The Royal Company of Archers were raised in 1676 as a private archery club. The following year the Scottish Privy Council in Edinburgh granted the fledgling organisation the right to style itself the Royal Company of Archers.
In 1704 the company petitioned Queen Anne for a royal charter, which enabled them to assemble under the old dispensation of wapinschaw (or ‘weapon-showing’) without interference from the civil magistrates.
In effect, this charter gave the hundred men of the Royal Company of Archers the status of a paramilitary force. This was not a problem while Anne, the last representative of the Stuart royal family, remained on the British throne, as the Royal Company was loyal to the Scottish House of Stuart.
But in 1714 when the Hanoverian dynasty succeeded to the crown and the claims of the exiled Roman Catholic branch of the Stuart family were disregarded, the loyalty of the Royal Company of Archers to the Government could not be taken for granted.
It did not help that about this time the Royal Company adopted tartan attire, which was popularly interpreted as showing pro-Stuart, or Jacobite, sympathies.
During the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745 - led by the dashing Prince Charles Edward Stuart - the Royal Company’s Captain General was the 5th Earl of Wemyss, a well-known Jacobite.
His son, Lord Elcho, another Royal Company member, took the field as a senior officer in the army of ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’.
To make matters worse, others of the Royal Company expressed open support for Prince Charles Edward during the six weeks he was in occupation of Edinburgh following his victory at Prestonpans.
After the final defeat of the Jacobite cause at the Battle of Culloden in 1746, the Royal Company of Archers was viewed with suspicion. For many years their activities were conducted with more circumspection but, towards the end of the 18th century, when the fear of Jacobitism had all but vanished, the atmosphere lightened.
For instance, the ban on the making or wearing of tartan clothes, enacted in 1746 in the wake of Culloden, was lifted in 1782.
Shortly afterwards, the Royal Company of Archers subtly reconciled itself to the House of Hanover.
It adopted for its coat the green Government tartan, worn most famously by the 42nd Royal Highland (or Black Watch) Regiment.
This was a clever move and meant that when, in 1822, King George IV became the first Hanoverian monarch to visit Scotland, the Royal Company of Archers claimed the right to act as his personal bodyguard, even though all its privileges had been conferred in the past by a Stuart monarch.
Such boldness paid off. The Captain General at the time was John, 4th Earl of Hopetoun, a Peninsular War (1808-14) general, and he proved a persuasive advocate.
The King was graciously pleased to have the Royal Company of Archers as his escort whilst in Edinburgh. The Royal Company of Archers has performed this role during royal visits to Scotland ever since.
Eventually the company’s full title became The King’s Bodyguard for Scotland: Royal Company of Archers and from 1905 onwards the names of its officers have appeared in the official Army List.
The King’s visit to Edinburgh in 1822 was stage-managed by the novelist of the day and populariser of all things Caledonian, Sir Walter Scott.
Because Scott was a member of the Royal Company of Archers, it is often thought that he had a hand in designing the new uniform worn for the occasion. As it boasted a mix of medieval and Elizabethan motifs, the uniform could well have been inspired by one of Scott’s Gothic novels. It included puffed upper sleeves and was off-set with white gauntlets and a frilly ruff round the neck!
The coat may be extravagant, but in many ways it is a perfect metaphor for the change that saw a disaffected Scotland become an enthusiastic coadjutor in the British state. The Royal Company of Archers transferred its allegiance from one royal dynasty to another, and the sheer exuberance of the costume it wore for King George IV’s visit is testament to the unabashed nature of the transformation.
As the Company historian wrote in 1875: ‘The spirits of the old Jacobite members might well have stood aghast, if they could have beheld their successors guarding into Edinburgh the carriage of a King of the house of Brunswick [i.e. Hanover].’