Mystery of a 300-year-old unicorn chair that fell in the sea

It is at least 300-years-old, is carved with a unicorn and is likely to have spent many years immersed in the sea.

Mystery surrounds why the chair ended up in the sea - and how it got back onto dry land. PIC: Highland Folk Museum.
Mystery surrounds why the chair ended up in the sea - and how it got back onto dry land. PIC: Highland Folk Museum.

This mysterious chair, which dates from the 17th or 18th Century, sits in the store at Highland Folk Museum at Newtonmore and was gifted to the collection by an Edinburgh man, now unknown, several decades ago.

Now, after the keen eye of a furniture expert spotted the piece, an investigation is underway to establish more about its origins and why it ended up in the water - and how it made it way back onto dry land again.

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Research is being undertaken by the Regional Furniture Society, which studies furniture traditions across Great Britain and Ireland, after its members travelled to the Highlands and confirmed the wear to the chair had been caused by the sea.

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Crissie White, a member of the RFS from the Glasgow area, said it was a “real mystery” how the ‘seaworn’ chair, made from a type of pine, ended up in the water.

She said: “It is amazing the seaworn chair survived in water long enough to erode all the surfaces of the pine so that they are groved.

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“The construction is strong and the immersion in water would swell the timber to keep the joints intact.”

Ms White added that if the chair had fallen from a shipwreck, it is unlikely it would have survived in the way that it has.

One theory being considered by the RFS was that the chair had been thrown in the water at Tantallon Castle near North Berwick after it was sacked by Oliver Cromwell’s forces in 1651.

A crowned heart on the panel back of the chair may link the item to Clan Douglas, who built Tantallon in the 14th Century.

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It may explain why the chair eventually ended up in the Edinburgh area but there is also some suggestion that the piece came from further north.

The Court of theLord Lyon, the heraldic authority for Scotland, has dated the chair to after the 1603 Union of the Crowns given the panel back chair features a unicorn, the original heraldic symbol for Scotland, and the remnants of a lion.

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Although very hard to see, the animals are holding two pennants in the centre with it confirmed by experts that these were an exclusively Scottish element.

“The chair may have been made for a family to indicate loyalty to the Crown,” Ms White added.

Rachel Chisholm, curator at Highland Folk Museum, said: “It has been in our collection, probably for over 30 years and but we haven’t had room to display it. We are very intrigued as to why it was immersed in water for so long.”