Museum Musings

Welcome to Museum Musings, our new blog about all things Elgin Museum! If you’re interested in writing a short piece about a favourite object, display, exhibition or visit to Elgin Museum, please contact us.

Volunteer Martin Cook shares an insight into his recent work at Elgin Museum with our natural history collection.

Moths in the Museum

I began volunteering in the Museum several years ago, initially with the remit to sort through our collection of stuffed birds – to see which had some local provenance or interest and were worth keeping in our limited storage. This also led on to a reorganisation of the birds’ egg collection.

Next in line was the butterfly and moth collection. Or, I should say, butterfly and moth collections. We held at least five different collections which were a mixture of British species and foreign exotics. Unfortunately, a lot of the specimens were in a poor state of repair and an even larger number were not accompanied by any data to suggest when or where they had been collected. Their scientific worth was therefore greatly diminished. Nonetheless we were visited by an entomologist from the National Museum of Scotland who was able to identify specimens of worth and suggest possible ways ahead with the collections.

We felt that there was little we could usefully do with a collection of rather battered and largely unidentified foreign specimens that lacked any data. However, it was a different matter for the British species which we could at least identify with accuracy. It was therefore decided to amalgamate the different collections so that all specimens of any one species would be placed together.

The butterflies were relatively straightforward. Between all the collections there were representatives of nearly all the (roughly) 60 species which occur regularly in Britain and Ireland. It was a different matter with the moths. The variety of larger moths, known as macro moths, in Britain and Ireland is very much greater with close to 800 species. Micro moths come in an even more bewildering variety with around 1600 species – thankfully, the Museum has very few of these!

Elephant Hawkmoth. Caught (and released) at Clochan June 2020

Buff-tip. Caught (and released) at Clochan June 2020

Brimstone Moth. Caught (and released) at Clochan June 2020









The first step was to check all the identifications and here I was grateful to have the assistance of Roy Leverton, Banffshire Moth Recorder, and a national authority. By the time we had finished working through each of the collections we found at least one specimen of 663 of the 800 species. Clearly, by combining the specimens from all the collections a fairly comprehensive moth collection could be assembled – and I began the task.

The first step was to compile an inventory of which moths were in which drawer of which collection – a time consuming job. The main work could then begin, of re-lining the cases and carefully transferring the moths in the correct taxonomic order, together with fresh labelling. Some specimens were found to have detached wings or abdomens and where possible these were re-attached with ‘insect body cement’.

So far, I have spent three winters (one day per week) at this job and another winter season will be needed.

Ghost Moth. Caught (and released) at Clochan June 2020

Peach Blossom. Caught (and released) at Clochan June 2020

White Ermine. Caught (and released) at Clochan June 2020









Despite the complexity of the task it has been rewarding and enjoyable, and we shall end up with a decent collection of UK macro moths. It is unfortunate that there is little provenance to link the specimens to the Moray area – although many of them do occur here in the wild. We shall need to think how we might display at least some of the collection once the museum reopens.

In addition to working on the museum’s collection, I use a light trap in my rural garden near Buckie to catch and identity moths – which are then released. Over the last 10 years I have caught 234 species of macro moth, of which only a tiny number are visible during the day. It is amazing how many beautiful insects are visiting our gardens under cover of darkness – and we are completely unaware of their presence!

Catching these moths in their beautiful fresh colours does of course invite comparison with our Museum specimens. Some of these are more than 100 years old and colours inevitably fade, although shapes and patterns of marking remain clear. As with all forms of nature, there is nothing to compare with what we can find alive and fresh in the countryside.


Volunteer and Moray Society Board Member Mary Shand is back on the blog with some historical recipes to whet your appetite – please do let us know if you try them!

Historical Recipes

illustration of medieval people

A savoury delight beloved in medieval times was the pasty – great as street food and for travellers – and they are often referenced in writings of the time, including Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. This recipe is for Lombard Chicken Pasties, as written about in the 1300s by “The Goodman of Paris”.

Lombard Chicken Pasties

Serves 6


350g/12oz shortcrust or puff pastry
2 eggs, beaten
2 tablespoons lemon or orange juice
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
½1 teaspoon ground ginger
450g/1lb thinly sliced, uncooked chicken or turkey breast meat
3 large rashers of back bacon, trimmed & cut in half


Pre-heat oven to 220C/425F/Gas Mark 7. Roll out the pastry and cut into 6 large (16cm/6 1/2 in) circles. Put in fridge until filling is ready.

Mix the beaten eggs with the juice, pepper & ginger. Dip the meat slices in the mix then divide among the pastry circles, putting the meat on one side and leaving a border of pastry. Lay a piece of bacon on each pile. Brush the edges of the pastry with remaining egg mixture, fold the bare pastry over the meat and seal the edges by pinching them together. Prick the pastry all over with a fork.

Bake the pasties on a baking sheet for 15 minutes. Reduce the heat to 190C/375F/Gas Mark 5 and cook for another 20-25 minutes (Cover with greaseproof paper if getting too brown.) Serve hot or cold.

illustration of medieval barrel

And for dessert:

Pears in Compote

Serves 6


474 ml/17 fl oz red wine
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon honey or sugar
152 g/5 oz sliced dates
6 pears, peeled, cored, sliced thin
Pinch salt
1-2 drops red food colouring


Poach the pears until they are tender, but not too soft. Drain well. In a pan, heat the wine, cinnamon and honey or sugar and when hot put in the dates, pears, salt and food colouring. Bring to a boil and allow to cook for several minutes, then remove from heat. Place in a dish and allow to cool before serving.


Museums volunteers Jenny Cook and Mary Shand have been working on a new display for 2020 about our beautiful miniature Elgin Marbles. As we are currently closed, they’ve decided to bring the display to you online. Read on to find out more about the history of these tiny artworks…

Marbles in Miniature – the John Henning sculptures

By Jenny Cook and Mary Shand

Scene form the Elgin Marbles miniature

In November 2003, Elgin Museum received a telephone call from a local woman who wanted to return something to the Museum which she had found in her attic.

Underneath an old issue of the Scottish Daily Express, dated 11th December 1936, was a superb set of miniatures of the “Elgin Marbles” from the Parthenon frieze. The associated paperwork confirmed the fact that the miniatures were originally a gift to Elgin Museum from Louisa, Countess of Seafield, in November 1886.

How, why or when these miniatures disappeared from the museum is not known, nevertheless some 134 years after they were gifted, they are now again available for display.

In 1799, British Diplomatist and art collector, Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, was appointed British Ambassador in Constantinople, the capital of the Ottoman Empire, which then included most of Greece.

Concerned about damage to important artworks in temples in Greece, Lord Elgin obtained full permission from the Turkish authorities to remove 15 of the original 92 marble metopes from the Parthenon frieze to transport to London. A series of shipments took many sculptures to England between 1802-1812.

Scene form the Elgin Marbles miniature showing livestock

John Henning, a Scottish sculptor from Paisley, was one of the first artists to gain access to the “Elgin Marbles”. He was so struck by the beauty of the sculptures that he asked to draw and make models of them.

Henning first sculpted miniature replicas in ivory but this proved unsatisfactory. Using earlier drawings to help him work out the order of the procession depicted, Henning carved miniature sunken impressions in slate, from which raised casts were made in white plaster and sold in boxed sets.

As we understand it, there are possibly only four sets of these original Henning casts in existence. It is a set of these 2” x 6” (5.08 x 15.24 cm) casts, originally owned by Louisa, Countess Seafield, that are on display in the Museum.

Also exhibited are two of John Henning’s original detailed pencil drawings of horses from the “Elgin Marbles”. They were donated, in 2014, by Andrew Douglas Alexander Thomas Bruce, 11th Earl of Elgin and 15th Earl of Kincardine, KT, CD, JP, DL.


Our next post is by Volunteer and Moray Society Board Member Janet Trythall, on the subject of the Museum’s architecture. Have you ever wondered why it looks so different to the other public buildings of Elgin? Read on…

Elgin Museum and Italianate architecture

By Janet Trythall

Describing the architecture of Elgin Museum, invariably I would trot out the phrase ‘and built in the Italianate-style’. In time of Coronavirus, I asked myself if I actually knew what that meant, and began some simple research into what constitutes “Italianate” and why the style was selected for the Museum.

Here is an image of the frontage of Elgin Museum, built in 1842 to the design of local architect, Thomas Mackenzie, and opened in January 1843.

Sketch of Elgin Museum pre-side hall

Who was making the design choice?

‘The Museum is the built embodiment of Elgin’s capital of the north aspirations, founded as it was by the Elgin and Morayshire Literary and Scientific Association. The 26 gentlemen who founded the Association doubtless regarded it as the key activity which lifted Elgin above the run of provincial towns. Its architecture fits: cosmopolitan-Italianate in style, with the didactic overtones appropriate to a learned society.’

(Charles McKean, The District of Moray: an illustrated architectural guide RIAS 1987)

What was the architectural scene in Elgin at this time?

Architecture of the Georgian age (i.e. the 123 years preceding the accession of Queen Victoria in 1837) included Greek and Gothic designs, but these were as nothing to the self-confident variety of new buildings of the Victorian age in town and countryside alike. Building initiatives of the preceding period had come mainly from the landed aristocracy but now were most vigorously pursued by the merchants and manufacturers. Furthermore, a spirit of self-reliance often involved the employment of local architects, as for Elgin Museum. (from Ronald G. Cant, The Historic Architecture of Moray from a talk given in Forres 1987)

Who was Thomas Mackenzie?

He was the son of a Perthshire architect and born in 1814, making him only 25 when his design for the Museum was accepted. He had moved in 1835 to Aberdeen, to the office of Archibald Simpson (designer of St Giles Kirk, Elgin and Anderson’s Institution). Simpson had toured in Italy, as reflected in some of his late work. Mackenzie then came to Elgin in 1839, as principal assistant to William Robertson, Elgin’s “first architect”, whose design for the Museum had been accepted in 1838 but then shelved. Robertson died suddenly in 1841, and Mackenzie set up on his own. Soon after, his plan for the Museum was adopted by the Society. Unfortunately, he died in 1854, of brain fever, apparently brought on by an accident. He left a wide range of distinguished buildings in Moray, developing accomplished work in various styles including the baronial and classical. One of his sons, A. Marshall Mackenzie, was the architect chosen to design later additions to Elgin Museum.

Why did Mackenzie choose ‘the Italianate style’?

His reasoning is outlined in a report dated 20th October 1841 in the Museum archives, and in early Museum Minutes:

‘One is that it best reconciles the difficulties of sum and site, another, and not the least, that all our public buildings are designed in the Grecian style, and if we were to erect another partaking of the same characters, Strangers and Conniseurs (sic), might be inclined to say we had “too much of a good thing” ‘.

What are usually described as Italianate features and which can we see in Elgin Museum?

The style was derived from medieval Italian villas and farmhouses. The Picturesque movement, which showed a preference for asymmetry, variety, and natural landscaping, was in full swing by the mid-19th century, and helped to grow the popularity of the Italianate style. Irregular floorplans were preferred over earlier plans that championed more rigid and proportional classical ideals. The early 19th century was also the time when pattern books became popular facilitating the sharing and demonstration of building plans.

Typical Italianate features are:

  • Overhanging eaves with substantial brackets.
  • Shallow roof pitch, sometimes with a subsidiary flat roofed wing.
  • Tall square tower with shallow pyramidal roof – sometimes the tower is also a belvedere or campanile.
  • Tall, narrow windows, often with a crown that is typically in the shape of an inverted ‘U’, or if rectangular, topped with ornamented pediments (that is, a gable, usually of triangular shape, placed above the horizontal structure of the lintel).
  • Lunette clerestory windows (half-round windows).

Many of these features are seen in Mackenzie’s 1844 substantial alterations to and encasement in the Italian style of St John’s Episcopal Church, Forres.

A Mohammedan Niche from Gaur or Gauda, Bengal, India. This is the structure in the image of the Museum shown above, visible against the adjacent wall of No. 3 High Street. It was donated to the Museum by J. W. Grant, Wester Elchies in 1852 and sold to the then Royal Museum of Scotland in 1955. Grant worked for the East India Company and donated several carvings of Hindu gods also now with National Museums Scotland.

Mohammedan Niche from Gaur or Gauda, Bengal, India

Further Reading:

Beaton, Elizabeth The designing and building of Elgin Museum, 1837 – 1843 Moray Field Club Papers 97, Moray Field Club Bulletin No 18, 1990
Cant, Ronald G. The Historic Architecture of Moray from a talk given in Forres 1987
Dictionary of Scottish Architects, entry for Thomas Mackenzie
Elgin Museum (A listing description, 1971)
McKean, Charles The District of Moray: an illustrated architectural guide RIAS 1987
St John’s Episcopal Church, Forres (A listing description, 1971)
Strutt and Parker Guides: The Italianate House


Our first blog post is by Volunteer and Moray Society Board Member Mary Shand, about an old favourite who we’re sure you’ll all remember from your visits to the museum: Napoleon the Rocking Horse.

Napoleon the Rocking Horse

By Mary Shand

view of Napoleon the Rocking Horse with museum behind

In the main gallery of Elgin Museum sits Napoleon, a large, beautiful, bench-style rocking horse. Dappled grey with long-hair mane and tail, he has a brown leather saddle on his back with stirrups, and reins to hold on to. He came to the museum in 1991 after a long and interesting career in education.

He was bought in the 1920s for the Low-Mustard family children. Their father had come to Elgin after World War 1, to join the solicitors’ firm of Grigor and Young. When the children outgrew their nursery playthings, the horse was passed on to the orphanage which was part of Anderson’s Institute. It remained there until the orphanage closed.

The rocking horse was then given to the Rose Nursery, named after Helen Rose, the founder. She started the school in 1920 under the Elgin Nursing Association and it was maintained by public subscription until 1946 when it was taken over by the Education Authority. The nursery was affectionately nicknamed “The Cocoa School”. It was here that the children called the horse “Napoleon”.

Full view of Napoleon the Rocking Horse, showing rocker mechanism

Toy horses appeared in numerous forms in ancient times. In the Middle Ages, “Hobby Horses”, a wooden horse head on a stick, were popular. By the 16th century these had developed into the “barrel” horse. This was a log with 4 wooden legs and a horse head on the end. Later, rocking horses, with the familiar, deeply curved rocking base, appeared.

By the 19th century, the form of carved, painted wooden horse on bow rockers had developed and the cottage industry had become a factory production. In the late 1800s, an alternative rocking mechanism was developed by Philip Marqua of Cincinnati, USA and patented in London as the “safety stand”. This is the type of rocking bench that Napoleon uses.

Close up of the face of Napoleon the Rocking Horse