The story of Sir William Drummond Stewart
Scarcely remembered in his
homeland, Sir William Drummond Stewart, seventh Baronet of Murthly, is
hailed across the Atlantic as a hero of the American Wild West. Now, 135
years after his death, efforts have finally begun to recognise the
adventurer’s contribution to Perthshire’s heritage.
present laird, Thomas Steuart Fothringham, is keen that Drummond Stewart
be remembered for his pioneering work and exuberant lifestyle.
"Sir William's legacy is
very much alive in the local landscape and
folklore,” he explained. “The mix of sweeping Douglas Fir terraces,
architectural features, and stories of high-living, buffaloes and Red
Indians mean that without him, Murthly and Birnam would be a poorer
place aesthetically and in spirit.”
Anecdotes about the local laird
who pioneered the Oregon Trail, held ferocious tribes of natives at bay
and saved fellow-travelers from a vicious bear-attack are still told
within households around Dunkeld and beyond, yet the whole story of
Drummond Stewart’s extraordinary life is rarely told and almost
unknown this side of the Atlantic.
As a teenager this young
Perthshire lad led an assault that contributed to the downfall of
Napoleon. By his mid-20s he was captain of the 15th King’s
Hussars, but it was at the age of 34 that his greatest adventure began.
Drummond Stewart was the proud
recipient of the prestigious Waterloo medal, yet his ambitions lay far
from the battle grounds of Europe, he had heard of unexplored lands
beyond America’s frontier where fortunes could be made and danger lay
round every corner.
On exhausting, hazardous treks
through the Wild West Sir William faced dangers that many of his fellow
travelers did not survive, but eagerly returned to the trail year after
year collecting stories, buffalo, exotic birds, plant-life and native
Americans on his way. His first foray beyond the Rocky Mountains became
legendary among the bands of adventurers and fur-traders that journeyed
there when he faced down a furious grizzly bear who had threatened the
life of men who had disturbed her cubs.
In fear the terrified trappers
had shot more than 50 bullets into the enraged animal, yet it was the
one shot fired by Drummond Stewart that brought her down, killing her
instantly and earning the Scotsman enduring respect among the hardened
veterans with whom he traveled.
This reputation was invaluable
when it came to carrying out his ambitious plans to lead man and beast
from America’s Far West, and ship them to foreign shores. Initially
three buffalo calves were lasso-ed and driven across Indian country to
St Louis where they were passengers on the first boat to the UK. Many of
their breed followed in this long journey, causing quite a stir when
they arrived in their new Scottish home.
In 1840, venturing north for the
first time, a honeymooning Queen Victoria was startled to find not only
recalcitrant Scots, but a herd of wild animals never before seen in that
country. As she and her new husband made their way through Perthshire they were bemused to find the
impressive beasts looking quite at home in the lands around Dunkeld. In
her journal the young Queen noted that she and Albert had encountered,
“those strange hump-backed creatures from America”.
What the royal couple missed out
on was the, now infamous, sight of the buffaloes’ countrymen cavorting
through the quiet streets of Dunkeld in a rowing boat to which they had
attached wagon wheels. The war-whoops and shrieks of these men who had
shed none of their traditional costume since disembarking in Glasgow
months before upset the locals who complained to the laird.
Gradually, however, an increased
knowledge and understanding of the native American way of life filtered
through to the host community of those far-traveled men thanks in no
small part to the work of artist Alfred Jacob Miller who was
commissioned by Sir William to record every detail of life on the trail.
In the 1830s and 40s Sir William
employed artists, writers and botanists to record this world where until
that era no white-man had set foot. Medicines and herbs were discovered
on these trips as well as the region’s magnificent flora and fauna.
Yet the Perthshire man was not primarily concerned with science, rather
it was the very idea of mixing cultures that appealed to him most and
inspired his grand schemes to swap not only cultures, but wildlife and
indigenous peoples as well.
Oil paintings depicting Drummond
Stewart facing down a band of the Crow tribe, preparing for a buffalo
hunt, and setting up camp hung at Murthly Castle beside scenes of native
settlements, a squaw in all her finery and numerous landscape portrayals
of a world unknown to almost any Scot before Sir William.
Innumerable artifacts from the
Far West also filled his home after William inherited the estate and
title following the death of his elder brother John. Once he became the
7th Baronet of Murthly the adventurer concentrated more of
his efforts on projects closer to home including the construction of
Buffalo Park on Murthly Estate where buffalo grass was grown from seed
brought by Sir William from America and a strong wall constructed to
hold the growing herd of buffalo ensconced on his land.
In attending to the estate he
inherited, the laird landscaped its innumerable acres to enhance its
natural beauty, but also to preserve the area’s own historical
heritage. Like all well educated Scots Sir William recognised the
significance of the famous Birnam Wood which stood proud overlooking his
land in the time of Macbeth. Although the wood immortalised by
Shakespeare is now all but gone, Sir William saw to it that the equally
renowned site of Duncan’s Camp be preserved for future generations.
He constructed long and strong
stone walls around its perimeter in order that the position of the camp
might form a more striking object in the landscape. The laird’s
construction projects extended throughout his land and included the
building of a fine shooting lodge which was remarked upon for its beauty
in the journal of Queen Victoria following a further trip to her now
What she may or may not have
visited on her travels was the most striking yet controversial addition
to the Murthly estate. At the end of a tree-lined drive known as dead
man’s walk lay the Stewart family’s 16th century mortuary
chapel, a place to which Sir William would have given little thought
other than on the occasions when he would have made the walk to bury
For the most part Sir William
lived by his own moral code enjoying the attentions of innumerable
squaws on his travels, despite his marriage to a local washer woman for
which his family condemned him. The excesses of life on the trail
included plenty of strong drink, gambling and led to a tragic incident
one year when Sir William asked a companion to sleep outwith their
makeshift shelter in order that he entertain a native woman that night.
The unfortunate obliging friend
was bitten by a ferocious wolf that night and developed the horrifying
and fatal symptoms of hydrophobia. Although he expressed heartfelt
regret at this incident, it was a threat to Sir William’s own health
that led to a religious epiphany and a conversion to Roman Catholicism.
Saved on the trail from
death’s door by a Jesuit priest, Sir William vowed to restore the Chapel
of St. Anthony the Eremite at Murthly and, in
fact, built an entirely new chapel resplendent with the finest
architecture and works of art. Built by a partnership including Pugin,
who had been responsible for London’s Houses of Parliament, this
chapel was seen as an affront to the Presbyterian values of the rest of
the Stewart family.
Sir William’s chapel became
the first Catholic church to be dedicated after the reformation in
Scotland and so enraged his Calvinist young brother Archibald that he
stripped it of its contents following the laird’s death and sold the
artifacts to the highest bidder.
The ornate chapel fell into
disrepair until most recently it was renovated by the Stewart family to
such an extent that it is now a popular wedding venue for modern
The surviving evidence of
Drummond Stewart’s unique legacy is currently under examination by
Scottish Natural Heritage which is considering extending the protection
it affords Murthly Castle and gardens to the larger estate and so
encompass Buffalo Park and Drummond Stewart’s extensive landscaping
within the conserved area.
Such official protection would
preserve a valuable piece of Perthshire’s history and, who knows,
might even inspire a new generation of intrepid explorers to forge their
way in the world.