1818 - Walter Scott brings Scottish crown jewels to light again


Sir Walter Scott and the Honours of Scotland

Of all Scots who have formed their countrymen and women's perceptions of Scottish history, Sir Walter Scott was one of the most important. His romantic view of the Scottish past helped to lead to the 'discovery' of Scotland as a popular tourist destination. Perhaps the greatest gift which he possessed was the uncanny ability to fasten onto emblematic events in Scotland's past, such as the Jacobite risings or the Porteous riots, and to convey them to his audience in ways which gripped and fascinated them. It was a talent which succeeded not only with the reader in the street but also with royalty. George IV, the former Prince Regent, was so impressed by Scott that he gave him permission to carry out one of his most cherished projects - to open the chest in the little strong room in Edinburgh Castle where the Scottish Regalia had been stowed away after the Union of 1707. By promoting such a striking Scots image, Sir Walter helped to reassure his countrymen and women of their importance within the Union and of their distinctiveness as a nation at the very time when they were becoming more and more subsumed in the common purpose of the Empire. The regalia themselves - the 'Honours of Scotland' - were among the most potent symbols of Scottish nationhood. They were a vital part of the panoply of the old Scottish parliament, where the sceptre was used for touching acts in token of royal assent and where the crown sat in state on its cushion in front of the throne. During Cromwell's occupation of Scotland in the 1650s, the Honours were one of his most sought after targets, but due to the heroism of minister's wife Christian Grainger, they were spirited away out of Dunottar Castle. Scott here tells the story not only of his own discovery, but of the previous adventures of the jewels.

Edinburgh, 4th Feb. 1818
My dear Croker, - I have the pleasure to assure you the Regalia of Scotland were this day found in perfect preservation. The Sword of State and Sceptre showed marks of hard usage at some former period; but in all respects agree with the description in Thomson's work. I will send you a complete account of the opening tomorrow, as the official account will take some time to draw up. In the meantime, I hope you will remain as obstinate in your belief as St. Thomas, because then you will come down to satisfy yourself. I know nobody entitled to earlier information, save one, to whom you can perhaps find the means of communicating the result of our researches. The post is just going off. Ever yours truly,
Walter Scott

Edinburgh, 7th February 1818
My dear Croker, - I promised I would add something to my report of yesterday, and yet I find I have but little to say. The extreme solemnity of opening sealed doors of oak and iron, and finally breaking open a chest which had been shut since 7th March 1707, about a hundred and eleven years, gave a sort of interest to our researches, which I can hardly express to you, and it would be very difficult to describe the intense eagerness with which we watched the rising of the lid of the chest, and the progress of the workmen in breaking it open, which was neither an easy nor a speedy task. It sounded very hollow when they worked on it with their tools, and I began to lean to your faction of the Little Faiths. However, I never could assign any probable or feasible reason for withdrawing these memorials of ancient independence; and my doubts rather arose from the conviction that many absurd things are done in public as well as in private life, merely out of a hasty impression of passion or resentment. For it was evident the removal of the Regalia might have greatly irritated people's minds here, and offered a fair pretext of breaking the Union, which for thirty years was the predominant wish of the Scottish nation.

The discovery of the Regalia has interested people's minds much more strongly than I expected, and is certainly calculated to make a pleasant and favourable impression upon them in respect to the kingly part of the constitution. It would be of the utmost consequence that they should be occasionally shown to them, under proper regulations, and for a small fee. The Sword of State is a most beautiful piece of workmanship, a present from Pope Julius ii to James iv. The scabbard is richly decorated with filigree work of silver, double gilded, representing oak leaves and acorns, executed in a taste worthy that classical age in which the arts revived. A draughtsman has been employed to make sketches of these articles, in order to be laid before his Royal Highness [the Prince Regent]. The fate of these Regalia, which his Royal Highness's goodness has thus restored to light and honour, has on one or two occasions been singular enough. They were, in 1652, lodged in the Castle of Dunnottar, the seat of the Earl Marischal, by whom, according to his ancient privilege, they were kept. The castle was defended by George Ogilvie of Barra, who, apprehensive of the progress which the English made in reducing the strong places in Scotland, became anxious for the safety of these valuable memorials. The ingenuity of his lady had them conveyed out of the castle in a bag on a woman's back, among some hards, as they are called, of lint. They were carried to the Kirk of Kinneff, and intrusted to the care of the clergyman named Grainger and his wife, and buried under the pulpit. The Castle of Dunnottar, though very strong and faithfully defended, was at length under necessity of surrendering, being the last strong place in Britain on which the royal flag floated in those calamitous times. Ogilvie and his lady were threatened with the utmost extremities by the Republican General Morgan, unless they should produce the Regalia. The governor stuck to it that he knew nothing of them, as in fact they had been carried away without his knowledge. The Lady maintained she had given them to John Keith, second son of the Earl Marischal, by whom, she said, they had been carried to France. They suffered a long imprisonment, and much ill usage. On the Restoration, the old Countess Marischal, founding upon the story Mrs. Ogilvie had told to screen her husband, obtained for her own son, John Keith, the Earldom of Kintore, and the post of Knight Marischal, with 400 a-year, as if he had been in truth the preserver of the Regalia. It soon proved that this reward had been too hastily given, for Ogilvie of Barra produced the Regalia, the honest clergyman refusing to deliver them to any one but those from whom he received them. Ogilvie was made a Knight Baronet, however, and got a new charter of the lands, acknowledging the good service. Thus it happened oddly enough, that Keith, who was abroad during the transaction, and had nothing to do with it, got the earldom, pension, &c., Ogilvie only inferior honours, and the poor clergyman nothing whatever, or, as we say, the hare's foot to lick. As for Ogilvie's lady, she died before the Restoration, her health being ruined by the hardships she endured from the Cromwellian satellites. She was a Douglas, with all the high spirit of that proud family. On her deathbed, and not till then, she told her husband where the honours were concealed, charging him to suffer death rather than betray them. Popular tradition says, not very probably, that Grainger and his wife were booted (that is, tortured with the engine called the boots). I think that the Knight Marischal's office rested in the Kintore family until 1715, when it was resumed on account of the bearded Earl's accession to the Insurrection of that year. He escaped well, for they might have taken his estate and his earldom. I must save post, however, and conclude abruptly. Yours ever,
Walter Scott

Letters of Sir Walter Scott, ed. H. J. C Grierson, London, 1933.

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