Love Scotland podcast – Season 8 (2024)

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24 May 2024

Love Scotland podcast – Season 8 (1)

Hosted by journalist and broadcaster Jackie Bird, each episode tells some of the thrilling stories behind the Trust’s people and places, showcasing how everything we do is for the love of Scotland.

Season 8

Episode 8 – Great Scot Tom Conti: from opening nights to Oppenheimer

Joining Jackie this week is Tom Conti, the Paisley-born actor best known for his roles on stage and screen, including 1978’s Whose Life Is It Anyway and 2023’s Oppenheimer. The recipient of Tony and Olivier awards, Tom was also named the 2024 Great Scot by the National Trust for Scotland Foundation USA earlier this year.

In his conversation with Jackie, Tom reflects on his hugely successful career and his love of Scotland. Whether in smaller appearances in cult classics, such as Friends and Miranda, or leading roles in Broadway smashes, Tom reveals what it’s really like to lead a life in the arts.

Plus, he discusses his performance of Charles Rennie Mackintosh in the late 1980s, where he filmed in the National Trust for Scotland’s Hill House and Mackintosh at the Willow.

Find out more about the Hill House

Find out more about Mackintosh at the Willow

Love Scotland podcast – Season 8 (2)
Love Scotland podcast – Season 8 (3)

Season 8 Episode 8

View transcript
Transcript

Five voices: male voiceover [MV; Jackie Bird [JB]; Tom Conti [TC]; second male voiceover [MV2]; Sam Heughan [SH]

[MV]
Love Scotland, brought to you from the National Trust for Scotland; presented by Jackie Bird.

[JB]
In the Love Scotland podcast, we usually deal with Scotland’s heritage and the history of its people. Today though, we’re coming bang up to date and dropping in on the life of a contemporary Scot, who’s done much to enhance his country’s reputation around the world.

The Trust is, of course, a charity and we have friends in far places. In America, the USA NTS Foundation supports the Trust’s work by fundraising; and each year at a grand event, they honour a great Scot. Well, a few weeks ago in New York, I was honoured to present the award to an actor with a successful, diverse and enduring career. And as there’s no such thing as a free award, I’ve managed to entice him to be a guest on the Love Scotland podcast. So, Tom Conti, welcome.

[TC]
Thank you very much. How nice to be here.

[JB]
Now, you are a Great Scot. I know that awards like that sometimes allow you to drive your sheep down the High Street or give you a castle or something like that. I’m not quite sure what the Great Scot bestows, but it was heartfelt from your audience, so congratulations once again.

[TC]
Thank you. One does feel a little bit silly, because what have you actually done for Scotland? Well, not a great deal as far as I can see. I’ve been away from it for 60-odd years? I suppose almost 60 years.

[JB]
Yes, but it’s the voice and the actions and well, pretty much everything we’re going to cover that’s done the spade work for you.

[TC]
I see.

[JB]
Actually, it was so apt to meet you in New York and for you to receive an award in New York, because that was, about 45 years ago now, an enormous highlight of your career. That was your debut on Broadway, and you walked off with the Tony Award for Whose Life Is It Anyway?

[TC]
I nicked it!

[JB]
You nicked it! I’ll have that. I’m taking that home! How much of that experience do you remember?

[TC]
Oh, a great deal. When I told people that I was going to New York, other actors and such like, they said, ‘Oh my God, that concrete jungle’. And so, I’d never been; I’d seen bits on the movies and such like in New York. I got to New York and discovered this absolutely beautiful city with tree-lined roads and beautiful buildings. What are these people talking about? They’d obviously never been here. They just parroted out the old thing about American concrete jungles and you can’t see the sky for the skyscrapers. Absolute nonsense. It’s a beautiful city.

[JB]
And for those who don’t know anything about the play, I suppose a synopsis and – correct me – it’s about a man fighting for the right to die.


[TC]
That’s right. It’s a man who’s paralysed from the neck down. He doesn’t want to … Everybody says, you become accustomed to this; you’ll start to form a new way of living, and all the rest. He keeps saying, I don’t want to find a new way of living. I want the hell out of this; it’s terrible. And they say, no, but you say that now. Yes, and I continue to say it. And eventually he appeals to the law and he brings a case of habeas corpus. And the judge comes into the hospital and he gives his argument and other people give their arguments. The judge finds for him and he is allowed to die.

But the brilliance of the play is that this man that I played is a highly entertaining character. He’s a very engaging bloke and he makes jokes and all the rest of it. And so, the audience loves him, but they want desperately for him to get what he wants. And then he gets it and the lights suddenly go out. And every night there was a gasp from the audience. At the end what the director did was he dimmed the lights and the rest of the set. Everything was dark except for one spotlight on my face, just sitting there not thinking of anything in particular. And then the spot goes out and that’s him gone, and there was a gasp from the audience. That’s a brilliantly constructed drama.

[JB]
You can see why it’s been so powerful. What was it like to be the toast of Broadway?

[TC]
Oh, it’s very nice and not much to complain about! It’s extraordinary. New York’s such an amazing place. It seems that as soon as somebody is successful in something, then it seems to be broadcast telepathically throughout the entire population and everybody seems to know you the next day. It’s most peculiar, but New York is about show business. It’s about money down the Wall Street end, but everything else is about show business.

[JB]
And did you have that moment that’s depicted in every Hollywood movie you’ve ever seen about Broadway, where you’re all waiting for the newspapers the next morning to see what the critics thought of it?

[TC]
Yes. Well, you go to Sardi’s, which is a well-known Italian restaurant, big restaurant in the theatre district, and you wait there in trepidation for the … well, the first one to come out is always the Times. And the PR man sits in the Times office, literally waiting to be given a copy of the review. And he comes running back and says either ‘we’ve got the Times’ or ‘we haven’t got the Times’. And if he says he’s got the Times, there’s a huge cheer; and if you haven’t got the Times, then everybody just slowly melts away!

[JB]
Have you been on the receiving end of both?

[TC]
Both, yes. I directed a play after we finished Whose Life, which is a terrific play. I really loved it, but they just didn’t get it at all. So, they came in and said, ‘well, we haven’t got the Times. And I hear the rest is bad’. And suddenly everybody avoids you. It’s as if you have an infectious disease and they’re afraid to be close to you in case they catch your failure. It’s extraordinary. Nobody wants to talk to you.

[JB]
No wonder you should treat those imposters just the same, as they say. So, how did the son of two hairdressers from Paisley become an actor?

[TC]
Because those two hairdressers were silly enough to take me to the theatre a lot of the time. And they would come to London once or twice a year. They’re in business, just to catch up on what was new in London and such like. And, we went to the theatre every night and I saw everything that was going at that time. I saw Oklahoma!, I saw lots of things. A T S Eliot play, which was probably the first serious play. In those days most plays were drawing room comedies, which were absolutely terrific fun and beautifully presented.

These were the days before the Angry Young Men and the kitchen sink and all of that. That took over the theatre, I think slightly to the detriment, but there we are. I like drawing room comedies, but they also took me to St Andrew’s Hall a lot – a wonderful concert hall in Glasgow, which unfortunately was burned down. They didn’t just have music in it – it was the home of the Scottish National Orchestra – they also had boxing matches, among other things, and some lunatic dropped a cigar that was still lit and burned the place to the ground that night.

However, my parents took me there and introduced me to Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Verdi, Puccini, all of that. So, music was really more in my heart and my mind than acting. I thought I should go to music college. So I went to music college. I went in the door to say, what really do I have to do to get here? I knew what you had to do. And there was a little sign on the wall saying College of Drama and an arrow. And I thought, what’s that? So, I walked through and I spoke to a very nice lady and she told me all about it. Oh God, that sounds like terrific fun.

This sounds much more fun than sitting at a piano for eight hours every day of your life. So, I became an actor. And the reason really was laziness. That’s why I became an actor: sloth.

[JB]
I think you’re too modest. You were a very good pianist.

[TC]
No, I wasn’t very good. It was going to be ok. I mean, that’s the thing. Somebody who can play the piano, they think they can play the piano. And then you go to music college and the people around you are pretty bloody amazing. You’ve got to be just so phenomenally good to make a living. But I wanted to be a conductor really, not a pianist. But you have to be very, very acquaint with certainly two instruments. You’ve got to know them all, but you’ve got to be able to play two, I think.

[JB]
If you wanted to be a conductor, there was clearly a bit of performance involved anyway; that was clearly in the DNA.

[TC]
Maybe, though I honestly didn’t see it that way. I suppose some conductors do, but no, the main drive is the music. And also, when I went to concerts, I would try to sit at the front. That wall of sound that comes from a symphony orchestra, when you’re close to it, is like no other sound on Earth, to me anyway. It’s just an absolutely magical noise.

[JB]
Did you ever regret not taking that turn at music college?

[TC]
All the time!

[JB]
So, you ended up at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, and you were asked back there a few years ago, to speak to students. What was your advice after a life as an actor?

[TC]
Find something else to do.

[JB]
I bet they loved that! Come on, what did you tell them?

[TC]
Well, no. My advice is always don’t act. Acting teachers teach you to act, and this acting is not what’s needed. Just being absolutely real and talking is what real drama is all about. The Americans are absolutely wonderful at it. They just talk, and the dialogue and the situation gives you what the drama is. But if you try to be dramatic or try to be emotional, then you’re on a hiding to nowhere because it’s not believable.

I remember going to see a play with a very prominent English actress, and she was playing somebody who had been tortured for years, and started the whole thing by this very long pause, where you’re supposed to see the torture in her face. And my God, she certainly tried to show torture in her face. And then if you actually listen to somebody who has been tortured, they talk about it in the most ordinary fashion. They don’t go, ‘oh, and they did this’. They just said ‘they did this and then they stuck a red hot poker in my cheek’. And that’s the way it is. That’s where real drama is.

[JB]
Did success come quickly, easily for you?

[TC]
No, it was hell, absolute hell for years and years of just nothing. You think, why is it that other people are getting jobs at night and I’m not? Well, it’s because they don’t know who you are. A painter can at least send a painting to the Royal Academy or to somebody, or you can send paintings to shop galleries. But you can’t send acting to anybody. You can’t go in and act in front of somebody!

[JB]
It always strikes me though, as a civilian, the amount of resilience you must need as a would-be actor because you’re just facing rejection, I suppose, 9 out of 10 times, but you just need that big role or that first role.

[TC]
Yeah, absolutely. No, you have to attune and accustom yourself to failure because it happens such a lot. And in fact, it never really stops happening. The things that happen, you hear them, there’s a movie going on and you think, my God, that’d be great to do that. It doesn’t happen. Sometimes it does, but most often it doesn’t. You have to be tremendously resilient and understand that it’s not personal. People think, oh, why is it always me? It’s not always you; it’s always everybody. There’s nothing you can do about it. You can’t make yourself act better. You can only do what you can do. It’s not really competitive. You’re competitive if you’re Lewis Hamilton; then it’s competitive because you’re going to drive at 181 miles per hour, not 180 miles per hour into that corner. You can’t do that as an actor. You can only do what you can do.

[JB]
You worked eventually though in TV, movies, stage – a lot of stage work. Is there one role looking back that you think, that was my breakthrough?

[TC]
Oh yes, Whose Life? Well, there were two. A six-part series called The Glittering Prizes, written by a brilliant man called Frederic Raphael. Actually, you step from lily pad to lily pad in this business – someone sees you in something. It was a man called Michael Rudman who saw me in something on television and he offered me a play at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, the old Traverse, which is absolutely tiny.

And I did that, and somebody saw that and gave me something else. That’s how it works. It’s slow, but you need one thing that people will go and see, even in a small theatre, but somebody else will come and see it and give you a job. And then you get another job from that and then it snowballs – but you’ve got to be able to do it. Sometimes somebody gets a big chance, but they can’t actually do it. And so, the chance goes; it just vaporises.

[JB]
But luck plays such a huge part. This is very subjective, but looking at your back catalogue, for me one of the most poignant movies was Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence, where you played a Japanese prisoner of war. You were playing alongside David Bowie during that. Were you surprised to be sharing a starring role with someone who, until then, was mainly known really as a pop star?

[TC]
Yes, I knew him only as a pop star. No, that was a surprise. He was a pop star, albeit a phenomenally clever one, doing this movie. But he desperately wanted to be an actor. Of course, he was a huge name and he brought lots of people into the cinema even though he wasn’t going to sing. All of that was a surprise. But it was a privilege to do movies like that; to go to a small island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, where they built a huge prison camp, and you learn to live in it every day.

It’s an amazing … it’s the fun that movies were. I’m not sure that they are anymore because now you you’d probably go to stand in front of a blue or a green screen and they would put a prison camp on later …

[JB]
And shoot people or fly spaceships or something like that!

[TC]
If you were in a war movie on a battleship, then you’d go and film on a battleship. Now, you don’t get the battleship, you just get …

[JB]
Did you have good fun making Shirley Valentine? Presumably I should know this from research – did you go off to a Greek island?

[TC]
Yes.

[JB]
Oh, thank goodness!

[TC]
Yes. It’s not going to work on Arran; it’s not Rothesay.

[JB]
Was that good fun?

[TC]
Yes, yes, it was wonderful! And of course, Pauline is one of the greatest actresses that Britain has ever known.

[JB]
This was Pauline Collins who played this central role, the titular role as a repressed housewife who finds herself and finds a Greek lothario – that’s you – on a holiday. Were you keen for a follow up on that? For Shirley Valentine, the sequel?

[TC]
Yes, we both were. But Willie Russell, who was a brilliant writer, said ‘I can’t write it’. He said, ‘I can only write things when I have my own picture of the actors in my head.’ He doesn’t cast, as it were, when he’s writing. He doesn’t think, well, this would be terrific if it was so and so. He just writes it with whatever the characters give him, the information they give him on how they look. That’s all in his head. But as soon as he knows he’s writing for Pauline Collins and Tom Conti, it all grinds to a halt. He said he can’t do it.

[JB]
That’s really interesting. But presumably you must have had an idea. So come on, give me the elevator pitch for Shirley Valentine II.

[TC]
Here’s this man who has a different woman in his bed every week or every two weeks, for a week or two weeks. That’s how he lives. And then he realises one morning, he wakes up, how bloody lonely he is. And he said all these women doesn’t mean a damn thing. He’s on his own, him and his brother’s boat. And he remembers this one woman that touched something in his heart and he thought, I wonder what she’s doing now. So, he leaves the island and goes to Liverpool to try to find her.

What happens after that, I don’t know. But that was the pitch that I gave to Willie. And then he said, I can’t write it.

[JB]
Playwrights, eh? What can you do with them? Ok, let’s move on then to something else that was phenomenally successful. You appeared in Friends, which … your back catalogue for your family, the young members, your grandchildren, wasn’t particularly impressive until then. But then Friends changed everything.

[TC]
Yes, although my daughter did come, I think she said 36 times, to a musical called They’re Playing Our Song, which was in the West End, which is the most wonderful fun. But when the phone rang and I was asked to go and do some episodes of Friends, I went into the city and said, well, I’ve just been asked to do some episodes of Friends. If I get in and said I’m doing a movie with De Niro and Pacino, they’d have said, oh, that's terrific. But a few episodes of Friends, ‘Oh my God’!

[JB]
Did you enjoy the experience?

[TC]
Oh gosh, yes, it was fabulous. They’re a wonderful team to work with, absolutely wonderful. The friends for a start are delightful, all of them. Absolutely delightful and welcoming and such like. And the whole team was. The most important thing was to have it as funny as it can possibly be. They don’t care where the joke comes from. If the bloke sweeping the floor said to somebody, ‘it’d be funny, if at that point, he said that …’ and somebody hears them, they’ll take it. Doesn’t matter who suggested it; they’ll take it and it’ll go into the script.

[JB]
Because it’s a committee of writers, it’s so different, isn’t it, from everything comedy here, which is set, scripted and you often can’t change a word. So, you enjoyed the experience?

[TC]
Oh yes, I had done something here and that exactly was the problem. I wanted the writers there all the time. Sometimes I’d say there’s a whole page here, there’s a laugh and the whole page here, there’s not a single laugh. I’d ask for the writers come in and you come in and you’d find something, but you could feel a sort of resentment all the time. Whereas there, if you improvise a line, they don’t mind that. If you improvise a line, if the people laughed at the line, then a few minutes later the page would come under your dressing room door; that line was now officially in there.

Even we changed – there’s one line I particularly remember –that was we’d finished, I think it was the wedding scene. Yes, it was in the church, the wedding scene and …

[JB]
Let me interrupt before you tell this story, though, because I have to explain that you were the father of the English woman that Ross was going to marry, and this is when everyone came across to London. Go ahead.

[TC]
That’s right. And it was called The One where Ross says Rachel instead of this girl’s name.

[JB]
Not just any old episode!

[TC]
Absolutely. Yes. And there was sort of enmity between my character and Ross’s father, who was played by the delightful Elliott Gould. And we had done it. We’d finished and suddenly said, everyone wait, wait, wait. He said, we’re going to do the last shot again. And this time, say to him, as you walk past the camera, I could kill you with my thumb. Right. Great. Funny idea. So, we did that.

So, even after we’d finished, somebody came up with something, said, OK, scramble the last one, let’s do it again and say that line. And of course, it was wonderful. And for years afterwards, school boys would shout after me in the street, ‘I could kill you with my thumb!’ It was a brilliant line!

[JB]
I can see why that would be really freeing for a performer to work like that. Well, let’s take a quick break, and when we return, I’ll be delving some more into the life and career of Tom Conti.

[MV2]
You need to smell the flowers, said my bro. Turns out wild heather works just as well. We were up Ben Lomond like mountain goats. Couldn’t believe it was so close to home. At the top though, life was a million miles away. So, we signed up to help look after it. We all need looking after.

Since 1931, the National Trust for Scotland, a charity supported by you, has been looking after Scotland’s treasured places so we can all share in them. Support us at nts.org.uk

[JB]
Welcome back to the Love Scotland podcast. Tom Conti, apart from being named a Great Scot by the NTS USA Foundation, you have another link with the Trust in that you have played Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Now, listeners may know that the Trust looks after the Hill House in Helensburgh, designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Tell me about that project.

[TC]
I can’t remember how it came about. Obviously, we knew about Charles Rennie Mackintosh. You can’t grow up in Glasgow and be in the arts without knowing who Charles Rennie Mackintosh was. And curious enough, a few people have said to me, you look slightly like him because he did look slightly Italian.

[JB]
Yes, very dark.

[TC]
Yes, yes. And so I think it was Kara who knew …

[JB]
That’s your wife.

[TC]
Yes, right. My wife, yes … the producer. I think they said how about Tom doing this and you play Margaret? And so, we looked at this script. It was a rough guide script and we were both very excited about it because Mackintosh was such a huge wonderful figure. And also, he wasn’t treated very well. I don’t know whether that was because of the way he was or the way they were, but he had his problems with the powers that be.

All people who come up with something new are going to have trouble, always. And so, we said yes, we would do it – and we had a great time doing it. We went to France where they had lived, and that’s where I broke my nose walking into the plate glass window.

[JB]
You broke your nose!

[TC]
Yes, in the hotel room I think it was. There was a terrace outside and I walked outside to the terrace, but there was a tremendously well-cleaned glass door. I went bang! Somebody said to the management, there’s somebody who walked into the glass door and broken his nose. Of course, they were beside themselves with the possibility of there being a huge legal action against them and having to pay thousands of pounds to this man from Paisley.

[JB]
Did it halt filming?

[TC]
No.

[JB]
The show must go on with a broken nose.

[TC]
Actors mustn’t halt filming; they absolutely mustn’t do it. You don’t get sick. They did a picture in Mexico, a feature where we were there for, whatever it was, I don’t know, 12–14 weeks or something like that, and everybody was sick as a dog in Mexico except us. Because you can’t; you just can’t be sick. If the cinematographer gets sick, somebody will step into his place behind the camera and light the thing and get on with it. But you can’t do it as an actor, so you can’t do it. So, you just don’t. You’re very, very careful of what you eat and drink and all of that, and you just keep yourself well.

[JB]
So, Charles Rennie Mackintosh with a broken nose, did you get to film inside the Hill House at all?

[TC]
Yes, we did. Yes, I remember being there. We must have been filming. And there was a place in Glasgow. Was it their flat or was it a reconstruction of their flat? In the University Avenue?

[JB]
There is a reconstruction of their flat in the Hunterian Museum. So you filmed there too? And did you learn much about the man? Well, you must have, I suppose, to get into character.

[TC]
Absolutely everything. He was a fascinating character, so was Margaret.

[JB]
Do you get a chance to come back to Scotland often? You live in London.

[TC]
Yes, we try to take a tour around the Western Highlands every year. Kara goes up to visit her sisters. Sometimes I do too. But one of us has to stay here because we have grandchildren and so we like someone always to be here on hand. However, there are times when it’s quite clear that they don’t need our services, so we can go together to somewhere and that’s where we would most often go.

[JB]
You’ve just come off one of the biggest movies of the past few years: Oppenheimer. Now, when a director like Christopher Nolan comes knocking on your door, do you think for a second, should I or should I not accept this part? Or do you just grab it with both hands?

[TC]
‘Should not’ does not at all come into any thoughts or conversation when something like that happens! No, I was asked about it, but the agent called and said Chris Nolan is interested in you to play Einstein. And I thought, Oh my God. Anyway, I thought it won’t happen. You better always think, well, it won’t happen; he’ll go to somebody else. And then I got another call to say that he’s coming to London and wants to have a chat with you. And I went round and we chatted a lot about science or physics and all of that, and the whole political moment in America at the time.

[JB]
How much do you know about science and physics?

[TC]
Well, I like it. Yes, I’m keen on it. No, don’t ask me to explain a particle accelerator. Well, I mean, it’s quite simple, a particle accelerator. You whirl a particle round and round and round and then slam it into something and it breaks. You have a photograph of the moment of the breach. No, I find it fascinating.

[JB]
And when Christopher Nolan was chatting to you, he clearly knew that you knew your stuff, because he’s on the record as saying that Tom Conti looks like he understands everything.

[TC]
That’s called acting!

[JB]
I suppose playing Einstein was a walk in the park! Did you have any trepidation about playing a face that was so well known throughout the 20th century?

[TC]
No, no, I didn’t really. Why would one? If it was somebody who were alive – I don’t understand how actors can play members of the royal family; I just didn’t get that at all. I couldn’t do that. But someone, he’s been dead for a long time, poor Albert. But it was a challenge because you have to sound like him and try and look like him and all the rest of it, and talk.

[JB]
And you went the extra mile looking like him because you grew your hair and you grew a lovely moustache all by yourself, which you didn’t like, I understand.

[TC]
Oh, moustaches are just so awful. I mean, probably a slim line moustache like David Niven or something like that, but that huge thing – it gets in your soup and your spaghetti and everything; it’s not a comfortable thing, a big bushy moustache. I don’t know how he could have borne it, really.

[JB]
But the hair and make-up designers must have loved you for that because you made their job so much easier.

[TC]
Well, I remember on the first morning we started. I was in the chair at something like 5am, and they started to tease the hair out and all that because although I had a lot of hair, it wasn’t exactly the right shape. They had to make it the right shape. And alsoz, his moustache came out in a curve and mine didn’t; it was fairly straight. So, all that had to be done and it took ages. And then at the end of the first day of shooting, I went back into the make-up trailer and they said, right, well, we’ll wash your hair. And I said, wait a minute, we’ve got a week on this. Why don’t we just leave it? And she said, oh thank God!

[JB]
That’s the kind of actor I like to work with, she said!

[TC]
It meant another two hours of sleep, and if you’re in make-up, you’re working very early in the morning to late at night. And I didn’t want to do all that. So, I walked around Princeton looking like Einstein, and it was very funny because people did double takes.

[JB]
Well, that’s what I was getting at. One of the most famous faces of the 20th century.

[TC]
Yes, yes, yes, it was. And they would think, who? Oh! It was quite funny. And if anybody had said to me, I would have said yes, but I am Albert Einstein. I found a way to get back and I returned last night!

[JB]
You’re very self-deprecating and I’m going to make you blush. Let me read one of the reviews that I think sums up your performance. A reviewer writes:
‘Einstein is such a well-known figure that focusing excessively on him runs the risk of caricature. Conti again brings a great deal to a few short scenes.’

He’s referring to your part in another Nolan film, which was The Dark Knight Rises. I don’t want to ruin the movie, so I won’t tell our listeners about the last scene, which you’re in with Cillian Murphy, but it’s absolutely pivotal. And the reviewer says: ‘It hammers home the key theme in a very complicated structure’ and referring to you, Tom, ‘not just any actor could make that happen. Nolan clearly knew precisely who to call’. So, you can’t just shrug this off and say it’s just reading out loud.

[TC]
Well, it sort of is. I mean, obviously everybody can act, and people act all the time because nobody wants to spill the tea on their lap. People act literally all their lives when they’re with somebody else. And that’s the easy bit. You can do that stuff on soap operas and all the rest of it. The complicated bit, you either understand or you don’t. And no amount of tuition, if you don’t understand it, will ever enlighten you. It’s something that’s there or it ain’t; nothing to do with you. It’s not good on you for having it. It’s just an accident at birth, like being able to play the fiddle well – it’s just an accident at birth. I don’t know how these things work. It’s very strange.

[JB]
That was a very good review. Do you read reviews?

[TC]
It was very nice. Actually, tell me his name. I’ll send him a case of wine.

[JB]
I’ll tell you when we finish recording! Do you read reviews?

[TC]
No.

[JB]
Is that a conscious decision not to?

[TC]
Yes, because it’s damaging if they don’t like what you do. And it’s often silly when they do praise you, but they praise you for what you know is the wrong reason. I don’t know why anybody ever wants to be a reviewer. I just don’t get it. What is it that makes you think that you actually know about whether somebody can paint or write music or sing? How do you know if you don’t do it? How the hell would you know what it’s supposed to be?

[JB]
What’s almost worse is people who say, oh, Tom/Jackie, that was terrible what X wrote about you the other week. And then you think, Oh my goodness, I must find out what it was. Has that ever happened to you? Because it’s happened to me.

[TC]
Oh, it’s happened to everybody, absolutely everybody. What really distresses me is when I sometimes go to see a play, which is very infrequently I have to say, and I hated it. And then, I read the review and it’s praised to high heaven. I know people will go because of that review and they’ll spend a lot of money and they will not have a good time. And that really irritates me. I had this conversation with Tom Stoppard. I mean, we both feel the same thing. To tell people that something’s good when it’s actually not good is very bad for business. They spend £150, they’re not going to go back to the theatre again for two years.

[JB]
No, it’s not cheap, certainly not cheap. And I know you’re still doing theatre work. Is there a job, a role, a TV series that Tom Conti has his eye on that would be a dream job, something you still want to do?

[TC]
No, I’m too old to play Peter Pan now but that’s always something that I really did want.

[JB]
A revisioned Peter Pan? Peter Pan: the later years!

[TC]
Yes, the flying would be fun. I suppose everybody remembers … I saw Peter Pan first, I think, in the Theatre Royal or the King’s or something in Glasgow. I think it was Margaret Lockwood as a young girl or something. It’s absolutely magic when Peter flies in through the window, and it’s a very clever mechanism that allows this thing to pass through. The window is designed a certain way, the top of the window, so that it looks as if the wire comes straight in, but it’s done a squiggly thing through the top of it. When you’ve seen that, you never ever forget it – never ever in your whole life, do you forget the first entrance of Peter into the bedroom.

[JB]
So was it Peter’s entrance into the bedroom then that started you off perhaps? Subconsciously, maybe as a child at a panto or something.

[TC]
Maybe it was. Who knows?

[JB]
Well, you didn’t do too badly then as a result.

[TC]
No, it’s all turned out amazingly well. Amazingly well!

[JB]
Well, you’re still there, you’re still in the blockbusters, you’re still on the stage and you’re writing your memoirs. How’s that going?

[TC]
Badly. I can’t remember a damn thing!

[JB]
And on that note, I think we’ll end! Tom Conti, it has been an absolute pleasure. Congratulations once again on your Great Scot award.

[TC]
Thank you, Jackie. It’s a great pleasure to talk to you. It was a great pleasure to meet you in New York and I hope we meet again.

[JB]
I hope so too. Tom Conti, thank you very much.

[TC]
Pleasure.

[JB]
And you can walk in the footsteps of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Tom Conti at the exquisite Hill House and take tea at Mackintosh at the Willow. That’s because both are in the care of the National Trust for Scotland. Thank you for your support.

And that’s all from this series of Love Scotland. I’ll be back in the early summer. Until then, goodbye.

If you’d like to hear more from talented Scots from the small and big screens, look out for a couple of previous Love Scotland podcasts when I chatted to the actors Alan Cumming and Outlander star Sam Heughan.

[SH]
I was also 34 years old. And I’m really beginning to question, can I continue on this path? And at that point, you never know where it’s going to come from, but I was asked to audition for a show that I’d never heard of, which was a book series, Outlander. And as soon as I read the sides, which was pretty much taken from the book, I felt I knew him. It was strange because I think he was a combination of all the parts that I’d played. There were elements of theatre or TV that I’d done from different characters. And I went in and it was a really quick process, 2 weeks. And before I knew it, I was on this train, this rollercoaster that hasn’t stopped for almost 10 years.

[MV]
Love Scotland is brought to you by Think and Demus Productions on behalf of the National Trust for Scotland; presented by Jackie Bird.

For show notes and more information, go to nts.org.uk and don’t forget to like, subscribe, review and share.

Episode 7 – Solving the mystery of the potato sack propeller

Earlier this year, the National Trust for Scotland revealed that a Second World War plane propeller had been found on Arran. Mysteriously, the propeller was wrapped in an old potato sack and had been discovered deep in a peat bog. How did it get there? The Trust’s Head of Archaeology, Derek Alexander, led an investigation to find out.

He joins Jackie in the studio to discuss the surprisingly high number of wartime plane crashes and tragedies in Scotland, and the particular circ*mstances of 1944 that ultimately led to this propeller being hidden inside a sack.

See images of the propeller

Find out more information on the Trust’s places in Arran

Love Scotland podcast – Season 8 (4)
Love Scotland podcast – Season 8 (5)

Season 8 Episode 7

View transcript
Transcript

Five speakers: male voiceover [MV]; archive male voiceover [AMV]; Jackie Bird [JB]; Derek Alexander [DA]; second male voiceover [MV2]

[MV]
Love Scotland, brought to you from the National Trust for Scotland; presented by Jackie Bird.

[AMV]
And this is the climax: a Heinkel bomber brought down on Scottish soil.
In spite of the desperate manoeuvring by the raiding pilot and a fusillade of reciprocal fire, the Nazi plane was grounded, its fuselage riddled with bullets. Air Force experts on the spot took charge of the raider for examination. Two of the crew of four were dead, one badly wounded. So far, Germany has sent over raiders only in small numbers. Each time a large percentage has failed to return. Nazi Germany will find out that raiding the British Isles is too dangerous for the raider and too expensive in men and machines. Even Hitler must realise that the game is not worth the candle.

[JB]
As the events of World War II fade from living memory, pieces of news archive are a reminder that the skies above us were once theatres of combat. But there’s also physical evidence that can retell those terrible years.

Recently, a discovery on National Trust for Scotland land on the island of Arran made news around the world. The find was the propeller from a World War II aircraft which had crashed on the island in 1944. But what made it particularly mysterious was that it was found wrapped in an old potato sack deep in a peat bog. So, what was the back story? Well, appropriately enough, it was the Trust’s Head of Archaeology, Derek Alexander, who put the pieces of this mystery together.

As you’re about to hear, the story of the Arran propeller isn’t just the stuff of a war movie, but of a crime novel. And when I went to see Derek, I discovered not only the provenance of the propeller, but that it was one of a staggeringly high number of airborne wartime tragedies on home soil. I began by asking him why finds like the propeller still capture our imagination.

[DA]
Well, I think it’s a mystery, isn’t it? That’s the thing that piques the imagination of the public. It was a sort of unsolved riddle. Why was this propeller out in the peat bog in the middle of nowhere? We knew that there had been crashes close by, but we didn’t know which one this belonged to – and the fact that it was wrapped in potato sacks suggested that it had probably been moved. We knew there had been various investigations previously, but we didn’t know what this related to.

So yes, it was almost a wee bit of a cry for help as well. We wanted more information about it, and there are always people out there who know about these sort of things.

[JB]
Well, thank goodness for that. But for me, it was a bit of a voyage of discovery, because I got in touch with you, and you were able to send me information on other wartime crashes on NTS land. I was astonished. You have about 17 very serious crashes. Now of course, this was wartime, and troops and supplies were urgently needed. Is it possible to generalise why there were so many crashes? Was it unfamiliar territory? Aviators who might not have been as well trained as they might have been in peacetime?

[DA]
All of the above really. I mean, I think probably it’s wartime. So, some of these planes were casualties of combat; some of them were shot down. Of course, the sheer number of planes during the war had increased dramatically. So, the chances of something going wrong had increased. The numbers of flights that they were doing, obviously the amount of repair and maintenance that they would require, things could go wrong. New crews were brought in at short notice and had to undergo quite rigorous training and might not be familiar. In fact, some of them may have trained on one type of aircraft and then had to work on another type of aircraft. So, there’s a potential for mishaps and mistakes and accidents to happen, both from the technological side of things and from the crew side of things in terms of navigation might go wrong. But also in Scotland, weather and unpredictable terrain, where you go from 2–3,000 feet in a matter of miles. It’s really difficult terrain to fly in as well if you’re at low altitude. There were hundreds of different air bases or airports that they were taking off from, so the variety of terrain changed as well. Knowing them all must have been really hard work.

[JB]
I was going to ask if wartime crashes on home soil in Scotland were particularly frequent, but we had a chat before we started recording and you told me. I don’t want to feign the horror of my response, so tell the listeners how many.

[DA]
In Keith Bryer’s recent books on Scotland’s wartime aircraft crashes, he lists that between September 1939 to September 1945 there were around 4,500 aircraft crashes across Scotland. And that’s about 6,700 fatalities. And of course, over the six years, that’s probably 2 every day.

[JB]
It’s a truly staggering figure, and one which I thought, ‘why didn't I know this?’

[DA]
I know, and I was quite surprised when we initially did our research into plane crash sites on Trust properties. We’ve got 15, 16, maybe 17 across the Trust portfolio, and I thought that was quite high. Looking at the Arran site, we know 6 crash sites on Glen Rosa and Goat Fell and Beinn Nuis just on Trust ground alone. There are other sites outside there. And just on our ground on Arran, 55 people were killed as a result of Second World War plane crashes.

[JB]
Well, let’s talk specifically about the Arran propeller. What do we know about it?

[DA]
Well, we know the size of it and we know the shape of it and we know that it looked like it had been removed from the hub. Basically, you can imagine an aircraft propeller has three blades coming out of it. What we found was one of the blades that had been removed from its hub. Actually they’re quite big things, so difficult to remove.

[JB]
How big?

[DA]
You’re talking probably a metre and a half long, maybe just slightly shorter than me.

[JB]
And for anyone who didn’t read the story at the time, how was it discovered?

[DA]
It was discovered when we were doing peatland restoration work. We had a contractor driving a large excavating machine – Stuart Lambie – who lives on Arran. And he was in the machine and this thing went clunk on his bucket. He stopped immediately and he went out and had a look to see what it was, because he was up in the middle of Coire a’Bhradain, just below Beinn Nuis, at a height of about probably 1,800 to 2,000ft – that sort of scale. And so, it was quite unusual in a peat bog to come across a large metal object.

When he got out, he found that it was something wrapped in potato sacks and tied up with rope. And when he uncovered it and took it out, it was quite quickly apparent it was a Second World War propeller from probably either the B17 Flying Fortress or the B24 Liberator that had crashed further up the glen into Beinn Nuis.

[JB]
So you had two suspect planes. Did you manage to narrow it down?

[DA]
Well, the one that is closest actually was the Liberator site. We had initially thought it might have come from that because it’s quite difficult to move. But what we did do was try to dig out as much information as we could on who had previously worked on the sites. We knew that the Flying Fortress had been investigated a couple of times in the 1980s and so licences had been obtained from the Ministry of Defence to go out and search the sites for remains. Also, slightly in the 80s, that’s what the Trust was allowing, partly I think was slightly to tidy up some of the remains.

So, we knew that people had been out and worked on the sites, and we were wanting to find out more about what had been recovered from that. And it was during that process, when we put out the press release saying we’d found it and it was a mystery to us because we thought was this part of the clear-up straight after the crash, or was this part of something that had happened in the 1980s as part of an aircraft crash recovery team?

[JB]
So you started doing some investigations of your own and the story began to unfold.

[DA]
Yes, because we got an email sent through from Peter Stanley, who had originally undertaken some investigation of the crash site.

[JB]
He was from the RAF. Now when was this?

[DA]
He had originally visited the site in the late 70s and then he had applied for a licence to excavate and remove bits of the material for a museum down in Suffolk.

[JB]
We must say first of all that there are all sorts of protocols involved, especially if there’s loss of life. He managed to say that it was the B17, that it was the Flying Fortress. How many people died in that crash?

[DA]
There were 11 people, I think 9 crew and 2 passengers on board that were coming up from Suffolk up to Prestwick on 10 December 1944.

[JB]
Immediately after that happened, they recovered the bodies and they must have been able to recover whatever they could.

[DA]
Yeees, the problem was that the crash site, because it was snowing over December, the site actually wasn’t identified for three months until 3 March 1945 when a local man had been out walking the hills and noticed remains of the crash site, and actually noted human remains as well. He reported that to the police at the time and a unit was sent across, I think probably from Prestwick, to recover the human remains and tidy the site up.

[JB]
You would imagine, wouldn’t you, that an aircraft with such a loss of life would have prompted astonishing searches, but this was wartime.

[DA]
Yeah, it’s difficult because, of course, they didn’t know precisely where it had disappeared. It could have gone into the sea, it could have kept going, it could have … they just didn’t know. It was missing. There was a report from a local farmer that a plane had been sounded going over Arran, but there wasn’t any evidence for a crash until it was found three months later.

[JB]
So what was Peter able to tell you?

[DA]
Peter was able to tell me that in fact he had recovered some of the material from the site and he was doing it in conjunction with, I think it was the Coast Guard helicopter, the Sea King helicopter – big bits of aircraft, very heavy. You have to move them off the mountain. He had recovered and they’d excavated a number of pieces of the aircraft and had recovered part of one of the side guns from it, the tail wheel and one of the fins from the back, basically one of the stabilisers on the back.

And he’d also uncovered at least one propeller with a hub and three blades attached. Now they had recovered most of the material, but the Sea King helicopter wasn’t able to come back. It was called off on another call of duty, in terms of probably rescuing somebody. So, they weren’t able to lift much of the material. They buried some of it back in the ground with the view to coming back to recover it at a later date. And unfortunately, this is where the story takes an unusual turn. It seems that somebody had been watching them, watched where they buried these remains.

[JB]
He details this in his letter at the time. Can you read a bit of it?

[DA]
Yes, so it says: ‘It was during this time that some unpleasant occurrences happened. We had spent many hours recovering 2 blades and a boss which had been located on a previous expedition. It was positioned ready for it to be airlifted off by a Sea King helicopter when the helicopter unfortunately had to cancel the lift following an SAR call out. In addition to the blades, we had also recovered 2 horizontal stabilisers, which were also positioned for lifting off the mountain.

As the helicopter lift had been cancelled, we set about reburying the blades to prevent them from being removed or damaged by souvenir hunters. During this time a lone walker approached, which was unusual as the majority of walkers tend to keep to the high ridges and consequently never see the wreckage. This chap stopped and watched what was going on. Eventually, once the hole was filled in and the turf replaced, he wandered off.

‘Not thinking any more of it, we set off down the hill carrying what we could. At this time, the tail wheel had been recovered and was also accompanying us on our journey back. Unfortunately, due to the impending darkness, I decided to hide many of the other artefacts we had recovered in the valley below the crash site. It was at this time I noticed a figure sitting on the ridge, watching. The following day, when we returned to the place where all the items had been hidden, unfortunately everything had been taken.’

[JB]
Now there, everything had been taken. So, did they immediately launch a search for it?

[DA]
Well, I think they went up and had a look around the area, and they found some bits of material and they found the hub of the propeller and they found a whole series of broken hacksaw blades. Somebody had taken the propeller hub and had cut the blades off the propeller in order to remove them from the site because it was too big to carry down in a one-er, and they had then taken the blades away.

[JB]
And they had a suspect.

[DA]
They had a suspect, and they had a suspect because he had seemingly left his name and address.

[JB]
So, they tracked down the lone walker?

[DA]
In the visitor book he had been identified. When it was reported to the police, it was suggested that the individual may also have taken munitions or something from the site. So, they treated it quite seriously and went round to his flat or house in Glasgow – where they found all the missing material apart from two of the blades and the tail fin, the horizontal stabiliser from the back of the plane. Those were still missing. They recovered all the other items that had been dug up and had been taken, apart from two propellers and the tail fin.

[JB]
This is something he had made a habit of and just by chance, in a bit of stupidity, had got caught. Do we know what happened to him?

[DA]
I think he would have been fined, and they managed to recover all the material at the time. I don’t know much more about it than that.

[JB]
So, the propeller in the potato sack.

[DA]
Back to the propeller in the potato sack, which was probably about maybe a kilometre down the hill from where the crash site was. It’s likely, or it seems likely, that the blade had been cut off the hub, had been put in a potato sack and had been tied up in order to be able to carry it better. And it was being taken partway down the hill from the crash site and probably deposited in the bog, with the view that they’d come back for it at a later date. But of course, having got caught, they never returned to the place to recover it. And it was only in the last few years – or last year – that we discovered it with the machine – that must be one of the missing propeller blades. Now there must be another one out there.

[JB]
Also in a potato sack, presumably?

[DA]
Probably in a potato sack. Whether it’s in the same location or not, we don’t know. And wherever the stabiliser is as well.

[JB]
So, the story of the mystery propeller is solved, but there could be another one up there waiting in the hills. There are so many tales to tell involving aircraft found in the mountains of Scotland. I know you’ve got some more to share with us, so we’ll take a quick break and we’ll be back in a moment.

[MV2]
You need to smell the flowers, said my bro. Turns out wild heather works just as well. We were up Ben Lomond like mountain goats. Couldn’t believe it was so close to home. At the top though, life was a million miles away, so we signed up to help look after it. We all need looking after.

[MV]
Since 1931, the National Trust for Scotland, a charity supported by you, has been looking after Scotland’s treasured places so we can all share in them. Support us at nts.org.uk

[JB]
Welcome back to the Love Scotland podcast. I’m joined by the Trust’s Head of Archaeology, Derek Alexander, who when he’s not outside digging and dishing the dirt, he’s in his archaeology store here in Edinburgh. Now, I said at the beginning that there are several aircraft wrecks on NTS land and fascinating though they may be, they almost all involve a story of human tragedy.

Derek, from the list, there’s one in particular that caught my eye involving an aircraft from the Luftwaffe.

[DA]
Yes. So that was a Heinkel bomber with a crew of about five guys on it and it was going across to the Faroes and obviously was caught in the sky by two Hurricanes and was strafed by those and the engines started to smoke. They had to look for somewhere to crash land and they chose Fair Isle, which was just out their window on the left-hand side. So, they went down, tried to find a landing spot, bounced off the grass a couple of times, hit a wall. Two of the crew were killed, two were injured. One remarkably made it out unscathed, but one of them tried to ignite the aircraft to stop it falling into enemy hands by firing his pistol into the fuel tanks. The locals on Fair Isle managed to stop him and of course the guys were then declared POWs and were shipped off the island.

[JB]
But there’s a fascinating addendum to this story.

[DA]
One of them, Mr Thurz, visited Fair Isle in a light aircraft in 1987, so he returned back to the site. He passed away in 2006 at the age of 86. But yeah, what a way to return back by aircraft, back to the site of where you had crash landed.

[JB]
Absolutely. There’s another extraordinary story, I think it’s from 1941. It’s again on Arran and it involves an RAF ferry plane. What was that?

[DA]
They were ferrying a crew and military personnel back and forward from Newfoundland in Canada to Prestwick, and they would then go on to other things that may well have been RAF or it could have been military. But, there was obviously a lot of troop movements around the country at the time and of course some of those were prone to accidents as well.

[JB]
So what happened in this one?

[DA]
In this one, they were leaving from Prestwick and instead of going the usual route, which was to avoid Arran, they seem to have taken a more northerly course for some reason. And again, low cloud it seems to be – they hit Goat Fell going at probably 200mph, and all 22 people on board were killed.

[JB]
That is a tragedy indeed. 22 people.

[DA]
And in this case, all the casualties were recovered. The bodies were recovered quite quickly and most of them are buried in Kilbride Old Churchyard on the Isle of Arran. You can go and see some of the graves and things mentioned there. This is a site that we’ve had a bit of investigation by a guy, Terence Christian, who was a PhD student at Glasgow University from about 2010 to 2014. He was doing archaeological research work where he was looking for sites and surveying them, the range of material that had been cast from the exploding aircraft.

[JB]
And this one was interesting because it had just made a similar journey with a very important passenger?

[DA]
Yeah, previously it had taken the Duke of Kent across the Atlantic. In fact, he was the first member of the Royal Family to make the crossing of the Atlantic by air. That one had obviously gone successfully. But this later trip obviously ended in disaster.

[JB]
With such a loss of life and such a cumulative loss of life, are there memorials on hillsides?

[DA]
Generally, no. The memorials tend to be in either museums or in cemeteries where the dead were buried. I suppose the lasting memorial to these casualties tends to be the aircraft crash wreckage, which is one of the reasons that it’s best not to disturb these sites because it’s part of the history. A lot of people see these scattered remains across the hillside and think, oh, what’s all that modern rubbish doing up there? But in fact, it tells a really poignant story and I think it’s something that needs to be protected for the future.

[JB]
Obviously, many years have passed. Did families make pilgrimages if they could?

[DA]
I imagine they would have done. And obviously if personal artefacts or items are recovered from any of these sites, generally MOD will forward them on to surviving members of the family if they can.

[JB]
If we thought that the propeller in the potato sack was a mystery, Derek, you must tell me more about another crash. This is October 1943, and this allegedly involved plans for the D-Day landings.

[DA]
Yeah, so this was a Lockheed C60 that was going from Prestwick to Stornoway, and it was meant to take about 85 minutes. When it didn’t arrive, it was reported missing. And of course, the fact that it had – or allegedly had – plans on it meant that they really wanted to find it. They didn’t find the wreckage for two days, but in that time seemingly, according to tradition anyway, the island of Arran was locked down until they could locate the remains and potentially any of the documents from it. Whether that’s true or not, I’m not 100% sure, but it’s a really good story!

[JB]
As an archaeologist, how do you feel about excavating crash sites like this?

[DA]
I think there’s a lot to be learned from them. To look at them in a very systematic fashion because you don’t even just have to excavate them. A lot of the work that is being undertaken now is about surveying the extent of the crash and trying to work out how, in a forensic way, the crash happened. Were they pulling up? Were they pulling down? Were they spiralling in? And how does the scatter effect?

Of course, you’ve then got the other side of things: what’s happened after the crash. The crashes are often tidied up because you may have an explosion at the time; fire then may have been tidied up by the military. You then had people gathering bits over the years. You’ve then had bits of some of them buried. You have the weather conditions, so sometimes bits will slide down the slope. There’s all those post-crash factors that you have to take into account.

Understanding what we see in the landscape today, we’re at the end result of quite a series of different events that have happened to the remains of the crash and trying to work out the story behind them – that can be quite difficult.

So, there’s a lot to be learnt from them and a lot to be recovered. I’m very impressed by the guys that do this sort of work in terms of their detailed knowledge of individual aircraft, that they can identify different parts of aircraft by their serial numbers and all that sort of thing. And the huge number of artefacts that are part of a plane and the contents of a plane that can be recovered that have stories to tell in their own right. So, it’s really good to look at them from an archaeological point of view, but it has to be done very, very carefully.

[JB]
I think it’s surprising how some of the artefacts that are recovered, even after 80-odd years, can be so moving, because before we started recording, you showed me part of an attachment for a parachute.

[DA]
Yes, that was from the Liberator that crashed into North Goat Fell. A bit of excavation work was undertaken by Terence Christian doing his PhD. One of the artefacts recovered from that was a clip for a parachute. But also the hub where the straps go in – the bit in the middle, the circular thing, like you click your seat belt in a car or in the plane. It was identifiable as that and probably still has a serial number on it. So, sometimes you can pick up very individual stories as well. There are personal items, but those are things that are reported to the MOD and can be passed on.

[JB]
I think that’s what’s important, isn’t it? That even though it’s crash sites and there’s a forensic reason for investigating them, these are still tragic human stories often lost in the fog of war.

[DA]
Absolutely. And I think it’s our duty to try and tell those stories and to preserve the remains where possible.

[JB]
And if there are any walkers or mountain climbers out there who may well know of or who have passed, or even discovered, a site that looks like something has happened, what is the best advice?

[DA]
The best advice is always just to leave well alone. By all means, check out in the sources and the archives what crash it might relate to. But leave anything in its location. That’s the best advice really, because most of these crash sites are protected under the Military Remains Act.

[JB]
Derek, thank you for taking me through this fascinating and hugely surprising part of your job with the National Trust for Scotland.

[DA]
Thanks.

[JB]
And that’s all from this edition of Love Scotland, brought to you by the Trust, which not only looks after historic buildings but also our wild places and the stories that they tell.

Why not become a member so that you can help Derek and his team continue their work? All the details are on the Trust website. Until next time, goodbye.

[MV]
Love Scotland is brought to you by Think and Demus Productions on behalf of the National Trust for Scotland; presented by Jackie Bird.
For show notes and more information, go to nts.org.uk and don’t forget to like, subscribe, review and share.

Episode 6 – Stories of Mackintosh at the Willow

Earlier this year, Mackintosh at the Willow – a tea room on Glasgow’s Sauchiehall Street that dates back to 1903 – joined the National Trust for Scotland’s portfolio of special places. To better understand the venue and the role it played in Edwardian Glasgow, Jackie sits down for a cup of tea with two expert guests.

Celia Sinclair Thornqvist MBE, who purchased, saved and restored Mackintosh at the Willow in 2014, is joined by cultural historian Robyne Calvert to reveal the hidden stories of the last remaining original tea room designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his wife Margaret Macdonald. They also detail the life of Glasgow entrepreneur Miss Catherine Cranston, who once ran the tea room.

Who would have once frequented the tea room? What makes Mackintosh at the Willow such a shining example of its designers’ talents? And what has it taken to restore the magnificent tea room into the stunning location it is today?

Find out more about Mackintosh at the Willow

Love Scotland podcast – Season 8 (6)
Love Scotland podcast – Season 8 (7)

Season 8 Episode 6

View transcript
Transcript

Four speakers: male voiceover [MV]; Jackie Bird [JB]; Celia Thornqvist [CT]; Robyne Calvert [RC]

[MV]
Love Scotland,
brought to you from the National Trust for Scotland; presented by Jackie Bird.

[JB]
Hello. Today we’re stepping back to Edwardian Glasgow, when the second city of the Empire was a bustling centre of trade, commerce and innovation … and tea. Tea and lunch rooms for workers, for gentlemen and for ladies who needed somewhere respectable to dine unchaperoned, were becoming more popular. Competition was intense. You had to be inventive to lure customers who were spoiled for choice. Enter Kate Cranston, a tiny woman with big ideas.

Kate was a trailblazing entrepreneur. By the end of the 1800s she owned 3 tearooms, but as she launched her fourth – the Willow on bustling Sauchiehall Street – she wanted something special. The architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh already had a hand in the interiors of her previous business, but for the Willow, she gave Charles and his artist wife Margaret the opportunity to design the building inside and out.

The couple were at the peak of their talents, and they provided an establishment so striking it left its patrons gasping and the local newspaper raving about ‘a marvel of the art of the upholsterer and decorator’. Well, I can understand how those early visitors felt as I am taking tea right now in the Willow’s luxurious surroundings.

Early in 2024, Mackintosh at the Willow became part of the National Trust for Scotland’s portfolio of heritage properties, and it is a stunning addition. But the fact it’s still here is down to another trailblazing, no-less-determined entrepreneur – Celia Sinclair Thornqvist – who is one of my teatime companions today. Welcome, Celia.

[CT]
Thank you, Jackie.

[JB]
Now, we are a threesome. My other guest is a friend of the podcast, cultural historian Robyne Calvert, who was our guide through the life of Margaret Mackintosh in a previous episode. Hello again, Robyne.

[RC]
Hello, Jackie.

[JB]
I have to say, I feel we’re all decidedly underdressed today. We should be wearing hats. It’s that kind of place. Now, Celia, before I ask about your remarkable part in all of this, Robyne, as a Mackintosh specialist, can you describe the room we’re in right now?

[RC]
It’s a jewel box. It’s a lovely square jewel of a room. You enter through double doors. The doors are black and white stained glass on the outside, and you walk through to the colour interior. That stained glass pattern repeats around the room in mirrors, in purple leaded glass, and across a bay front window.
Inside we have a series of tables and chairs set, some of them brought together for larger groups as well. Beautifully set with, of course, blue and white Willow china.

[JB]
We are, of course, taking tea. I’ll just clank a little bit to prove it!

[RC]
Absolutely, you have to.

[JB]
What’s the room called? Is it Salon de Luxe [rhyming with books] or Lux [rhyming with lucks]?

[RC]
I say Salon Deluxe.

[JB]
Celia, you know.

[CT]
Salon Deluxe.

[JB]
There we go. And what was this room used for?

[RC]
It’s the slightly posher place to have tea. The whole entire tearoom is absolutely beautiful. Anywhere you sit is wonderful. But this place, elevated above the street level, was maybe where you might want to spend a little bit more, to get a slightly nicer atmosphere. I can’t recall though – was the menu actually different in the upstairs section than downstairs?

[CT]
It was, and tea was 1 pence more, which is equivalent to £7 nowadays.

[JB]
£7! Was this for women only upstairs?

[CT]
Yes, this was just for ladies. It was very early in the days where ladies would entertain outwith their home, and one of the reasons they were able to do so were that there were facilities for ladies here – ie a very nice powder room.

[JB]
Which was quite rare at the turn of the century, wasn’t it?

[CT]
It was extremely … it didn’t exist, actually, because it was a very male culture. But she did accommodate the men as well, because above here is a billiard room and the men had a smoking room. They had their own toilets. Every newspaper and magazine of the day was refreshed every day. But more importantly, what this entrepreneurial lady did was install a telephone. There were hardly any telephones in Glasgow at that time, so that enticed the business gentry in, to conduct business.

[JB]
She had the aesthetics and she had all mod-cons. What I’m going to do is I’m going to jump ahead in time and then we’ll go back in time, because the Willow opened in 1903 to huge fanfare. As the years passed and as demand for tearooms diminished, it was sold. It became part of a department store and then had various owners. And then later in the 20th century, despite its priceless design heritage, it fell into terrible disrepair. Now Celia, that is roughly when you became involved, or slightly later than that. Tell us what it was like when you came across the Willow and what was happening to it.

[CT]
Well, it was simply being traded as an investment on a commodity. An A-Listed building but nobody seemed to care about it. If one went to the top floor, you needed an umbrella if it was raining; rain was coming through the roof. Lots of dry rot; the plumbing and electrical was dangerous. We were all amazed that it hadn’t gone on fire. It had had a jewellery shop on the ground floor, and they had just boarded up fireplaces and all sorts of things just to create shelving and storerooms and so forth. It was a shadow of its former self.

[JB]
So why did you decide to become involved? You were a businesswoman.

[CT]
I think I’m a mad woman!

[JB]
You bought the building.

[CT]
I bought the building.

[JB]
Is it in the public domain how much you paid for it?

[CT]
Well, in all I have personally gifted £1.2 million into this [Crikey!] and to restore it. And the reason, as you say, yes I was a businesswoman, but I was also very interested – and am still very interested – in the arts. I was a trustee of the Glasgow Art Club and because of my business experience, I supervised the restoration of the art club.

The gallery, front doors and various other things in the art club were Mackintosh’s first bit of work when he was an apprentice with Keppie. But usual practice was that the partners would put their names on the drawings, so he doesn’t feature on the drawings. And it was then I heard that the Original Willow Tea Rooms were in deep trouble. If we hadn’t done what we did do, I think a lot of this would have been lost.

[JB]
OK, so very glad you decided to step in. I feel, Robyne, this is a tale of two periods, of course, and of two determined women. Celia, we have with us, and the shadow of Miss Cranston looms large. Can you tell me about our trailblazing entrepreneur?

[RC]
I’d be delighted. She was born in 1849 and grew up as part of a family that actually was already involved in catering in hotels. By the time she was born, her father owned a hotel in George Square and the cousins of her father were part of the Cranstons in Edinburgh, who ultimately started a chain of hotels, the Waverley Temperance Hotel.

A lot of this is already fundamentally tied into the Temperance movement, which of course helps us give boom to tea trade. She grows up in this family. She grows up seemingly supporting her father ultimately, because her mother dies when she’s 18. Supporting her father in the business, she clearly learns the business trade through being part of this family. And ultimately, one of her brothers goes off to start his tea business, Stuart Cranston’s, and she seems to be involved in that as well as that carries on.

He’s credited with starting the tearoom, generally speaking. The idea of going into a catering establishment, actually sitting down for a cup of tea, started when he started selling sample cups and offering pastries with it. Her father had owned a bakery previously. They grew up in, like I said, a family that was used to the catering establishment and working with the public.

[JB]
I know there’s some debate as to whether Glasgow was indeed the forerunner, because some people say it was … Perhaps outside London, I think it was. It had a big part of the tea movement. In fact, there is a book – it’s the definitive book about tea in that era – A Social History of Tea by Jane Pettigrew. Here’s a quote from it; well, this is from the 1903 Builders’ Journal and Architecture Record – get your copies here now. And it is:
‘Glasgow is a very Tokyo for tea rooms. Nowhere can one have so much for so little, and nowhere are such places more popular or frequented’.
So, there was a market there and the Cranstons grabbed it.

[RC]
Definitely. This is also, in the 1870s, when Stuart Cranston and all of these things are kicking off with tea, Glasgow becomes a great competitor for the tea trade with London. Her brother Stuart actually, I think, started off as a merchant for Twinings and Tetley originally. He establishes his business and also he becomes quite a tea connoisseur. Part of that tea sampling is about educating the public on different types of tea and things like that.
We don’t have loads of information about Catherine Cranston. She herself didn’t leave personal journals and everything, but luckily in her case she does become such a well-known figure in Glasgow and popular person, there are lots of accounts of her later on.

[JB]
I think what we do know is that she was a leader of trends, Celia, and second best would not do for her teams.

[CT]
No, absolutely not. I have a view that many women in that era were entrepreneurs and they were never written into history. 58% of all people in the whole of Scotland were employed by companies with less than 10 employees. It was a family business culture and I think that’s where she came from. And so when she set up her own businesses, she was very concerned to look after her staff. She trained them. Mind you, I think she was a hard taskmaster.

[RC]
She was a taskmaster.

[CT]
They had to show their nails were clean and so on.

[RC]
But fair. So many of the people who were interviewed later on really spoke very fondly of her, certainly, and several of them went off to start their own tea establishments. She mentored them in business. But I think something Celia said is really interesting. I’ve always thought there’s a real close connection with her as a woman entrepreneur and women artists of the time, because both of these are hidden histories. Both of these are, you know, if a woman got married, she’d stop being an artist and she might stop working as well, or she would work behind the scenes and not get that recognition. I think one of the really interesting things in the early part of her trading in the tearooms, she did do her business licences and even some of her menus as C Cranston.

[JB]
I think that was commercially advantageous. And we mustn’t forget, even though she billed herself Miss Cranston, she’d married in 1892 – she was 43 years old – to an engineer, eight years younger than she was.

[RC]
And she slightly fudged her age on things, a little bit. To be fair, it was only four years.

[CT]
So, she was very modern. She had a toy boy.

[RC]
A little bit, a little bit. But yes, you’re right! She did and the fact that she wasn’t going to change her name – her business is established, it’s her brand. It was already there.

[JB]
She dressed differently, didn’t she?

[RC]
Oh yes, she did. This is, of course, my favourite thing about her. She dressed – the way I always talk about this – she dressed in vintage clothing. Basically, the way in which we think about people who are a bit edgy now and they might wear something that’s from the 50s or something even from, I guess, the 80s and 90s now we’re getting to an age! She was wearing the clothing of her youth, really. The dresses that she wears are staunchly 1850s/1860s.

[CT]
Sounds like me!

[JB]
She was in high Victoriana.

[RC]
She was! She would wear a full hoop skirt with crinoline and a short jacket or top that came in a V at her waist. And this is 1850s/1860s. But what I think is really interesting about it, in the details, is that she was wearing vintage dresses, at this point about 20–30 years out of date. But she mixed it up, because she wore these really interesting hats like pillbox hats and hats with roses and even a bowler. She was described as wearing a bowler. The hats are a bit more bang on trend.
There’s a term we use in this side of things now called ‘history bounding’, where you’re borrowing things from the past but mixing it up in new ways to make your own sense of style. She was doing this in 1900, walking through the streets of Glasgow.

[JB]
Well, I can add to that because I have a quote from a letter from the architect Edwin Lutyens, who paid a visit in 1897, and it must have been to the Buchanan Street Tea Rooms, which had interiors by Mackintosh. Lutyens wrote: ‘It is very elaborately simple, on very new school, high art lines. The result is gorgeous and a wee bit vulgar. [How very dare you!] It is all quite good, just a little outré.’
But then he came back the following year and he met Kate, who was about 48 at the time. He said, ‘A dark, busy, fat wee body [Tell it like it is, Edwin, why don’t you?] with black, sparkly luminous eyes, wears a bonnet [There you go, Robyne] garnished with roses and has made a fortune by supplying cheap, clean foods and surroundings, prompted by the new Art School of Glasgow.’ It was in its first phase then, which is just a stone’s throw from here.
So, she was an opportunist. She realised that the Mackintosh style was on the up and she wanted to capitalise on it.

[RC]
I think this is really important too, because this idea of her dressing in a way where she’s mixing up vintage with the new, I think is absolutely in line with the way in which she spots Mackintosh and the Glasgow Style. Because in that work there’s a kind of historicism, but there’s also an exoticism and it’s turned out in a way that makes it incredibly unique and new.
I think her own aesthetic taste just very much is in line and marries up. And the fact that she basically does give Mackintosh free rein; I mean, she’s the ultimate client for him. She lets him go. I’d love to hear some of their conversations, but you sit in a room like this and you know his work, you know the work he was doing in partnership with Margaret, of which this room definitely I think her presence is felt here.

[CT]
But he didn’t like this Willow pattern.

[JB]
The Willow pattern tea set that we’re enjoying our tea in just now?

[CT]
That was a big argument, apparently. He wanted a more simple white with black art nouveau design on it, and he wanted to keep it very simple. If you look at the cutlery, that’s an exact replica of the original Mackintosh design cutlery.

[JB]
And that is his hallmark, isn’t it? He designed everything to the finest detail.

[CT]
But he was not allowed to have his way with the china.

[JB]
We have described this very determined woman. We have a man and his wife: two designers who are at the top of their game. Move on about 100 years and the tearoom is a wreck. We have to take a break soon. But before we do, Celia, one question to you. You came in here; you could have just given the place a facelift. You didn’t go down that route. You decided to do it impeccably, to the detail. Why did you do that?

[CT]
Well, that’s the sort of person I am; if you’re going to do something, do it absolutely properly. And I felt it was such an important project that I felt it had to be absolutely correct in every detail. Otherwise, perhaps the academics like Robyne here, and others, would say, why did she bother? It’s Mock-intosh; it’s not Mackintosh.

[JB]
Alright. Well, we’ll talk about the detail and the trials and tribulations of that incredible restoration in a moment, but we’ll take a break and we’ll be back soon.

[MV]
Scotland’s history. Think battlefields. Think castles. Think great glens and historic homes. But think tenements too. And townhouses and doocots, mills and humble cottages.
The National Trust for Scotland works hard all year round to safeguard the stories of all sorts of Scots for future generations to enjoy.
They do it for the love of Scotland and you can play your part too. Just head to nts.org.uk

[JB]
Welcome back. My guests today, with whom I’m taking tea, are cultural historian Robyne Calvert and saviour of the Willow Tea Room, Celia Sinclair Thornqvist. Celia, we’re talking now the restoration and how painstaking and detailed it was. You had teams of specialists, handmade furniture. Tell us a bit about that process. How many chairs, for example? We’re in a room today with about 25 chairs, but there’s a vast tearoom downstairs. How many chairs in all, for example?

[CT]
Almost 250.

[JB]
And for those familiar with the Charles Rennie Mackintosh style, it’s the very slim, high-backed, beautifully upholstered here in purple, chairs.

[RC]
Slightly uncomfortable!

[JB]
Slightly uncomfortable, yes, it has to be! But they were measured to the millimetre, keeping them correct.

[CT]
Yes, they were. We went out to tender throughout the United Kingdom, and once we got the tenders back, then a group were invited to the Glasgow School of Art and the Hunterian to view the chairs that they have, measure them, examine them and so forth, which they did. Some of them said it was like sitting a school examination! Then there was a blind review for the Salon de Luxe, where we are today. It was narrowed down to two firms.

The chairs that we’re sitting on at the moment, you think they’re silver but actually they were gold. It’s quite a process. They were lacquered; they were then lacquered in gold. And then the finish on these chairs is powdered aluminium and it was all powdered on like gold leaf, but it was aluminium.

[JB]
There’s a lovely story about the upholstery in terms of attention to detail.

[CT]
The colours here are really important because that’s what Mackintosh and Margaret Macdonald were about: colours, design. Really important. So, we searched. I brought in most of the Mackintosh experts, and they formed a group that advised the Board of Trustees because there were two elements of this project. There was the actual construction and behind-the-scenes work, which was massive. I mean, this bow window that we’re looking at just now, we found that, in a well-intentioned but awful restoration in the early 70s, that window had been moved 9 inches in.

The outside of the building, Mackintosh had the design that it was smooth – there were no ledges, no gutters. That in itself was a big challenge for us with climate change and the amount of water coming down off the roof. But what we found was, for example, they had moved the window but there was no structure holding the rest of the building up. They’d taken the structure away and not replaced it. So, it was the glass that was holding up the upper floors.

So, we moved the window back out, reinstated the whole structural elements of the building so that the proportions were absolutely right. We did that with the shop front downstairs as well. We could tell; we had a loan of a chair from the Glasgow School of Art, and we sat it at the window. By comparing that to old photographs, we could tell that the measurements weren’t correct, that the window had actually been altered. That was all resolved. You don’t see it, but there’s one absolutely massive Douglas fir beam reset, holding the shop front downstairs, holding that in place.

[JB]
It has to be said that the cost of this was considerable, in addition to your own personal input, and it was thanks to a lot of grants from a lot of very generous trusts. You worked very hard to get that. Let’s move on to the upholstery.

[CT]
We were looking at the interior fabrics and we were sure from all descriptions it was purple. There’s a lot of different shades of purple!

[JB]
Because you only had a few black and white photographs to go on.

[CT]
We did! Whenever we had German visitors here, I used to thank them, because without them and their art magazines at the time – Dekorative Kunst and so on – we wouldn’t even have had the black and white photographs. But the colour, which was very, very important to us, we found that in the Hunterian Museum. Margaret Macdonald’s work box was there, with all its original bits and pieces in it. And we found a piece of the original purple velvet.

[JB]
In a museum, in Margaret Mackintosh’s workbook.

[RC]
That’s her little sewing box. I remember looking at that when I was first a student here. What’s really cool about it is there’s a heart cut out of it. There’s cut pieces. I remember sitting there trying to imagine what she’d made from that box years ago. And then when I found out that that was the colour and that’s how you found it, I loved it so much.

[CT]
We sent that cutting to an expert. We’ve used experts all over the world actually, and we identified the exact manufacturer of the velvet and it was Italian, and they still exist. All of this velvet that you’re sitting on and looking at today came from Italy from the original supplier.

[JB]
That’s extraordinary. And there’s another tale that you must tell about the glass. It’s a marker of Mackintosh, isn’t it? The glass, the use of colour, the refraction in his work.

[CT]
Yes, when we were restoring the glass, because much of the glass that you see here today is all original, and so there was a lot of conservation work. In the billiard room, which is quite masculine, we had one piece of central blue glass missing. Brian, our glass maker, said to me, ‘well, Mackintosh always ordered more material than he required, but he would only pay for what he used.’

[JB]
Canny Scot!

[CT]
And he said he was third or fourth generation and had inherited his grandfather’s workshop. He said, ‘I’m going to do a search’. And he walked in a couple of days later and said to me, ‘Look what I’ve got for you’. And it was a brown – sounds like one of the films – a brown paper package tied up with string! It was filthy and written across it was CRM. He put it down and he opened it, and there was one piece of the original blue glass for the billiard room, which Mackintosh had not used. And so, we were able to put that back and we were just so thrilled with that.

[RC]
What did you feel like when you opened that and saw it? That is just one of those dream moments.

[CT]
Yeah, it was. It was absolutely amazing. I still think it’s amazing. It’s something I’ll always remember because it brought all of us … remember, we’re working in dirt and we’re in work clothes and boots and so on .. and then to have these things and see them, it brought us really close to Mackintosh, to Miss Cranston. We did feel very much at one with them. We often said that we think he’s smiling down on us!

[JB]
Oh, that’s a nice thought.

[CT]
So, that was that. That was good.

[JB]
What became of Miss Cranston’s empire?

[RC]
Well, it did quite well for a while and in fact she carried on commissioning Mackintosh. When Mackintosh was struggling and they had left, in fact, Glasgow, he was still looking for work.

[JB]
So, we’re talking 19 …

[RC]
Around 1910/12, and then in 1914 he does designs for another room here, the Dugout, which was downstairs in the basem*nt and it’s like jazz – it’s very, very forward-looking. It’s very colourful but it is called the Dugout because of the war. She tries to give him commissions here and there where she can, but there’s only so many rooms. She does remodel rooms in other of her tearooms and he gets those too, but there’s only so much you can do.

And then of course everyone is struggling. It’s an economic crisis in Britain. Building new buildings, there isn’t a lot of money for that. Also, I think Margaret Macdonald actually writes to their friends Hermann and Anna Muthesius, she says in a letter, she makes a joke about how Mackintosh tearooms are popping up all over town. That’s your Tokyo for tearooms. That would be the Mock-intosh popping up everywhere. So, it’s a struggle for him, but it just also shows the kind of proliferation that’s going on.

But the business is doing fairly well. They’ve done very well. When she marries John Cochrane, they move out to Barrhead. They have a very rich social life. He becomes Provost eventually. They’re very active, but they have a very close and loving relationship. He incidentally was a bit of a dandy and liked dressing up as well. He was known for this. They have a very rich life together. But he does die somewhat suddenly in 1917. He becomes ill. He gets a growth in his mouth – it sounds like it’s cancer. And he goes into care very rapidly in October and about 3 weeks later he’s gone, and she’s devastated. She does carry on wearing black, we think, for a lot of her life. Some people draw a lot of parallels between her and Victoria, actually, in that way. She starts selling off bits of her business a little at a time.

[JB]
It sounds like she didn’t have the heart for it after her husband died. She eventually died in 1934. She was aged 85, a very wealthy woman.

[RC]
Very wealthy. And she does live on for quite a while after him, but if you think about her age, I think about my age and relationship. She’s in her 40s when she starts doing the whole tearoom thing. Actually, she’s had a rich career and then she does it for quite a while and then she goes on and sells off the bits of business. She does move ultimately into a hotel again at George Square. So where she’s born, she goes back there.

[CT]
She had dementia, I think, sadly.

[RC]
That’s what I was going to say. Ultimately, she does end up having dementia. She moves into a flat in the Southside, ultimately.

[JB]
But what she does with her wealth is something that she is remembered for. She bequeathed two thirds of her fortune to Glasgow’s poor.

[CT]
Yes, and this has always puzzled me. Where did the money go? What was it used for? There’s no memorial. There’s nothing that records that. The only reason we know about this is because of the work we’ve done here, which prompted the research.

[RC]
I was just thinking about this last night, the exact thing that you said – where is her legacy? I mean, her legacy is obviously here. This is a beautiful monument to it. And one of the things I love about the work that Celia and this huge team has done, not only bringing the tearoom back to life absolutely brilliantly – and yes, as an academic, I fully approve of the approach.

[CT]
I’m pleased to hear it!

[RC]
But the story of Kate Cranston being told, of women’s history, of the power of that. Because, honestly, I want a statue of Kate and her dress somewhere in the city. I would love to do something like that.

[CT]
Yes, I do. I had wanted to start a fund …

[JB]
I think you’ve done enough! I think in terms of my input, I’m already thinking of the next podcast, which is the mystery of Kate Cranston’s missing millions. Where did they go? You talk, Celia, about the utter joy of finding the piece of glass. What do you think Kate Cranston would think of the place today, and of your work? The fact that more than 100 years on, it’s here, it’s a tearoom. You can come, you can enjoy the aesthetic, and you can take tea. Does that ever cross your mind?

[CT]
Oh, it does. I think she would be very, very pleased with it. I think she and Mackintosh would be extremely happy to know that what they’d created, the work was so valuable, beautiful, understood, that it had been taken on. This tearoom and this building has been so well restored. The restoration that you don’t see is behind the walls and then the roof. It’s here for another 100 years. Robyne, what is your view? Do you think that Charles Rennie Mackintosh would be as famous as he is now, had it not been for Miss Cranston?

[RC]
No, but a good comparison is we have a lot of really important buildings in the city which are neglected and not looked after by other architects. Some are in the National Trust property, like Thomson, which they’ve done a big work on. But people like James Salmon. Mackintosh might be another Thomson, another Salmon or something like that. It’s exactly what you said that in Deutsche Kunst und Dekoration and Dekorative Kunst and The Studio, the tearooms were reproduced. And it was not just the Willow, it was all the work he’d done at Ingram Street that went on to the Vienna Secession exhibition. This was all reproduced, as you say, in design magazines.

Now, those are niche to be honest with you. I don’t think these places were super-famous internationally at the time, but the legacy of them that’s been captured is what makes it important. And so, when we look at Mackintosh today, it is 100% the Tea Rooms that are a very critical piece of his work. I’d have to argue alongside the Glasgow School of Art, but definitely I think what’s really important about the Tea Rooms is, as we were saying before, I feel like it’s the one place – outside of the blue and white china – that he was really just given that rein and, it seems, without constraint of budget. I imagine there was some budgetary-like discussion, but he seemed to have so much freedom. She seemed to see some kind of artistically kindred spirit with him and Margaret Macdonald, to let them go where he was reined in in other places or maybe didn’t have that freedom.

[JB]
We had a fusion of a group of visionaries. We had Margaret and Charles who were ahead of their time in terms of design, and Miss Cranston, a female entrepreneur, likewise. And I think that’s a great note on which to end. Robyne, thank you very much for your artistic insight. And Celia, thank you for saving what is truly a national treasure. The Trust is so very grateful and we will look after it and it will be here, I can guarantee that, in 100 years from now.

And if you would like to step back in time and visit Mackintosh at the Willow and even take lunch or tea here, details and opening times are on the Trust website nts.org.uk

Here at the Salon de Luxe, hats aren’t mandatory but you might feel that you need one. This wonderful spectacle will be protected thanks to your membership. And if you would like to make a donation to help the Trust care for Scotland’s heritage and its wild places, just go to nts.org.uk/donate

Now, I must get my bonnet. My chauffeur is at the door. Until next time on Love Scotland,goodbye.

[MV]
Love Scotland is brought to you by Think and Demus Productions, on behalf of the National Trust for Scotland; presented by Jackie Bird.
For show notes and more information, go to nts.org.uk and don’t forget to like, subscribe, review and share.

Episode 5 – Six objects that tell stories of Trust women

This week, Jackie and her guests discuss six objects in the Trust’s collections that help to tell the stories of some of the most fascinating women connected to Trust places. Regional curators Emma Inglis and Antonia Laurence-Allen help to paint a picture of these six women, whose lives and jobs ranged from being an ale-brewer in 1600s Edinburgh to the daughter of an earl in Clackmannanshire.

What does a job application from 1910 tell us about the changing world of work at the turn of the 20th century? Why was ale-making seen as a predominantly female profession? And who was the historical figure behind Alloa’s successful glassworks?

Find out more about Gladstone’s Land

Find out more about Weaver’s Cottage

Find out more about Alloa Tower

Find out more about the Hill House

Find out more about Broughton House

Find out more about the Tenement House

Love Scotland podcast – Season 8 (8)
Love Scotland podcast – Season 8 (9)

Season 8 Episode 5

View transcript
Transcript

Four speakers: male voiceover [MV]; Jackie Bird [JB]; Antonia Laurence-Allen [ALA]; Emma Inglis [EI]

[MV]
Love Scotland,
brought to you from the National Trust for Scotland; presented by Jackie Bird.

[JB]
Behind every successful man is a surprised woman. Well, so the old joke goes. But when you look at the history of the world of work, the further you go back down the ages, the less visible women seem to be. That could lead us to believe that Scotland was once comprised of either grand ladies who enjoyed pastimes, or menial workers. But of course, there was so much in between.

So, we thought we’d take a look at some Trust properties and do a little digging on some of the women who inhabited them to discover what their working lives were and how they reflected the changing role of women as a whole.

To do this, I’ve enlisted the help of a couple of women who do a fine job of work at the Trust. Both are regional curators: Antonia Laurence-Allen and Emma Inglis. Ladies, welcome.

[ALA]
Thank you.

[EI]
Thank you. It’s lovely to be here.

[JB]
I’ve asked you to do some work for me and to choose three women each. Now, women’s history isn’t always front and centre. So, Antonia, was it difficult to choose three women?

[ALA]
Well, the short answer is no, because there are many women in the properties and they lie dormant, so to speak, because they’re often behind the scenes. They’re the ones who are doing the interiors; they’re the ones who are managing the estate. But what happens is often the men are the ones whose title is on the door, so to speak. They’re the ones who ostensibly pay the bills, or are the ones who charge for the architects, that kind of idea. But the more you dig, the more you find women who are actually involved in a huge amount of work on estates and in towns. And we’re starting to dig into those histories a lot more than we ever have.

[JB]
Emma, how did you fare?

[EI]
Well, I think I would agree with Antonia that, in the last few years, we’ve very deliberately been trying to find women’s histories at NTS properties. Some of those properties obviously lend themselves to women’s histories more than others do. For my part, I work with a number of very small properties where women have been quite prominent in the history of that place and have had a working history. So, for me, it’s been about putting some meat on the bones of those stories and trying to dig a little bit deeper about women that I have already known about. It’s just about going that extra mile in the research to find out what more we know about them as individuals, but also about the other women that were around them.

[ALA]
Oh yes, and I would add one more thing to that, which is instead of saying ‘he bought’ or ‘he ordered’, it’s turning it into ‘they bought’ and ‘they ordered’ – because often it’s the man and the woman, and actually predominately the woman, who’s doing the decorating and the interiors. It’s just that subtle difference of recognising that they’re a partnership. We always default to the male in history; at least we have. So, if that little shift of saying ‘they’ rather than ‘he’ is a simple little thing that we’re starting to do, I think is helpful.

[JB]
It changes the whole dynamic, doesn’t it? Well, I’ve asked you both to choose 6 objects from Trust properties as jumping-off points for what they tell us about our subjects. So, Antonia, would you like to start?

[ALA]
Yes, I’d love to start. The first object that I picked for you was something called a Bellarmine jug, and we have it at Gladstone’s Land.

[JB]
What’s Gladstone’s Land?

[ALA]
Gladstone’s Land is a tenement house in Edinburgh. It’s on the Lawnmarket and it is a trading tenement. Throughout, from the 16th century all the way up to now, it’s had various people living in it, from the ground floor and basem*nt all the way up to the fifth and sixth floors.

The lady that we’re talking about today, her name is Issobel Johnstone, and we know about her because of the man that she worked for, which is quite common in the time. She wasn’t necessarily recorded as living in Gladstone’s Land, but her boss was. Her boss was John Riddoch. He was a merchant, and she owed him, on his death in 1634, £122, which in today’s money is about £20,000 It’s a lot of money.

[JB]
Crikey! £20,000 worth of ale! That’s a lot of ale.

[ALA]
That’s a lot of ale! So, she owed him money, but I think there was a combination of things going on here. She was a taverner, but she wasn’t thetaverner. She was actually called a brewster, someone who brewed ale and sold ale, and this was a particularly female profession at the time because it was a domestic production. It was traditionally the wife of burgesses, merchant men in cities and burghs like Edinburgh, who brewed ale. Ale was the thing that people drank the most – morning, noon and night – because it was safer than water and most people couldn’t afford wine. Only the wealthiest could afford wine.

A lot of women got into the production. You had to make a lot of ale in order to feed the city of ale for every single day. Women were making this domestically, but they got into doing it professionally. And what they would do is they would buy the ale from their merchant and then they would sell it. They’d either store it in these Bellarmine jugs or they would literally pour it into people’s mugs with these jugs. And every time they poured a mug of ale, they would get some money for it. And the profit they made, the little bit extra that they paid, was their wage.

She would work most of the day running this tavern and she would then give the money back in dribs and drabs to her boss. But she didn’t just do that; she also worked in his shop. She worked cleaning out his store, and we think she was basically a servant for him.

What’s really interesting, I think, about it is that she basically had a business arrangement as a woman and as a servant with her master, which is quite an interesting working role for women at the time.

[JB]
Was it acceptable for a woman to be working in a tavern?

[ALA]
Yes, it was an acceptable job for a woman of many different classes. If you were the wife of a wealthy burgess, you didn’t have to necessarily work. You probably brewed your ale for domestic production. But if you needed to work as a woman, then there were certain jobs that were respectable, and this was one of them.

[JB]
What I didn’t know was that the idea of a man supporting a woman within a household, which we would think was always the case, was very much not the social norm back then. They both worked, they worked independently – there was equality, and they both supported a home and a family.

[ALA]
That’s right. I’m not going to tell you that there weren’t some efforts to try and control how much women worked. In the ale industry, there were attempts to control which women could work in the industry. I’ve got an idea in 1530 there was legislation in Edinburgh that a woman had to own her own brewing equipment. Now, that was expensive, so there are only certain kinds of women who could afford that.

But then in 1596, so we’re talking the end of the 16th century, there was the formation of something called the Fellowship and Society of Ale and Beer Brewers of the Burgh of Edinburgh. It’s a bit of a mouthful. They were threatened rather by the economic prosperity of women brewers, because by this time they were doing really, really well, brewing ale. So, they decreed that no one except the members of the Society were allowed to sell or buy the ale and beer produced by the Society – and you had to pay a fee to be part of this Society. So again, you’re excluding certain portions of women.

What’s interesting about this, though, is it didn’t last very long. It started in 1596, and it was disbanded in 1619. You only got about 20 years and the women were basically brewing ale and getting on with the job of feeding Edinburgh citizens.

[JB]
We’ll leave Issobel tending the bar in the 17th century. We’ll move to a less surprising working environment for women. Over to you, Emma, for your first chosen woman and your object.

[EI]
My first object is a painting of two women. It depicts the Borland sisters. Isabella is sitting at a handloom and she’s weaving probably some woollen cloth. It’s checked; it’s probably a woollen shawl. Her sister Marion is sitting with her back to the viewer and she’s sitting at a spinning wheel. This painting was produced in 1926 by a female artist called Alice Ramsay, who studied at the Glasgow School of Art, and it’s displayed at Weaver’s Cottage in Kilbarchan.

[JB]
And it was a life cycle thing, wasn’t it? They began in the industry as children.

[EI]
That’s right. It was very much expected that girls would take their part in what was essentially a family trade. Everybody was performing some part, and young girls would be employed first of all as pirn winders – essentially winding the thread onto the pirn, which then fitted into the shuttle. That was part of the weaving process. They might go on to be spinners as well and then they could also become apprentice, become a handloom weaver for themselves. And really, before the introduction of the Education (Scotland) Act in 1872, girls could be starting in their training, if you like, at a very young age.

[JB]
How old?

[EI]
Well, it seems to be in the census records that 11- or 12-year-old girls can be listed as apprentices until the Education (Scotland Act) came in and then after that it was very much 13, which was when girls left school.

[JB]
Oh, well, that’s alright then!

[EI]
They were well old enough to be going off and learning their trade then. They would be apprenticed until they were 17, and from the age of 17 effectively they were a fully fledged handloom weaver.

[JB]
What were the hours like?

[EI]
It depended what the trade was like. When trade was strong and prices were high, then the weavers, I suppose, were pretty much masters of their own fate and they could choose the hours that they wove. But it was a very unpredictable trade. And so, when the prices were depressed, then the weavers really had to weave particularly long hours. It could be something like 18 hours a day, just so that they could produce enough cloth to bring in the kind of wage that they needed to pay the rent and to pay for their food and all of those other expenses in life.

[JB]
Were men and women workers valued the same?

[EI]
It seemed to be fairly equal. Obviously, a lot of the information that we have about it comes from newspaper reports, so you have to take a little bit of a sense-check that their reports are probably written with some sort of angle. But they quite often deal quite equally with the male weavers and also the female weavers, particularly before the end of the 19th century when weaving was very strong.

And there was a real acknowledgement not only of the education that girls received and how important that was to them becoming fully fledged weavers and part of the trade – because obviously they had to understand mathematics and language, because that all fed into their understanding of patterns and being able to create the cloth – but also a recognition of how valuable it was to have a young lady who was a handloom weaver as a wife. This was an important thing to be marrying a girl who was a handloom weaver. Because what she was able to weave clearly then contributed to the economics of the whole family. So, it was very much acknowledged, certainly within Kilbarchan anyway, that both male and female weavers had a role to play.

[JB]
Much is made of quite a famous chap from Kilbarchan called Willie Meikle, who plied his trade quite famously abroad and he was a bit of a showman for the industry. No mention of his wife, but I understand that she was there along with him and completing equal tasks.

[EI]
That’s right. You have to look quite hard to find Maggie, or Margaret, Meikle. So much of the publicity around Willie Meikle was about Willie Meikle. But if you get your magnifying glass out and look a bit more closely, you can see that there are references to either his wife supporting his trade shows by spinning, but also sometimes taking to the loom herself and demonstrating the trade.

I think Willie was particularly good at selling the notion of the quality of handloom cloth at a time when the industry was pretty much dead in the water in Kilbarchan; there were really only a handful of weavers left. Most of the attention was put onto the male weavers and this loss of a noble craft and the idea of the man as the breadwinner.

[JB]
Why was this? Why were women becoming eclipsed?

[EI]
I wonder if it’s because of the generally external perception of the man as the breadwinner. The loss of the breadwinner of his trade was possibly regarded as more important than the loss of trade of a woman who, in a way, if she stopped weaving, she was still in the household. She was still looking after the children or looking after her elderly parents or whatever, and doing all those domestic activities that she already would have been doing side by side with the handloom weaving. So, the women just, I guess, sort of slid away, whereas the men, because that was their only job, maybe it meant more that they were lost.

But this is one of the reasons why I quite like this painting by Alice Ramsay, because it doesn’t portray the last days of handloom weaving in Kilbarchan in this sepia, mournful light. It’s showing two women who are busy in their workshop; they’re engaged in their trade. It’s lovely and light, it’s bright, it’s full of activity, it feels very positive – and it’s a very different sort of message that was applied to the male handloom weavers at exactly the same time.

[JB]
And that painting comes from about 1926, were you saying?

[EI]
Yes, 1926, and notably painted by a woman who perhaps had a different perception of the trade to male painters who were painting the lone male weaver at his loom.

[JB]
OK, well, you get three women in that, so you get 3 points! Let’s go back to Antonia now. We’re going to climb the social ladder. We’re going back in time, but we’re going to climb the social ladder. And our destination is Alloa Tower in Clackmannanshire.

[ALA]
Yes, Lady Frances Charlotte Erskine was born in 1715 and she’s the daughter of the 6th Earl of Mar. He ends up leading the Jacobite uprising in 1715 and it ends in Sheriffmuir, which is the battle just up the way from Alloa.

He doesn’t do very well and so he’s exiled and has to forfeit his estates. He is off with his wife and his newborn baby to Europe. While he’s in Europe, he goes off to Bohemia and he goes on a trip and he sees the glassworks there. There’s this amazing expertise in the area for making glass. And he knows that his property in Alloa is perfect for glassmaking because it has the sand that you need and the salt that you need, the sodium. It also has the coal to fire the kilns and it has the transportation links, so he’s desperate to get back to do it. But he dies before he can manage to get home.

It’s many years later, in 1740, when Lady Charlotte Frances Erskine is back in Scotland. And she marries …

[JB]
But before she goes, what is the object you have for us though?

[ALA]
It’s a glass bottle. You can find this at Alloa Tower. It’s one of the bottles that was made at that period of time in Alloa. It’s a very short stubby bottle and it was made blowing into a mould. You’d get this lump of molten glass and you’d blow into it, put it into a mould and then blow it until it fit the mould. And then, when it was cool, the mould broke and there was your glass.

[JB]
Was she allowed back then?

[ALA]
Yes, the land was forfeited but it was bought by the Earl of Mar’s brother Lord Grange. He was a bit of a nasty piece of work. But his son was the one who married Lady Frances Charlotte Erskine, so she married her cousin and kept the land therefore in the family. They married in 1740. Then they had the 2nd Jacobite Uprising in 1745, and only a handful of years after that, she’s decided to open this glassworks.

[JB]
She decided herself? How unusual was this entrepreneurial streak for a woman of her status and at that time?

[ALA]
Really unusual. It’s not unusual for women to be involved in business, but normally they worked slightly a step behind their husbands or their fathers. This was quite unusual because she led the way. She still needed to get permission from her uncle, which she managed to do, and also get the say-so from her husband and from her brother. Once she got through all the men, then she rolled up her sleeves and she was the one who – apparently, she was quite witty and she was very charming – and she really managed to bring her very difficult uncle on side and she – this is what’s so brilliant! – she brought Bohemian glassworkers to Scotland up the Forth on the boat, probably that turned around and took coal back out.

She was really clever. She knew that she needed to bring their families as well and build houses for them so that they stayed. But also got them involved in building and designing the glassworks so that they created something that was industrial on an industrial scale. This is really important because really it’s the first industrial-scale glassworking factory in Scotland.

[JB]
Do we know anything of her input on a day-to-day scale? I’m not saying that she was near the furnace, but did she manage it effectively?

[ALA]
So, as well as being involved in the glassworks, she took a front seat in the Alloa coal business and introduced steam power at one of the collieries. She built one of the first trams in the country because she knew that the most efficient way of getting the coal to the port was on a wagon.

[JB]
And the thing is, she is not one of the women who have been airbrushed from history, so to speak, because when I was looking at the Alloa glassworks, she’s still front and centre as the woman who started it.

I was really surprised because at that time, we’re talking mid-18th century, I couldn’t find many facts and figures for Scotland. But in London, let me find this … that approximately 10% of businesses in London were run by women at that time, which I find very surprising. They all had business cards as well, which is another little addition. But the business cards didn’t have Miss or Mrs; they had an initial because it was still a little bit unseemly.

[ALA]
I wonder if a lot of those businesses were involved in the fashion trade for example?

[JB]
Milliners, silversmiths, printing seemed to have been acceptable.

[ALA]
Yeah, interesting, she’s quite unusual for this industrial dirty work. And very innovative. She had money. She had the estate, but she could have sat back and done her embroidery and not really bothered, and wandered around her beautiful estate and go to her orangery. But no, she decided – I think possibly she was her father’s daughter. And she had that business acumen, but also the drive to invest in the town around the estate. She knew what she was doing.

[JB]
Lady Francis Erskine. We’ll take a quick break and we’ll be back in a moment.

[MV]
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[JB]
Welcome back to Trust Women at Work, and the women doing the heavy lifting for me today are Antonia Laurence-Allen and Emma Inglis, who are both regional curators for the National Trust for Scotland. Now, a world of work which during the Victorian era was the biggest employer of women – domestic service. But by the Edwardian era, things were slowly changing. Emma, your next lady would have worked in the service of a family, but I doubt that she would have considered herself a domestic servant.

[EI]
My next lady is Janet Stewart and she started off as a nursemaid to the children of Walter and Anna Blackie. They had five children in total. They ranged over quite a number of ages.

[JB]
And they’re significant because of their home.

[EI]
Well, that’s right. Their home eventually was the Hill House in Helensburgh, which was designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Sometimes the house is more famous than the family, so on a bit of a mission to bring the family to the fore in the stories that we tell there. And part of telling that story is about looking at the people who supported the family in their life in the house. Because although they weren’t a fabulously wealthy family, they were certainly wealthy enough to have a number of indoor servants – and outdoor servants as well – when they set up home at the Hill House in 1904.

[JB]
And you have a lovely photograph. Who do we have in the photograph?

[EI]
In the photograph we have Agnes Blackie, who was the youngest of the Blackie girls, and she’s sitting here; I think she was probably about six years old in this photograph. She’s sitting in a landscape with grass all around her, trees in the background. And next to her is a lady who is of middle age, I suppose, wearing quite a severe black hat and a lovely blouse and a long skirt in very typical Edwardian style.

[JB]
It looks like little round spectacles as well, to make the look complete. Now, this is nanny Janet Stewart. What do we know about her?

[EI]
Janet Stewart was born up in Portsoy, right at the top of Aberdeenshire, quite a long way from Helensburgh. I don’t know how she started her working life with the Blackie family, but she certainly worked for them when the family lived in Glasgow and then in Dumbarton, so well before they came to Helensburgh. She must have been nanny to some of the older children as well before she became Agnes’s nanny. They called her Nana, and because she’d been with the family for such a long time, certainly the oral history that we have from family members suggests that the children regarded her with a great deal of affection. Probably she was the most constant figure across their day. Obviously, they see their mother and father as well, but it would have been Nana who was there with them from dawn until dusk.

[JB]
And this photograph roughly dates to when?

[EI
The photograph probably dates to around about 1906/1907, so the family would have been at the Hill House for a few years then. We know that it can’t be any later than 1910/1911 because at that date Janet Stewart got married; she must have been in her mid-40s by that age. She decided to get married, and she moved back up north, so she went to live in Turriff, up on the Aberdeenshire coast.

[JB]
Now the Hill House was a big house, but it wasn’t a grand house. It wasn’t a stately home. What sort of team of servants would they have had?

[EI]
Well, as well as the nanny, who obviously would have spent most of her time with the children, there were also probably a couple of housemaids. They would have been responsible for the general cleaning duties in the house on a day-to-day basis. There was also a cook who would have produced all the meals. She used a lot of vegetables from the garden, which was the domain of the gardener and the gardener’s assistant. And then there was also a table maid as well, whose sole duties revolved around family meals – laying the table, serving at the table, clearing the table, which as you can imagine actually probably took up quite enough of the day as it was, with three family meals and quite a big family to feed.

[JB]
This is an interesting choice because it was a time of great change, wasn’t it, for those who were working in service? I found some figures in the census in 1891 and – this is for the UK as a whole – the number of indoor domestic servants was 1.38 million. But then if we jump to 1911, it had gone down to 1.27 million and of course the decline continued, didn’t it?

[EI]
It did. I think what’s interesting about the nanny is how long she stayed with the family. Certainly, between the 1901 census, the 1911 and 1921 census, you see an increasing turnover of the other female staff not just in this house, but in other houses as well, of the same social strata.

[JB]
Was this because other job opportunities were emerging?

[EI]
Yes, I think so. There was also the influence of the First World War in opening women’s minds and eyes, I suppose, to the different opportunities that they might have. I think perhaps being a domestic servant was no longer the only obvious choice for women, that they did have other opportunities that they could take up. Perhaps by that date they were able to be a little bit more demanding about the conditions, that they might have a bit more agency as part of their work and able to move on. They didn’t necessarily stay with the same family for a long period of time. They could move to other jobs if they chose. They weren’t that dependent, by that date, on their employer in that sense.

[JB]
And this is the time for another change in that we all know about what happens below stairs because of Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey. But there was also an emergence of middle-class families in comparatively – comparatively, I stress – smaller houses who wanted domestic servants as well.

[EI]
Yes. One of the other properties that we own is in the West End of Glasgow and that was the home of a solicitor, so a comfortable upper-middle-class family. We can see in the family records there that they just had one live-in servant – a female servant.

[JB]
And this was quite a tough gig, wasn’t it? Because you were expected to do everything.

[EI]
Yes, it’s not a small house. It doesn’t look very big from the front, but it goes up a long way and it goes down and back a long way as well. Although there was beginning to be changes in technology, some labour-saving devices, there were still other jobs which would have been pretty heavy work. Like doing the household laundry for example. It still took the entire week to do the laundry, from the point where you put everything in the tub and gave it a good scrub, to drying it, to ironing it, to putting it back in the cupboards again. A lot of these things were pretty labour-intensive and you can’t really blame young girls – and they quite often were young girls – for not wanting to take that on as their life work.

[JB]
And in terms of Nana Stewart’s later life, she had developed a strong bond with the family, which continued even though she was married and moved away.

[EI]
It seems so. The children apparently went to visit her during the summer when they were on holiday, and they would go up to Turriff.

[JB]
Canny parents, trying to offload the children!

[EI]
It’s a good long way away. They did well there. So yes, they went to visit Nana Stewart in her new life in Turriff and spent family holidays with her. So, they must have developed a really strong affection.

[JB]
That was a great example of shifting times. We’re going to a more intangible female force now. Antonia, you’ve chosen Elizabeth Hornel, who is the sister of someone much more well known: the painter Edward Atkinson Hornel. Why have you chosen her and what’s your object?

[ALA]
Well, I’ve chosen a photograph as well and actually I think it was probably taken in about 1910. It’s from a glass plate negative that is in Broughton House, which is Edward and Elizabeth’s house. There are thousands of them at Broughton House and they were taken by Edward Atkinson Hornel to help compose his paintings.

I chose her because she is so many things – and I think she is the reason that he was so successful.

[JB]
I have already recorded a podcast some time ago about Hornel. You say she’s vitally important. She wasn’t mentioned.

[ALA]
She wasn’t mentioned, of course not.

[JB]
Not once.

[ALA]
She pops up in a lot of his photographs and she pops up in a lot of his letters. And she’s also the reason why the house belongs now to the NTS. It was given to a trust after she died in 1950. That was Edward Hornel’s wishes, but she lived in the house for 17 years after he died. She was about 90 when she died and she made sure that all of their wishes that they had formulated over the years came to fore – the house was used as a public library and an art museum for Kirkcudbright, for the village and the town, and then it was handed over to the National Trust for Scotland.

So, she’s the reason why the Trust has the property.

[JB]
Why was she so significant during his life?

[ALA]
She was his oldest sister by about five years. The focus of Broughton House is on Edward. He’s the painter; he’s the one who had the professional career – and it was really on her shoulders, I think, that he achieved success. When he got the chance to go to art school in Edinburgh, she was already a teacher in Edinburgh and she chaperoned him. He wrote a letter back to his mother saying that she’d walked him off his feet the first day that he got there.

She was at that very starting point when women were starting to get into teaching. In 1872, as Emma’s mentioned earlier, it was the Education (Scotland) Act and this was really important because it made going to school compulsory for children aged 5–13. Now, if you wanted to study after that, you went to something called college from 15–16, and you took exams. The Church at this period handed over 548 parish schools – they got handed over to newly formed school boards. That separation of education and the Church was quite significant. Of course, it wasn’t fully separated for many years. But she became what was called a pupil teacher.

[JB]
And this must have opened the door for so many women to work.

[ALA]
I think it did. I think it took a little bit of time, but I think then it became a career that was achievable for a lot of women. They were paid less than men, and that was a given. It was cheaper to hire the women, but it allowed for a profession that was respectable. As you’d said earlier, these were the options that women had.

[JB]
And he started travelling to paint. It was a very lucrative business for him. She accompanied him.

[ALA]
She accompanied him; exactly.

[JB]
And what was her role there? Just a companion?

[ALA]
Yeah, I think so. They were very close brother and sister. He never married and nor did she, and at a certain point she decided that she was going to become his housekeeper. One of the things that is known from oral history is that he was a bit of a drinker. He liked his drink and I think that she managed his life, basically, and his household. I think that the older he got, he got a little bit more grumpy and a little bit more difficult to deal with and a lot quieter and shyer. And she was the sociable force.

But what’s really interesting is that there was a letter that was sent to Broughton House in the ’60s, and it was from someone who used to live in Edinburgh next to the Peploe family. Samuel Peploe was a very famous Colourist. She wrote saying that she remembers talking to the family. When Samuel Peploe would go down to visit his friend Edward Hornel, he would often go to Kirkcudbright with his wife Margaret. One time Margaret called in on Miss Elizabeth Hornel and found her in the studio painting on the easel, and she turned around and she said, ‘oh oh, I wasn’t expecting you. Oh, I sometimes do his backgrounds for him.’

[JB]
You’re not suggesting, in a sort of Shakespeare kind of way, that there was a woman behind it all?

[ALA]
I think there might have been. They travelled all over the world together. They made huge amounts of money. In 1909 and 1912 he had two massive exhibitions in Glasgow, and he made roughly £2,385, which in today’s money is £280,000, for two exhibitions. He was selling works at that time for as much as £400 a canvas, which is £47,000 today. I mean, it’s huge amounts of money.

[JB]
Well, I sincerely hope Elizabeth was on a decent percentage, but that’s a great example. She was a supporter and she also looked after his legacy. And perhaps if it wasn’t for her, then the National Trust for Scotland wouldn’t have Broughton House. So, that was a great one. Thank you very much.

It’s our final lady now. Emma, we’re going to the Tenement House in Glasgow and its occupants. Tell us about them and tell us about your object.

[EI]
At the Tenement House, I’m going to introduce you to a letter which was written by Agnes Toward, who was the lady who was actually responsible for us acquiring the Tenement House with all its contents essentially.

[JB]
Tenement House – tell us a little bit about that. There were two women who lived in it.

[EI]
That’s right. The Tenement House is a typical tenement in Glasgow. For those of you who don’t know Glasgow, it’s a flat in a block of flats essentially – very much traditional Glasgow architecture. It was the sort of tenement that was designed for a working-class family, but a solidly respectable working-class family, definitely not one of the worst tenements. And in 1911, Agnes Toward and her mother, who was also called Agnes Toward (we call her Mrs Toward), both moved into the Tenement House. Then after her mother died, she stayed there all the rest of her life. And she died there too, eventually.

[JB]
This is very important because for me it personalises a shift in the world of women in work, because Mrs Toward was a dressmaker, mainly in the home before she had a couple of shops. But Agnes Toward was one of the first women to go out to work in an office, and women in work became more visible then.

[EI
She did. Agnes Toward ended up working for two shipping firms, essentially, and it’s interesting because she had exactly the same sort of education as the girls in Kilbarchan would have had at the same time. They would have done their reading, their writing, their arithmetic, and because they were girls, they would have been taught plain sewing and a bit of needlework as well, in the expectation that those were the sort of skills that they would need to take them out into the working world and to earn a wage. What interests me about Agnes Toward is that she seemed to put all of that behind her and instead she went to the Athenaeum Commercial College in Glasgow and undertook a course in shorthand and typewriting. Off the back of that, she was able to take herself into a different world of work. Essentially, she was working in an office using those typewriting and shorthand writing skills, supporting male colleagues in this shipping firm. A very different sort of outlook, I suppose, starting from the same point with the education – a very different endpoint for her.

I get the sense that her job opened up opportunities. Not only was she working out of the home, but she was also mixing with different women in a different way that perhaps hadn’t been possible for her mother in the sort of job that she was undertaking. Although she was having to go out to work and she needed to go out to work to pay the rent, it’s a different view of a woman.

[JB]
As you say, it’s a snapshot of the world beginning to open out for women in work. The letter you have is a job application. I think it’s beautifully written. Would you mind reading it?

[EI]
Of course. This letter was written on 5 December 1910 and it’s addressed to 41, The Herald Office and it reads:
Referring to your advertisem*nt in Saturday’s Herald, I beg to offer my services. I am well educated and have a thorough knowledge of shorthand and typewriting, having been trained in the Glasgow Athenaeum. I’m able to write shorthand at the rate of 120 words per minute and to operate the typewriter at 60 words per minute. I have 4½ years experience, and I’m presently employed in the office of a large shipowner’s firm, where I have been for the past 3½ years. But I’m desirous of making a change. Should you consider my application favourably, I shall be pleased to furnish you with full particulars as to character and abilities.
Yours sincerely, Agnes Toward.

[ALA]
That’s wonderful!

[JB]
We’re supposed to have advanced as a society. We don’t write letters like that anymore, and the handwriting is absolutely beautiful.

[EI]
I think it’s fair to say that for Agnes Toward, for all that she appears to have enjoyed her life and her work, it’s still underlying that imperative to work. The fact that she worked until she was 73, I think is quite telling because it was the days before there was very much Social Security; it was before the welfare state. So, she needed to work. Certainly while her mother was alive, she needed to work because she was supporting her ill mother for part of the time; she would need to pay the rent. If she didn’t earn the money, she didn’t have any rent. They didn’t have anywhere to live. So, for all that she appears to have had a job that she enjoyed, underneath it all there was still an imperative to work, which I think casts a slightly different light on that as well.

[JB]
Antonia and Emma, thank you so much. And thank you to the women that we’ve chosen for giving us such interesting life to discuss. Thank you for coming in today.

[EI
Thank you.

[ALA]
More than welcome.

[JB]
And if you’d like to visit any of the properties we’ve featured, you can find details of the opening times on the website. Head to nts.org.uk

It’s thanks to the work of Antonia and Emma, and others like them, that we have that precious window into our past. If you would like to help preserve our history and our wild places, why not join the Trust or make a donation? We are a charity and we could not do it without you. Until next time on Love Scotland, goodbye.

Love Scotland is brought to you by Think and Demus Productions on behalf of the National Trust for Scotland; presented by Jackie Bird.

For show notes and more information, go to nts.org.uk and don’t forget to like, subscribe, review and share.

Episode 4 – A beginner’s guide to Scotland’s early monarchs

So far this series we’ve looked at two of Scotland’s most famous monarchs: Robert the Bruce and Mary, Queen of Scots. Today, we step back further in time to meet the rulers whose names have become more forgotten to time.

Helping Jackie to acquaint herself with the earliest kings and queens of Scotland is Richard Oram, a professor of medieval and environmental history at Stirling University. Together, they piece together a picture of the most significant crown-wearers leading up to Robert the Bruce.

How did Scotland come to be ruled by a king in the first place? Who made the biggest mark on the kingdom? And just how accurate is Shakespeare’s take on early monarchs Macbeth and Duncan?

Find out more about the Trust’s castles and royal places.

Love Scotland podcast – Season 8 (10)
Love Scotland podcast – Season 8 (11)

Season 8 Episode 4

View transcript
Transcript

Five voices: male voiceover [MV]; Jackie Bird [JB]; Richard Oram [RO]; second male voiceover [MV2]; Steven Reid [SR]

[MV]
Love Scotland
, brought to you from the National Trust for Scotland; presented by Jackie Bird.

[JB]
Hello and welcome. The Stuart dynasty of kings and queens are the royal rock stars of Scottish history. Their lineage includes the multitude of Jameses and of course tragic Queen Mary. But with the exception perhaps of Robert the Bruce, the rulers who came before aren’t quite so familiar. It’s a complex and unfamiliar role call – King Lulach the Unfortunate anyone? So, as part of a mini-series featuring Scottish royals within this series of podcasts, we’re going to acquaint ourselves with some of the earliest crowned heads. And to help me through the ages, Love Scotland is joined once again by Professor of Medieval and Environmental History at Stirling University, Richard Oram. Hello, Richard.

[RO]
Hello there, Jackie.

[JB]
Now, there are 30-odd Scottish monarchs listed before we get to Robert the Bruce in the early 14th century. So, we’re not going to deal with them all, just the ones that you believe are of significance. What are your criteria?

[RO]
Basically, it’s the ones for whom we’ve got a good written record. The ones that you can look at their reigns and say something happened then that was transformative for Scotland and the monarchy more generally, but definitely something that transformed Scotland.

[JB]
It’s generally accepted that the first king was in the 9th century and that was Kenneth MacAlpin. Can you say a few words about him and perhaps more importantly about the origins of kingship?

[RO]
Ha ha! Right, a few words about Kenneth! He’s a hugely, hugely debated character, usually labelled first king of Scots, yet the more recent analysis of him emphasises the fact that he’s a Pict. Even somebody who’s been dead for well over a millennium is still able to cause historical debate. What we’ve got to bear in mind is that what we recognise as Scotland is something that really only starts to come into existence through the 12th and 13th centuries. Prior to that, Scotland was made up of a series of smaller kingdoms – fluctuating boundaries, no hard concrete edges like we tend to think about nowadays. These are dominated in Scotland by originally three kingdoms: the Kingdom of the Picts; the Kingdom of the Scots, which is based over in Argyll primarily; and the Kingdom of Strathclyde or Cumbria, which for want of a better term has been described to me as the Kingdom of the M74! It extends basically from the area around Dumbarton and Glasgow, all the way down the M74 line through Clydesdale, and finishes up actually becoming the Kingdom of the M6 all the way down to Penrith.

So, those are the big ones and gradually you get a merger taking place – a combination of military takeover but also inter-marriage cultural takeover. The Kingdom of the Scots and the Kingdom of the Picts merges into one, and that’s the one that we’ve started referring to as Alba, taking the Gaelic name. Kenneth, he gets this reputation as being the first of these kings of a unified Kingdom of Picts and Scots, and it is from him, from the descendants of his family, that the people that we recognise as the Kings of Scots in the 12th/13th century and onwards are descended.

[JB]
How were kings chosen then? Was it a direct form of primogenitor as we know it now?

[RO]
No, absolutely not. Primogenitor is something that only starts to come into Scotland in the 12th century; it’s only really becoming established generally throughout the British Isles actually in the 12th and 13th centuries. Prior to that, you were king-worthy. You were a member of a lineage who had had a royal member, somebody who’d actually been king prior to your time.

And you have three generations to reclaim that throne right. You have what’s called righdamhna. If you’re able to claim the throne and successfully take it, you’re king and you start the whole process over. Otherwise, you’re depending on what’s called tanistry, which is the designated senior male after the person who’s currently king – that could be your brother, could be an uncle; it could be a nephew, a cousin. It doesn’t have to be your son.

[JB]
That tells us a lot, the three-generation thing, as to why there was so much warring. If you looked back at your lineage three generations, I’ll have a go.

[RO]
Yes, because if you don’t, you lose that king-worthiness and you just become another nobleman. If you’re lucky, if the person who’s sitting on the throne doesn’t decide you’re a threat so I need to eliminate you – and that happened of course with monotonous regularity.

[JB]
And back then were women allowed a go at all?

[RO]
Women were a last resort and certainly not in the earlier period. They could transmit the royal right but you didn’t have Queens Regnant as we would understand them. That really causes a lot of problems because there’s the big question: who does the Queen Regnant marry? And that could lead to the transfer of the royal right out of the controlling line.

[JB]
Absolutely. So, as I understand Richard, Scotland didn’t have particularly detailed records on its earliest monarchs. You’ve chosen to start with Malcolm III. Let’s get the chronology right here. That’s a couple of hundred years after Kenneth MacAlpin, which takes us to 1058. But before we do that, of the 20 or so kings that we’ve leapfrogged, there are two famous names: Macbeth and Duncan. In a few words, how historically accurate is Shakespeare’s play?

[RO]
Ha ha! Well, apart from the names, there’s very little else in it that is historically accurate. What you’re looking at with Duncan is he’s actually a young man. He isn’t the white-haired nice old gent who just happens to have the misfortune to go for bed and breakfast at the Macbeths’ place. He’s a complete and utter – not to put too fine a point on it – numpty!

He succeeds his grandfather on the throne and he does the thing that all kings in the 11th century are expected to do: you start off your reign with a great raid. Go down into England, get plunder, show that you’ve got God on your side. God will smile on you, and you’re able to reward your followers. He goes down to England and it’s a fiasco – utterly, utterly crushed. He comes back to Scotland. He’s facing rivalry, as many of his predecessors have done, from the alternative line of the royal family up in the north, and this is Macbeth’s crew. He goes off up to Moray and, as far as we can tell, the one thing in Shakespeare is he doesn’t get killed up in Moray. He gets killed in Macbeth’s territory but it’s at a place called Pitgaveny, just outside Elgin.

Macbeth, you get this presentation of him as this sort of evil, tragic, antihero-type character. Macbeth has a long and successful reign: 17 years as king. He’s so secure on the throne, he’s even able to go on pilgrimage to Rome where he was well remembered. He distributed alms like seed corn to the poor, we were told in one of the Continental accounts.

[JB]
So what you’re basically saying is Shakespeare, like a lot of writers, didn’t let fact get in the way of the damn story.

[RO]
Absolutely not!

[JB]
Alright. Ok. Well, let’s move on to King Malcolm. How long was his reign?

[RO]
He lasted until November 1093.

[JB]
So, that’s about 35 years or so on the throne. Was that an unusually long reign back then?

[RO]
There had been one or two similar ones – Malcolm II before him had a 25-year reign; you’ve got a couple of long-lived ones. But they tend to be the ones who are so completely and utterly ruthless, and successful, that anybody who tried to challenge them just came to a very sticky end, rather rapidly.

[JB]
So we had Malcolm. Why was he particularly significant?

[RO]
Malcolm is particularly significant because in his reign we can start to see a whole series of steps being taken that begin to transform the future shape of Scotland. In his reign, you can begin to see the territory that we would now recognise as Scotland coming – not welded together yet firmly but coming together as a territory that is dominated by this person, the king of Scots. With his victory over Macbeth and Lulach, he’s able to push his territory up into the northern parts of mainland Scotland now. He’s taking over the Moray coastlands, stretching up through into Easter Ross – beyond that you’re into the territory of the Earl of Orkney, a very very powerful figure at that time.

But he’s also pushing down, consolidating his control over Lothian and over Cumbria. So, he’s doing that in territorial terms and he’s doing it successfully. Military victories are things that give the kudos that a king of that time needed. He’s also very successful in that he produces a multitude of sons by two marriages. And it’s the second marriage that’s also the very significant one because that’s when he marries Margaret of Wessex, who becomes St Margaret.

The key thing about her is, through her bloodline, the kings of Scots inherit a claim to the English throne as the heirs of the Anglo-Saxon kings.

[JB]
Yeah, she was a Saxon princess.

[RO]
She’s a Saxon princess. Her younger brother is the Anglo-Saxon heir to the throne who was dispossessed by William the Conqueror, but you’ve still got this marriage. And through that marriage you start to get the spread into Scotland of English and Continental culture, and with that you get the modernisation of the Church that’s taking place. Scotland is now buying into the same process of Church reform that was happening all across Europe at that time. Benedictine monks are introduced but you also start to see the development of what we would recognise as a medieval court – a royal court in English and Continental style. You start to get records being kept or written records contemporary to their time. It’s a great step forward. We can begin to put flesh onto the bare bones.

[JB]
I can feel your excitement! After Malcolm, the throne passes briefly to his brother and then to two of his sons. But it’s not until we get to another son, Alexander, that things start to get interesting again. Tell me about him.

[RO]
Alexander, 1107, comes to the throne, and he’s the one where we can actually really start to say we can see things happening. We can see a line of development, a close relationship with the English crown. He marries an illegitimate daughter of King Henry I of England and he starts to introduce things that we would traditionally call Norman. He fights in Norman style; he’s a knight on horseback. He’s introducing new orders of monks and canons – Augustinians are the ones that he brings in. He starts potentially founding new towns. So, you’re getting an early kickstart to the things that we would really see happening in the reign of his successor, his younger brother David.

[JB]
At that stage, Scotland was still pretty disparate. There weren’t industries to speak of. We didn’t have the towns; we didn’t have the burghs – that was to come later. But he did, as you suggest, play a big part in reorganising the Church, and the influence of the Church back then cannot be overstated.

[RO]
Absolutely not. I think it’s one of the biggest mistakes you can make maybe from our modern, very secular perspective. It’s difficult to actually understand the centrality of the Church to every aspect of daily life but also to every aspect of the political life of the kingdom. The Church is looking for one big thing and that is basically the protection and support of the king. In return, they give the person who sits on the throne the seal of approval: this is God’s chosen. Your kings of Scots aren’t anointed yet, so it’s not God’s anointed, but it is your ruling Deo rectore, with God’s right.

So, you’ve got God on your side. They’re also the educated class. They’re the ones who are writing the records, the ones that distinguish between the rightful kings of Scots and the unrightful kings of Scots. If you don’t have the Church on your side, you could end up failing … and failing quite spectacularly.

[JB]
Alright, so we’re forming some sort of civic society. Alexander I, 1107–1124; followed by David I. Now, I feel it in my water, we’re going to spend some time talking about David; I wonder why … oh, you’ve written a book about it!

[RO]
Without question, I’m biased, but David is possibly the most significant person to occupy the Scottish throne in the medieval period.

[JB]
You say this is the man who never expected to be king but ended up being one of our greatest rulers. Why?

[RO]
David was just the right man in the … Well, he wasn’t in the right place. He was actually probably in Normandy when his brother died, but he’s the right man at the right time. He’s of the right age. He’s a mature adult. He’s got a proven military track record.

[JB]
He was brought up a knight, full military training in a cosmopolitan area.

[RO]
And even better, he’s the brother-in-law of the King of England, and the King of England at that time Henry I was one of the most powerful men in all of Europe. If Henry decided that he wanted his brother-in-law to be King of Scots, his brother-in-law became King of Scots.

[JB]
So, he’s got some handy in-laws. What does he actually do?

[RO]
[Chuckles] How long do we have?

[JB]
I have to put a clock on you! Give us a couple of minutes. Extol the virtues of your man!

[RO]
Ok. David’s usually presented as this person who carries out what’s called the Davidian Revolution, and the view on him can ebb and flow. When I was a kid at school a long, long time ago, David – we got told – single-handedly created Scotland as we would now recognise it. He founded all the burghs. He introduced all the monasteries. He starts international trade. He brings in a coinage. He’s the first person to codify law for the whole of the kingdom. He extends Scottish territory. He eliminates his rivals. At one stage, he actually controls most of the northern part of England, as far south as Preston. So, a major expansion of Scottish royal power takes place underneath David’s controlling aegis. He’s really a key figure in the development of Scotland.

Now, obviously all of this he doesn’t do personally, and the big thing that he does do is he starts a process of introducing a lot of his friends that he’s made at the English court, and they’re bringing know-how. Traditionally, we used to think of them getting huge lumps of land all over the place. That happens late in his reign. These are the people who are with them around his court. They provide his administration; they’re the record keepers. They are the people who go out and act as his justices in the localities. So, he’s got a really good crew that he can rely on.

[JB]
Before we go to the break, one question about the land that he ruled. If I’m working on my farm, would I have known who the king was? Would I have cared?

[RO]
There’s a relatively good chance that you would have, depending on where you were, I think is the way to answer that. Because the kings of Scots had to travel. That’s how you got known – you travelled around. You were able to demonstrate that you were the king. You would go to visit the great nobles all round your kingdom. And this is why I was saying the king of Scots tended to spend a lot of time north of the Forth. You’ve got to travel, and that becomes even greater under David because his kingdom is getting bigger. He’s got to spread more and more, and of course if you’ve got the Church on your side, they’re also constantly telling people about who the king is.

[JB]
Well, let’s take a break at this high watermark of King David. But when we return, we’ll include a king described by Richard Oram, my guest today, as one of the most ruthlessly efficient kings ever. Back in a moment.

[MV2]
Impressive. For a moment, I thought she was talking about me. I meant Falkland Palace, she said with a smile. Of course she did. The art, the architecture, Scotland’s history can really turn your head. So, we signed up to take care of it. Keep it looking dapper.

[MV]
Since 1931 the National Trust for Scotland, a charity supported by you, has been looking after Scotland’s treasured places so we can all share in them. Support us at nts.org.uk

[JB]
Welcome back to Love Scotland. Professor Richard Oram, we’ve dealt with David, a king of great impact. But he has died during our break and so has his heir. We’ve reached 1153 and Malcom IV now. He’s pretty unremarkable except that he loses territory to England, and that takes us to William the Lion, 1165. You describe his reign as transformative.

[RO]
He starts his reign very very much as one of these angry young men in a great hurry. But he’s in a great hurry to recover the lost heritage in the north of England, and this really really mars his relationship with Henry II of England. Henry is meant to be so incensed by even the very mention of William’s name at times that he rips the cover off his bed, throws off his rich outer clothing and down on the floor, rolling around stuffing the straw out of the mattress into his mouth. And his fury at somebody actually having spoken favourably about William. So, he’s got this reputation of somebody who’s managed to alienate the king of England.

And to make things worse, when Henry II faces a rebellion by his sons, William sides with the sons. He manages spectacularly to get himself captured at Alnwick and is carted off to Normandy. Tied onto the back of his horse, carted off to Normandy and he is made to buy his freedom by basically putting Scotland in hock to the English king. He has to swear to become Henry’s man, put Scotland as an under kingdom, if you like, to the King of England. All the Scots have got to swear to that. He has to surrender four of his key castles initially that will be garrisoned, and gradually that will be lightened. Two of them are given back as marriage gifts because Henry also chooses who William will marry.

[JB]
So, what happened under William was absolutely seismic because that became, Richard, the basis of English claims over Scotland and therefore the various wars of independence that followed.

[RO]
Yes, in a lot of ways. Scottish kings had in the past recognised the superiority of the King of England. The kings of England were the most powerful kings within the British Isles. But this is different because this is recorded; this is down in treaty terms. It’s entered into English chronicles so it’s not going to be forgotten about. It’s a matter of record that the kings of Scots had submitted to the King of England and not just for Lothian. That bit of the kingdom is often described as part of the kingdom of England, which is in the kingdom of Scots, so it’s a clear, absolutely unquestionable legal surrender as well.

[JB]
But, every cloud has a silver lining. Because he was restrained, he looked inward. He looked at his own country and then he started, ‘Ok. I can do some things here.’

[RO]
Absolutely, and I think it’s the thing that is the silver lining with William. Yes, he still hankers after his English territories. It’s going to continue to hang over the family for another generation. But he has to begin to look at the consolidation of royal power. He has to look at the challenges because one of the things by being so humiliated, this takes the lid off challenges to his position. That forces him to deal with threats within his own kingdom. He’s extending royal control into areas where he’s able, so the far north and the far south-west – two areas that he’s going to tighten Scottish royal control over. But he also, right through the remaining part of his reign, he’s the one who really takes hold of the law code for Scotland and really starts this process of codification, setting the basis of the laws that we would regard as the foundation of Scots law.

[JB]
He was on the throne for about – I’m trying to do the maths here – 49 years. Is that correct?

[RO]
1165 to 1214. So yes, he’s one of the longest reigned Scottish kings.

[JB]
And a bad start, but let’s just say he managed to pull it back somewhat. He was followed by the bad egg. Let’s talk about Alexander II, the one that you described as ruthlessly efficient – back that up!

[RO]
My second most favourite Scottish king! He’s often forgotten about because he’s sandwiched between the reign of William, which is seen as being in some ways both catastrophic but also then an apogee of power. And then Alexander III, the one that everybody knows about – the supposed king of the golden age and all the rest of it. Alexander II is actually the one who creates Scotland geographically, effectively as we would understand it today. He’s the one who gains control over the whole of the mainland. He becomes the unquestioned ruler of that territory. And he was on the brink of taking control of the Hebrides. He’d started a campaign in the summer of 1249 when he died, actually just and no more in the Hebrides, on Kerrera Island in Oban Bay. He’s taken that great leap forward. He’s the one who settles the long dispute with England and gets a very, very good deal out of it.

[JB]
So far Richard, everything you’re telling me about this ruthless King Alexander II doesn’t seem too bad.

[RO]
But that’s the point. He is ruthless. And what he does is he eliminates every single person who stands in his way, every single challenger. You do not stand up to Alexander II; you usually end up without your head, possibly without your feet and various other parts of your anatomy. He progressively eliminates every rival to his position as king. And this will lead him ultimately to exterminate the last member of the big challenging family, who is … We don’t even know her name. She’s just an infant daughter of the race of McWilliam. And to demonstrate that he is ruthless, to the degree of it doesn’t matter if it’s a child, male or female, she has her brain smashed out against the market cross shaft in Forfar. And that is the end of all challenge to the ruling house.

[JB]
Oh dear, oh dear. Alright. Well, let’s put Alexander II to bed. We are fast running out of time, Richard. The wonderful Alexander III we’re going to have to race through. He basks in stability, I suppose?

[RO]
Basically, it’s one of those cases of all the hard work has been done by the people before him. We can’t take away from the fact that Alexander III does appear to be a good king. He’s a just ruler. You get the development of, if you like, a political life within the kingdom. It starts off poorly because he inherits the throne as a wee boy; he’s only 8 or 9 and it’s going to be a long time before he’s able to exercise rule personally. But when he does gain adulthood and become king, there is just unity – I think is the best way to describe it. Alexander II had removed the challenges to him. When you go on to look at Robert Bruce, you’ll no doubt come across the references to the community of the realm. This is the political community – Church and state – revolving around the king, and Alexander III is able to keep a balance over them.

He’s also presiding over a time of maximum economic benefit. This is in the middle of a period where the Scottish economy has been growing hugely. Scotland is actually relatively rich at this time; a great amount of silver is flowing around. And so, Alexander has that great reputation and, even better, towards the end of his reign, he’s got two sons to potentially succeed him. So there’s no problem ahead there, is there?

[JB]
It seems not but, as they both die, we are heading for problems that next in line is the daughter of their sister Margaret. Now, she’d been married off to Norway. She is named queen in 1286, but she dies en route to Scotland, leaving a full-blown constitutional crisis.

[RO]
A massive constitutional crisis. The royal family had narrowed down and narrowed down and narrowed down as, if you like, the successes of people like David and certainly William and Alexander II in removing the challengers, came back to bite them. Because you’ve removed a whole load of the obvious lines of the family, and instead you’ve got the emergence of 13 (ultimately) individuals who all say ‘We’re the rightful kings of Scots’.

[JB]
The elites don’t know who to choose and they call upon perhaps, in retrospect, the worst man to help them make a decision – someone that they regard as a friend: Edward I of England.

[RO]
This idea that Edward thrust himself into the void really needs to be challenged. The Scots were the instruments of their own ultimate near downfall with this one. But, he is not somebody to miss an opportunity and basically what he does is he says that he wants to have the homage of the King of Scots. They say, you’re here to decide who that person is. We need you to act as the ultimate arbiter. And he then says well, right, ok, I’ll take the homage of all of you and from amongst them we’ll get the king of Scots. But the critical thing is we’re usually given this picture of Edward sitting as sole judge; there’s actually the appointment of a court of auditors – 104 were appointed by primarily the two chief claimants: John Balliol and the future King of Scots Robert Bruce’s grandfather, Robert Bruce, Lord of Annandale. They are the ones who hear the claim, this thing called the ‘great cause of Scotland’. They hear it and they present their findings to Edward, and it’s Edward who looks at the evidence. He judges that John Balliol is the rightful king and, of course, he’s already taken the homage and fealty of John. So, he then says ‘right, you have to recognise me now as your overlord’.

[JB]
‘You’re in charge, but I’m the real boss.’ And the Bruce family are not best pleased … and that is another story, which we will deal with in this series of podcasts. Richard, thank you very much.

[RO]
Thank you.

[JB]
And that’s all from this edition of Love Scotland. I hope you’ve enjoyed our romp through some early Scottish royals with Professor Richard Oram, whose book David I: King of Scots is published by John Donald.

And if this period of history particularly interests you, look out for a couple of episodes dealing with the life and tumultuous times of Robert Bruce. And don’t forget the National Trust for Scotland looks after many places with a royal history, including Falkland Palace and Drum and Fyvie castles and the Bannockburn battle site. Just head to our website for all the details. And if you’d like to help us preserve these important places, we would be delighted if you would become a member of the Trust; we cannot do it without you. Thank you for listening. Until next time, goodbye.

And if Scottish kings are your thing, why not listen back to a podcast in Season 6 on the early years of James VI in Scotland with Professor Steven Reid.

[SR]
When his grandfather Matthew Stewart, the Earl of Lennox is assassinated, is killed just outside Stirling Castle, the body is brought in just as he’s dying for James to see, he’s not much older than 5 at this point. Seeing that must have been really quite shocking for him.

[MV]
Love Scotland is brought to you by Think and Demus Productions on behalf of the National Trust for Scotland. Presented by Jackie Bird.
For show notes and more information, go to nts.org.uk
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Season 8

Episode 3 – The afterlife of Mary, Queen of Scots

Arguably the most famous monarch in Scottish history, Mary, Queen of Scots remains a figure of global intrigue more than 400 years after her death. One question, then: why?

In a previous episode of Love Scotland (Season 4, Episode 4), Jackie explored the life and times of Mary. Today, she’s on a mission to find out why Mary’s story and legacy have been pored over in such detail for centuries.

Joining Jackie in the studio is Professor Steven Reid of the University of Glasgow, who is also the author of The Afterlife of Mary, Queen of Scots. Together, they unpick the posthumous interest in Mary, the many different perceptions of her legacy, and how Mary’s death has been used throughout history to further different groups’ objectives.

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Love Scotland podcast – Season 8 (12)
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Season 8 Episode 3

View transcript
Transcript

Five speakers: male voiceover [MV]; Jackie Bird [JB]; Steven Reid [SR]; second male voiceover [MV2]; Rosemary Goring [RG]

[MV]
Love Scotland, brought to you from the National Trust for Scotland; presented by Jackie Bird.

[JB]
Hello and welcome. There’s something about Mary. In 1587, the tumultuous life of Mary, Queen of Scots ended after three blows of the executioner’s axe. And yet, hundreds of years later, she remains a headliner in global historiography. Why?

We’ve discussed Mary’s life in Scotland in a previous podcast. The National Trust for Scotland looks after the magnificent Falkland Palace, which was described as Mary’s happy place – and boy did she need one.

Born in 1542, shipped off to France as a child, brought back from France as a teenager already a widow, she became a Catholic queen of a Protestant country. At this stage, through no fault of her own, she was a divisive figure, a hate figure for some. However, things didn’t improve after her disastrous marriage to Henry, Lord Darnley. She bore him a child, James, but she was later implicated in Darnley’s murder. Then another ill-conceived marriage with the brutish Earl of Bothwell, who was also implicated in Darnley’s demise. It’s easy to forget that Mary was only queen for 6 years before she was deposed, eventually held captive in England for 19 years, and then executed at the age of 44.

There’s no shortage of drama in that short life, but does that explain our enduring fascination with her? Well, that’s been the subject of a major study and now a book called The Afterlife of Mary, Queen of Scots. I’m happy to say I’m joined by the editor of that book, Professor Steven Reid, Head of History at the University of Glasgow, who’s back by popular demand after his earlier star turn on the early life of Mary’s son James. Welcome back, Steven.

[SR]
Hello Jackie, how are you doing? Nice to see you.

[JB]
I’m good, thank you. Now, this book is the result of something called the Mary Project. Can you talk us through that and its aims?

[SR]
Sure. Well, the project started in 2016 over a coffee with my friend Anne Dulau-Beveridge. Anne was interested in doing a small exhibition at the University of Glasgow. She’s one of the curators within the Hunterian, which is our museum and art gallery, and she had this painting – The Abdication of Mary, Queen of Scots by Gavin Hamilton. It’s from the late 18th century, and it’s the first what we call romantic painting of Mary. It’s the first that removes itself completely from any attempt to be truly historical and truly representative of historical fact, and it presents Mary in a romantic way.

And it got us thinking. What else do we have in the university collections that tells us about Mary’s afterlife and about the way that she’s been represented in objects and texts? We started a small project, initially in 2016 – just a couple of workshops with some academics at the university and with some colleagues. And we found that the university had an incredible world-leading collection of Marian items, particularly coins from her own lifetime, but also engravings, prints and text.

Then from there, we started to see themes and ideas around Mary’s afterlife and saw that there were definite patterns about the way she was remembered down the centuries and the different ways that her story was told. We thought, well, why don’t we expand this out and see where else we could look? And so, between 2019 and 2021, we received funding from the Royal Society of Edinburgh to extend our search into archives and heritage collections across Scotland, and eventually into the Royal Collection Trust and into the British Library as well.

We asked curators and heritage professionals and academics to come together to look through the lists of items that we found in each collection, to tell us what they were about. From there, we put together this map of over 2,000 objects relating to Mary. You could actually quadruple that if you included all the printed texts about her as well.

But we focused very much on the physical heritage of Mary – the objects, the images, the paintings. The project itself, and the book that we finally completed, also looks at film and music as well. Looking at her in these non-traditional ways, trying to get away from the textual afterlife largely.

[JB]
Let’s begin with a quote.
‘In the end is my beginning.’
Mary’s idea of a legacy, her own legacy – what does that tell us?

[SR]
‘In my end is my beginning’ is a motto that Mary used in her later life. She used it on her embroidery, and it reflects the fact that she was very self-aware in the closing decades of her life that the narrative that would be told about her was in many ways outwith her control. She felt that Elizabeth and the English government were trying to politically remove her.

I think that Mary herself felt that she was being put to death as a Catholic martyr. That was the image that she wanted to have as her posterity: that she was a rightful queen who had been deposed in 1567 by a group of nobles. She was a fit, physically well, mentally sound monarch who was absolutely sure of her rights as a sovereign queen. The story that she wanted to tell in her afterlife was that she had been unjustly treated and that she was dying in England at the hands of another queen as a Catholic, and that she was being effectively martyred.

And so, the images that she commissioned in her own lifetime, and even in her own letters towards the end of her life, you see her creating this idea of herself as a Catholic martyr – someone who’s been unjustly removed from power.

[JB]
Was it prescient of her to create her own legacy?

[SR]
I think so. I think to have the self-awareness to look ahead and think that my own political agency, if you like, has been taken away from me. She tries and tries again to come back to power, both through public negotiations with Elizabeth and with her son in her later life, but also through secret negotiations that include plots – and she’s constantly denied. I think in some ways she just had to look to her legacy and think, I’m not going to return to power; I have to try and secure an image of myself.

What’s been interesting about the project and what it’s uncovered in contemporary objects – objects very near to Mary – is that she had a far stronger hand in commissioning portraits of herself than we had previously realised. One of our contributors identifies a series of portraits in the 1570s that are very iconic of Mary, that we think Mary had a strong hand in. She was connected in terms of putting out her own letters and writings to her own information network, which portrays her in this way. And she’s aware in her own embroideries and her own physical objects that she thinks of herself as a martyr.

So, in part that created the beginning of a legend around her, and whether it was prescient or not is really difficult. The image of herself has endured; the idea of her as a Catholic martyr has endured through the ages as well.

[JB]
From your research, you stress that even early source material is completely partisan, no grey areas. People either loved or loathed her, or more specifically, what she stood for. How do you therefore negotiate such propaganda?

[SR]
I think that’s a really important point when we think about Mary. Everything that came from her later reign and everything that was used to justify her abdication in 1567, it was entirely partisan. You had the King’s party on one side who were putting forward the infant James VI as the figurehead king; and you had the Queen’s party on the other, who wanted to defend Mary and restore her to the throne.

The King’s party won the battle, the Marian Civil War, which lasted for six years, in large part because they were so good at using propaganda. George Buchanan was the leading Humanist who wrote much of the legend around Mary that portrays her in a hugely negative light. The King’s party were militarily weaker and had less geographic control of Scotland, but were able to create all this propaganda around Mary to portray her as an adulteress, as a murderess, someone who didn’t care for her son, didn’t have the nation’s best interests in heart – and were able to put out into the world.

As a result, even the sources from her own lifetime, most famously the casket letters, the ones that supposedly prove that she was romantically connected with Bothwell and was involved in the murder of Darnley – all these sources are questionable and put out there.

As we go through history, one of the themes that emerges is that you always get people on either side of those debates either defending Mary or harshly criticising her. They always retreat into these binary frames using the sources that exist. What’s been interesting is looking at how that story develops over the centuries between both those who would attack her and those who would defend her.

[JB]
You say, though, that there’s been a gender divide as well. Develop that for me.

[SR]
What’s been interesting, and one of the things that emerged out of the story of Mary over the centuries we looked at, is that it isn’t gender-neutral, in the sense that we find that women often want to identify with her or they can empathise with her. That ranges from poets up to salon readers and others who are interested in her. A range of writers who’ve written books about her, like Sophia Lee for example, who made a career out of writing books that included a three-part trilogy on Mary.

So, women on one hand can identify with her, but men tend to want to either condemn her or to really apologise and defend her, all the while taking away her agency, I think. It can become quite patriarchal. It can be quite heavily gendered. The most interesting example, I think, is Walter Scott, who actually had a carving of Mary’s death mask on his ceiling in Abbotsford … but also had what was believed to be a portrait of her severed head taken just after her death in his dining room at Abbotsford. So literally, in some sense, owning relics of Mary and owning parts of her identity, if you like.

[JB]
Gosh, it takes all sorts.

[SR]
It does!

[JB]
Was this gender divide truer of Mary than of other great historical figures?

[SR]
I guess with Mary, we haven’t really done this sort of searching in the way that we have for someone like Mary. But I think what’s interesting is that Mary generates a far stronger, personal …

[JB]
An emotional response?

[SR]
I would say absolutely there’s a far stronger emotional connection to Mary, an immediacy to her story that is far stronger than say someone like Robert the Bruce or William Wallace or any of the Stuart kings.

It’s notable that Mary’s son, although being the first king of the British Isles, of a united British Kingdom and all the achievements that he has in his life, is really bypassed in history because there is something about Mary … and as you said, her personal act of reign as a ruler in Scotland is only 6 years. But the amount of interest that that story has generated and the fact we keep coming back to it so much, there is something there. That was one of the questions at the heart of the project. Why is there this recurring interest in Mary, despite the fact that her contribution to the direction in the history of Scotland, in terms of shifting it or changing it, was very minimal.

[JB]
Something else I find particularly fascinating about your project was that the prevailing narrative of Mary changed over the centuries. In your introduction you say that this tells us about evolving attitudes towards gender, monarchy, power and religion in Scotland, and to Scotland’s own perception of its history. Before we look at that and how she’s been viewed down the centuries, presumably in the years immediately after her death she was still a pretty controversial political figure.

[SR]
That’s absolutely true. The most powerful instance is that all her personal relics, or at least as many as the English government could get their hands on, being burnt immediately, because they were worried about the potential popular response that could be got from her objects. Also, royal objects, particularly if they have royal blood on them, can have power.

The useful comparison is the execution of Charles I. Mary’s execution was carried out privately in a courtyard at Fotheringhay, and Charles’s was done in the open. As soon as he died, they immediately ran up with napkins to dab up his blood because this was royal blood that had power. How much more powerful would Mary’s be as a martyred queen? So, there’s that immediate security risk shows you just how worried they were about this.

And again, throughout that early period, Mary is still, in the half century or so after her death, a very live political problem for the Stuart monarchs to think about. How do they rehabilitate her, take her back into a narrative, when it’s Mary’s son who’s on the throne in England? There are very real political ramifications.

And also she herself being executed. What to do with the body? When it’s initially buried, it’s not looked after as well as it could be. James himself has to think, well, how do I recommission this and what do I do? He moves her body, obviously to Westminster, and gives it a proper burial and a proper tomb because he wants to reclaim her and make her the mother of the Stuart dynasty. A very live political figure there.

[JB]
So, the years move on, and that angry politicisation ebbs a bit. We come along to the Georgians, for example. How was she viewed then?

[SR]
The Georgians had an interesting relationship with Mary. The Georgians were quite emotional. They were quite effective in their response to tragedy, and they liked to show that they could be deeply emotionally affected by the things that they saw and stories that were tragic. Mary’s story, being tragic, was something that really resonated with them.

But they also saw Mary in the sense of being an idealised feminine figure. Many in the Georgian period would see her as a devoted wife, as someone who bore her hardship with grace and dignity. These kind of feminine qualities were very highly valued. You can see that coming through in, again in a very gendered way, associating these ideas of femininity with a queen who had been deposed and executed.

[JB]
The Georgians saw her sympathetically. Could that have been anything to do with the fact that that was post-Jacobite troubles and trying to calm the waters?

[SR]
Well, again, Mary herself, up to the end of the 17th century, is still very much associated with the Stuart monarchy. You saw through the 17th century that on one hand, the defenders of the Stuarts see Mary as someone who has been unjustly executed. But then on the side of the Republicans, this is another example of a Stuart tyrant, someone who’s really difficult.

By the time you get into the 18th century, Mary is briefly associated with the Jacobites. You get a number of portraits circulating among Jacobite supporters. What’s interesting there is that the effective sympathy comes through because the portraits change. We’ve got about 15 or so of these small head portraits of Mary in the 17th and 18th century. As Mary becomes more of a political enemy, the facial features harden; they become quite difficult. And then, as you get into the 18th century, they become more feminine and softer, picking up this idea of Mary as a feminine effective icon, an icon of sympathy. They change as well, and you begin to see that look, Mary’s face being reshaped to fit the aesthetic of the 18th century.

I suppose in some ways that culminates with The Abdication of Mary, the portrait that we have at the Hunterian by Gavin Hamilton, where the figure is deeply Georgian. The outfit is more like a dress that you’d find in the contemporary period. The picture itself is really influenced by Gavin Hamilton’s time in Rome as an artist. It’s all very neoclassical, but it looks nothing like the historical Mary. This transformation has happened because of the change in gender attitudes and the change in views of what it means to be a woman and what’s important in terms of the emotional value of Mary’s story.

[JB]
And then, by the time the Victorians come along, the view of her life and legacy changes again.

[SR]
Yes. We get a number of authors writing about Mary, and the view of her again becomes more powerful, I suppose. You see writers like the lesbian aunt/niece – let me see if I can get this right – the lesbian aunt/niece couple who are known compositely as Michael Field. They write a series of texts about Mary showing her as being quite sexually independent, as being powerful in her own female agency. And so, you see this harder edge coming into Mary’s story.

But at the same time, you also get a really curious development in the Victorian period of costumed balls and Mary – and Mary’s association with particularly the funds for raising the Waverley monument, and Princess Alexandra dressing as Mary. Mary’s costume and her iconography became all the rage. You could buy her costume, the patterns and the materials to make it in Debenhams. It was really a big part of that culture. People repeatedly dressing as Mary, so much so that it became a running joke.

You also found young Victorian ladies dressing as Mary for photo shoots. This is the early age of photography – the late 19th, early 20th century – and you find them at Highland retreats and in various other places, dressing as Mary and her four handmaids. So on one hand, in literature you’re finding a more sexually independent, progressive Mary beginning to emerge from the story, one who’s more in control of her own life and is more involved consciously in the murder of Darnley perhaps, and in the Darnley–Bothwell relationship. But you also have this very costumed, elaborate, more flowery version of Mary appearing in the costumes and the styling that goes with it.

[JB]
This moved on with bells on, I suppose, with the advent of moving pictures and the fact that she became a global media icon, especially in early films.

[SR]
Yeah, that was one of the most exciting finds, I think, of the project – the sheer range of black and white films. I think we found seven new black and white films relating to Mary that hadn’t been looked at previously – from the advent of the first Scottish historical film in 1895, which is a 19-second clip produced by a New York production company that stages Mary’s execution. It’s the first …

[JB]
I’ve had a look at it, and anyone listening can actually look at it on YouTube. It’s done very well.

[SR]
It is. You can see it on the NLS Moving Image archive and it’s an actor, Robert Thomae, dressed as Mary.But also, not only is it the first Scottish historical film, but it’s also the first to use a jump-cut special effect where the person moves forward and then the frame is paused and then they’re replaced with a mannequin with a detachable head, so it all comes together seamlessly.

Mary really tapped into that film market. Obviously the more famous ones that are known are Mary of Scotland with Katharine Hepburn, which she herself tried to use to relaunch her career in the 1930s. But there are lots of French and American and British attempts to create black and white films of Mary’s story, and that has continued right through the 20th century in TV series, in new films as well, and in lavish productions that we still see today.

[JB]
Wasn’t the Katharine Hepburn film – correct me if I’m wrong here – raised in Parliament because it was so historically inaccurate?

[SR]
That’s new; I didn’t know that actually! I hadn’t picked that one up, but it wouldn’t surprise me.

[JB]
Yes, I think I read that! Mel Gibson would never have been allowed to …

[SR]
What’s interesting is that there were a number of attempts in the early 20th century by the British film companies and by the British Film Board to create a British history on film as a form of cultural hegemony, as a way of putting British identity out there. But of course, one of the things that we find in the book is that it was the US film industry that really won that war and was able to seize hold of the cultural narrative and create a cultural dominance across the world using cinema.

You see that story being played out in the Mary films where the US interests are much stronger in the films. So again, you see how all these things connect together.

[JB]
Often the Mary films are a tale of two women rather than Mary as a queen. It’s always Mary and Elizabeth; Mary the martyr, Elizabeth the brutal; Mary the fluffy, Elizabeth the brave. The movies and the stage plays seem to major on the foibles of being feminine.

[SR]
I think that’s exactly right. And that is one of the strongest themes that’s emerged throughout is that binary presentation of Mary and Elizabeth across 4 and a half centuries, where Mary is portrayed usually as feminine and Elizabeth is portrayed as masculine. Mary is portrayed as emotional and regal, whereas Elizabeth is portrayed as logical and quite cold and calculating. You do get some manipulation in that, but broadly speaking that continues right into the modern day. You do see some plays in the 20th century like Robert Bolt’s Vivat! Vivat Regina!, where the two queens are portrayed on the stage throughout in parallel, on either side of the stage, and the whole thing is done as a dialogue.

You do see, in a recent staging of Mary, Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off, actresses flipping a coin to play Elizabeth one night and Mary the next. So, you do see some changing in that, but it is a strong dynamic that goes through – that Mary and Elizabeth are always portrayed in a binary.

[JB]
Is part of our fascination with her the fact that she was a woman? We can’t hide from that. And that in terms of a woman on the throne, she ‘had to marry’ – damned if she did, damned if she didn’t. Whereas – I’m answering my own question here – because that falls flat when you look at Elizabeth, who managed to plough her own furrow.

[SR]
It’s difficult because in the 16th century it’s such a patriarchal society, so the choices that you have are really difficult. Elizabeth is unique because she chooses not to marry, and she creates an identity around herself of being married to her country. That allows her the space to be a very effective queen, deeply successful. But she doesn’t fulfil what, by the standards of the 16th century, would be her prime aim – to perpetuate a strong and stable dynasty going forward.

Mary does achieve that, through her son and through her second marriage to Henry Stuart Darnley. But that marriage causes such political unrest that it removes her from power and destroys her own personal legacy. Although again, in 1603, her son claims the throne and was able to say that it was my mother who’s created this dynasty, to rehabilitate her. So, that’s part of it. The cards are stacked against Mary and although she rules in her own name for 6 years, it’s done in a culture where every decision is being heavily scrutinised. It’s a deeply male-controlled world and as soon as she has a male child, people are looking to remove her from power.

There’s that real difficulty, but there’s also the fact that her story is so inherently dramatic. It is frequently portrayed as a three-act play where you have the French child whose upbringing is at the court of Henry II, then a first marriage to Francis II – he dies young, very tragically. Then you’ve got the interlude in Scotland with the drama with Darnley and Bothwell and the murder of Rizzio. And then act three is the captivity in England, when she’s under the control of Elizabeth and her government.

The retelling of the story is that it’s so easily packageable. That was something we did find on the project, that it lends itself very well to drama and to TV and to opera, because it has that structure.

[JB]
But our story’s a two-part, so let’s take a break just there. Part of the Mary Project is to collate and assess the many physical objects relating to her life. And that came up with some fascinating and new perspectives. We’ve touched on them earlier. We’ll find out some more. We’ll be back in a moment.

[MV2]
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[MV]
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[JB]
Welcome back. Professor Steven Reid, let’s talk about this gathering of Mary memorabilia. What were you looking for?

[SR]
I think we weren’t looking for anything in particular. We were being very much led by what we would find in the archives and in the collection. We asked all the heritage experts and the curators that worked with us in the project to look into their own archives and into their own material stores, do a search for anything that they thought materialated to Mary. It could be prints, could be engravings, could be coins – and tell us what they found.

In the first stage of the project, they all came back with Word documents and Excel spreadsheets with big lists of material. And then they started to present on it, and we started to look through and think, gosh, what are these things? Some of them were very unusual. Some were standard, like you would think – prints and engravings. Others were odd physical objects that appeared – everything from garden ornaments to rubber ducks to pieces of clothing to locks of hair. They had a really wide range of objects. And the more time we spent on the project, the weirder and wackier some of these objects have become. That has really helped us reshape the narrative around Mary, particularly in the 21st century, because she’s also a commercial as well as a historiographical icon.

[JB]
And in bringing them together after 400-odd years, I understand that there were still discoveries to be made.

[SR]
Yes, I think that what we had found was that … I mean, a good example is again The Abdication of Gavin Hamilton, the painting that we put at the centrepiece of our exhibition, which was at Glasgow in early 2023. We had it cleaned and conserved and we found that the trademark cap that Mary has – whenever you think of an image of Mary – there was a much more prominent cap in that picture. And it showed us that Mary’s iconography through all these objects is something that’s very consistent.

If I ask your listeners to imagine Mary in their head, and indeed if you do this as well, you probably would think perhaps of someone in a black dress. You would think of someone with striking red hair. You would think of someone that’s quite tall, and you’d probably also think of maybe a white cap on her head, a crucifix and a rosary possibly, and maybe a ruff or some other religious items. Does that sound about right, Jackie?

[JB]
Yes, yes, you got it.

[SR]
That iconography was something that, when we put all these objects together, we could trace right through. It began in both the paintings that Mary herself was involved in commissioning in the 1570s and 80s. But one of the big findings that we had was that this image was disseminated widely across the globe, and particularly in Catholic Europe, in a series of cheap woodcuts of Mary.

Woodcuts are when you take a wood block and you engrave on it an image that you want, and you can put it through a printing press very quickly and create cheap reproductions. You can also do it in metal and intaglio. The good thing about that is that you can tweak it and make it different for different audiences. So, if you wanted to emphasise Mary’s royal lineage, for example, you could add a range of crowns in the corner showing her rights and titles to the realms of Britain and France and Ireland. If you want to emphasise her Catholic identity, you could add angels or you could add religious paraphernalia. You could add little poems and texts about her life, and you could change the material depending on the audience.

But what we found in those engravings was that the image that we have of Mary in our mind – with the cap, with the ruff, with the religious iconography – became really fixed in these images. It became recycled and reused throughout all the later images and paintings and popular icons that we still see of Mary today. That chain became very quickly established as a result of her being seen as a Catholic martyr. That was one thing we found.

We also found with the objects that people had a very strong physical, emotional, affective response to, like the Georgians did. It’s one that defies reason, for want of a better phrase. People often say these objects are attributed to Mary, Queen of Scots, or believed to belong to Mary, Queen of Scots. And in many cases, when we looked at the objects, we found the provenance didn’t hold water. There are so many crucifixes around different collections that supposedly belonged to Mary or were used at the end of her life; they can’t be real. In many cases we’ve proven now that wasn’t the case.

But what’s interesting is not the fact that this isn’t a real crucifix of Mary’s, but the fact that people have invested this power in it and said, ‘this is connected to Mary’. And then the stories they have later told about them as well.

[JB]
It’s like Mary, Queen of Scots slept here. She would never have slept in her own bed, ever, if half of those assertions were true!

[SR]
The best example of that is the red bed at Holyrood. Holyrood was again one of the chapters in the book that we focus on. Deborah Clarke, the former curator at Holyrood, wrote a brilliant story about this for us, showing that in the late 18th and early 19th century, Holyrood began to open to the public and tours started. They were led by the housekeeper, and the housekeeper embellished this story around a bed that had belonged to the duch*ess of Hamilton, saying that this was Mary’s bed.

Over time, the providence of the bed became lost so that it became Queen Mary’s red bed. This was discovered again in the 20th century. Actually, this isn’t Mary’s bed; it’s the duch*ess of Hamilton’s bed. But the story still sticks, and it took a long time for them to divest from that narrative because the power associated with the bed is very real.

The other example, of course, are death masks. There are a number of death masks of Mary, some in wax; some in plaster; some in wood. And when we laid them all down side by side, there’s three or four different facial patterns, all completely different. But they all claim to be Mary’s. Again, one of those is the one that’s in Walter Scott’s library. There’s the face that’s used on the tomb at Westminster. But again, people believe they’re Mary and want to believe that they’re Mary. They want that connection even when it’s not quite real.

[JB]
I can really see the power of the collection now, because another aspect of it was the fact that you managed to bring together a lot of her embroideries whenever she was in captivity – and didn’t you manage to form a pattern of a protest, her own protest?

[SR]
So this is something that’s not been formed specifically by the project, but it’s certainly well known in the collections of her embroideries that are partly owned by the Royal Collection but are largely part of the V&A. When you look at these embroideries, and this has been established by Michael Bath and Clare Hunter and other scholars, that these were a conscious form of Mary’s protest, that the embroideries themselves are fitted with motifs and ideas.

The most famous one, I suppose, or the cheekiest one, would be a cat, which is a red-haired cat holding a brown mouse … and you can guess who it’s meant to be. It’s Elizabeth. You can see as well in some of the other symbols that they’re all about suffering and endurance through pain, and thinking about looking ahead to a better time.

Similarly, in a lot of the paintings of Mary you get coded biblical motifs. One of the ones that Mary uses quite a lot is Susanna and the elders, where Susanna is wrongfully accused of adultery by a range of elders in her village and then eventually they are condemned and put to death for the wrongful accusation against her. That story had very real parallels for Mary, and you see it being worked into often very small details into the paintings of Mary that still exist. So, that power is there within that iconography too.

[JB]
And no shortage of hagiography from Burns, and indeed from Sir Walter Scott when he wasn’t gazing on a death mask.

[SR]
Yes. So again, poets particularly frequently engaged with Mary. Again, Burns created this image of Mary, a very Georgian effective Mary, one who is maternal. And again, in Burns’s example, there’s a contrast between the un-maternal, unfeeling Elizabeth, who is cold like steel and is hard willed; and Mary herself, who’s deeply concerned for her son and is interested in the spring around her and knowing that she won’t see another one. So again, creating this quite bucolic image of Mary, I suppose.

[JB]
I had a chat with one of the National Trust for Scotland curators before you came along, Steven, and I asked that – apart from the places that she visited that I mentioned in my introduction – did we have anything in the various collections linked to Mary? I was expecting a couple of things. We have … so many! There is the poem about Mary, Robert Burns’s own hand in his birthplace museum. Drum Castle has a medal struck to mark her execution. There’s a 19th-century wooden pipe with her face carved upon it in Weaver’s Cottage. It’s through all the classes; it’s not just the landed gentry. There are various 20th-century items of crockery depicting her. There’s an endless list, which consolidates the fact that her story has long been part of Scottish culture.

[SR]
I think that’s right, and the pipe and the medal are both good examples, as is the crockery. You find that there were a whole range of Victorian medals struck, and indeed rings based on rings that Mary and Darnley would have worn as well; commemorative rings being produced in that way. You find that there are physical objects scattered throughout many Scottish collections: again shoes, locks of hair, other physical objects that are reputed to be Mary’s but perhaps are not … and again, people invest this power in them.

But from the 19th century on, that commercial aspect has really begun to emerge around Mary – people buying objects that commemorate Mary and are associated with her, and it proliferates into tea towels, into bookmarks. You have a range of Etsy stores, for example, devoted to Mary, Queen of Scots now. That commercial element and the tourism heritage element of Mary has really developed over the past two centuries, and again it’s another strand of why she’s so popular. But would there be such a burgeoning commercial interest if there wasn’t that story that’s so compelling?

There’s definitely something there that it builds on. You don’t get that level of object fascination with other monarchs or other figures in Scottish history, I don’t think.

[JB]
But one of the contributors in the book argues that, and I quote: ‘Mary’s place in the communal memory of Scotland is shaped by emotion and supposition rather than the critical evaluation of the queen’s life and reign.’ Has our fascination with Mary the woman diminished her historical legacy?

[SR]
I think her historical legacy has been gone over and gone over and gone over with biographies. There was a very exciting discovery last year where a series of letters were found in a Paris archive by a group of cryptological code-breakers. They found about 50 letters that told us about Mary’s captivity, letters she’d sent in cipher between 1570 and 1585. That’s rare. We don’t normally get new discoveries like that around Mary. Over the past century, there’s been very little in the way of new material discovery that’s come out. But I think with this project, what we were trying to do is get away from that and find a brand new way of looking at Mary.

I think it has shown a way that she’s perhaps more powerful and more enduring. Her life was very difficult and, as a queen, the odds were always stacked against her. But as a queen, even allowing for that, she didn’t have a brilliant reign. I think when you look at the legacy she’s had, it’s far more interesting because it does get us to reflect on what are our attitudes to women in the 17th, 18th, 19th century. How do we engage with the story of a woman who’s experienced violence in her life in such a difficult and horrible way? What does that say about us and our values today? So, in that sense, the legacy story I find far more interesting because it resonates so much today.

[JB]
We’ve learned about Mary’s story down the years, Steven, and how she’s been repurposed to reflect the society telling it. What do we think of her now, and what does it tell us about our society?

[SR]
I think what’s been most exciting to see in contemporary portrayals of Mary has been that they’re far more inclusive now, and they’re being used to reclaim a range of different narratives. One of the most interesting things that we posed within the project were recent drag portrayals of Mary, most famously in RuPaul’s Drag Race, both by Rosé, who portrayed Mary, Queen of Scots in a series of comedic sketches, but also by Cheddar Gorgeous, who portrayed Elizabeth I. There was a kind of meta dialogue going on between them, between the various Drag Race shows, and that was really fascinating to see. Also, there’s some fantastic pictures of RuPaul dressed as Elizabeth – again, people claiming Mary’s narrative for their own in a range of different settings to the ones that she maybe would be completely unfamiliar with, which has been really exciting to see.

Mary is definitely a brand now, I think, and is a real draw for heritage organisations and has a real commercial power, which we haven’t ever quantified – I would be very interested to do that. That kind of work has been done with Robert Burns. Mary is used in a range of tours. The strangest one I think we found was a series of medals for a virtual marathon series by London Secret Runs, where for every marathon you do, you can claim a new medal showing an episode from Mary and Elizabeth’s lives and they go on to a huge metal disc that you can put up on your wall.

You get everything from playing cards to my personal favourite, the mascot of the project, which was a rubber duck that features Mary. You know it’s Mary because of the cap and the ruff that’s on the duck itself. So, she’s very much a commercial presence. She’s very much a part of popular history, particularly children’s history. My son particularly likes the Horrible History’s versions of Mary that you get. And again, that in itself is interesting too.

She’s also been of direct relevance and importance to contemporary debates about gender equality, about power, particularly in Hollywood. We saw that when the 2018 film came out, and it came out just at the time that the Me Too movement was really beginning to explode. The story itself, which features two women caught in a patriarchal society making difficult choices, really spoke to that debate. Indeed, it was a very powerful part of our early project as well.

One of the things that’s come out in both the project workshops and in all the online teaching that we do around the project – and indeed in my classes on Mary – is how her story reflects the difficult choices that women often have to make when placed in positions of power, and again when confronted with a patriarchal society. So that in itself has been a really interesting thing to see. And it shows again just how relevant Mary’s story is, even though it’s 4 and a half centuries in the past.

[JB]
That’s our own societal zeitgeist, stamped firmly on Mary’s memory.

[SR]
I think so. And it’s absolutely still evolving.

[JB]
So at the end of the day, on this voyage of discovery, did you answer the question, why is her story so enduring?

[SR]
I think we’ve got a sense of the ways that it’s endured, but you mentioned the quote earlier on from one of our contributors and how there is a non-rational response to these objects and to Mary’s story. And that’s exactly it. I still don’t feel we fully know why. We’ve quantified just how popular she is and just how global she is, but there is an element, a non-rational response, whether it’s to real objects or to real places. I’ve heard some people on our course describe their time in Edinburgh, for example, as having trod in the place where Mary’s footsteps were. This idea that it’s an irrational, emotional response that goes beyond explanation. At the moment, that’s enough for me, I think, just to think, ‘yep, we’ll never fully explain it’. It goes into emotion and something deeply held by people, and that’s a mystery we’ll probably never solve, to be honest.

[JB]
Well, she was human. And so are we. Professor Steven Reid, thank you so much for joining us.

[SR]
Thank you, Jackie.

[JB]
We’ve just filled a podcast about her and we have barely scraped the surface – proof that Mary’s afterlife is still thriving. The book, The Afterlife of Mary, Queen of Scots, edited by Steven, is published in April 2024 by Edinburgh University Press.

Falkland Palace, Mary’s happy place, is cared for by the National Trust for Scotland, as well as other locations we’ve mentioned with links to Mary, including Alloa Tower and Kellie Castle. Check our website for opening times. Thank you for listening to Love Scotland. Until next time, goodbye.

And you can listen back to another podcast on Mary. In season 4, I learnt about the queen’s time in Scotland with author Rosemary Goring.

[RG]
I think she was very much a fish out of water by the time she arrived in Scotland. I think she was always made to feel that her position was extremely precarious.

[MV]
Love Scotland is brought to you by Think and Demus Productions on behalf of the National Trust for Scotland; presented by Jackie Bird.

For show notes and more information, go to nts.org.uk and don’t forget to like, subscribe, review and share.

Episode 2 – Robert the Bruce: battles of a King

In the second part of a two-episode biography of Robert the Bruce’s life, Jackie returns to the studio with Professor Dauvit Broun of the University of Glasgow.

Last week, we looked at the early life of Robert and how his canny abilities, not to mention his tendency to switch allegiance at opportune moments, helped him to secure power. But what came next?

Picking up their conversation in 1306, when Scotland has been conquered by Edward I of England and Robert faces a jostle for power with the most powerful family in Scotland, Jackie and Dauvit will look at all that happened in Robert’s reign.

Find out more about Bannockburn

Love Scotland podcast – Season 8 (14)
Love Scotland podcast – Season 8 (15)

Season 8 Episode 2

View transcript
Transcript

Four voices: male voiceover [MV]; Jackie Bird [JB]; Dauvit Broun [DB]; Callum Watson [CW]

[MV]
Love Scotland
, brought to you from the National Trust for Scotland; presented by Jackie Bird.

[JB]
Hello and welcome to the second part of our deep dive into the life and kingship of Robert the Bruce in this, the 750th year of his birth. In part one we looked at the privileged early life of the young nobleman Bruce and how a mixture of determination and opportunism saw him position himself as one of the front runners for the Scottish throne. However, by 1306, when Robert was around 32, Scotland had been conquered by Edward I of England.

At home, Robert found himself jostling for position with a young member of the most powerful family in Scotland, John Comyn. As we take up the story, my guide again through these medieval manoeuvres is Professor Dauvit Broun, Chair of Scottish History at the University of Glasgow. So, Dauvit, what happens next?

[DB]
Edward I, he’s well beyond the age when kings are normally meant to be alive. He’s in his late 60s, clearly the old man. And therefore, you can just see these young things, John Comyn and Robert Bruce, looking for them to be … you know, they say ‘we should be kings of Scots’ – just trying to time it so that they can get there just when Edward I is in his last years, hopefully going to die soon.

[JB]
So, the two arranged to meet. What happened?

[DB]
They meet, and indeed meet in Greyfriars Kirk in Dumfries, and they’re actually standing in the altar. That’s the most sacred space of a church. And whatever they were talking about, Bruce got very agitated and knifed John Comyn. Whether that was a mortal blow or not was a bit academic because Bruce’s party made sure that it became mortal. Now we can just set aside, I think, whether this was deliberate or not, it’s very difficult to be sure – the outcome is clear. Bruce has committed not just a sensational act of political violence by killing John Comyn, given John Comyn’s very high profile, but he;s done it in the most sacred space, which is the way people saw things at the time – an absolute abomination. So, he couldn’t have done this in a more outrageous way.

[JB]
But then he goes and gets himself crowned king.

[DB]
Exactly. This is why people think the whole thing might be pre-planned, because he wastes no time in raising his forces, gets hold of a great supporter of his – Robert Wishart, Bishop of Glasgow, who has kept the Scottish regalia for the royal banner. He dusts them down, gives them to Robert Bruce. A few weeks later he’s in Scone and being inaugurated as king.

There isn’t a great turn out from the Earls, most of whom are still in Edward I’s allegiance, but he manages to persuade the Macduff family, who are the people who are meant to put the king on the Stone of Scone. Of course, the Stone of Scone isn’t there anymore, so that’s a bit of a problem. He manages to get Isabel, Countess of Buchan, who’s a member of the Macduff family to perform that role. The Bishop of St Andrews – and this is what makes you think it’s all a little bit pre-planned – manages to slip his guards in Berwick and he gets to Scone, but two days late, so they repeat part of the ceremony just to make sure.

[JB]
So he’s crowned king, but he’s also excommunicated by the Pope. What’s the significance of that?

[DB]
Excommunication means that you’re severed from, to use the technical language of the time, the body of Christ, the Church. And what’s meant to happen then is that you’re just sent to Coventry. You’re no longer regarded as part of society. It was, however, a weapon that had been used many, many times as part of politics. So of course, if you were on the side of the excommunicated, you were unlikely to just accept the verdict. The fact that he had the backing of the two senior bishops in Scotland – the Bishop of St Andrews and the Bishop of Glasgow – shows that although had Bruce travelled abroad he might have had trouble being accepted; within Scotland, he was not shunned as he should have been.

[JB]
He wasn’t a popular man at that point. The Comyn family were after him, as were the English. Is this when he goes on the run?

[DB]
Yes, so he has a go almost as soon as he’s crowned. Of course, he’s gathering an army together. Edward I raises a force, doesn’t lead it himself, but it goes north and they have a battle in Methven, just north of Perth, and that goes dreadfully for Bruce. And that’s when he goes on the run. June 1306 … he’s crowned in, well inaugurated 25 and 27 March 1306. Then you’ve got the Battle of Methven in June and that’s when he’s on the run.

[JB]
And two of his four brothers were caught by the English, and they were hung, drawn, quartered.

[DB]
Yes, it’s a desperate, desperate business for his family.

[JB]
What happens to his wife and his daughter?

[DB]
They eventually are captured and they are kept in a strange form of captivity, which is to be put in a cage in a tower so that they can be, you know, exhibited to passers-by. Nobody Scottish was meant to communicate with them, ever at all. There’s just an old lady that looks after them and that’s how it is for a few years for them, which is pretty dreadful.

[JB]
So, Robert Bruce is on the run, and now we have the folklore. Now we have the spider. Tell us about the emergence of this story.

[DB]
I wish I knew. I should be able to tell you when do people first refer to the spider? But whenever it was, it does capture the absolute desperation of his position.

[JB]
We should probably point out, for those who haven’t heard of it?

[DB]
Oh, yes.

[JB]
He’s supposed to be in a cave hiding, and he sees a spider making a web … and it tries and tries and tries again. So, it’s a story of resilience.

[DB]
Exactly. Exactly. And it’s a wonderful story. If only it were true. Well, it probably is. Heaven knows. How do we know? But, like all good stories, it captures a truth, which is that Bruce was as out of things as you could possibly be. You couldn’t go further down. And just to set the scene a little bit, this isn’t just about running away from Edward II as we’re about to deal with the English. It is also about running away from the most powerful families in the country, most of whom think he is beyond any possibility of being brought back into normal society, never mind being king, because of what he’s done.

What is really ironic is, of course, that these families, the Comyns and their allies who are stretched across the country, are the people who are the backbone of the struggle for independence before. But it is just impossible for them to accept the idea of Bruce as king, especially for the way he’s done it. So, they are after him absolutely as well. Bruce is running away from many, many, many enemies and the war of independence has now become a civil war. And that’s a really. very fundamental change in the nature of the business.

So there he is. Bruce has got nothing. How does he recover from this position? And it is a remarkable story. When he does manage to come back, he arrives in Ayrshire. Remember, he’s Earl of Carrick, so that’s where he goes. He sends some of his brothers down to Galloway to try and raid but they get captured immediately. They’re taken away and executed horribly. So, Bruce is left with only one brother left, Edward, and then, well, we can, I mean the astonishing military turnaround.

[JB]
But the other Edward that you mentioned, Edward I, he died in 1307. He was a skilled politician, fighter, tactician. Edward II, his son, not so much. How much of a game changer was that?

[DB]
Fundamental, fundamental game changer. Because, as you say, Edward I was one of the most ruthlessly effective English monarchs there were, and there’d been quite a few. Edward II? Well, we can encapsulate what was different about him by what happened immediately after Edward I’s death. Edward I dies leading an army against Robert Bruce.

[JB]
Bruce was the death of him, almost?

[DB]
Almost, yes! This is when Bruce is beginning to recover and he’s actually won a couple of wee battles.

[JB]
Because there’s a campaign of insurgency going on, isn’t there?

[DB]
Yes, exactly. Edward’s got to do something. It’s poetic because he leads his army as far as the south shore of the Solway Firth – it’s Burgh by Sands. He can actually see Scotland and that’s where he dies. Despite his immense energy, and he was a big tall man, very striking.

[JB]
Longshanks.

[DB]
Longshanks indeed. And he was extraordinary. Ruthless determination, consummate politician. He goes; Edward II, he isn’t with him – he’s in London. He speeds up from London to take over because they’re meant to be invading Scotland. And what Edward II does, he gets as far as Cumnock. And then he celebrates making his bosom buddy Piers Gaveston. He treats like a brother – some would say a lover – makes him Earl of Cornwall, which is a royal title. Edward I has refused to do this, but now Edward II is king, he can do this for his pal. So, he gets as far as Cumnock, throws a great big feast for his bosom buddy Piers Gaveston and then goes home. That’s it. And Edward II doesn’t reappear until the autumn of 1310.

[JB]
So, this campaign of insurgency continues. And just to reaffirm that nature of a civil war in Scotland, Edward II had control during that time of castles including Roxburgh, Jedburgh … Perth was still a stronghold for Edward supporters. Many patriotic Scots did not approve of the Bruce regime.

[DB]
Exactly. There’s really a fundamental dimension to all this, which is that in hindsight, of course, it’s very easy to say, oh, these people supporting Edward II are traitors, et cetera, but far from it. They have up to then committed themselves to Scottish independence. And it’s just because it’s Bruce and the way that Bruce became king. And you can really understand that, for them, this is just awful to imagine this person as their king for the future. The problem is there isn’t an alternative …

[JB]
… because John Comyn’s 6 feet under.

[DB]
Exactly.

[JB]
So is it too much of a leap now to go to the months leading up to Bannockburn 1314? Are we missing out huge pivotal chunks?

[DB]
Well, there’s one thing that’s very good to put it all together because that is the march towards taking control of the whole of Scotland, which Bruce does, you see, by military tactics that are brilliantly effective, moving quick and decisively. But above all, he has this new tactic of destroying every castle he takes. And that is a new idea. That’s not what you’re meant to do. He’s figured out … this is part of the way he is so radical and original and absolutely determined. He’s got his eyes set on the ultimate goal and therefore will think through practically – what do I need? And he’s figured out that Edward II needs garrisons. That’s the main way he’s going to maintain his power. Robert Bruce has basically thrown the dice in the hope that the middling sorts, if you want to say the common people, of Scotland will back him because he’s the only hope for independence.

And in a way it’s a lose-lose for Edward II and his supporters because he can’t supply the garrisons regularly enough, so they have to plunder the local countryside, so people hate them. Robert Bruce comes along, takes the castle and destroys it. Yippee.

So, it’s a brilliantly effective military thing but also a political gesture – and that’s the way we find ourselves on the threshold of the Battle of Bannockburn, because up to that point Robert Bruce has avoided any pitched battles. That’s just throwing the dice too desperately; the spinning wheel of fate. You just don’t quite know what’s going to happen. You can lose everything. Stirling Castle is the prize. Edward II is coming up with his army in order to relieve the garrison, which is about to fall.

We know the outcome. I haven’t been to the Bannockburn Centre and played the game where they play the game of the battle, but I’m told that Edward II usually wins, if you do play the game. Somebody can keep me right here, but it’s fascinating. If that’s true, that just reinforces the point that if you had generalship and soldiers of equal value, really it should have been Edward II’s victory. But it wasn’t.

[JB]
Well, let’s leave the story there, just before we get to the Battle of Bannockburn. And when we come back, we’ll talk a little about the battle, but more about its consequences.

[MV]
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[JB]
Welcome back to Love Scotland. So, Dauvit Broun, we’re at 1314, the Battle of Bannockburn. Now, we’re not going into the battle in great detail, as there is another Love Scotland podcast from an earlier series, which does just that. But for our purposes, Bruce’s army, vastly outnumbered, wins the day. Now, you’re not a military historian, but can you tell me, did Edward lose the battle or did Robert win it?

[DB]
Again, it’s down to a large part to Robert Bruce’s inventiveness, his ability to think outside the box in a ruthlessly practical way. One part of that was this formation called the schiltron. You’re remembering that most of the Scottish army is infantry, so they have these huge pikes and they all come together so it’s like a big hedgehog. This was something that William Wallace had developed, but they were static. Robert Bruce developed it so that these could move around; that made it much more difficult. This takes a lot of training, I would imagine.

He also understood, of course, that the real problem was archers – the English archers. Well, they tended to be Welsh, but the archers in the English army. He did have a small cavalry force whose job it was to take out the archers, which they did. It’s a combination of really imaginative generalship, training and so on by the Scottish army, more than it was Edward making any terrible mistakes.

[JB]
And I understand there was a huge significance in the number of knights, Edward’s knights who were killed, influential men from influential families.

[DB]
Indeed, and taken prisoner more to the point, which means that Robert I is in a position because what you do with them is you use them as bargaining counters. Literally, you can … the idea is normally that they would be ransomed. That was the expected thing. This is how Robert then bargains to get his wife and his daughter released, and the Bishop of Glasgow released as well. So, it’s a huge turning point as far as that goes.

What it isn’t is a turning point for the cause of Scottish independence being recognised internationally or by Edward II. Politically, what it really represents is Robert’s victory in the civil war.

[JB]
Today, Bannockburn is of course regarded as a landmark victory … but it wasn’t then. How and why and when did it achieve the iconic status that it has today?

[DB]
In one sense, just to take a dispassionate view, because it was the only big set piece battle that Robert Bruce fought and he won, it’s always going to be very significant. However, when you look at the way things were written up at the time, particularly people writing in Scotland in Latin a couple of generations later, they actually make more fuss of a battle called the Battle of Roslin in 1302, which I don’t suppose … well, if anybody’s heard of it, give yourself a wee treat because that’s very impressive.

The Battle of Roslin, whose big winner was John Comyn, but we don’t hear about that of course. They tend to make not so much fuss about Bannockburn, until later. It’s when you get John Barbour’s Brus.

[JB]
This is an epic poem.

[DB]
An amazing epic poem written in Scots.

[JB]
And when was it written?

[DB]
1375–76. And it was for Robert Bruce’s grandson, Robert Stewart, Robert II, and his court.

[JB]
So, it wasn’t going to be critical?

[DB]
Well, it was critical actually. It’s an amazing piece of work because it’s got all sorts of interesting nuances. It’s not just bold propaganda, and it is critical of Bruce – the way he savaged the lands of the Comyns in Buchan, the Herschip of Buchan. When he portrays Bruce in his deathbed, Bruce is very conscious of this dreadful black mark in his career. He also has one of Bruce’s nephews, who becomes one of his great captains later on, initially telling Bruce off for not going into battle more instead of doing all the guerrilla war thing, which was so radical at the time and unbecoming of somebody who should be a paragon of chivalry. So, there are critical voices within the poem.

[JB]
But overall, it didn’t harm the legendary status?

[DB]
Oh, indeed not. It was absolutely such a dramatic and powerful and compelling celebration of Bruce the leader and the man; it brings him to life. And as far as the Battle of Bannockburn goes, the account of the battle is so vivid. I haven’t spoken to anybody who makes films, but I’m sure it feels like a film director’s close character of detail. It’s just amazing – you can just about hear it and smell it, what’s going on. It is very vivid, very extended, very vivid.

[JB]
Bruce wins the Battle of Bannockburn. The war trundles on for a good few years. We get to 1320, and I’m horrified I’m about to say the Declaration of Arbroath! Briefly, can you tell us about the significance of that document? Heresy for some!

[DB]
I know, I know, the Declaration of Arbroath. So, in a nutshell, the main part of this is that Bruce keeps winning and has actually in 1318 retaken Berwick. Just about the whole of what had been Scotland has been liberated from Edward II, but Edward II has the support of the papacy. The papacy has been putting acute pressure, everything they can throw at Bruce and his government.

And again, Bruce comes up with a novel idea. It’s not a completely new idea, but a novel approach to this idea of presenting yourself as the king who doesn’t really want to do all this, but his barons insist that he does this. A trick that had been played by the King of France a few years earlier. You’ve got this written and it’s written by Robert Bruce’s government, but it’s in the name of the 30+ barons who are named. And then you get many more as well as those who have their seals dangling at the bottom.

This is presenting the prose that many of us know so well and is so vivid. But at the time it’s just doing a very specific job of ‘please get the Pope to think again’, which they do. The pressure is relieved – it doesn’t solve the problem but because it gets incorporated into a way of telling the history of Scotland, which was written around 1330, it gets incorporated there and then is there for posterity. And of course, just because the prose is so amazing, it acquires some of the fame which has grown hugely in more modern centuries.

[JB]
But Bruce doesn’t get what he wants still. The war, the insurgency, the raids continue. There is a sort of truce of sorts, isn’t there? In 1323 when they decide, look, let’s call a halt to this for a while.

[DB]
Actually they arranged for a 13-year truce, which is huge. You wonder what Robert Bruce had in mind, but that all comes to an end when … I mean, it’s a stalemate basically, because Edward II is just never going to accept Bruce as the king of an independent realm, but he can’t do anything about it militarily because Bruce is in charge. He’s got it. But Edward II, eventually his problems in governing England take him over and he is deposed in January 1327. And Bruce says, well, that’s it. The truce is off. And he begins to put acute pressure in the north of England, eventually doing something which isn’t just raiding but actually starting to set the things in motion for annexing parts of the north of England.

It’s at that point that the government, which is precarious, the English government at the time, in the name of the adolescent Edward III, start peace negotiations.

[JB]
He’s a great tactician. He can smell the weakness. He knows that London is destabilised and he decides to make his move successfully. The Treaty of Edinburgh between Scotland and England, which I was interested to hear also included the marriage between his son, Robert’s son David, who was about 4 or 5 years old, with Edward III’s sister Joan, aged 7.

[DB]
Exactly.

[JB]
My goodness. But it meant that England recognised Scotland’s independence with Robert as king.

[DB]
Exactly. And just to complete the picture, Robert’s government then went to the papacy to have … The title King of Scots had been recognised since January 1324, but what they really wanted was the right of coronation and anointment, which Scotland, like other kingdoms, did not have in the 13th century. That is this real seal of approval. If you’ve got coronation anointment from the Pope, then you are it: you are fully and completely sovereign. And the Pope agrees to this. The papal bull, which is granting them coronation anointment, is dated a few days after Bruce has actually died.

[JB]
So, a year after the treaty, Bruce is just a few months before his 55th birthday. He is awaiting this confirmation, and he dies. What did he die of?

[DB]
Oh my goodness. Well, there’s all the business about whether he had …

[JB]
That’s why I’m asking: did he suffer from leprosy?

[DB]
And I’m afraid you’ll have to ask somebody else. I am aware that there are all sorts of diseases at the time.

[JB]
But that was a suggestion, wasn’t it?

[JB]
Yes, exactly. Oh, certainly, certainly. And now that a skull has been identified and you can see there’s degeneration – but there may be more than one reason for that sort of degeneration. What is clear is when people talk about leprosy in those days, that obviously wasn’t exactly the same thing as the leprosy that we tend to think of, which means that you’re completely ostracised from society because you’re completely unclean. Whatever it was, it wasn’t that because he and other people at the time – and my colleague Mark McGregor has researched this – where people who have the same ailment but they’re still part of society.

So, whatever the ailment was, it was very serious. Bruce had been seriously ill on a number of occasions in the years running up to that. At the time of the Treaty of Edinburgh being formally concluded in March 1328, he was actually in his bed. He was too ill. He was part of it but he was in his sick bed, so he had been seriously ill a number of times in the years coming up. It probably wasn’t a surprise to anybody when he finally died on 7 June 1329.

[JB]
Only five years after his death, Edward rescinded the Treaty of Edinburgh, and Scotland and England were at it, hammer and tongs again.

[DB]
Yes, indeed. It was three years later that things began to fall apart. And the key person there is somebody we haven’t mentioned for good reason, which is John Balliol had a son called Edward, who was very happy doing things that young men do in Picardy, but had been recalled. He’d been in England trying to gather support, and strangely enough Edward II didn’t really make much of this, but Edward III did. So, that reopened not just the wars of independence, but the civil war as well.

[JB]
We’ve come full circle. Bruce’s reputation as a great freedom fighter – when did that embed itself?

[DB]
I think Barbour’s Brus is a very powerful statement, dramatic and vivid statement of Bruce as the embodiment of the fight for Scottish independence against the aggression of Edward I and Edward II. It really goes back to that. Let’s not forget that Barbour’s Brus of course is manuscripts in those days, but it’s one of the most popular early printed books in Scotland. That and the Wallace,through to the 18th century.

[JB]
And what’s your interpretation – from everything that you know – the big picture of Bruce as a leader and his achievements?

[DB]
Well, his achievement undoubtedly is that Scotland was restored from two conquests and massive destruction and intense pressure – it was restored to be fully part of the family of European kingdoms. It’s very difficult to see how that could have happened with anybody else, not just because he won battles and was effective militarily, etcetera, but it’s just the challenge he faced was enormous because of the civil war dynamic as well. It’s his ability to be on top of the game, be endlessly adaptable and practical and effective and ruthless, all these things.

As I said, it was this amazing determination but willingness to think outside the box just to keep the main prize constantly in view. It is an astonishing achievement really.

[JB]
He’s deserving of his iconic status as far as his achievements are concerned?

[DB]
I think he is, honestly. I know attempts have been made to capture this in film, but there’s so much more that can be done, I have to say, to really bring through the astonishing story of Robert Bruce.

[JB]
Well, thank you so much for taking us through the complexities of his story and the complexities of medieval Scotland. Professor Dauvit Broun, thank you very much.

[DB]
Thank you.

[JB]
And that’s it from this double edition on the life and reign of Robert Bruce.

Bannockburn Battlefield is in the care of the National Trust for Scotland. If you want to go along and learn more about the events there, head for the Trust website for opening times and for more details.

It’s preserved by the National Trust for Scotland for you, and if you’d like to help look after it, you can make a donation. Just head to nts.org.uk/donate to find out how. Until next time on Love Scotland, goodbye.

For more on the Battle of Bannockburn itself, search out our podcast from series one called Bruce’s Gamble, when the king finds himself fighting for his life in a moment of single combat.

[CW]
Henry sees the king and thinks ho ho, this is my chance, I’ve got him, spurs his horse forward, thunders towards Robert and Robert is now left in a position where he either has to try and run or get stuck in and try and save himself from Henry.

[MV]
Love Scotland is brought to you by Think and Demus Productions on behalf of the National Trust for Scotland, presented by Jackie Bird.

For show notes and more information, go to nts.org.uk and don’t forget to like, subscribe, review and share.

Episode 1 – Robert the Bruce: fact and fiction

Welcome to a new series of Love Scotland. In this week’s episode, Jackie is joined by Professor Dauvit Broun of the University of Glasgow to discuss the life of Robert the Bruce.

Robert, King of Scots from 1306–29, had a fascinating life of changing allegiances, shifting power and military victories. How much of our understanding of this Scottish ruler is based in fact? What motivated him to switch sides, on several occasions, in the wars of the 13th and 14th centuries? And why has his legacy had such a lasting effect on the nation’s history?

Next week, Jackie and Dauvit continue their conversation, charting the events that followed Bannockburn.

Find out more about Bannockburn

Love Scotland podcast – Season 8 (16)
Love Scotland podcast – Season 8 (17)

Season 8 Episode 1

View transcript
Transcript

Four speakers: male voiceover [MV]; Jackie Bird [JB]; female singer [FS]; Dauvit Broun [DB]

[MV]
Love Scotland, brought to you from the National Trust for Scotland.

[JB]
Hello. Our subject today is Robert the Bruce, Scotland’s great warrior king who lived and reigned during a turbulent period in Scotland’s history. He’s forever linked to the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, where he and his vastly outnumbered army scored a victory against Edward II.

[FS]
Scots, wha hae wi’ Wallace bled,
Scots, wham Bruce has aften led;
Welcome to your gory bed,
Or to victory!

Now’s the day, and now’s the hour;
See the front o’ battle lour;
See approach proud Edward’s power
Chains and slavery!

[JB]
Those stirring words by Robert Burns depict Bruce’s address to his troops at Bannockburn. The site is in the care of the National Trust for Scotland and this year, 2024, is a big year for Bruce as it marks 750 years since his birth.

Although the events at Bannockburn have been well documented, the story of Bruce’s rise to be King of Scots is hindered by a paucity of detailed historical evidence from that period, and by an excess of propaganda from the centuries that followed.
But his life is a fascinating one. He was as calculating and ruthless as he was brave. And as for his allegiances, well, let’s just say he was a man of shifting loyalties. And as for the famous story of his encounter with the spider, well, we’ll come to that.

So, to discuss the life and times of Robert Bruce, I’m joined by Professor Dauvit Broun, Chair of Scottish History at the University of Glasgow and an expert on medieval times. Welcome to the podcast, Dauvit.

[DB]
Thank you very much. Pleasure to be here.

[JB]
Medieval Scotland, Dauvit, is complex and I would say comparatively unknown territory for most of us. So, before we talk about Bruce the man, can I ask you about the Scotland he was born into in 1274?

[DB]
Thank you very much. A lovely place to start because, on the one hand, we can think about this as a period where Scotland is like so many other parts of Europe at this time, where there’s a growing population. It’s largely rural, of course. Most people live in the countryside.

[JB]
Population of about half a million?

[DB]
Yes, well, just when you’re saying about there being a lack of sources, all these things are a bit of a guesstimate. We’ll bag half a million then, shall we? There’s economic expansion because in the recent generations there's more trade. And so, although most people live in the countryside, there are towns – burghs in Scotland, obviously – towns generally in Europe and they’re growing; none of them very big yet, but they’re growing. More people therefore are interconnected, if you like. Even if you are tending your wee farm, you have the opportunity to sell a surplus because there’s more money circulating, and be part of the big trade network that for Scotland is linked partly to England, but also to the Low Countries, the Netherlands, where they have a great demand for wool. Scotland is one of the main wool producers, so even if you’re in the hills and you’ve got lots of sheep, then you’re part of this extended economy. So that’s part of the world that Robert Bruce grew up in.

[JB]
As far as its size goes, is it the Scotland we would know it now?

[DB]
Very similar to today. The main differences being that the Northern Isles are not part of the Kingdom – they’re not until the 1460s – and the Western Isles have only recently formally become part of the Kingdom. That’s the Treaty of Perth with the King of Norway in 1266.

[JB]
Tell me about the Bruce lineage. Going back a few generations, his family was Anglo Norman?

[DB]
That’s right, yes. And this is something that Bruce would have been very conscious of because obviously he’s not just aristocracy but leading nobility. A very important part of defining who they were was their lineage: male to male to male all the way back. That took them all the way back to a place in Normandy called Brix. I can’t say it right but Brix, which is where Bruce comes from. So they must have known that – that’s their name.
But that brings with it connections with a branch of the family based in Yorkshire, so they’ll be very familiar with that. But the Bruce family of course has been in Scotland for generations, arriving around 1120 in Annandale where they were set up with David I.

And from there, they’ve become more and more embedded. And for Robert Bruce himself, the most important part of this is he was born almost certainly in Turnberry, because his mother was the Countess of Carrick – his dad was Earl of Carrick by virtue of marrying his mother. He was part of this area, very much a leading part of this area, which was very naturally and substantially Gaelic at the time, with strong connections with Ireland.

[JB]
Robert Bruce led a privileged life. What languages did he speak?

[DB]
Well, of course we don’t have the opportunity to really get to grips with this, but he almost certainly would have known Gaelic. In fact, there’s no reason to doubt he would have known Gaelic, given that he was almost certainly brought up in Carrick.
Not only that, but he had in his career very strong contacts with the Western Isles and Ireland. So, he seemed to be at home in the Irish Sea area as much as in a more French-speaking, English-centric version of things. He probably – presumably, why not? – would have been able to speak some of what they called then Inglis, which eventually becomes called Scots.

[JB]
Let’s go to 1290. Robert would have been about 14 years old, and Scotland suffered a succession crisis. The last hope, a young girl dubbed the Maid of Norway, had died on her journey to Scotland, and those about to crown the new queen found themselves without a clear replacement. What were their options?

[DB]
All they could think to do was to stare at the family tree, if you like, and go back as far as they could, to anybody who had ancestry from the Royal Lion. They had to go way back to Alexander II’s uncle, Earl David, who died in 1219. And just to make matters worse, he just had daughters. ‘Matters worse’ for the way they thought of these things in those time.
So, it was a perfect storm for the legal eagles to take over because they could find all sorts of reasons – because there were no precedents for this at all – why it could be Robert Bruce, who was descended from one of the daughters.

[JB]
This is Robert Bruce, Robert the Noble – Robert Bruce’s grandfather?

[DB]
Absolutely.

[JB]
After the Maid of Norway died, there was a vacuum in terms of the throne of Scotland. How was that ended?

[DB]
Total panic to start with. The news got through in October 1290 and it took until March the following year for Edward I to give his reply to the Scottish guardians, the government of the time, who had asked him to come to help out as an arbitrator. By the way, in that time his wife had died so I do wonder at the back of my mind if, you know, some important, sensible advice was lost and he made the appallingly fateful decision to say: actually, I’m not going to come as an arbitrator but as a judge.

And it’s part of those really extraordinary twists and turns as the Scottish governors are trying to not acknowledge this; to say no, no, no, no. Of course you’re not the … I mean, it was a pretty outrageous suggestion from their point of view that Edward should be their overlord. And Edward was equally insistent. The twists and turns include Edward trying to drum up as many potential claimants. We end up with 13 at the end of the day, although everybody knows it’s just Bruce or Balliol. Bruce, the future king’s grandfather or John Balliol.

[JB]
And it was, of course, John Balliol. It was a win–win for Edward. He had his man on the throne and he’d strengthened his position over Scotland.

[DB]
And he really pushed that forward, to make it absolutely clear what this meant. Because for the first time ever, you had appeals from the Scottish Parliament being heard in the English Parliament with Edward I. That was unprecedented, but totally logical if Edward I is now the sovereign.

[JB]
John Balliol proves to be a bit weak as a king and ineffective. The Bruce family are clearly not entirely happy with this choice. Let’s talk about young Robert. What sort of upbringing would he have had as this privileged son of a leading family?

[DB]
Exactly. He would have obviously trained in all the soldiering and feats of arms and so on. He would have grown up expecting to lead not just as Lord of Annandale, which is the ancestral lordship, but also as Earl of Carrick. He would have grown up expecting to be one of the most important nobles.

[JB]
And he would’ve spent some time in Edward’s court and with other leading families … almost like a finishing school, if you like.

[DB]
Yes, yes. I mean, I’d hesitate to describe it as a finishing school, but another way to see it is to just imagine the aristocratic circles because everybody’s related to everybody else, one way or another. Just to broaden it slightly, if you look at the leading families in Scotland at the time, they’ve either all got lands in England or they’ve got family in England. We have had a period of 80-odd years of peace – not entirely trouble-free, but peace.

[JB]
Let’s leap to 1296, the last years of John Balliol’s ineffective monarchy. Edward I decided to invade and decided also to annex Scotland into England. Now, at that point, Robert Bruce was 22 years old. He joined Edward’s side. Why?

[DB]
Well, now there’s a very big question. Just to take a step back, we have to remember that Robert Bruce, the future king, is not head of the family yet; his dad is there as Lord of Annandale. Our Robert Bruce, the future king, is Earl of Carrick, and Dad Robert Bruce lives on until April 1304. So, everything that Robert Bruce is doing, you’ve got to bear in mind it’s in that context. And so that’s one part of it.

But the other part, as you’ve pointed out, is that the Bruces were not comfortable or happy with the Balliol kingship, the Balliol government. They never acknowledged that Balliol should be king. They took steps to avoid acknowledging that he should be king. Putting all this together, it’s less surprising – it seems shocking, but it’s less surprising that Robert Bruce, the future king, should be in Edward I’s army, even when they’re committing their atrocity of sacking Berwick, which is the first big event in the war.

[JB]
Well, let’s take a break just there. The Sack of Berwick was a significant moment for Edward and for young Bruce. We’ll be back in a moment.

[MV]
Are you a whisky lover or a nature lover? A fan of Burns or a good ghost story? No matter what you love about Scotland, there’s an episode of Love Scotlandjust for you. Take a look through our archives to hear the in-depth stories behind Scotland’s history, people and places.
Don’t forget to review, like and share.

[JB]
Welcome back. Just before the break, we reached 1296 and something called the Sack of Berwick. Professor Dauvit Broun, tell me about that.

[DB]
When Edward I decided to invade Scotland, which he did because John Balliol, as king and the nobility, refused to join Edward I’s army fighting the King of France – and had actually, unbeknown to Edward at this point, formed an alliance with the King of France. Edward I, perfectly within his rights as these were understood at the time, led an army to punish his rebellious nobles and was met with resistance, as you might expect. Berwick is not just part of the Kingdom of Scotland at this time, but it is the most wealthy burgh in Scotland. It is the centre of the wool trade with the Netherlands and indeed you have many Flemings who are merchants there.

Now the story goes that the people of Berwick had rather too much confidence in their defences. When they saw Edward’s army arrayed before them, they showed parts of their anatomy to the King of England, which wasn’t very tactful, shall we say. That might be, goodness knows, part of it. But whatever it was, Edward I was enraged by their defiance. And this was not unheard of; it wasn’t a totally disgraceful and an appalling thing to do in the laws of war at the time. If a place isn’t going to surrender, then give it a chance; if it doesn’t do it, sack it. This went on for three days and was a complete, I’m afraid, a total devastating massacre.

[JB]
And young Robert Bruce, who was on Edward’s side remember, does not come out of this well. In fact, a poet at the time wrote ‘the treachery of a certain man who will be decried forever, whose banner deceived the citizens of Berwick, let the name of this Earl be concealed, less damage be renewed.’ Was this a reference to Bruce?

[DB]
Yes. If you join the dots, there aren’t too many other candidates, shall we say, whose banner it is apart from Robert Bruce, the future king at this stage, Earl of Carrick. Those words were probably written between 1304 and 1306 at a point where, if you were hoping for renewing Scottish independence, your best chance was Robert Bruce. So, it’s possible to see why people might be careful about naming him in that context …

[JB]
Yes, if they wanted to see the next day or the day after tomorrow. This was also around the time that Edward took ownership of the Stone of Destiny.

[DB]
Yes, well, exactly. So, the sack of Berwick. And then there was a battle in Dunbar a few weeks later, where the Scottish army were swept away. Let’s remember again, there had been 80 years of peace, so they weren’t used to doing much serious business, whereas the King of England’s army was. The conquest was therefore pretty straightforward and very impressive: stately march, you might say, through Scotland all the way up to Elgin, Edward I got. And on his way back, he passed through Scone and collected the Stone of Destiny.

In Edward I’s eyes, what he had done was he had treated Scotland like it was a fief. That is to say, land that was given to his vassal, the King of Scots John Balliol, who had defied him, and therefore had been deprived of his land. Unprecedented at the time that this should actually be another kingdom, which did create difficulties for Edward I. But in his mind, that’s what had happened, and therefore it had ceased to be a kingdom. It just made sense to make sure the point was not lost by removing the Stone of Destiny on which Scottish kings were inaugurated, and also the bit of the True Cross, the Holy Rood, which was the most sacred royal relic.

[JB]
And at this time, as I said, Robert the Bruce, our Robert, was backing Edward. He did so for a few months, but then he flipped. Why?

[DB]
Now this is where I think we begin to see Robert Bruce become less conventional and a bit more adventurous and imaginative.

[JB]
Do we know anything of his character?

[DB]
His character? Oh goodness. I mean, we can keep tracking this if you like as we go through the years. Really, all we’ve got is his deeds. And as you said at the beginning, there’s a lot of propaganda about that, but peeling that away, what he actually did at the time and there’s also, of course, some things were written in his name. When you put all that together, you do see somebody that was prepared gradually, as events unfolded, to be more adventurous, break convention, and be the ruthlessly pragmatic person in order to achieve his goals.

[JB]
So politically ambivalent. Hugely ambitious.

[DB]
Hugely ambitious but – and this is an important point to always bear in mind in this period – of course for us we’re used to the idea of our political leaders keeping their personal lives and interests separate from the interests of the country. That was inconceivable in those days because after all, if you were the king or you thought you should be the king, then the fate of the kingdom and your fate and your family were intertwined, completely inseparable. That also went for if you were a noble family. The interests of your family against other nobles and the lands and all the people that depended on you – these were inextricably linked to your personal interests.

So what is unusual about Robert Bruce in 1297, as you say, when he’s no longer in Edward I’s peace and starts to rebel, is that he is striking an independent note from his father, who remember is the head of the family and is in England and is having a relatively quiet time. An independent note in order to maintain the profile of his family in the kingdom. It’s almost like he’s thinking through – Balliol is gone but Bruce sees himself as the rightful king. How is he going to maintain this profile of being the rightful king? He’s not going to do it like his dad is doing by sitting in his estates, doing fishing and shooting and all the things that aristocrats do. He’s going to be active in the politics of the country – and that’s what you find him doing in 1297.

[JB]
Which is fine, and which I can follow until I get to 1302 and discover that Robert Bruce changes sides again and goes back to join the English. The question again to you, Dauvit, is why?

[DB]
Exactly. After William Wallace, obviously as guardian, loses the Battle of Falkirk in 1298, at that point intriguingly the leadership then devolves to Robert Bruce and John Comyn, who he slays later on.

[JB]
Ah, spoiler alert! OK, let’s just talk about 1302 first of all. He goes back to the English. Can you tell us because we are going to be here for a long time?

[DB]
Oh, sorry! Yes, yes. Well, he’s been prominent in the government; however, John Balliol, he’s not out of the picture completely and in 1301 he takes a sufficiently personal interest in what’s going on to appoint his own person to govern what has been freed from Edward I’s clutches as sole guardian.

And this is all with a view to John Balliol actually coming back. In early 1302, which is when Robert Bruce defects, that is the point where this is top of the agenda. And why Bruce defects isn’t just negative reasons because he really doesn’t want to be part of this supporting Balliol. But it’s also a positive strategic move because this enables him to marry the daughter of the Earl of Ulster, who is in the loyalty of Edward I.

[JB]
So, he hops from side to side, depending on which side he thinks at that particular time gives him the best chance of eventually reaching the top in Scotland and claiming the throne.

[DB]
Exactly.

[JB]
You mentioned William Wallace there. Can we talk briefly about the interaction or not between Robert Bruce and William Wallace? Famously, for those of us of a certain age, the movie Braveheart had the meeting. This did not happen.

[DB]
No reason to imagine that … well, it definitely didn’t happen the way it’s portrayed – and whether they ever met is another matter. The whole idea of the meeting is a medieval fiction; it’s not a modern fiction. You get it in Blind Harry’s Wallace, written in the 1470s. Actually, it’s probably earlier than that, this idea that during the Battle of Falkirk, Wallace protests to prove he should be king and so on. So it’s not completely made up by Braveheartby any means. However, it belongs to literature rather than bald history, if you like.

[JB]
But there is a suggestion that Bruce may have taken part in the hunting down of William Wallace. Is there any factual basis for that? Because at that point he was on the side of the English and it’s difficult to keep track of which side that Bruce is on.

[DB]
Yes, yes, yes. I’ll just demur a bit about how difficult it is to keep track because there is this consistency of purpose. So as long as you know the context, then actually his decisions are quite rational.

But the fascinating thing about the terrible fate of Wallace is the government. There’s still been a government in the name of John Balliol until 9 February 1304. And everybody then submits to Edward I and it takes from then, February 1304, to the beginning of August 1305 for Wallace to finally be turned in. That is despite Edward I doing everything he possibly could to bully people into … I mean, he basically says to many of the leading people, I’ll have you back into your lands and take you back into my allegiance if you show me that you’re really doing your best to get hold of Wallace. I can’t recall Bruce being given that sort of instruction, but he would have the same pressure as anybody else. Nevertheless, Wallace is not handed in for well over a year. I mean, let me do the maths. We’re talking about a year and a half, aren’t we? So that is really quite impressive. I mean, we don’t know where he was, so goodness knows.

When he’s eventually turned in, of course it is an inevitable act of betrayal. But not by Bruce.

[JB]
Well, we’re reaching the end of the episode and Bruce isn’t even king yet. We’ll deal with that in next week’s podcast. But before we go, a final word on Bruce at this stage of his life, Dauvit. It’s 1305, the year before he becomes king. He’s 31 years old. If we were to go out for a walk and saw him across the street and I ask you, who was that? How would you describe him at this point?

[DB]
Well, yes, I’d say steely determination but also a real leader of people. And for all the, as I say, changing sides according to the immediate situation, but there is a clear-sightedness about his ultimate goal. So hugely ambitious; it’s like he’s got a very consistently clear idea: I should be king and king of an independent kingdom as well. He’s not going to be king of something which is just a bit of a rump and as vassal of the king of England.

[JB]
Professor Dauvit Broun, thank you very much.

[DB]
Thank you.

[JB]
And that’s where we will have to leave this edition of Love Scotland on the fascinating story of Robert the Bruce. We have yet even to approach a certain battle called Bannockburn, which of course is in the care of the National Trust for Scotland.

Your role in the future of Scotland’s heritage is absolutely vital and if you would like to donate then please go to nts.org.uk/donate

I hope you’ll join us next time for Robert Bruce the sequel. Until then, goodbye.

[JB]
Coming up in Part 2.

[DB]
Robert Bruce has basically thrown the dice in the hope that the middling sorts, if you want to say the common people, of Scotland will back him because he’s the only hope for independence.

[MV]
Love Scotland is brought to you by Think and Demus Productions on behalf of the National Trust for Scotland. Presented by Jackie Bird.

For show notes and more information, go to nts.org.uk and don’t forget to like, subscribe, review and share.

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