The Multiple Meanings of the Queen Mary Harp

Julie Holder is currently undertaking a joint PhD studentship at the University of Glasgow and National Museums of Scotland, provisionally titled ‘Collecting the Nation: Scottish history, patriotism and antiquarianism after Scott (1832-92).’ In today’s blog, she looks at the complex and much-reinterpreted story of one of the NMS’ most famous Marian objects – the Queen Mary Harp.

Much like today, the life of Mary Queen of Scots held a fascination for collectors, historians, and the general public throughout the nineteenth century. Objects connected to her gained the status of national relics representing her life and troubles and held pride of place in many private collections. On the tercentenary of her death in 1887, a Mary Queen of Scots exhibition was held at Peterborough Museum, near the Cathedral where she was first buried in 1587.[1] Many of the objects on display were loaned by private collectors. The collection then travelled to Glasgow in 1888 to feature within its own dedicated section in the Scottish history display at the recreated Bishop’s Castle in the Glasgow International Exhibition.[2] These relics then made a final appearance in 1889 in the ‘Exhibition of the Royal House of Stuart’ held in London.[3]

Figure 1 Catalogue of the Mary Queen of Scots Exhibition at Peterborough Museum

But despite the abundance of Mary Queen of Scots objects in private hands, the National Museum in Edinburgh contained very few items connected to Scotland’s most famous Queen in the nineteenth century.[4] These were prized objects for many families who could boast an ancestor who had met the Queen during her lifetime. When such items came up for auction they often went for exorbitant prices, well beyond the means of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland who managed the museum in Edinburgh. Even when the museum became state funded in 1851, it had no purchase grant and had to apply to the Treasury for funds to buy significant objects. One such object was purchased by the museum in 1904, known as the Queen Mary harp.[5] The museum even wrote to Andrew Carnegie to request that he did not compete with them at the auction, since the Treasury had only provided limited funds.[6] This harp, like all objects, has embodied multiple meanings and these meanings have changed throughout its existence.[7] This blog post considers the variety of meanings attached to the harp throughout the nineteenth century connected to changing ideas on what type of historical evidence it was believed to represent.

Figure 2 Queen Mary Harp H.LT 1 © National Museums Scotland

The harp first appeared to public view in 1805 when it was exhibited to the Highland Society in Edinburgh alongside another harp known as the Lamont harp. These harps were in the possession of General William Robertson of Lude and were family heirlooms. Following their exhibition, John Gunn published An Historical Enquiry Respecting the Performance on the Harp in the Highlands of Scotland: from the earliest times until it was discontinued about the year of 1734, to which is prefixed an account of a very ancient Caledonian harp and of the harp of Queen Mary.[8] Robertson not only sent the harps to the Highland Society to be examined, measured and drawn, but also enclosed letters describing the family traditions connected to them. Unfortunately, the original letters were lost so the information reproduced by Gunn is the only source we have for the oral traditions that had passed down the family of Lude. Gunn’s Historical Enquiry was very much the product of a skilled musician who understood the practicalities of form, materials and construction of musical instruments. But equally interesting is the way he foregrounded the harp’s historical connection to Mary Queen of Scots.

The traditional story of the harp that was first published by Gunn claimed that Queen Mary gifted the harp to Beatrix Gardyn of Banchory as a prize for superior harp-playing. This harp was connected by Gunn with a hunting trip that Queen Mary had made to Atholl c.1563 and it was claimed that Mary was so impressed with Beatrix’s musical skills that she presented her with the harp. The harp had then been inherited by Beatrix’s descendants and represented in 1805 by the Robertsons of Lude. It was claimed that the harp had originally had a portrait of Mary, a shield and two precious gems attached to it, which had been removed during the 1745 Jacobite uprising, possibly by government troops.[9] What is interesting about Gunn’s text is the way he approached the problem that Mary did not play the harp, she played the lute. Therefore, he needed to explain why Mary would own a harp that she could not play. The way that Gunn did this was by presenting it as part of a long history of harp playing in Scotland and at the Scottish court. For example, Gunn described images of harps on sculptured stones, included references to harp playing from early historians, and evidence that James I of Scotland had been an accomplished harp player. Gunn argued that it was likely that when Mary came to Scotland there was a royal harp at the Scottish court. But since Mary played the lute rather than the harp, this explained why she might gift the harp to Beatrix. For Gunn, the harp was a rare and beautiful example of a medieval harp and was integral to Scotland’s cultural history. But he deployed the broader history of harps in Scotland as a means of authenticating this particular harp’s connection to Mary; and it was this connection that he foregrounded as one of the most prominent parts of its historical value.

Figure 3 James I of Scotland and Joan Beaufort, uploaded by Braganza18 2007, Public domain, from Wikimedia Commons

The romantic story of the hunting trip and the harp playing competition was the main facet of the harp’s history that appeared in mid-nineteenth century histories, as well as poems such as James Hogg’s The Queen’s Wake (1813).[10] The harp made a brief appearance in Sir John Graham Dayell’s Musical Memoirs of Scotland (1849) as part of his narrative of harp playing in Scotland.[11] A more romantic retelling of the story appeared in Agnes Strickland’s Lives of the Queens of Scotland (1850), when the harp was employed as evidence of Mary’s good-natured personality and the ways in which she ingratiated herself to her new subjects.[12] Strickland claimed that, ‘[Mary] had the good policy to visit in turn every district in Scotland, by which she made herself thoroughly acquainted with the condition of her people, and rendered herself admired and beloved’.[13] Robert Chambers’ Domestic Annals of Scotland (1858) followed in much the same vein by using the incident of the harp playing competition as evidence of Mary’s interest in the native music of her new kingdom.[14] In all these cases, the story of the hunting trip at Atholl and the harp playing competition were taken as fact and were integral to giving the harp meaning as a relic connected to Mary.

But by the late nineteenth century a degree of scepticism appeared regarding the harp’s provenance. Rather than focusing on its connection to Mary, antiquarians mainly valued the harp as an example of Scottish art and craft practices.[15] This was also the stage at which the harp was put on display as a long-term loan in the National Museum in Edinburgh. John Steuart of Dalguise had inherited both the Queen Mary and Lamont harps from the Robertsons of Lude. In 1880, he agreed to loan them both to the National Museum. It is after this point that authors concentrated on more systematic descriptions and analyses of the construction of the harp and its decorative features, presumably because they could see it at the museum. The first in-depth description of the harp in this fashion was by Charles Bell, who presented a paper to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in 1880 when he brought the harps to the museum on behalf of Steuart.[16] Bell claimed the link to Mary was unsubstantiated, even proposing that it may have been gifted by Mary of Guise instead. For Bell, the harp was more important as a rare and early example of a high-status Highland harp and illustrative of elegant Celtic decoration. Bell’s interest in this Celtic ornamentation reflected wider interest in West Highland art that was part of the Celtic Revival Movement at this time. The focus on the decorative features of the harp was followed by keeper of the National Museum, Joseph Anderson. The harp was included in Ancient Scottish Weapons (1881) and alongside the description there were detailed illustrations of the harp and its decorative features by artist James Drummond.[17] Anderson also expressed scepticism over the harp’s connection to Mary and for him the harp was valuable as a rare example of a Scottish musical instrument: one of only two surviving Scottish harps and a prime example of the high standard of medieval West Highland art.

Figure 4 Details of harp by James Drummond, Ancient Scottish Weapons:  image from

By 1904, when the harp was purchased by the museum, the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland bemoaned the fact that ‘The price was unfortunately enhanced by the quite mythical attribution to Queen Mary; but, for us, the value of the harp consisted not in this, but in its being one of the three ancient harps existing in the United Kingdom, and in the beautiful Celtic carving which adorned it.’[18] In the same year, Robert Armstrong noted that ‘This Harp must always be remarkable for elegance of form, exactness of construction, beauty of ornamentation, and wonderful preservation; and although its right to be entitled “Queen Mary’s Harp” may be questioned, it may well be called the Queen of ancient Harps.’[19] So we see a critical shift after 1880 in the meanings that the harp embodied. Although Gunn had placed the Queen Mary harp into a long history of harp playing in Scotland, and upheld it as an exquisite example of Scottish musical instruments: it was the connection to Mary that was seized on as making the harp so special. But by the early twentieth century, the harp was no longer an important relic of the life of Mary, but a rare example of Celtic art that would have been sought after by the museum even without its historical connection. As archaeologists and curators were developing more systematic methods for analysing material culture, objects held meaning as primary sources in their own right. This meant that the harp could be studied to provide new information about the Scottish past that went above and beyond a romantic story of Queen Mary.

But how do we view the harp now? In 2010, National Museums Scotland was part of a collaborative project with the University of Edinburgh and the Clinical Research Imaging Centre of Queen’s Medical Research Institute, during which the harp was CT-scanned and the materials and pigmentation were tested to provide new information of how the harp was constructed.[20] During this process they were able to date the harp to between the mid-fourteenth to early-fifteenth century: much older than previously thought. Keith Sanger and Alison Kinnaird’s Tree of Strings also provided an in-depth analysis of the construction and decoration of the Queen Mary harp and traced the family trees of Beatrix and the Robertsons of Lude to assess how true the original story was.[21] They have identified the Beatrix Gardyn referred to in the story and conjectured that the harp may actually be linked to the acquisition of land by Beatrix and her husband in 1565, which was ratified by Queen Mary and Lord Darnley. The harp may therefore have been a ceremonial gift to mark this legal transaction, possibly explaining the connection to Mary that had passed down the family. Although this version of how Beatrix acquired the harp from Mary is less romantic, it is still historically interesting. Sanger and Kinnaird have also been able to link the harp to Lindores Abbey and proposed several people who it may have been originally made for; but how it came into Mary’s possession is still to be discovered.

The changing interpretations of the Queen Mary harp give us ample food for thought on the multivocality of objects and the ways in which approaching their study from different perspectives can provide new evidence about the past. At the beginning of the nineteenth century the harp was valued as one of the oldest surviving harps in Scotland and was linked to a traditional story connected to Mary Queen of Scots. This story then became part of nineteenth century narratives of Scottish history; with the harp viewed as a romantic relic of Queen Mary’s reign and evidence of her personality and character. However, by the twentieth century the connection to Queen Mary was deemed mythical and the harp held meaning as a unique example of Celtic art and Scottish cultural history. In the twenty-first century, Sanger and Kinnaird’s analysis has re-attached Queen Mary to the harp, provided new information on its provenance, and placed it into a systematic study of harp playing in Scotland. In addition, the work at National Museums Scotland and their partners has provided more information on the construction of medieval harps and identified the portrait of Mary as likely being a gold half-ryal from her reign. The Queen Mary harp continues to hold multiple meanings linked to its historical connections and the tangible evidence which it embodies. But what about all the other Queen Mary objects that were exhibited at the end of the nineteenth century? Where are they now? There are still only a few Queen Mary items at National Museums Scotland, while some have been acquired by other museums, such as the Balfour Ciborium at the V&A Museum.[22] If it was possible to create a database of these items connected to Mary then their location could be documented along with any new research that has been done on them, as well as identify those that are still in private hands. This could then form a centralised resource for future research on the study of Mary Queen of Scots and the material culture of sixteenth-century Scotland.

Figure 5 Balfour Ciborium, illustration from The Kennet Ciborium: A Description of that Relic (1890)

[1] Catalogue of the Tercentenary of Mary Queen of Scots Exhibition, Peterborough, Exhibition Catalogue(Peterborough, 1887).

[2] The Book of the Bishop’s Castle and Handbook of the Archaeological Collection, 2nd edition, Exhibition Catalogue (Glasgow: T & A Constable, 1888).

[3] Exhibition of the Royal House of Stuart, Exhibition Catalogue, The New Gallery Regent Street (London, 1889).

[4] Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Catalogue of the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland (Edinburgh: Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 1892).

[5] ‘Anniversary Meeting 30th November 1904’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 39 (1905), pp. 8-9.

[6] National Museums Scotland, Edinburgh, SAS Internal Manuscripts UC 89/25 Papers concerning the sale of two harps owned by the Stuart family of Dalguise, 1900-06. There is no indication whether Carnegie agreed to their request.

[7] See S. Pearce, Museums, Objects and Collections (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1992), for discussions on how objects can embody multiple meanings in both private and museum collections.

[8] J. Gunn, An Historical Enquiry Respecting the Performance on the Harp in the Highlands of Scotland: from the earliest times until it was discontinued about the year of 1734, to which is prefixed an account of a very ancient Caledonian harp and of the harp of Queen Mary (Edinburgh: Archibald Constable and Company, 1807).

[9] This portrait has been identified as a gold half-ryal coin from Mary’s reign, see National Museums Scotland, [accessed 17 June 2020].

[10] J. Hogg, The Queen’s Wake (Edinburgh: George Goldie, 1813).

[11] J. G. Dalyell, Musical Memoirs of Scotland (Edinburgh: Thomas G. Stevenson, 1849), pp. 235-7.

[12] A. Strickland, Lives of the queens of Scotland: and English princesses connected with the regal succession of Great Britain, 8 vols (Edinburgh: William Blackwood and Sons, 1850-9), iv, pp. 53-4.

[13] Ibid., p. 53.

[14] R. Chambers, Domestic Annals of Scotland, 2 vols (Edinburgh: W & R Chambers, 1858), i, pp. 30-2.

[15] For example see A. J. Hipkins & W. Gibb, Musical Instruments, Historic, Rare and Unique (Edinburgh: A. & C. Black Ltd, 1888).

[16] C. D. Bell, ‘Notice of the Harp said to have been given to Beatrix Gardyn of Banchory by Queen Mary, and of the Harp called the ‘Lamont Harp,’ both formerly possessed by the family of Robertsons of Lude, and now deposited for exhibition in the Museum, along with two Ancient Highland Targets, by John Steuart, Esq. of Dalguise’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 15 (1881), pp. 10-33.

[17] J. Drummond & J. Anderson, Ancient Scottish Weapons (Edinburgh: George Waterston & Sons, 1881).

[18] ‘Anniversary Meeting’, PSAS 39, p. 9.

[19] R. B. Armstrong, Musical Instruments: The Irish and the Highland Harps (Edinburgh: David Douglas, 1904), p. 181.

[20] K. Loomis et al, ‘The Lamont and Queen Mary Harps’, Galpin Society Journal LXV, March (2012).

[21] K. Sanger & A. Kinnaird, Tree of Strings – Crann nan Teud: a history of the harp in Scotland (London: Routledge, 2016); ‘The “Queen Mary” Harp’, WireStrungharp, [accessed 17 June 2020].

[22] ‘The Balfour Ciborium’, V&A, [accessed 20 June 2020], previously known as the Kennet Ciborium.

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