The Highland Society and the Lude Harps

The occasion in 1805 when the 'Queen Mary' and Lamont harps were sent to Edinburgh by General Robertson of Lude for inspection by the Highland Society of Scotland, who then commissioned John Gunn to draw up a report, provides the first firm record of the two harps. The engravings of the harps included in the treatise subsequently published by Gunn, suggest that the instruments, now among the collections of the National Museum of Scotland have changed little in their appearance since that point. Their subsequent history following the examination can be surmised from a few later references. It must be assumed that they were first returned to Lude, although as the family also had a residence in Edinburgh that may not have been the case. At some point after that they were acquired by the Stewarts of Dalguise, it is said by a marriage link through which a large part of the Lude family papers were also transferred into the Dalguise family archive.

Between 1871 and 1881 the family of Beatrix Potter started spending their summers at Dalguise and according to the young lady's diary by that time the Queen Mary harp was kept in a cupboard at Stewartfield, the Dower house which had been built on the estate in 1820. Whether the Lamont harp was also there is unclear but it certainly was by 1880 when it was seen by Charles Bell who arranged with Stewart of Dalguise to have the two harps deposited in the museum of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in Edinburgh. There they remained until 1904 when they were put up for auction on the sale of the Dalguise Estate. The Queen Mary harp was then bought for £890 by the Society of Antiquaries with the aid of a somewhat onerous advance from the yearly museum budget provided by the Exchequer. But as it was reported at the Society's meeting;-

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

The museum could not afford to purchase the Lamont harp and it was bought by a well known antiquary Mr W. Moir Bryce for around £750, however, in December 1918 the Society were delighted to announce that it was being left to the museum by Mr Moir Bryce in his will. At the following years meeting in December 1919 it was noted that the harp had been handed over to the Society by his executors.[1]

Prior to the Highland Society investigation the two harps had last been described as in a playable condition when both instruments were in the hands of John Robertson of Lude, (died 1730). Although they had been associated with Lude for most of their known history it does not follow that they were always in the Lude household rather than in the hands of musicians on the Lude estate and the latter is the more likely scenario, as they are certainly absent from the surviving household inventories. The significance of that needs to be qualified however as the inventories were drawn up for purposes of valuing an estate following a death of its owner, or in one case when the owner was struggling to pay debts and was being threatened with a forced sale of his assets. The fact that in one inventory there were two empty violin cases but no violins provides a broad hint that in such circumstances the valuable and portable objects had already been distributed among family and retainers.

In 1706 during the lifetime of the aforementioned John Roberson of Lude there was a 'James Robertson alias Clarsair' who was one of the tenants in Clunie on the Lude estate who probably had one of the harps in his possession. Clunie itself had a historic association with the Lamont Harp, as it was normally held by a younger son of Lude, as in the case of Charles Roberson of Clunie whose marriage to Lilias Lamont in 1464 was claimed to be when the harp itself came into the family's possession. Further evidence that the harps at times had been in the hands of the Lude tenants and retainers comes from Gunn's quote from the letter by General Robertson which accompanied the harps to Edinburgh, describing how the royal arms and a miniature portrait that had adorned the 'Queen Mary' harp had been stolen while it was in the hands of those to whom it was entrusted during the period 1745/46.

It was probably around this period too that the Lamont harp had the name 'Al Stewart of Clunie his harp 1650' scratched onto it, both the date form and style of the inscription being more consistent with an 18th rather than the 17th century date. The earliest Alexander Stewart to appear in the Lude papers was in 1727 when he delivered a load of peats to Lude, probably as part of a rental in kind. His name suggests that he was connected with a family on the neighbouring Stewart estate of Urrard where a family of Stewarts consistently using the forename Alexander had held the tack of watermill at Orchilbeg from before 1667 when the mill thirlage was confirmed to Alex Stewart of Orchilbeg. The mill itself seems to have been near the modern Auldclune where the Allt Chluain, (river Clune) enters the River Garry. The Allt Chluain formed the boundary between the Urrard and Lude estates with the mill almost opposite Clunie which is on the Lude side of the river.[2]

Returning to the time when both the harps were in the hands of the Highland Society it is possible to add to the vague account given by Gunn in his report. The various correspondences quoted by Gunn, if they were deposited among the Highland Society papers as he says he intended to do, were probably lost along with the Highland Societies own copy of his report, in a fire that affected the societies office in the early 19th century. However the Society's Sederant Book for that period has survived and in 1937 the society purchased another copy of Gunn's report which has stuck into it a letter from the harper Mr Elouis along with the bill from Daniel Somerville for drawing and engraving the three plates.

If all this information is put together it provides a much clearer picture of what happened to the two harps while they were in the society's custody and may explain the damage and repair of the Lamont harp's fore-pillar. At the societies meeting held on the 7th June 1805 a vote of thanks was made to Brig General Robertson of Lude for agreeing to furnish the Society with the two harps, by the next meeting held on the 1 November 1805 it was recorded that the two harps had been received and that drawings and tests were to be made on them. On the 10 January 1806 it was noted that Gunn had been hired to draw up descriptions of the harps and that he was to be given 20 guineas and his report would be published in the society's Transactions. There was then a long gap before at the meeting on the 22 May 1807 it was noted that Mr D Sommerville was to be paid £37-5-6 for drawing the harps. Finally on the 19 June 1807 the Secretary announced the publication of the third volume of the society's Transactions along with, as a separate publication, Mr Gunn's Treatise on the Harps and Ancient Music. Preliminary adverts for the forthcoming publication had started appearing in newspapers from the 15 June and by the 27 August they changed their wording to refer to it as 'published'.[3]

Clearly there are still some large gaps between the harps arriving and the intervening period before they were finally drawn and engraved showing them in the current condition and it is the letter from Mr Elouis that provides some clues and further details. The letter is undated but as it had been initiated by Elouis hearing of the publication of Gunn's work and was therefore requesting a copy, and not missing an opportunity also enclosing a prospectus for his own impending publication of music, it can be assigned to sometime between August and December 1807. The relevant part of the letter reads;-

that when requested by a committee of the Society to attend at Messes Muir & Wood's, Music sellers, Leith Str, in order to examine an ancient Harp said to have belonged to Queen Mary, he not only complied with their desire and went there twice to perform before them on that Harp, which was at the time strung with wire, but afterwards, the harp having been brought to his house, strung it at his own expence, with a complete sett of different strings which answered the purpose infinitely better than the former ones.[4]

Though Elouis makes no mention of the Lamont harp, it is unlikely that the two instruments were separated so it would appear that both instruments were in the hands of Muir & Wood before either Elouis or Gunn entered the scene. In some ways it would have been a sensible move by the Highland Society as the company were also instrument makers and repairers so who better to put the harps back into playing shape and this perhaps provides a new explanation regarding the repair to the lower end of the forepillar of the Lamont harp. R. B. Armstrong, whose work was published in 1904, but has, on the whole stood the test of time well, first made the suggestion that the pillar had broken not long after it was first made and therefore the new section was in fact of considerable age. Having previously accepted this idea uncritically a more recent observation suggests another possibility which is further enhanced by these details regarding the period in Edinburgh prior to the instruments being drawn and engraved by David Somerville.

The lower end of the Lamont harp has had a new foot section inserted into the soundbox and this has then been secured with an over lapping bevelled joint with the original pillar reaching to just below the lower end of the T section. Two metal straps, which may or may not be secondary to the original repair, have also been place one on each side. If the repair had been done as Armstrong suggests, not long after it was first made, a replacement pillar would have been more likely, whereas the existing repair looks like a quick fix which would not have required the fore pillar to have been removed from the rest of the harp.

The bottom end of the original pillar is considerably worm eaten while observation of the new section, subsequently confirmed by arranging to have the harp removed from its display case for closer inspection, shows that it has very few wormholes at all.[5] Leaving aside the question of gourmet woodworm who just did not fancy the taste of the new wood it seems unlikely if the repair had been of long standing, that it would not also have been equally worm eaten. The new section still fits squarely into its socket at the bottom of the soundbox whereas if it was as old as previously suggested by Armstrong, it should have developed some degree of accommodating twist during the centuries under tension while still being played.

What does now better fit the overall picture given by the physical evidence and the additional back ground to the instruments time in Edinburgh, is that the original pillar became badly worm eaten between 1730, the last firm record of the harps being played, and their journey to Edinburgh in 1805. A repair was effected by Muir & Wood with the intention to make it strong enough to be restrung for 'testing', (modern approaches to conservation and preservation would not have troubled an early nineteenth century mind). However the repair was unsuccessful so the attention was then firmly directed towards the Queen Mary harp. This might also explain a degree of reservation detectable in Gunn's account of the Lamont compared to the Queen Mary and may also be connected to a distinct cooling of relations between the company and John Gunn.

Previously amicable, the connections between them stretched back to before 1800, but sometime after the Highland Society report was published in 1807, Muir & Wood started a legal action against John Gunn for what sounds like slander. Unfortunately we do not know what caused it because it was settled before going to court and all we have is the record of the pre trial process in 1811, which records that 'John Gunn was to make payment of damages on account of wrongs to Muir Wood, Music Sellers, Edinburgh'. The legal processes moved no faster then than today, so is it possible that it relates to some injudicious comments relating to a certain repaired harp?[6]

[1] Annual Meeting Reports (in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland), for meetings held on the 30 November 1904 and 1 December 1919.

[2] National Archives of Scotland,(NAS), GD132/372/1/32-33, Stewart of Urrard papers GD1/394 and Kerr, John, Water Mills of Atholl, (1990), 5-7.

[3] Highland Society of Scotland, Ingliston papers, Sederant Book 4, Part 1. June 1803 to December 1808.

[4] Highland Society of Scotland, Ingliston Library

[5] My thanks to David Caldwell of the National Museum of Scotland for arranging the closer inspection.

[6] NAS. CS271/17763. John Gunn Teacher of Music in Edinburgh v Muir Wood & Co. Agreement was reached on the 21 November 1811 and the Rev Dr Walter Young, Minister of Erskine signed as the guarantor of Gunn's payment.

Submitted by Keith Sanger, Penicuik,Scotland
19 October 2009; originally published in the Bulletin of the Historical Harp Society, September 2010. XX, 3, pp 10-14

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