Mary Queen of Scots shown in right royal colours

The Darnley Jewel is one of the main exhibits in the National Museum's Mary Queen of Scots show. Picture: Contributed
The Darnley Jewel is one of the main exhibits in the National Museum's Mary Queen of Scots show. Picture: Contributed
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THE National Museum’s Mary Queen of Scots exhibition paints a more positive and colourful picture of Scotland’s past than you might expect, says Duncan Macmillan

There is an oak chest in the National Museum’s Mary Queen of Scots exhibition that at first sight looks like a fine, but unexceptional, piece of late medieval furniture.

Research suggests otherwise. It carries the monogram IM, used by James IV and his wife Margaret Tudor, sister of Henry VIII. It is also made of Scottish oak. Chests to store fine clothes were associated with marriages. The marriage of James and Margaret took place in 1503 and so, without too much stretch of the imagination, this could well be the marriage chest of Margaret Tudor (although as a queen she certainly had more than one). If it is, then this is Scotland’s Pandora’s Box, for it was out of that marriage that the whole story of the Union evolved. Exactly a century later, in 1603, James VI, great-grandson of James IV and Margaret and so great-great grandson of Henry VII, inherited the English throne, his cousin Elizabeth having no other heir.

James IV’s marriage to Margaret was supposed to seal a Treaty of Perpetual Peace between England and Scotland, but it didn’t last. On 9 September it will be the 500th anniversary of the Battle of Flodden. James died there along with a great many of his people doing battle against the army of his brother-in-law, Henry VIII. It was a national tragedy.

It is Flodden that is remembered in the words of the Flowers of the Forest: “The Flooers o’ the Forest, that fought aye the foremost,/The pride o’ oor land lie cauld in the clay.” But Flodden was not just a local squabble between old enemies. James IV’s disastrous campaign was one move in a strategic game that involved all the powers of Europe. The marriage of James and Margaret Tudor had been a move in the same game. Scotland was a nation not just defined by relations with its immediate southern neighbour, but with a recognised place in the wider world.

Certainly the Stewarts, or Stuarts as they became, had bad luck. Nevertheless, although we hear about the Tudors, ad nauseam, they were a pretty unpleasant bunch and as a dynasty lasted little more than 100 years. The Stuarts, on the other hand, in spite of all their misfortunes, lasted almost 350 years from the accession of Robert II in 1371 to the death of Queen Anne in 1714. They also brought about the Union of England and Scotland, and whatever you feel about it, that was something that English kings had been trying to achieve since Athelstan and with notable lack of success.

In fact both James IV and James V were European Renaissance princes, energetic and imaginative rulers of one of the earliest self-conscious, modern nation states. The title that James V’s daughter, Mary, is always given “of Scots” was the title of all Scottish monarchs. They were kings and queens of their people, not their territory. Even Mary was much more than a sort of 16th-century Lady Di. She made some bad choices, but she showed pragmatism too, and perhaps no-one could have ridden the storms of the Reformation which eventually overwhelmed her.

Although when we look back to that time, what we see is mostly fragments and ruins and this seems to confirm the gloomy view of Scottish history that tragedies like Flodden, or indeed Mary’s own unhappy end, suggest piece it all together and you get a different picture. While the main aim of the exhibition is to tell Mary’s story, it also looks at the Stuarts in the 16th century more widely and there is enough to suggest that they had glamour.

Take just two items from the exhibition and they also suggest something we might easily not realise. One is a chasuble, an ecclesiastical vestment from the late 15th, or early 16th century. It looks as though it has been much restored. Nevertheless, it is brilliantly colourful. From the other end of the 16th century, there is the Darnley Jewel. Made in Edinburgh, it is an exquisite piece of jewellery and it too is brilliantly coloured. These are just hints of what a colourful place Scotland was. History has done so much to conceal us from our past, we do not recognise ourselves.

There are other things to reflect on too. James IV and V were both great builders. Mary hardly had time to build, but she did have very sophisticated taste in other art forms. Linlithgow, Falkland and Stirling are just three examples of her father’s and grandfather’s patronage which show the same sophistication. They are up-to-date with the latest architectural fashions, not just from France, but from Italy too. They also show, however, that their builders were not mere slaves of fashion, copying something only half understood.

Stirling is especially notable. A fully fledged Renaissance palace in a bold, dramatic style, it is built on a towering rock. That was a remarkable thing to choose to do. It declares that Scotland is a modern, sophisticated country, but it is individual too. It has its own style. Fantasy castles like Glamis or Craigievar follow this thinking.

We have overlooked this self-awareness in our Renaissance kings and those who worked for them. They patronised modern and self-aware poets like William Dunbar and Sir David Lindsay, author of The Thrie Estaits. James IV introduced printing. James V commissioned a history of Scotland which was written in Scots so that it could be read and understood by the “peepil”.

There were artists too. Not much painting survives, but in the exhibition there are some beautiful examples of carved woodwork. The Stirling Heads are really striking. They once decorated the Great Hall in Stirling Castle and have a kind of rugged grandeur that is very distinctive. You see the same in a spectacular cupboard that may have belonged to Mary of Guise, Mary’s mother and Regent of Scotland. There is a self-consciousness about all this, a self-awareness of Scotland as a place with its own distinctive character and at ease with itself and with the wider world.

It was because of this sophistication and the way in which in the towns, at least, new ideas were current, that Scotland entered the Reformation with such enthusiasm, driven, not by the interests of its king as in England, but by popular sentiment.

This had disastrous consequences for churches and their art. The Ten Commandments forbade graven images and those losses were compounded by the Union, which took the royal court away from Scotland, with all the patronage that should naturally have flowed from it. But these are contingencies. It would be wrong to see the loss that resulted from them of so much of our art as confirming the belief that we have a particularly gloomy, art-averse national character.

But what then about the witches? The other major show in Edinburgh at the moment is the National Galleries’ Witches exhibition and there we learn that Scotland seems to have had a particular thing about witches, and that surely says the opposite and confirms our gloomy feeling about our past.

Although his tutor George Buchanan was a scholar of European standing and a leader of the Scottish Reformation, James VI even wrote a book about witches. What is the possible connection?

One thing that is notable in the exhibition is that by far the most vivid witch imagery comes from northern Europe during the Reformation. So Scotland was not alone in this preoccupation and perhaps the Reformation itself actually generated this superstition. It took away the comforting company of saints and the hierarchy of the church and left us alone with our consciences. The dark closed in and our imaginations populated it with the kind of witches and bogles that figure so vividly in the exhibition.

Still, the Reformation also generated the Enlightenment. These two shows suggest how complex our history really is.

• Mary Queen of Scots is at the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, until 17 November. Witches and Wicked Bodies is at Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, until 3 November.