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Sir Walter Scott’s Jacobite objects

Viccy Coltman interviews curator at Abbotsford
So Rob Roy is a really nice segue to go from thinking about Scott’s literature and his literary output into thinking about objects. Then the other aspect that I’m very interested in is to do with the objects. And this whole MOOC is about material culture. And so our students are going to be really familiar with objects by this point. And so, Scott does deliberately acquire Jacobite objects, doesn’t he? So we know that Scott, as a young boy, has a little museum in his bedroom. It’s something that his friends talk about seeing. He had a collection of coins. But he also had Highland broadswords and was particularly interested in the Scotland of the 18th century from being very young.
So because of that interest that stems from boyhood, Abbotsford collection is very, very strong in Jacobite relics. We have a lot of material connected with Rob Roy. We have his broadsword, his skean dhu, and his dirk. And these things are connected with some of Scott’s earlier collecting activity before he built this house. So we know that most of that material is in his possession at his other Borders home of Ashiestiel. So what it does is it acts as a backbone for a much larger collection that really finds the space to be accommodated as he creates Abbotsford.
But he also has things like Bonnie Dundee’s pistol, and Claverhouse’s pistol, and the broadsword of his great-grandfather as well, which saw service in Killiecrankie, as I’ve mentioned before. So it does form an important body of material within the Abbotsford collection. So I hadn’t appreciated that a number of these objects predated Abbotsford. And just remind us when Scott first came to this property. Because obviously it looked very, very different when it was Clarty Hole. What was it - was it 1812? It was 1812 that he occupied this place. But it’s 1811 that he basically did the deed and decided to take on the property.
And you’re right, it was a ramshackle farmhouse that looked absolutely nothing like the building behind us today. And over a period of nigh on 15 years, extension upon extension goes up over time. It’s a house built on books and the proceeds of books. And because of that ethos, Scott’s filling it with objects that tell stories. So yes, the Jacobite objects are connected with famous individuals and famous periods in history, because that’s how he was fueling his creative imagination for his writing. I think the two are inextricably linked. One of the things about the objects that Scott collected is how different they are.
So as you might expect of a collection like Scott’s - the Jacobite objects - it is quite a high proportion of arms and armour. Arms and armour is quite a discrete category that we might expect. But there are a number of other objects here at Abbotsford that we could think of as being quite whimsical. Which is not to say that they’re not historically important, because they are really historically important. But I’m thinking particularly of the oatcake from the Battle of Culloden. So what do we know about how Scott came to acquire this oatcake? Well, we’re very lucky in that it’s accompanied by a little handwritten note.
And it says, “An oatcake found in the pocket of a dead Highlander in the Battlefield of Culloden”. Which is a curious thing to - and we know that people were collecting relics from the battlefield in that way. And the note is signed off by R. Chambers, which we assume to be Robert Chambers, who was a publisher and a historian, a Scottish historian who was Edinburgh-based, and we know Scott was writing to in the 1820s. We haven’t found a reference to it definitely being that Robert Chambers. But R. Chambers seems to indicate that that is the man. And it’s certainly the right time. So we know it’s probably the 1820s. But beyond that, we don’t know a definite date.
And with many of the objects here, we do know when they were gifted, right down to the date of the letter. So it’s surprising with the oatcake that we have that missing piece in the puzzle. We’ve got the oatcake. And then you’ve got another very precious Jacobite object here, which is the pocketbook of Flora MacDonald. So first of all, because some of our students may not know, is a pocketbook a diary of some sort? It was effectively a storage device for letters. So within our pocketbook, there are four compartments. And if I was to open it up - it’s very fragile now, but it has this most completely unexpected bright pink silk lining.
And when you see the very Scottish exterior of the object, and then you open it up, and it’s this very garish coloured silk, it’s a bit of a surprise. It’s sort of shocking pink. Shocking pink. Absolutely. So yeah. There are four compartments for storing letters. And it was designed to be a gift. Flora appears to have made it to give to somebody. And supposedly it’s to a minister called Martin Martin. And he died before the gift was received. That’s the story. So she hadn’t intended to keep it.
But because she’d never been able to give it to the recipient, it had remained within a family on Skye, and then had got handed to somebody that had then presented it to Scott - a chap called Alexander Campbell. So the provenance is good, when you follow the trail as you always have to do with these things. It is quite likely to be the real deal. Some things in the collection, you wonder whether Scott knew that they were bogus or not. That’s part of the fun, I think, of a collection like this that is so romantic in nature. So Flora MacDonald is obviously - she comes into the Jacobite story quite late on. So she is involved after Culloden.
So we have this bloody defeat at Culloden, and then Prince Charles Edward Stuart is a fugitive. And so he is trying to get back to Europe. And he goes up to the Highlands, and he’s crossing the island where he meets Flora. And then, of course, he dresses as her Irish maid Betty Burke. I mean, you couldn’t really make this up. And then obviously he manages to escape. So what other Jacobite objects have you got here? Well, we’ve talked about this being a romantic collection. And it wouldn’t be a true romantic collection without locks of hair, and plenty of them.
And we do have a lock of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s hair and a lock of hair from the beard of Scott’s great-grandfather Beardie, as well. And they’re very close to one another in the display. For instance, with the Prince Charles Edward Stuart’s hair - do you think that Scott thought it really was his hair? I think so. I mean, we do know Scott - despite the fact he’s a storyteller and he knows how to spin a good yarn. And if you read his manuscript of the account - it’s unfinished, unfortunately - but the account of his house and the collection within it, he imprints stories.
He said, it’s possible, if you look at it slanted and half imagine, that it could be this. But at the same time, he’s also questioning. When he’s purchased things, he’s been told about one thing, and then finding out that there’s other versions of this. The juniper chest - the folk tale chest in the entrance hall - is a classic example. He gets very upset when he finds other chests are circulating associated with this folk tale, and he hasn’t, perhaps, bought the real one. So it did concern him. He was very astute.
I think for him, perhaps, it was a case of a kind of after-dinner game with guests at the houses, to - looking closely at the objects - he would tell stories about them. A bit like a Georgian version of Call My Bluff.
Sir Walter Scott was a prolific collector and amassed a diverse – and often quirky – collection of historical objects, many associated with key Jacobites and the series of campaigns.
In this third film in our series, Viccy Cotlman interviews Kirsty Archer-Thompson about Scott’s unique collection of Jacobite material culture.
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Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites

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