The Yellow London Lady

T

he violin (or fiddle as it is commonly called in Scotland) is an important musical instrument used in Scotland particularly to preserve music whilst the bagpipe was prohibited after Culloden in 1745. The violin known as The Yellow London lady has an interesting story of its own., with connections to both Clan Donnachaidh and the famous Schiehallion experiment to determine the gravity of the earth.

The Rev Nevil Maskelyne, fifth astronomer royal, suggested the experiment to the Royal Society in 1772 and carried it out in 1774. His method utilised the remarkable symmetry of the mountain. Maskelyne knew that a large object, such as the mountain of Schiehallion, would in theory attract a plumb-line by a measurable amount from the vertical, owing to the gravitational force of the mountain mass itself. In practice, it was a remarkable experiment to undertake. It involved an astronomical telescope, an astronomical clock and a plumb line suspended on each side of the mountain. All of this was conducted on the exposed flank of the hill, in unpredictable weather.

As the experiment lasted many weeks, a hut was built high on the mountain to accommodate the observers, and a local man. Duncan Robertson, was employed as caretaker and to carry up supplies. He was a fme fiddler and many a night he entertained the scientists with his violin, playing jigs and reels.

After all the scientific observations were made, Duncan brought up a keg of whisky for the final celebrations. The night was evidently too jovial because the hut caught fire and Duncan's fiddle was destroyed. Duncan was devastated. Some time later, a new violin arrived as a present for Duncan from Maskelyne who had returned to London. Duncan was overjoyed and immediately wrote a song celebrating it as his sweetheart and called it "The Yellow London Lady".

As an old man, Duncan Robertson gave his violin to a Mr Cumming on condition that he would leave it to a Duncan Robertson. Since then, the violin has been passed down the family from Duncan to Duncan.

A later Duncan Robertson emigrated to Australia but left the fiddle with his mother in Rannoch, who lent it to a famous fiddler and piper, Alistair Phiobair, to play in a great competition in Liverpool. Alistair competed with distinction but was persuaded to celebrate his victory by drinking rather too much and found that he had spent all his money and couldn't afford his fare home.

So he pawned the violin.

The whole of Rannoch was incensed as, by this time, the Yellow London Lady was regarded as a local possession. The locals raised money to send Alistair back to Liverpool to redeem her.

Homeward bound Alistair again took too much drink and, falling down, broke the neck of the violin. Mortified, he made a temporary repair with a screw nail. On return home the Lady was stored in a blanket chest where her glue deteriorated and she was soon found to be in need of repair.

This was done by Mrs Robertson's son who replaced the screw with a wooden pin which acts as a mark of identification to this day.

Recently the Yellow London Lady has been played by the famous Shetland fiddler Aly Bain in Blair Castle and by a local fiddler the late Alex Baxter in Pitlochry Theatre. Both of them remarked on the beauty of her tone.

We are grateful to the present owner, who lives in Australia, for giving permission for the Yellow London Lady to be retained on view here and allowing her to be played in public on very special occasions.