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Tracking Down ‘The Great Michael’

Posted on June 1st, 2011 by Charles Boot

Christopher Dingwall writes:

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It was back in August 2010 that I found myself standing with historian Louise Yeoman and several other interested parties in a ploughed field at Tullibardine, a little to the north of Auchterarder, in West Perthshire (above). My visit had been prompted by a telephone call asking whether there might be some truth in a tale told by the 16th-century Scottish chronicler Robert Lindsay of Pitscottie that there had once been a garden laid out there in the precise shape and dimensions of a great early 16th-century warship known as the ‘Great Michael’ (below), a feature which, by all accounts, would have measured some 75 metres (250 feet) by 11 metres (35 feet).

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Most people have heard of the ‘Mary Rose’, favourite warship of the England’s King Henry VIII, which foundered during the Battle of the Solent in 1545; fewer, perhaps, of the ‘Great Michael’, built for Henry’s Scottish contemporary King James IV, and launched in 1511. Regarded by many as the most successful of the Stewart kings, James had this great ship built as a symbol of power to impress his neighbours and allies, most notably the English and French. However, his reign was to end disastrously at Flodden Field in 1513, when his ill-judged invasion of England, prompted by Scotland’s ‘auld alliance’ with France, resulted in a crushing defeat, and his death along with many members of the Scots nobility.

Pitscottie’s account, believed by many to be somewhat fanciful, talked of the shape of the Great Michael as having been planted out in hawthorn at Tullibardine Castle by one of the shipwrights involved in her construction. But why might this have been the case, so far from the sea, and from the shipyard at Newhaven on the Firth of Forth where she was built? The answer is that, with large oak trees required for building a ship of such huge dimensions, timber had to be brought from as far afield as Scandinavia, and from Scotland’s inland forests, among them those of Tullibardine and Kincardine, nearby Auchterarder. Not only that, but one of the king’s carpenters is known to have been a John Drummond, who hailed from Auchterarder. Finally, there are later accounts which suggest that remnants of the hawthorns survived into the early 19th century.

Although no trace now survives above the ground of the great Murray stronghold of Tullibardine Castle, and although there are no hawthorns to be seen, the party was successful in locating the site of the castle on a ridge, with the help of archaeologist David Connolly. A little to the north-west of this there is an elongated marshy hollow which local folklore identifies as the site of the ‘Great Michael’ garden. Viewed from ground level there might seem little prospect of a garden in this position having much visual impact. Yet, if one imagines that the feature was designed to be seen from a viewing platform atop the five or six storey tower house depicted by the 16th-century cartographer Timothy Pont (below), the story begins to make more sense.

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Hawthorn is likely to have been chosen, because it would withstand regular clipping, to maintain its shape. Comparison might be made with other near-contemporary garden features such as the ‘King’s Knot’ at Stirling, or the P-shaped fishpond at Craigmillar Castle near Edinburgh, both features designed to be seen from elevated viewpoints. Also, with Tullibardine Castle being one of the places which the reigning monarch would have visited in the course of a royal progress through his kingdom, what better way could there be to flatter the king?

In a BBC Radio Scotland programme presented by Susan Morrison, and broadcast in November 2010, all parties were able to reach agreement that, while we could think of few precedents, there seems every likelihood that the garden at Tullibardine was laid out as Pitscottie described it, and that traces of it may have survived into the 19th century, albeit modified by 18th-century landscaping which would have accompanied the re-building of the castle for the Murrays of Tullibardine and Atholl to designs by architect William Adam.


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