Wilson, was executed by hanging and then decapitated in Glasgow.

The harsh response to this unrest left a bitter taste in mouths across the country and soured public support for the government for quite some time. As such, an official visit by King George IV was recommended to help mend ties with the Scottish public.

And it was quite the spectacle.

The king’s arrival

George IV visit to Edinburgh
A painting of George IV in a kilt.

Much of the lavish tour was organised by Sir Walter Scott, including a high society meet-and-greet at Holyrood which famously saw the king don traditional Highland dress. A symbolic gesture and one that was well-received by the nobility and public alike.

Landing at The Shore, George IV was greeted by huge crowds. Stepping off his vessel onto a red carpet, he was presented with flowers and the proceedings were somewhat bizarrely interrupted when Chief Alexander Ranaldson of Glengarry broke protocol to personally greet the king on horseback.

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The king’s visit was also a source of enormous excitement in Edinburgh and drew huge crowds.

A grand procession from Holyrood House to Edinburgh Castle was flanked by mobs of cheering locals and the king is said to have spent more than 15 minutes waving to locals from the battlements of the Half Moon Battery.

George IV visit to Edinburgh
George IV waves to crowds from Edinburgh Castle battlements.

Visits to St Giles Cathedral, Portobello Sands and Hopetoun House to the west of Edinburgh were all successful, and George IV even made time to take in a theatre performance of Rob Roy before departing from South Queensferry on 29th August.

A lasting legacy

George IV’s visit was a marked success and helped bolster the king’s popularity in Scotland. He did fall foul to Scottish humour during the visit, however. His kilted appearance at Holyrood Palace was widely caricatured, and the decision to wear pink pantaloons to conceal bloated legs was mocked.

George IV visit to Edinburgh
A caricature of King George IV in traditional Highland dress.

Nonetheless, the visit helped spur the development of Scotland’s modern national identity, thrust Scottish culture and heritage firmly into the public gaze and sparked a revival of traditional dress.

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