A King’s welcome found at museum

Curators at Museums & Galleries Edinburgh working on Auld Reekie Retold, the largest inventory in the organisation’s history, have rediscovered a key object relating to the visit of King George IV to Edinburgh in 1822. This year marks 200 years since the visit, and while Museums & Galleries Edinburgh are marking the visit with various events, this rediscovery was entirely coincidental. While sorting through files and boxes in the Museum of Edinburgh, Curator Helen Edwards found two small wooden boxes with glass lids. One box was empty, but the other contained a delicate silk rosette with a silver saltire and thistle and the text “Welcome to Scotland”. Helen saw the link with the royal visit, but some museum detective work was needed to find out more about these items, involving a trawl through decades of documents, inventories, lists, and letters.

Both boxes contained small paper labels from the Corporation Museum. This was the City Council’s first public museum long before the existing Museum of Edinburgh opened. It was housed at the City Chambers, where items were accompanied by these handwritten labels. The label in the empty box told staff that the missing rosette was a gift from an L. J. Butti, so curators were able to search the collections database and match this label with a well-documented rosette held in store at the Museum Collections Centre. The second rosette was a mystery. The team knew from the style of the labels that the rosette must have been in the museum collections by the early 1900s, but no-one could find mention of it anywhere. Curators searched for the name of the donor of the rosette, but still found nothing. When the Museum first started collecting in the 1870s, items were listed in the Register, and curators concluded that this second rosette escaped being recorded anywhere. With no record anywhere, it effectively became lost and unknown.

The George IV rosette

Vicky Garrington, Curator of History, said: “It was such an exciting moment to hear about the rediscovery of a George IV Royal Visit rosette. I’ve been researching the way the public dressed for the visit as part of our marking of its bicentenary. These rosettes or cockades were worn by hundreds of gentlemen attending pageants or audiences with the King, but their fragility means that few have survived. They sit alongside items like our commemorative plaque, silver badges and lamps for illuminating houses to show the huge effort that was made to welcome the first reigning monarch to visit Edinburgh in nearly 200 years.” Now that it has been tracked down, it has been documented, photographed and put away safely in the store. Since 2019, the Auld Reekie Retold project has found thousands of items from the museum’s earliest days with little or no listed information. These objects are now all well documented, many with their unique stories, and hundreds photographed, so they can now be enjoyed for years to come.

Cllr Val Walker, Edinburgh’s Culture and Communities Convener, said: “The Auld Reekie Retold project is all about providing the best care we can for our collections. This includes improving our records so we can access objects and information easily. This in turn enables us to connect the stories of our objects with our audiences so we can have conversations about Edinburgh’s past. The rediscovery of the George IV rosette not only helps us solve a mystery in our records, but also provides a chance to talk about the visit of George IV in 1822 and what that meant to Edinburgh.”

Visit of George IV

The Royal Visit to Edinburgh was the first by a British monarch since the parliamentary Union of 1707. Orchestrated by Sir Walter Scott, the Visit used public ceremonies, dress, objects and pamphlets to embed George IV in Scottish minds as the legitimate heir to Scotland’s national past. Highland dress was encouraged, the cityscape was altered to look its best, and stands for spectators lined the streets to allow everyone a glimpse of their monarch. On 14 August 1822, before the King disembarked at Leith, Sir Walter Scott presented him with a brooch and cutlery belonging to Charles Edward Stuart. This was designed to symbolise the legitimacy of George IV, by aligning him with the Stuart kings. Many in Scotland remained loyal to the house of Stuart, and were wary of the Hanoverian dynasty of which George IV was a part. In preparation for the Royal Visit, streets were redirected and resurfaced to enable a stately procession. ‘Unsightly’ buildings were knocked down and removed, or else covered by decorative screens and archways in order to make the most imposing scene for the King and spectators.

No-one knew exactly when the King might arrive from the sea, and watch parties of well-dressed Scots were seen on Calton Hill and Salisbury Craigs from the 10th of August onwards. Bonfires were lit and information from out of town on the King’s likely progress was exchanged. One of the key processions of the Visit was the King’s journey from Holyrood Palace to the Castle with the Regalia of Scotland carried before him.

These symbols of the Scottish monarchy were presumed lost after the Union, but had been rediscovered by Sir Walter Scott in 1818. Their presence was another way of legitimising George IV’s place in Scottish history. The weaving looms of Scotland went into overdrive in the lead-up to the Royal Visit, producing tartans not just for Highlanders, but for anyone who claimed a clan connection. Kilts, trews, jackets and scarves made a colourful impression on the streets, and the King himself appeared in Highland dress, drawing ridicule in some quarters for his ‘pink tights’ and short kilt. A pamphlet was distributed around the city, presumed to have been written by Sir Walter Scott in 1822, entitled Hints Addressed to the Inhabitants of Edinburgh, and others, in Prospect of His Majesty’s Visit By an Old Citizen. In it, the author instructs every gentleman in Edinburgh on their uniform for the event; “The Magistrates expect all gentlemen to appear in a uniform costume – blue coat, white waistcoat, white/nankeen [roughly beige] pantaloons and a ‘St Andrews Cross by way of a cockade’”.

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