The ‘Queen Mary’ Harp

The ‘name’ attached to this harp first appears in a firm and datable record with the appearance of John Gunn's report on the ‘Lude’ harps undertaken on behalf of the Highland Society of Scotland and published in 1807. Gunn’s account was based on the covering letter sent with the harps by their owner, General William Robertson of Lude, but as subsequently noted by Charles Bell in his Notice of the harp said to have been given to Beatrix Gardyn of Banchory by Queen Mary and of the harp called the ‘Lamont Harp’ read to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in 1880; the account by John Gunn contains at least one contradiction and a number of other problems.[1]

Unfortunately General Robertson’s original letter has not survived although Charles Bell suggests that as Gunn’s report was published at a time when the General was still alive and could have contradicted any errors, the basic facts when shorn of Gunn's additional padding can be taken as correct. This is a reasonable assumption but should be qualified by the fact that if the General had sent any letter of corrections, it is not clear how that would have been published, since Gunn’s report only seems to have gone through one edition, and the letter would have disappeared along with the rest of the original papers.

While Bell is inclined to accept the claim that the harp was given to Beatrix Gardyn by a ‘Queen Mary’ he dismisses most of Gunn’s account including the description of the great hunt in Atholl attended by Mary Queen of Scots, as ‘flowery antiquarian suggestions and statements introduced to make up a bulky, saleable and readable publication’. He also makes the point that there had been more than one ‘Queen Mary’ and that Mary of Guise, the mother of Mary Queen of Scots, who died in 1560 was also a possibility.

Such doubts persisted and when in 1904 following the death of Steuart of Dalguise and the sale of the Dalguise Estate; the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland were required to bid at auction for the two harps which had been on deposit in the National Museum, their reaction to the cost of acquiring the ‘Queen Mary harp’ was that;–

The grant only sufficed for the purchase of the ‘Mary’ harp and £890 had to be paid for it. The price was unfortunately enhanced by the quite mythical attribution to Queen Mary; but for us, the value of the harp consisted not in this, but in its being one of the three ancient harps existing in the United kingdom, and in the beautiful Celtic carving which adorned it. The Council therefore felt that it would be a national loss if so fine and rare a relic were not acquired for the Museum at however great a price.[2]

Myths of course often contain some factual information, even when it is confused, misplaced or misinterpreted and in this case it requires a full examination of the background of the harp and the families who owned it. This point was recognised by Charles Bell who made an attempt to examine the family history using Burkes ‘Landed Gentry’, but was aware of that works limitations and omissions. For example it is rarely appreciated that there was nobody called Robertson of Lude at any point during the lifetime of Mary Queen of Scots, (1542–1587) since Lude at that time was in the hands of the Ogilvys of Inchmartin.[3] The first attempt by this author to follow up and build on Charles Bell’s work by exploring the surviving ‘Lude’ papers was published in 1992.[4] Since then additional research has refined that material and while the ‘Lude’ family tree published in that work has stood up to further scrutiny the background context is now even more firmly established.

The first point which has to be made is that there is no mention of either of the ‘Lude’ Harps in any of the existing family papers therefore General Robertson’s letter to the Highland Society of Scotland appears to be the first time any of the family traditions relating to them were written down.[5] The General himself would never have seen the harps adornments which gave rise to the Queen Mary connection and as there were a number of occasions in the family tree where the heirs were still very much minors when there fathers died, even any oral traditions must have suffered some disruptions.[6]

Therefore to set the harp’s history against the contemporary evidence the hard factual information which may have been contained in the General’s covering letter has to be separated from Gunn’s imaginative editing. This therefore amounts to the fact that ‘It had, in front of the upper arm, the queens portrait, and the arms of Scotland, both in gold’ It also had two precious stones mounted either side of the for arm ‘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’. This family story would certainly have provided a traditional connection to a ‘Queen Mary’ which along with the belief that a Beatrix Gardyn was somehow involved was the likely basis of the family oral tradition.

The physical evidence from the harp itself supports the suggestion that there had been attachments fitted to the fore pillar and the end of the harmonic curve, above the point where the fore pillar joined the harmonic curve; along with depressions made either side of the pillar, which would have accommodated circular semi precious stones. It is also quite clear that these additions were placed over the original decoration and so must be later in date than the original instrument. Therefore if this was done during the lifetime of Mary Queen of Scots, more specifically during the time that she was physically in Scotland, (between 1561 to 1568), then it suggests that the harp certainly pre dates that period.

Before moving on to Beatrix Gardyn and the background circumstances suggested by the contemporary family papers the question of the harp having been ‘presented to Beatrix by Queen Mary’ has to be considered. To do this properly it is necessary to look at the background starting in 1513 when the disaster at Flodden abruptly changed the cultural make up of the Scottish Court. Prior to 1513 the court was multi cultural as shown by the Treasurers Accounts which indicate that both Lowland Scots and Gaelic musicians were present and it would appear held equal status. However the death of James IV, (who may have been a Gaelic speaker), along with the loss of most of the Scottish nobility was also a cultural disaster.

In the aftermath of Flodden any form of court life had ceased, there was no ‘court’. The heir, James V was a year old infant, and the influences during his upbringing came from his mother Margaret Tudor and her second husband the Earl of Angus, both of whom represented the English interest. Even when James V started to exert his own mind it was towards France that he looked marrying first Madeleine the daughter of the Francis I of France then after her death, Mary of Guise. Court life when it resumed reflected these changes and it was from France and the continent that the musical influences now came. This did not mean that the native harps, gut and wire, had disappeared from Scotland; they were still to be found in the rest of the country, but not in the Scottish court where any Gaelic influence was now also greatly diminished. Therefore there is little likelihood that anyone closely involved within court circles would have still been taught to play the harp even before the birth of the future Mary Queen of Scots in 1542. As her father had died shortly after her birth, to place her safely out of England's way, Mary was sent to France at the age of six and was brought up in the French Court where she remained until the age of 19. She therefore gained her own musical skills within that court and was known to have sung and played both lute and early keyboards but not a wire–strung harp which was as foreign to her as a good many of her future subjects in Scotland would be.

Mary Queen of Scot’s background is particularly well documented due to the intense interest in her taken by the espionage service run on behalf of Elizabeth of England who viewed her as a potential danger to her own throne. Elizabeth also asked questions that reflected the interest of one woman regarding another and which tested the diplomacy of reply of even her own ambassadors and informers. If Mary could have been shown to have any associations with a Gaelic culture, which given the English view of their own Irish subjects was regarded as undesirable, it would have been reported to Elizabeth. Therefore any suggestion that Queen Mary played a wire–strung clarsach or was in the habit of carrying one around with her does seem to be mythical and moves the question of why the harp should have been connected to Queen Mary from the Queen herself instead to Beatrix Gardyn, the other lady involved, where an answer does present itself.

Beatrix Gardyn was a daughter of Gardyn of Banchory and became the second wife of Finlay More Farquharson. There had been four sons of his first marriage but as they in turn all seem to have produced daughters it was one of the progeny of his marriage to Beatrix who eventually became Farquharson of Invercauld. According to the 'Broughdearg' manuscript, a history of the ‘name’ of Farquharson compiled in 1733, Beatrix had five sons and five daughters by Findlay More, before he was killed at the battle of Pinkie in 1547.[7] Beatrix was a busy lady, especially as following the death of her first husband she went on to marry John Tarlochson of Monzie and have several more children by him including the son whose line purchased Lude in 1621.[8]

The manuscript history names and accounts for the descent of each of her children with Finlay More and if accurate means that if it is assumed that Beatrix was pregnant at the time of Finlay’s death in 1547 her marriage must have occurred at the latest by 1537 and with the minimum female age for marriage in Scotland at that time being twelve years then she would have been born sometime before 1525. The lady seems to have been remarkably robust having outlived her second husband and she was still apparently alive in 1596 when she and her son Alexander Robertson took out a loan of £1000 secured over the lands of Inchmagranoch.[9] While those lands were described in the contract as Alexander's, his mother clearly still had an interest in an estate which she and her late husband John Tarlochson of Monzie first acquired in 1564.

Inchmagranoch lies to the north of Dunkeld on the west bank of the river Tay and its northern boundary marches with that of Dalguise. Inchmagranachan, its modern spelling, was part of the pre–reformation church lands belonging to the Cathedral of Dunkeld which by 1564 were being disposed of by the former Cathedral officers. In this case with the consent of the Dean and Chapter of Dunkeld and Robert McNair the Prebendary of Inchmagranachan it was sold to John Tarlochson of Monzie and his spouse Beatrix Gardyn[10] which was confirmed by a charter under the Great Seal of Scotland in December 1565.[11] What is significant about these two documents is that they confirm that Inchmagranach is to be held by both Beatrix Gardyn and her husband John Tarlochson.

Map from Comitatus de Atholia

Part of Map from Comitatus de Atholia: the earldom of Atholl by James A. Robertson, (1860), showing relative positions of Inchmagrannoch and Lude. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
You may click on the above image to load a high resolution image file.

The direct holding of land by a woman was unusual, even jointly with her husband who although at that point still holding the ‘Tack’ of Monzies switched to using ‘of Inchmagranachan’. This leads to two conclusions, that Beatrix had been responsible for a large part of the acquisition of Inchmagranachan, probably by in some way using what should have been her ‘widows portion’ of the lands of her first husband, Findlay More; secondly, that acquiring Inchmagranachan in their own right was a major turning point in the fortunes of her second husband John Tarlochson, now of Inchmagranachan.

At that time such significant events were often marked by placing the owners armorial surmounted by the arms of the reigning monarch over the entrance port or a fireplace lintel in the main hall, at least if the building is substantial enough. In the case of the Tarlochson’s there is no sign of such a grand home either at Inchmagranachan or for that matter anywhere on the Lude estate. Their home at that period would have been a superior version of the later ‘Blackhouse’, with earth floor and most probably still a fire in the centre of the main room. Therefore the alternative option of commemorating the event by decorating one of their few non utilitarian possessions fits the picture especially as the harp may have also have been obtained from the same source as their new lands and may formerly have been the property of Dunkeld cathedral.

When the remains of the fastenings which had once fixed the attachments to the fore–pillar, and the end of the harmonic curve, are compared to General Robertson’s words as given by John Gunn it is possible to come to some conclusions. First there is the question of the queens portrait. Apart from the emphatic statement that it was in ‘gold’ the limited size of the area of whatever was fixed there and the general rarity and expense of painted miniatures at that time, they can be ruled out of the question. However, whatever was mounted towards the top of the fore–pillar was in the shape of a shield placed over a separately mounted circular object which must have projected through the centre of the shield. From the diameter of the circle of nails which had held this in place it is possible to suggest that the ‘queens portrait’ was actually one of the early gold coins from the beginning of Queen Mary's reign.[12]

Then there is the question of ‘the arms of Scotland’ which if the statement is correct would not have fitted in the space left around the Queens head in the shield.[13] The arms of Scotland consisted of a Lion Rampant in a shield flanked with unicorn supporters and a crown sitting on top of the shield between the unicorn's upward and inward pointing horns. This would have fitted comfortably into an engraved end–cap fitted over the end of the harmonic curve for which the evidence of fastenings for such a cap remain. In fact the shape dictated by the end of the harmonic curve could have almost have been designed for the royal arms, except that the evidence indicates that these fittings were made over the original decoration on what was already an older instrument.

It has been suggested that the original decoration of the harp contained a lot of religious symbolism,[14] another argument in favour of it also having formerly been a possession of Dunkeld Cathedral before coming into the hands of John Tarlochson and Beatrix Gardyn when they acquired the church land. The symbolism however is not prominent enough to have necessarily caught the eye of the reformation mobs intent on destroying anything they regarded ‘idolatrous’ but that may well have been another good reason to further secularise the harp with the addition of the semi precious stones added to the side of the fore–pillar to the detriment of some of the original decoration.

[1] Bell, Charles D, Notice of the Harp said to have been given to Beatrix Gardyn of Banchory by Queen Mary and of the Harp called the ‘Lamont’ harp; Both formerly possessed by the family of Robertson of Lude and now deposited for exhibition in the Museum, along with two ancient Highland Targets, by John Steuart of Dalguise. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, vol 15, (1889-81).

[2] Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, vol 39, (1904–5). p 9

[3] Please visit The Owners of Lude hosted here on

[4] Sanger, K and Kinnaird, A, Tree of Strings—Crann nan Teud, a history of the harp in Scotland. (1992).

[5] See ADDENDUM: The Lude Papers

[6] The John Robertson of Lude who was said to have been the last to play the harps was only around six years of age when his father died, while his grandson, James Robertson, the General’s father was only five when his father died.

[7] National Archives of Scotland (NAS), GD50/55, Copy of Genealogy of the Name of Farquharson Commonly called The Broughdearg Manuscript, from their first taking that surname to the present year 1733.

[8] Link to the family table showing where Alexander Robertson of Inchmagranichan, the grandson of Beatrix Gardyn, purchases Lude in 1621.

[9] NAS GD38/1/81

[10] NAS GD132/19

[11] Register of the Great Seal of Scotland, (Registrum Magni Sigilli), vol 1546-1580, (1984), p 409, number 1686

[12] Thanks to Karen Loomis for extrapolating an accurate measurement of the inside diameter of the ring of fastenings from her tomographic images and to David Forsyth of the National Museum of Scotland for confirming the diameter of a suitable coin from their collection of Mary Queen of Scots coinage. As all such coins were individually struck from blanks of the metal, it was the weight of the blank and the subsequent ‘coin’ which was important as far as value was concerned. Due to the striking process the actual dimensions could vary from coin to coin, even though the weights were consistent.

[13] The shield could not have accommodated the arms of Scotland around any circular object in its centre whether it was the head of Queen Mary or some other mount. While it is possible the remainder of the shield was left blank or just some decorative engraving, it is worth noting that a few early surviving ‘Tarlochson’ seals show that unlike the modern Robertson armorials which show three wolfs heads, the Tarlochson’s before 1600 used just two wolfs heads in the top half of a shield with rowel, (the rotating part of a spur), in the lower part. With very little adjustment in size and spacing these would have fitted neatly around the head of Queen Mary and would conform to the protocol that the royal arms of Scotland were above, (on the end of the harmonic curve) the arms of the family themselves.

[14] Sanger K, and Kinnaird, A, Tree of Strings—Crann nan teud, (1992), p 59–61.

Submitted by Keith Sanger, 7 June, 2013.

Except where otherwise noted, content on this site is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available by contacting us at

Creative Commons License