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Issue 23 - Many strings to their bows

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 23
October 2005


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Many strings to their bows

Scots grandees have a number of ceremonial roles based on history. One of the most prestigious is based around its pursuit of fine archery. James Irvine Robertson reports

Scots grandees can be the Lord Lieutenant, the Queen’s representative in their county. Or they can be one of the 20 or so deputy lieutenants who back these up. All wear magnificent uniforms.

Less formally, they can be High Constables of Edinburgh, of the Palace of Holyroodhouse, of Leith, of Perth who originated in bodies once formed to keep the peace in their various spheres of influence. Now such organisations are purely ceremonial and largely social.

Some take themselves more seriously than others but, when the monarch arrives on their patch, they all turn out wearing top hats, many rather moth-eaten, fancy waistcoats and carrying truncheons to provide a guard of honour.

Perhaps the most prestigious of these institutions is ‘The Queen’s Body Guard for Scotland, The Royal Company of Archers’.

In 1676 ‘an influential body of Noblemen and Gentlemen met for the the purpose of encouraging the Noble and Useful Recreation of archery, for many years much neglected’. And they have taken their archery seriously ever since, having had the services of their own bow maker since the Company’s inception.

Now about 530 in number, they elect their own members from the aristocracy of Scotland, distinguished ex-soldiers, country gentlemen – and Edinburgh lawyers who have always had a strong representation in the Company.

Some are too overburdened by years and honours to wield a bow but a dedicated core compete all summer long, usually on the Meadows in Edinburgh, across the street from Archers Hall which they have occupied since 1775.

The Company has always had a penchant for smart uniforms, the lowest point, perhaps, coming in 1822 when during George IV's visit the Archers were attired in a dreadful costume, consisting of a green tartan coat and trousers, large white gauntlets, and an Elizabethan ruff round their necks’.

Modern times have reduced the number of uniforms members must wear to two, shooting and dining, and many inherit their kit from their fathers or uncles. But the sight of their eagle feathers and long bows in suburban Edinburgh remains arresting.

The shooting was and is of a high standard.

Contests range up to 200 yards for trophies such as the Musselborough Arrow. The earliest date on the medals attached to it is 1603 but there is no record of when it was first instituted.

The target for the Goose Prize is now a small glass globe but when Viscount Tarbat won it in 1703 he made a capital shot at the bird which was buried up to her neck in the turf.

His lordship won his dinner when ‘she never moved after she received the shot’. With an arrow through the eye this was to be expected. In the late 1790s, when Robert Burns was a member of the Company, a Dr. Speirs had already enjoyed his dinner when ‘being unwell, grew exceedingly fatigued during a protracted contest of this sort.

He therefore called for a chair, and, sitting down, drew his bow, and immediately drove his arrow through the head.’ In 1818, the Company had a chance to compete against a team of American Indian braves who, under their chief Lenung-gis or Long Horns, were appearing as a variety act in Edinburgh.

At 100 yards, the Archers whacked comfortably into the target but the visitors needed to be a dozen paces closer before their more modest bows were within range.

The Archers beat them from this distance too at which the Indians loftily told them that they had long taken up firearms and the old skills had grown rusty.

The most important function of the Archers, however, is ceremonial. Ever since its inception, the most prominent men of Scotland have been in its ranks. The Marquis of Atholl, soon to become a duke was its first Captain-General in 1676 and his name is followed in the roll by 11 earls.

The Company received its Royal Charter from Queen Anne in 1704, the reddendo or tribute, being three barbed silver arrows presented on appropriate occasions. The sovereign usually had the grace to return them which allowed them to be put on display in Archers Hall.

In its early days the Company was suspected by the British Government of Jacobitism and, indeed, its role is almost a Who’s Who of those who were prominent in their support of the exiled Stuarts.

After the ‘45 Uprising, numbers declined until the Company had worked off this slur and, as one historian remarked, its old members would have been aghast to see the Company of its own volition manoeuvre itself into being the Royal Bodyguard to the Hanoverian King George IV on his famous visit to Edinburgh in 1822, the year Sir Walter Scott became a member of the Company.

Fifty Archers met the King on the pier at Leith; another 40 were stationed in odd corners of the Palace of Holyroodhouse. Some hard lobbying ensured that the Company was appointed the King’s Bodyguard for Scotland – equal to the Household Brigade of Guards in London.

It proved to have its disadvantages, particularly in 1842 when they were seriously outpaced by Queen Victoria’s carriage and its accompanying Dragoons.

In the ‘Wet Review’ of 1881, the Queen was so concerned about the aged Duke of Buccleuch that she commanded him to put on his great coat. But such a garment was not part of the uniform, so the Queen produced a brown Shetland shawl and forced it round the Captain-General’s shoulders.

Today the ceremonial duties are confined to Scotland, most prominently at the annual garden party at Holyroodhouse.

More than 100 members of the Royal Company form avenues down which the Queen proceeds while guests are presented to Her Majesty by the Company's Captain-General and President of the Council. Another major duty is attendance outside St Giles' Cathedral, Edinburgh, at the service of installation of Knights of the Thistle.

Members of the Company also attend investitures at the Palace of Holyroodhouse and the presentation of new Colours for Scottish regiments. They were prominent at the opening of the new Scottish Parliament building.

For the ordinary citizens of the city, the Royal Company of Archers adds a touch of colour and sometimes a touch of humour.

Avenerable judge wearing his Archers uniform and carrying his bow was seen hobbling after the departing bus from the New Town to the Meadows. ‘Hang on for Robin Hood,’ shouted the amused conductor.

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