In August 1822, a year after his coronation, King George IV made a trip to Scotland, the first British monarch to do so for 170 years. The entire trip was stage managed by the author Sir Walter Scott, with much pageantry, but some mistakes did happen.
The portly King, known for his love of fashion and frippery, dressed to impress in a kilt – but his kilt was too short, finishing well above his knees, and rather than risk showing his bare legs he wore a pair of pink tights. He only appeared in full Highland dress wearing a kilt on just the one occasion during the trip (he wore trews in his Royal Stuart tartan on at least one other day), but it remained the enduring image of his visit. The kilt had been prohibited as everyday wear by the Dress Act (repealed in 1782) after the Jacobite uprising of 1745, although it was still used for army uniforms, but Sir Walter’s instructions for a ‘Highland Ball’ in honour of the King, declaring that gentlemen, if not in uniform, must wear ‘the ancient Highland costume’ was pivotal in establishing the national dress of Scotland. When Sir David Wilkie later painted the King in this garb he flattered him by lengthening the kilt, slimming him down and leaving off the pink tights.
The visit began on the 10th August 1822 from Greenwich, but it was not until the 15th August that King George was finally able to disembark his ship (he had been delayed a day by bad weather to the disappointment of the gathered crowds), the Royal George, at Leith on the Firth of Forth. He wore the full dress of a British Admiral and had a twig of heath and a natural heather on his hat which pleased his Scottish subjects.
Amongst others, the King was attended by the Marquis of Lothian and Lord Charles Bentinck. Lord Charles’ first wife had been Miss Georgiana Seymour, reputed daughter of the King by the women whose biography we have written, Grace Dalrymple Elliott, and their young daughter was therefore the King’s granddaughter (see An Infamous Mistress: the Life, Loves and Family of the Celebrated Grace Dalrymple Elliott).
The King based himself at Dalkeith Palace, and over the ensuing days triumphal processions between Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood House were undertaken, and levee’s held, one attended by 457 ladies who each had to be kissed on the cheek. The weather was mainly terrible; it rained but the people, under their umbrella’s, still came out to cheer the King who was delighted with his reception. Thousands of people had lined Calton Hill and the King, surveying the scene, remarked to the officers with him, “This is wonderful – what a sight!” and luckily the mist which had blighted the day cleared to afford him a full view.
A review of 3,000 volunteer cavalrymen was held on Portobello sands on the 23rd August, and for once the weather was favourable. The King, dressed in a Field Marshal’s uniform, arrived in his open carriage and four at one o’clock, to a salute from the guns situated on a battery on the pier and cheers from the crowd. Mounting a grey charger he then rode slowly along the line while the military bands played God Save the King. It was estimated that over a thousand vehicles had brought the spectators to the event, everything from coronated carriages to farmer’s carts, and that the assembled crowed was not less than thirty thousand people, and a scaffold had been erected for the ladies to sit in. Added to this, there were a few pleasure yachts and boats moored nearby to view the spectacle.
That evening a Peers’ Ball was held at the Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh; King George, still in his Field Marshal’s uniform, arrived in high spirits. He only stayed for just over an hour, during which time he paid marked attention to several elegant ladies.
On the 27th August the King attended a theatrical performance of Rob Roy, his last public engagement of the trip. It was asked that those people who had enjoyed frequent access to his Majesty did not attend; the Theatre Royal was not a large building and it was hoped that the audience could be made up of those who had yet to set eyes on him. Mr Murray, the theatre owner, was complimented for refusing to raise the ticket price for that night.
For this occasion the King wore the undress uniform of a Field Marshal; sitting in a chair of state in the royal box he was flanked by several peers, dukes, earls and lords, including Lord Charles Bentinck who had never been far from his side throughout the whole journey.
Two days later King George IV returned, in the rain, to his ship.
John Murray, the 4th Duke of Atholl, later described the visit as ‘one and twenty daft days’ and noted in his journal that:
The Mania is the Highland garb . . . a considerable Procession of Troops, Highlanders and the different Persons dressed up by [Sir] W: Scott in fantastic attire.
As an aside, we’ve discovered another (ahem!) unusual anecdote relating to King George’s visit to Scotland in 1822. It seems he was an honorary member of the Beggar’s Benison Club, a Scottish gentleman’s club founded in the eighteenth-century and devoted to ‘the convivial celebration of male sexuality’.
Several relics from the Beggar’s Benison survive, including a snuff box of women’s pubic hair gifted by honorary member George IV during his visit to Scotland in 1822. It is said the Prince Regent donated the item to help replace a wig made from the pubic hair of Charles II’s mistresses that was worn by the club’s chief, or sovereign. The hair piece was taken from the group when the breakaway Wig Club was formed in Edinburgh in 1775 and has since been lost.
We’ll leave you with that little gem of information…
Caledonian Mercury, 17th, 19th, 22nd, 24th and 29th August 1822
Glasgow Herald, 23rd and 26th August 1822
The Morning Post, 27th August 1822
Possible Scotlands: Walter Scott and the Story of Tomorrow by Caroline McCracken-Flesher, Oxford University Press, 2005
The Secret Sex Club of 18th Century Anstruther via The Scotsman
NOTE TO OUR READERS:
We are taking a summer holiday from our blog for the rest of August, but rest assured we will be back again in September. In the meantime we trust you all have a wonderful summer, hopefully enjoying good weather.
If you are in the UK, do watch out for the TV adaptation of Hallie Rubenhold’s book on Lady Seymour Worsley, The Scandalous Lady W which is due to premiere on BBC2 on the 17th August. Lady Worsley was a close friend and contemporary of Grace Dalrymple Elliott and we are really looking forward to watching this drama, which promises to be fantastic. If you are reading this from elsewhere in the world we hope it will be available for you to view in due course.
All the best, Sarah and Jo.