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Peter Bruegel the Elder, Sailing Vessels, Armed Three-Master with Daedelus and Icarus in the sky, engraved by Frans Huys (1560-6)
© Trustees of the British Museum

A 16th-century engraving by Pieter Bruegel the Elder contains the earliest image of any Scottish landscape, according to the leading Scottish art historian Duncan MacMillan. His theory is based on what he describes as an uncanny resemblance between a coastal rock formation in Bruegel's The Fall of Icarus and the famous Bass Rock at the mouth of the Firth of Forth.

Bruegel probably did not visit Scotland but used work by others, MacMillan argues, at a time when Scottish artists worked in Flanders and vice versa. Bruegels engraver, Frans Huys, included the rocks distinctive outline but reversed it, meaning the tell-tale outline appeared the wrong way round. The coast of Fife, to the north, is also suggested in reverse.

The principal features of Bruegels image superimposed on the Bass Rock
Courtesy Duncan Macmillan

The Bass Rocks huge colony of gannets, who circle the rock and plummet down into the surrounding waters for fish, is said to seal the discovery, as reported in Scottish Art News, the magazine of the Fleming Collection of Scottish art. It is the presence of what are clearly gannets in Bruegels work that confirms the identification, says MacMillan, a critic and author of Scottish Art 1460-2000s.

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The Fleming Collection's director, James Knox, says he was “delighted to support Duncan Macmillans landmark discovery in Scotlands art history.” No independent Bruegel experts had responded to comment requests at time of publication.

The Bass Rock, a striking seamark two miles from the Scottish fishing town of North Berwick, has inspired artists from JMW Turner to the modern Scottish pastel artist Matthew Draper. The northern gannets—who take their Latin name Morus Bassanus from the Rock—were a famous natural phenomenon recorded as early as 1521 in John Majors History of England and Scotland.

The works are an exact fit, MacMillan argues, although only half of the Rock's outline appears in the work. “The overarching point is that Bruegel is explicitly comparing the fate of Icarus to the flying and diving of the gannets. If you look at any early description of Scotland the Bass Rock gets a mention.”

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