Perthshire Advertiser

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.

Murthly’s 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 fond countryside.

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 departed relatives.  

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 couples.

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.