Walter Scott and the ‘Emusses’

A couple of weeks ago I gave a talk to the Edinburgh Sir Walter Scott Club on the topic ‘Sir Walter Scott and Place Names in Australia and New Zealand’. If you’re really keen, you can watch a video of my talk here, but one story I discovered in the course of my research is worth sharing with readers of this blog.

In 1821, a young man named George Harper, who had worked briefly for Walter Scott as a gardener on his property at Abbotsford, emigrated to Sydney. Scott provided Harper with introductions to Governor Lachlan Macquarie and to Macquarie’s successor, Thomas Brisbane. In gratitude for Scott’s help, Harper gave the property he was granted to the southwest of Sydney the name Abbotsford, writing to Scott to tell him so.

But Harper’s expression of thanks did not end there. In 1827 he returned to Britain for a visit, bringing with him a collection of ‘natural curiosities’, including 1675 bird skins, which he sold to private and museum collectors, and two live emus which he intended to present to Scott.

The emus (or ‘Emusses’, as Scott rather charmingly pluralised them) proved something of a headache. Scott agreed to accept them because, as he wrote to his business manager Robert Cadell, he knew no more

what an Emuss was like than what a phoenix was like but supposed them some sort of large parrots & thought they would hang well enough in the hall amongst the armour.

In fact, however, as Scott lamented in his journal,

your Emus it seems stands six feet high on his stocking soles and is little better than a kind of Kassowari or Ostrich…. No – I’ll no Emuses!

Scott asked Cadell to see whether Harper would agree to donate the emus to the royal menagerie at the Tower of London. Cadell met Harper, who assured him that

his Emus are as inoffensive as Turkies – feed on the natural grapes, and follow him in the quietest manner.

The royal menagerie proved to have emus enough already, but Scott held firm, grumbling to Cadell that he wished

my good friend Mr Harpers gratitude … had taken a more fortunate direction. If the creatures are a sort of Ostriches as I suspect they will eat up my armory breakfast on a steel cap dine on a shirt of mail and conclude the evening with a Waterloo cuirass. Pray keep them at Staffs end if possible.

He next offered them to the Duke of Buccleuch, and they were duly sent to Dalkeith Palace, where we can only hope that these poor unwanted birds lived happily ever after.

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