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26 Apr 2019

Have dowel, will travel

Written by Mike Taylor, Project Reveal Firearms Officer
Four rifles displayed above a fireplace at Fyvie Castle
Gun display over a fireplace in Fyvie Castle
My task was to ensure that the firearms held by the Trust had accurate descriptions and are housed safely and securely, taking into account current firearms legislation.

My ‘kit’ for each visit included a camera, tape measure, bore gauges, torch and a length of dowel.

Why dowel? You may well ask. It’s not unknown for a muzzle-loading gun to be left with an unfired charge in the barrel after the last use. Such a charge would be invisible, hence the dowel – to ensure that the barrel was clear.

Many Trust places were once sporting estates and the presence of sporting guns in the collections is to be expected. Indeed, there are a significant number of shotguns, fowling pieces and hunting rifles distributed across the properties. These range from guns by London makers such as Henry Nock (whose business eventually became Wilkinson Sword) to provincial items by local gunsmiths like Christie of Arbroath. The well-known Edinburgh gunmaker Dickson is also well represented by several high-quality shotguns.

Sporting gun
Sporting gun, which would be used on sporting estates such as Mar Lodge

But for me, the presence of a Whitworth ‘monkey-tail’ breech-loader at Pollok was an unexpected surprise, as was the early 19th-century Baker rifle at Crathes – presumably purchased privately for hunting or for use with the local militia. Such military-type firearms weren’t common in the survey, but the Enfield percussion rifle at Hill of Tarvit and the Snider-Enfield breech-loaders at Culzean were also most likely bought for use by local volunteers.

Whitworth ‘monkey-tail’ breech-loader gun from Pollok House
Whitworth ‘monkey-tail’ breech-loader gun from Pollok House

The collection at Culzean is dominated by the displays of flintlock dragoon pistols used to make the impressive patterns on the walls of the entrance hall. These form one of the largest collections of 18th- and early 19th-century British army pistols in existence. As obsolete weapons, they were purchased in bulk from the Board of Ordnance minus their ramrods – which presumably went for kindling! Many have the opposed two broad arrows mark indicating that they were ‘sold out of service’ and other marks signifying the unit which carried them – some of them very obscure yeomanry (volunteer) cavalry, such as the Midlothian Fencible Cavalry. Their use in Culzean’s scheme of decoration has ensured their survival.

Part of the firearms display in the armoury at Culzean Castle
Part of the firearms display in the armoury at Culzean Castle

Fyvie Castle also uses firearms as part of its décor and includes a number bought as part of the sale of the De Ponte collection in Corsica in 1902. Elsewhere, there are African and Indian rifles, Ottoman pistols and Russian muskets alongside the work of British gunsmiths.

Some of the guns have long and interesting histories, which may be more complex than imagined at first sight. Crathes Castle contains a long flintlock musket with a barrel that is clearly marked ‘Patrik Roy 1682’, with ‘BANF’ and ‘B’ beneath a coronet on the breech. But the lock is clearly marked with the post-1808 symbol of the British East India Company. So, could this be a treasured relic given a longer lease of life, or is it part of the boom in fake Highland memorabilia that followed the publication of Walter Scott’s novels in the 19th century? More research may solve the mystery.

Flintlock musket from Crathes Castle
Flintlock musket from Crathes Castle

Meanwhile, the guns in the Trust’s care help to illustrate the history of sporting estates, the development of firearms, military and civilian styles, and other individual stories. This is yet another rich thread in the Trust’s collections – and was a privilege to work on.

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's 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.

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