Picture a shirtless Fabio type standing on a heather-covered hill. His long hair streams out behind him, while his heavily muscled legs, visible under a short, plaid kilt, are mostly bare to the chilly northern wind. His name is reminiscent of a Highland laird or Edinburgh merchant-prince: He goes by a tartan-ed title like Ewen Abercrombie or Fergus MacDuff.
Romance novels featuring brooding Scottish male leads continue to be popular with readers. Donna Grant’s Dark Sword series features sexy Highland lords and sinister Druids. Michelle Marcos’s Secrets to Seducing a Scot kicks off her “Highland Knaves” series, which stars “an infamous clan of outcast Scots who live for justice [and] lust for freedom…”
What makes such lads so popular with wistful heroines and readers alike?
Ten years ago, a Cincinnati Enquirer article analyzed the appeal of Scottish heroes in romance novels. Charis Calhoon of the Romance Writers of America opined that Scottish lords, hailing from a turbulent political environment, are the ideal stoic male figures that courageous heroines can redeem with their love.
There are other factors that play into the loner appeal of a Scottish lord. The wild, gorgeous scenery of Scotland lends itself to the image of a man who can’t be tamed. Scotsmen, moreover, seem somehow to be more warlike than other men, more ferocious in pursuit of those they love and in defense of their honor. In fact, such romances appear to feature more generic stereotypes about Scottish men than truths. For example, not all Scots are Highlanders—the Highlands represent a specific geographic location within Scotland. In addition, not all Scotsmen wear kilts or are clan members. These archaic designations, though, make the Scottish laird seem more foreign and, simultaneously, more desirable. He is a relic of an age gone by when men were warriors, true men’s men.
There is, indeed, something irresistible about a Scottish man. They’re seen as the brooding, silent types—the loner bad boys of the British Isles. Unlike the jolly lords of London, Scotsmen are seen as untamed residents of a wild land that never fully submitted to England’s yoke. They resist categorization into modern social categories: For example, Scottish clans are alive and well in a time when such societies have become obsolete elsewhere. Lairds march to the beat of their own drum, just like Scotland itself, which so long resisted English domination.
Partially because of the Scots’ history of political resistance, the image of the Scottish “bad boy” is still common throughout celebrity culture. Los Angeles Confidential dubbed Scottish-born actor Gerard Butler “Hollywood’s last bad boy.” Movie star Ewan McGregor has been called a “rebel"; he’s also admitted to extensive sexual exploits. Former James Bond Sean Connery readily swears and once dated Hollywood beauty Lana Turner. Like our favorite Highland lairds, these lads mix sexual conquests in with caddish behavior to produce a beguiling appeal.
The inspiring exploits of real-life Scottish heroes—both male and female—further inspire authors to craft men—and some women—in such a mold. William Wallace and Robert the Bruce fought relentlessly for Scottish independence from the English Plantagenet kings; despite Wallace’s death, Bruce went on to win his country’s freedom from under the thumb of its southern neighbors. As Wallace, Mel Gibson subsequently glorified these Scottish wars in the 1995 blockbuster Braveheart. In the eighteenth century, Bruce’s distant descendant, Bonnie Prince Charlie, fought for his throne against his Protestant relatives.
Scottish lasses are just as brave as the lads. Mary, Queen of Scots, dished up challenge after challenge to her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I of England. Black Agnes, a fourteenth-century countess, defended her home castle against an invading siege. Such women provide models for ideal heroines that manage turn hard-hearted heroes into romantics. Who better than a female fighter to mold a similarly stubborn man into the lord of her dreams?
Of course, these images of kilted, sexy men are largely fictional reconstructions. As Euan Hague and David Stenhouse note in their critical essay “A Very Interesting Place: Representing Scotland in American Romance Novels,” the male Scottish hero represents a fetishized sexual being, not a historical reality.
To this day, though, Scottish men are considered “men’s men.” With their barely-there kilts, they seem to disdain fabric as much as they do English authority. Legendary Scottish heroes and their Hollywood interpretations serve as models for romance authors’s Highlander lords.
Carly Silver recently graduated summa cum laude from Barnard College, Columbia University, and the Columbia Publishing Course. A lifelong lover of romance novels, she also develops and writes humanities content and curricula for middle and high school academic courses for Shmoop.com.