The 1745 Despoliation of
The Queen Mary Harp

One firm date in the history of this harp occurred during 1745–46 when it seems that the Queen Mary Harp was robbed of the valuable adornments which were closely associated with its name. According to John Gunn, quoting from the now missing letter from General Robertson; which accompanied the harps when they were sent to the Highland Society of Scotland for investigation in 1805;–

It had, in front of the upper arm, the queen’s portrait, and the arms of Scotland, both in gold. On the right side, which is the view given in the annexed Plate, in the circular space near the upper end of the forearm, was placed a jewel of considerable value, and on the opposite side, in a similar circular space, was fixed another precious stone; of all which it was despoiled in the rebellion 1745, either by the persons to whose care the Harp had been at that time confided; or, as these people asserted, had been taken away by the soldiery during the existence of these troubles. [1]

Unfortunately we cannot be sure if this was a direct quote by Gunn from the letter, but even if it is, General Robertson’s comments would themselves have been at least second hand since he was born sometime after that event and so would not have known the decorations from first hand experience. Likewise the exact circumstances of how and where the harp was at the time of it’s despoliation can only be something he was told long after the event. However, the physical evidence of the Queen Mary Harp as it is now offers some clues. From evidence which suggests that there was still an active harper around Lude in 1750 it is also possible to tentatively identity the family that possessed it during the events of 1745–46; and that the reason they had it was because it was still in fact being played.

Therefore to begin at the beginning with the date given by Gunn of 1745. Although it has become conventional to refer to the Jacobite Rebellion just as the ‘45’, it was only towards the end in 1746 that the government forces began to encroach into the Atholl district in real force and there is an account which seems to cover the occasion when the harp was despoiled. In February 1746 the Royal Regiment of North British Fusiliers under Lieutenant Colonel Sir Andrew Agnew, which had only just been brought back from the Continental wars; further augmented with 120 Argyllshire men was instructed to march from Perth to secure Dunkeld and then move on to take Blair Castle.

On arrival at Dunkeld the regiment quartered itself in the local houses including one recently built by the Duke of Atholl. The Duke, who was a government supporter was not impressed and wrote several letters to Sir Andrew Agnew complaining about the behaviour of the troops, presumably based on reports sent to him by his local chamberlain since the Duke had safely retired to the south when the rebellion started. But in anticipation of the soldiers moving on to Blair Castle he included with one of the letters a list of his vassals and other Jacobite supporters, including Lude who lived within an eight mile radius of the castle whose lands were therefore open to exploitation. [2]

Fortunately the Medical Officer who accompanied the regiment wrote a series of letters which covered his experiences of the campaign. They also provide some interesting general comments on the country and people, but the relevant part of his account reads;–

I stayed at Blair Castle in Atholl near a month, in which time our detachment plundered all the houses which were concerned with the rebels for five or six miles compass. The most noted were the Lady Lude, a sister of Lord Nairn’s, Lady Fascally, Lady Blairfettie, several Robertsons, Stewarts, &c. I believe most of the whole country about here deserved the same treatment; for I fancy there were few that were not rebelliously inclined. [3]

As this certainly would account for the circumstances under which the Queen Mary Harp was despoiled we can now move on to consider what actually was stolen.

It has been suggested by this author following a close study of the remaining nails on the forepillar of the harp that the Queen’s portrait was in fact the face side of a gold coin from her reign secured with circle of nails on the forepillar which was then overmounted by a shield with corresponding hole which allowed the queen’s head to be seen in its centre. It was further confirmed that the dimension of the circular object surrounded by the remaining nails would have matched a similar example of that coin which is among the collections of the National Museum of Scotland. [4]

The face of the forepillar is slightly curved and has a decorative ridge or bead running vertically up it’s centre. This, along with the fairly dense wood would not have made the job of fixing the coin in place easy. Although the ridge had been shaved flat at the point where the coin should have sat, in fact by the time the fixings had been made the coin had moved off centre towards the right hand edge of the pillar as viewed from the front. [5] This in turn dictated that the right hand edge of the shield would also have to have been offset and much closer to the edge of the pillar on that side. Once the shield was fixed down the overall curvature of the face of the pillar would have caused the left side of the shield to rise and this resulted in an additional nail being added midway down the left side of the shield. [6]

Annotated photograph of the Queen Mary Harp's pillar

Photograph of the front of the harp's pillar which shows the nails and pressure marks.
Photo courtesy of the National Museums of Scotland © by NMS.

Apart from the remaining nails the harp at that point also shows some evidence of the method of the removal which might add some weight to the claim by the harps carers that it had been stolen by soldiers. On the side where the shield would have been closest to the edge of the pillar and without the additional nail, there are two clear impressions which suggest the tip of a dirk was used to lever the shield up to access the fixing nails around the coin. The first is a straight forward cut in the wood where the dirk was driven in under the shield at roughly the mid point between the shield fixings on that side, (the blade vertical to the plane of the shield as tips of knives are vulnerable to breaking if levered sideways). The second impression is beside and above the lower fixing nail on that side and with this one the impression is longer and deeper and shows the point suggesting the downward pressure of the tip as the dirk was levered up freeing the shield from the nail at that point. [7]

If the people who had the harp at that time were being maligned with the suggestion that they themselves might have stolen the harps valuable fittings, some further modern research findings may throw some light on why they had the harp in the first place. Therefore to return to what Gunn says about it, the wording, which is presumed to be that of General Robertson, states to whose care the Harp had been at that time confided. The use of the word confided simply means placed in trust and while it has been assumed that it was just to keep it safe during uncertain times that may not be the case and there would have been far more valuable items still left at Lude itself.

Returning to Gunn’s account, later in his report we are told, apparently again quoting from General Robertson, that The last of this family who played on Queen Mary’s Harp, before it was despoiled of its valuable ornaments by the soldiery in the year 1745, was the great–grandfather of General Robertson. [8] This was the John Robertson of Lude who died in 1730, [9] but the description last of this family is not the same as saying the last time the harp was played by someone. At least in this description the harps carers in 1745 are no longer being maligned and there is some earlier evidence to suggest that the harps were not always kept at Lude following the death of that John Robertson. The heir and next Robertson of Lude, also called John was to die just ten years later in 1741 and he left an extensive testament. [10]

The surviving private and archival collections of estate papers contain many household inventories but these rarely notice musical instruments. Testaments on the other hand being done for valuation of personal movable property purposes usually do include instruments. A good example of which at roughly that period and locality was the Testament of Alexander Robertson of Faskally who died in July 1731. Among the very comprehensive listing of the values of his goods and gear given up on the 15 August 1732 were a trible Violine and a Bass. [11] However in an equally comprehensive testament for John Robertson of Lude recorded on the 18 March 1742 there is no sign at all of the two harps suggesting that they had already been confided in the hands of others by that point.

The concept that the Laird would equip his retainers, including in the broadest sense arming them or supplying their instruments was quite normal and the Laird’s ownership was always implicit. For a musical example when a cousin of MacLean of Lochbuy was trying to find a piper for his regiment in 1776, Lochbuy casually instructed that the bagpipe which had been in the possession of John Rankin, (who had died some years before) should be used. In the case of the two Lude harps and the evidence from what Gunn, does and does not say, there is a strong possibility that what might be thought of as family retainers were in possession of the harps because they were still being played.

If this was the case then it helps explain an entry in the Blair Atholl Parish Register for a marriage on the 18th December 1750 between Donald Robertson alias Clarsair in Dauchinlialuish and Margaret Gordon in Carrick. [12] Dauchinlialuish under several variations of the name no longer exists but can be found on the earlier maps up to about 1827 but unfortunately these maps are not the most accurate. Further confusion occurs because Dauchinlialash along with Levage More and Levage Beg were somewhere within what was also known as Strathgroy which does appear on the more modern maps but although it was commonly in use in early land titles rarely appears in the old maps. [13]

However, a suggestion by John Kerr that the evidence suggests that the two Levages were what is now the farm at Strathgroy while the position of Dauchlialash is what are now the ruins of Upper Strathgroy seems reasonable and would certainly be roughly where it’s position on the early maps would indicate. [14] It was therefore quite close to the site of former house of the Lude Family at Balnagrew, and just a little to the east of the garden policies of its replacement, the current Lude House. [15] An ideal position for a family retainer being close enough to summon but without needing to house them right on the premises.

Aliases of any sort were by that time far less common in the Kirk records and when Donald and his wife Margaret had their two children, Elspeth in 1751 and Ann in 1755 the baptisms were both simply recorded just as Donald Robertson and Margaret Gordon in Dauchinlialais. [16] This would add weight to the idea that the earlier alias Clarsair, rather than MacClarsair was a reference to his current skill as opposed to just being descended from a line of harpers.

[1] Gunn, John. An Historical Enquiry Respecting The Performance On The Harp in The Highlands Of Scotland. (1807), 13–14. The section in italics is editorial.

[2] National Records of Scotland. (NRS), GD154/651/1 and 2

[3] John, Seventh Duke of Atholl. Chronicles Of The Atholl And Tullibardine Families (1908). Addenda pp liii–lvi. Taken from the reprint of the original work published as The Contrast in 1825; The original letters had been first published as a pamphlet in 1746.

[4] At a briefing given to the curators at the National Museum of Scotland on 29th October 2012 they confirmed that the coin I thought was most likely to have been used, a Gold Half Ryal from 1555 did have exactly the right dimensions. One of those coins from their collection was then subsequently included with the harp in the Mary, Queen of Scots exhibition in 2013 and is also reproduced as illustration number 127 page 91 of the exhibition catalogue, Mary, Queen of Scots In my end is my beginning. Rosalind K. Marshall (2013).

[5] At that period it was the weight of the coin which was important and as long the coins were struck from discs of the correct weight less attention was paid to the final dimension being a perfect circle. However the mean centre of the remaining circle of nails is just to the right of the edge of the beading.

[6] Thanks to Karen Loomis for a copy of the picture, to David Forsyth and the National Museums of Scotland for permission to use it as an illustration and to Michael Billinge for making the annotations.

[7] The military records of Sir Andrew Agnew amongst the Agnew family papers in the National Records of Scotland (deposit D154) contain the muster rolls of his regiment which might include the names of the actual culprits, but the fact that the impressions left in the wood of the forepillar better fit a dirk rather than the military bayonet of the time suggests that it was one of the additional Argylshire men added to the regiment.

[8] Gunn, John. Op cite, 95–96

[9] Exactly when he died is yet to be firmly established. The memorial tablet for the family above their burial vault in Kilmaveonaig Church gives his death as 1731. He was certainly still alive and making notes in his personal pocket book towards the very end of 1730, but must have died before his son and heir, another John visited Blair Castle to obtain a Clare Constat of the 36 merkland of Lude and Pittnacree on the 8 January 1731. (Blair Archives 234/7/vol 420 p 29). It is possible though that given the relations between Lude and Atholl his son wasted no time in confirming himself in the lands of Lude as soon as his father had died and so his father might have just made it into 1731 before departing this world.[An heir whose deceased ancestor was a feudal vassal had to obtain a precept of Clare Constat from the feudal superior before he could legally own his inherited lands]..

[10] National Records of Scotland. CC7/6/4, (Dunkeld).

[11] N.R.S. CC7/6/3, (Dunkeld).

[12] O.P.R. Marriages 334/0000100328 [Blair Atholl]

[13] My thanks to Colm O’Boyle for the suggestion that underlying the various spellings is the Gaelic name Dabhach an Liath–Luis, the Dabhach, ( Scots Davach, a measure of land), of the mugwort.

[14] Kerr, John. Old Roads to Strathardle. The Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness. (re printed 1984). 23

Submitted by Keith Sanger, 4 April, 2015.

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