The frightening ball of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots: A Halloween tale

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAImage: “Stirling castle at night”.  Licensed under Creative Commons  via Wikimedia Commons

by CHE Honorary Chief Investigator  Susan Broomhall

Lodged in the rafters of the Queen’s bedchamber at Stirling Castle, excavators found a worn leather  ball…. Did someone kick it accidentally into the ceiling cavity before it was sealed up in the 1540s, or was something more superstitious at work?

Over the past few years, I’ve had the pleasure to work with staff at the Stirling Smith Art Gallery and Museum in Scotland in my role as a member of the Centre. We developed this particular project to provide PhD students and early career scholars with a chance to learn how to pitch research for the general public, to highlight the importance of emotions to the story of individual objects, and to showcase the wonderful range of artifacts held in the collection of the museum.

This is the football – one of the world’s oldest in fact – which Dr Joanne McEwan at The University of Western Australia researched for one card. picture of football

In the card, Jo wrote about how Scottish monarchs were highly superstitious. Perhaps, she wonders, this ball was carefully placed above the bedchamber to protect its occupant, the young Queen Mary Stuart (1542-87), who lived in the castle as a child.

Even more superstitious than his mother Queen Mary, James VI thought it perfectly reasonable to insist in his work on demons, the Daemonologie of 1597, that “assaultes of Sathan are most certainly practized.” James was all for witch hunting, and sat in on the interrogation and torture of a few women himself. He was convinced that there was “a fearefull aboundinge at this time, in this countrie, of these detestable slaves of the Devil, the Witches or enchaunters”.

It was not uncommon at the time for people to place clothing, or objects in rowan wood, as protective charms in meaningful boundaries. And, Jo notes, marks have been found scratched into Stirling Castle’s outer door, marks that were thought to ward off witches.

Jo’s research offers an exciting new dimension to this small piece of leather and pig’s bladder that sits in the Stirling Smith. As a serious contender for the world’s oldest football, it gets a fair bit of coverage, especially lately, as the Smith has opened up the collection on ‘touching days’ (emotion and sensation entwined) when visitors can handle historic artifacts for themselves and create emotional memories of their own.

It’s been wonderful working with the Smith’s staff as they explore how their objects can resonate with modern audiences and their stories be told in new and different ways. In this project, we created six cards to showcase some of the medieval and early modern treasures of the museum. garnet ring

With the team in Australia and Scotland, we discovered the poignant tale of the garnet ring once owned by covenanter Reverend James Guthrie who slipped it from his finger as he ascended the scaffold, the soulful meanings embedded in a sixteenth-century samurai sword, the frighteningly heavy chains once used to bind the insane in the hopes of cure by St Fillan, the elegant propaganda fans used by society ladies to signal their political allegiances, and the passions stirred up to create an accurate pint measure for ale!

We also learned a great deal from designers about which precise object detail to highlight in order to attract and intrigue a viewer, just how much information is enough, and how to bring emotions to the fore in our story-telling.

You can see the rest of the cards, at the Stirling Smith shop or via the CHE website, where you can see and read about each card in more detail – including Mary’s frightening leather ball…

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