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Musings on McCulloch's Masterpieces

Updated: Jul 26, 2023

Horatio McCulloch was a Scottish landscape painter born in Glasgow in 1805. He worked as a decorative painter, a snuffbox lid painter and an engraver throughout his career too. He died in Edinburgh in 1867 and is buried in Warriston Cemetery. His gravestone has a carving of a Skye Terrier on the back of it, a tribute to his love of the breed as he known to have had several of these dogs as pets!

McCulloch took inspiration predominantly from the Scottish Highlands; mountains, waterfalls, lochs, rivers and castles all feature in his paintings. However, he is among the first artists to focus on urban and industrial landscapes, as several of his works feature Edinburgh’s Old Town. During the 1800s when McCulloch was active, the romanticisation of Scotland was in full swing as it became a fashionable holiday destination, creating a thriving tourist industry which endures today. Tartan, mountains, bagpipes, whisky, ceilidhs – things that are now synonymous with Scotland - became embedded in the country’s cultural identity. McCulloch’s settings, the amazing architecture of Edinburgh and the serene scenery of the Highlands, are to this day are two of the most famous places in Scotland and will be on most visitors must-see list. Other famous Scots inspired McCulloch and contributed to this romanticism movement, including John Knox, who was also a famous landscape painter and taught McCulloch in his studio, and writer Sir Walter Scott, whose prose idealised the Highlands as a place full of adventure and natural beauty. There was a darker side to this romanticism of the Scottish Highlands, however, which McCulloch arguably contributed to. McCulloch‘s paintings exemplified the idea of the Highlands as a wilderness playground rather than a populated space. While upper-class Victorians were discovering and exploring the Highlands for the first time, Highland communities were being cleared from land they had lived on for generations to make way for large sheep farms and sporting interests.

National Galleries Scotland have two McCulloch paintings in their collection which feature Glencoe: ‘Glencoe, Argyllshire’, 1864 and ‘Landscape near Glencoe, Argyllshire’, date unknown. Another of his paintings, ‘Highland Landscape, Glencoe’, is held within Perth Art Gallery’s collection. All three paintings have Glencoe in their titles and do feature vast open skies, distant mountains, water and trees - which can be found everywhere in and around Glencoe - but they are not easily recognisable locations. These three paintings are similar to one another in their colouring as McCulloch has applied a lot of blue, white and grey, which brightens the paintings, giving them a tranquil atmosphere, perhaps implying they are set in spring or summer.

However, there are also three paintings that feature the iconic “Three Sisters”, one of the most easily recognised views in Glencoe. One of these paintings is in our own collection here at Glencoe Folk Museum, which as far as we know makes it the only one of McCulloch’s Highland landscapes to be held not only in the Highlands, but actually in the area it depicts! Our painting is differs from the others because of technique used: the paint has been applied quite thickly and roughly, so you are aware of the brushstrokes, perhaps to give the impression of a windy day in the Glen.

Although all three of these paintings are clearly the same scene, they are all from different angles, which you can tell from what is included in them. Our painting does not include a road at all but the other two do. ‘Glencoe’ from Low Parks Museum’s collection even has tiny cattle and their herders visible on the road. A common sight at the time no doubt – indeed, in behind the Three Sisters is the infamous Coire Gabhail (the “Corrie of Capture” or the “Lost Valley”) where MacDonalds hid their cattle for safe keeping, either because there was danger of them being rustled by others or they had done the rustling themselves!

Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum have ‘Glencoe’, 1864 in their collection and this painting is largely credited to be McCulloch’s “masterpiece”. It has a road hidden behind a prominent rock on the right-hand side, but this is a large-scale painting full of detail, which helps impress the viewer with the sheer majesty of the scenery so your eyes do not immediately go to the road. If you ever drive through the Glen, you will undoubtedly stare out the window in wonder. As well as being large scale, another feature which separates this painting from the others is the inclusion of a herd of deer, which are nestled in between some rocks in the foreground, and just like in real-life are very well camouflaged in their surroundings. Glencoe is the perfect habitat for deer and still to this day can be seen roaming the rugged terrain. Deer have become an emblem for Scotland; with the Red Deer now being the largest land animal remaining in the UK, they are a sign of Scotland’s wildness.

Though smaller, ours and Low Parks Museum’s paintings still capture the grandeur of the Three Sisters and the Glen well through dramatic lighting and shadowing. Our painting may have been based on the same sketch, or even done as practice for the larger Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum’s painting. These three paintings are similar to one another not just because of their subject but in the use of colour – all three are darker than the other Glencoe landscapes, which has a powerful effect on the mood as it gives the impression that this is a place of foreboding, where you are at the mercy of the mountains, inciting respect towards this striking scene. The clouds are thick and seem to be gathering - is there a storm brewing? A common occurrence within Glencoe’s towering giants. Mountains are certainly awe-inspiring and beautiful, but they can also be treacherous and unrelenting, and having an awareness of this is crucial to enjoy them fully. Brown is a predominant colour in these paintings too, which might indicate these are set in autumn or winter when the plants lose their green foliage and the heather transforms from its vibrant shades to dull and dry.

Thanks to generous grants from The Finnis Scott Foundation and Idlewild Trust – as well as donations through our “Adopt an Object” scheme - our McCulloch painting is currently away for crucial conservation work to make sure it can be put on permanent display in our new museum space after our redevelopment project is completed. This specialist work will be carried out by Egan Matthew & Rose, and we are excited to have it returned to us to be able to tell the story of Glencoe and share it with our audiences.

If you would like to support us and show your appreciation of this painting whilst paying homage to the mountains, you can adopt it through our Adopt an Object scheme.

Did you enjoy reading this article? We hope you learned something! If so, we would be very grateful if you would consider donating the cost of a coffee to help us continue providing our digital heritage offering. Thank you!

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