16th Jun 2015
Earlier this week, our volunteers were treated to a trip up to the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. As with all staff get-togethers, it was long overdue and offered a rare opportunity for volunteers based in different areas to meet one another properly and have some fun!
Of course, this was a cultural outing and it was my mission to put together an itinerary that had some relevance to Scott. With a sprinkling of fairydust from external funders, we can ensure that this is the first of a series of excursions that will help our volunteers make associations and connections with other historical sites, people in history and major events that shaped Scott's worldview.
Perhaps no event is more significant in Scott's lifetime than the battle of Waterloo, especially when you consider it is the culmination of a pervading mood of fear and hostility that had been simmering away in Britain ever since the French Revolution, at least amongst the conservative faction. Now, I shan't harp on about Waterloo again after such a recent blog post on the subject (even if it is tempting within a whisker of the bicentenary itself), but I would like to draw attention to the first pitstop on our Scott-themed tour of NMS: an excellent little exhibition entitled 'Waterloo: After the Battle,' curated by Dr. Stuart Allan.
We were lucky enough to have Dr. Allan show us around the displays which really helped to bring everything to life. Perhaps most poignant for the Abbotsford troupe was the chance to see the captured bronze eagle of the French 45th Infantry, one of two Napoleonic totems taken by the British forces during the battle.
Our Volunteers Malcolm and Will putting Dr Allan through his paces; The Eagle of the 45th
Why is it relevant to Scott? Well, we have an eagle at Abbotsford, albeit something a little less 'shiny...' For some time it was rumoured that this was the real deal, until it was pointed out that the whereabouts of the two captured imperial eagles was already known! Our wooden version is, we think, more likely to be a stage prop that accompanies a set of flags we have in the archives, one of which is a replica standard of the French 105th Infantry, the other regiment to lose its colours on the 18th June. Other artfefacts on display in this exhibition included Napoleon's sugar bowl, part of a wonderfully ornate tea service (which I am sure Scott would have moved heaven and earth to get hold of if he could have done), commemorative Black Watch pottery fired in 1816, and my personal favourite: a tiny little silver teapot that supposedly belonged to Field Marshal Blücher, the septuagenarian commander of the Prussian forces. I guess he wasn't quite as butch as history would have you believe!
It appears the Prussians also marched on tea; Wonderful rustic Scottish pottery from Portobello
After wolfing down a tasty lunch, we were treated to a fantastic tour of the Scottish galleries with George Dalgleish, Keeper of Scottish History and Archaeology. George is an Abbotsford Trustee and as such, he was able to give us a fantastic overview of the objects in the museum collection that Scott had owned, written about and seen exhibited. One of the real treasures of Abbotsford, the Torrs Chamfrein, actually resides at the National Museum after it was sold decades ago by Scott's descendents to avert ever-present financial difficulties. Luckily, the museum provided us with their Victorian replica of the artefact at the time of that transaction so visitors can still see a version of the piece in its rightful setting here at Abbotsford.
The Torrs Chamfrein at NMS, once belonging to Sir Walter Scott
Chamfreins, being ceremonial or armoured headpieces for horses, are interesting things and this one in particular is a bit of a conundrum. There are fine examples from Roman Britain in other institutions, but this Iron Age example, dated to approximately 200BC is more likely to have been ritual in function. Whether it was made for animal or human is very much open to debate; perhaps in a shamanistic ceremony it transformed an individual from one thing to another. The pony cap and horns were unearthed in a peat bog at Torrs Farm in Dumfries and Galloway in the 1820s and given to Scott as a curiousity worthy of his 'museum for living in'. Having been found initially as two separate items in the same location, it is unclear how the cap and horns marry together both physically and chronologically but they have been displayed as one piece for some time now. Until new research can find a way to navigate the minefield of 'cult archaeology', the enigma of the Torrs chamfrein continues.
Passing through the medieval gallery, we caught a glimpse of the famous Lewis chessmen. We were all surprised to find that Scott narrowly missed out on acquiring these, in reality due to his ailing health.
A Selection of the Lewis Chessmen
An Edinburgh Antiques dealer had put his collection of chesspieces up for the consideration of the Keeper of Manuscripts at the British Museum on the 17th October 1831 and Sir Walter Scott happened to see the relics, being present to consult manuscripts for research purposes. His journal entry that day is as follows: 'the morning beautiful today, I go to look after the transcripts in the Museum and leave a card on a set of chess men thrown up by the sea on the coast of Scotland which were offered for £100.' As the twists and turns of fate would have it, it was actually his friend Charles Kirkpatrick-Sharpe who ended up owning eleven pieces of the much larger collection. I wonder how different things would have been if he hadn't been so unwell at the time and what a joy the chesspieces would have been to have at Abbotsford!
After having wended our way past the towering Scottish Maiden, a guillotine that features in Scott's novel The Abbot, the final highlight of our tour (and there were many more than I can possibly cover here) was seeing the sporran that inspired that famous passage in Rob Roy:
"I advise no man to attempt opening this sporran till he has my secret,'' said Rob Roy; and then twisting one button in one direction, and another in another, pulling one stud upward, and pressing another downward, the mouth of the purse, which was bound with massive silver plate, opened and gave admittance to his hand. He made me remark, as if to break short the subject on which Bailie Jarvie had spoken, that a small steel pistol was concealed within the purse, the trigger of which was connected with the mounting, and made part of the machinery, so that the weapon would certainly be discharged, and in all probability its contents lodged in the person of any one, who, being unacquainted with the secret, should tamper with the lock which secured his treasure."
Gentlemen, beware! Sporran clasp concealing two small steel pistols; Some cautionary tales around the Scotch Maiden
Now, as with all items that occupy that murky border country between history and myth, this NMS item is popularly referred to as Rob Roy's sporran, and indeed it must have inspired that passage in the novel, but there is no evidence whatsoever that it ever belonged to the folk hero. As ever with these things, the popular imagination sides with the storyteller. And isn't it more fun that way? Scott would have most certainly thought so. I hope you've enjoyed our little virtual excursion though the National Museum of Scotland.
Thanks, as ever, for reading!
Heritage and Engagement Manager