The latest issue (June 2015) of Arrowhead, the newsletter of the Archer-Antiquaries, features an interesting article by Manchester Museum’s Curator of Archery, Wendy Hodkinson, about a silver salver awarded to a man called Peter Muir in 1878. The occasion of the award was Muir’s retirement from his position as Officer and Bowmaker to the Royal Company, a role he had held for more than fifty years in an exemplary manner. The salver is inscribed with the legend ‘Royal Company of Archers The Queen’s Bodyguard for Scotland’ above and ‘His Grace the Duke of Buccleuch Captain General’ below. The General Council and Members of her Majesty’s Bodyguard also presented Peter Muir with 450 sovereigns, which as Wendy points out in her article, is some golden handshake!
Muir was born in the west of Scotland in 1809 and was the only bowyer to win a gold medal for his products at the Great Exhibition of 1851. He was one three bowyers who dominated the trade in the 19th century. Muir competed in archery tournaments. He was champion in England in 1845, 1847 and 1863, and Scottish National Champion in 1859. One of his duties was to teach new members of the Company to use the bow. Yet Peter Muir seems to have to fallen into the position by accident. When the previous Bowmaker to the Company of Archers fell ill, enquiries were made of Peter Muir’s father to see if he knew of anyone who could fill the position, and he recommended his son. Peter Muir’s service lasted fifty years.
In the 21st century it may appear quaint, even a little strange that the Victorians attached so much importance to archery. The Victorians were fascinated with the Middle Ages because it seemed to them to have been a golden age before the horrors of the Industrial Revolution, when it seemed to them social relations had been more harmonious. If there were strict social divisions and people were expected to know their place, at least the great and the good had acted in the interests of the commoners out of a sense of ‘noblesse oblige’. Of course this was all utter nonsense, but it was very influential at the time. It is not for nothing that in the city centre of Leeds, where I live, there is a statue of the Black Prince (not that there is any connection with Leeds), Armley Gaol was built to look like a Medieval Castle, and in Thornton’s Arcade shoppers are treated to a clock that shows characters from Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe every hour. The popularity of Neo-Gothic architectural style as exemplified by the Houses of Parliament, Manchester’s Town Hall and our very own Manchester Museum shows how important Medievalism was to the Victorians.
So popular was archery in 19th century Scotland that there was a long list of archery societies with names as eccentric as the sport was archaic: the Kilwinning Papingo (!), the Ardrossan Archers (before 1845), the Dalry Archers (c.1842), the Irvine Toxophilites (1802-1866), the Paisley Archers (1805-1815; 1858-1910; 1968+), the Saltcoat Archers (c.1856) and the Zingari Archers of Kilmarnock (c.1860). I mean you couldn’t make it up could you?
I would read the vogue for archery, including the inauguration of a Royal Bodyguard or Company of Archers as but one rather quaint component of their Medievalism. However, the fact that such a large amount of money and a silver salver were presented to Muir, and the elevated social circle in which he operated show that archery was taken very seriously. As an adjunct to royalty and the highest levels of the Establishment, Victorian archery was akin to another popular Medieval sport, falconry. Muir described himself as a ‘working-man’ and there is nothing unusual in that, in the same way that royalty today happily rub shoulders with jockeys in pursuance of ‘the sport of kings’.
Wendy ends her fascinating article about Peter Muir with an appeal for members of the public to come forward if they know what happened to the silver salver given to Peter Muir. It is known not to be in Archers’ Hall in Edinburgh. It’s not in the Beechin Wood Collection. Nor is it in the Museum of Scotland. So where is it? Over to you dear reader…..
In writing this blog I have drawn heavily on Wendy’s article in Arrowhead, the newsletter of the Archer-Antiquaries, issue 129 for June 2015, pp. 6-10. I am grateful to her for sharing her archery expertise.