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11 Jul 2019

En garde!

Written by Marianne Fossaluzza and Callum Kay, Inventory Officers
Engraved sabre gifted by the 78th Regiment Officers to Colonel Mackenzie-Fraser
The exquisite engraved sabre gifted by the 78th Regiment Officers to Colonel Mackenzie-Fraser
Right from the start, we wanted to catalogue one thing: swords! Our North-East properties have given us plenty to work with, drawing some unexpected links between the castles and the families who lived in them.

Our team has a keen interest in swords – not as objects of death, but as pieces of craftsmanship. The mastery needed to turn a long metal rod into a thin, yet strong, blade seems to us like some sort of magic. We were therefore more than happy to discover that most of the properties our team would be working at held some interesting examples. From 15th-century claymores to early 20th-century swords and Indian kukris to Japanese curved swords, we weren’t disappointed by the pieces we catalogued.

The claymore from the Stone Hall at Crathes Castle
The claymore from the Stone Hall at Crathes Castle

The most interesting aspect of these particular blades is that they belonged to the families who lived in the Deeside castles of Crathes, Drum and Castle Fraser. Whether they were brought back from travels, used in military service, or gifted, they all have a story to tell – and sometimes that story is the same, albeit in a different place. Throughout our travels, we found very similar swords in various castles, but that is easily explained when looking at the history of the families who lived there. A military career has long been a part of noble life, and many Burnetts, Irvines and Frasers were officers in either the army or the navy. From 1796 officers were provided with a standard issue sword as part of their uniform, which accounts for the similar blades that adorn the halls of these places. Before that date, you had to bring your own sword!

These pieces are generally easy to identify as they often bear the initials of the contemporary monarch, as well as regimental badges and symbols. Standard issue swords are so well documented that it’s sometimes possible to date them precisely. The swords on display at Castle Fraser, for example, reflect a journey through a century of innovation in British army officers’ swords. They range from the 1796 pattern sword, with its elaborately etched blade, through the gothic-hilted swords of the mid-19th century, to the 1897 pattern sword which remains in use by the army today.

An 1847 pattern gothic-hilted sword and its engraved blade
An 1847 pattern gothic-hilted sword and its engraved blade

A particularly interesting sword in this collection is the 1828 pattern, basket-hilt broadsword carried by officers of the Scottish Highland regiments. This sword evokes the style of Scottish ‘claybeg’ basket-hilt broadswords of the 18th century, the favoured weapon of the Jacobites. Like other symbolism of this ultimately failed cause, possession of these weapons was banned following the Jacobite defeat at Culloden by the Act of Proscription in 1746. The introduction of this sword, with its distinctive heart-patterned hilt, came at a time of renewed interest and enthusiasm for Highland dress and customs following the visit of King George IV to Edinburgh in 1822, where the king famously donned full Highland dress. The use of such symbols in the Highland regiments played an important role in the re-integration of Highland clansmen into the British army from the late 18th century. These regiments would go on to cultivate fierce and heroic reputations during the next two centuries. The placement of the sword at Castle Fraser underscores this, hanging side by side with the sword carried by Charles Fraser at Culloden. In two generations, the Fraser family, like many Highlanders, had gone from bloody rebels to government supporters.

The basket-hilt of a 1828 pattern broadsword
The basket-hilt of a 1828 pattern broadsword

The same story could be told for the Irvines of Drum. Alexander, 17th Laird of Drum, also fought at Prince Charles Edward Stuart’s side at Culloden. He managed to escape the battlefield and flee to Drum, where he was famously hidden by his sister Mary, allegedly in one of the castle’s secret rooms. Once again, we found an 1828 pattern sword in the collection, proudly displayed on a shield in the Entrance Hall. The rest of Drum’s blades tell the story of a family with a long line of artillery officers, with the distinctive regimental badge of the Royal Artillery featuring on a number of sword hilts. The Frasers were not the only ones to make their peace with the new dynasty!

The brass basket-hilt of the Scottish regimental ‘Waterloo’ sword
The brass basket-hilt of the Scottish regimental ‘Waterloo’ sword

In contrast, the Burnetts of Crathes Castle fought on the government’s side for centuries. We were surprised when a rather plain-looking broadsword sent us on the trail of another famous battle: Waterloo. It’s a broadsword with a steel blade, brass openwork basket-hilt and sharkskin grip. The maker’s mark on its blade dates it between 1798 and 1803 – a bit early for Waterloo, you might think. But this was the standard issue sword for officers of Scottish regiments at the beginning of the 19th century, and most officers were still wielding it during the battle that sealed the fate of Napoleon. Could this very sword have been used during the battle? We can only guess …

Project Reveal is a Trust-wide collections digitisation project. It will result in an updated database with high-quality images and unique object numbers for every item in the National Trust for Scotland material culture collections. Six regionally based project teams, supported by experienced project managers, will work across all our properties with collections to complete the inventory in 24 months from July 2017 until July 2019.

Project Reveal

Find out more about this Trust-wide collections digitisation project.

Project Reveal >