Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Lost Bison of the UK

I was studying some of Alfred Miller’s notes on his 1837 expedition into the American West when I came across one of particular (if trivial) interest. These anecdotal memos (housed in the Walters Art Collection) were appended at some later date to the majority of the Miller watercolors I was viewing, apparently for publication—but precisely when and for what purpose I’m unaware.

This particular commentary (as printed adjacent plate 151 of the Revised and Enlarged Edition of The West of Alfred Jacob Miller) concerns an Indian buffalo hunt Miller’s party figured in, and its aftermath:
... While here our Commander secured seven of these animals (male and female) alive; had them driven to the Missouri, embarked on a steamer for St. Louis, and thence by same conveyance to New Orleans;—here they were placed on shipboard and transported to Scotland, as a present to the Marquis of Breadalbane, at Taymouth Castle.
Afterwards, while sojourning in Scotland, we paid a visit to these animals,—they were enclosed in a paddock, with a circumference of 5 or 6 miles, but had become completely tame;—they were however healthy and with an addition of two calves.

This note was necessarily written after 1840, for it was in this year that Miller began his two year visit to William George Drummond Stewart (both ‘Sir’ and ‘Captain’) in Scotland—Stewart having also been Miller’s host in the western explorations and, apparently, the giver of the seven bison.

Alfred Jacob Miller (1810-74) is an American artist remembered mainly for his studies of American native Indians from his journey of ‘37 with Drummond Stewart. He made sketches on location, which were the basis of watercolors and the oil paintings produced for Stewart’s Murthly Castle from 1840 to 1842.

Until reading his note on the Scots bison family, I was entirely unaware of their existence. My curiosity sparked some further research, which has so far led me to one solitary document.
An article entitled “Acclimatization of Animals,” from The Edinburgh Review (as printed in 1860 in Littell’s Living Age, 8th Quarterly Volume of 3rd Series, beginning 719th page, photographically reproduced here by Cornell U).
It seems to suggest that John Campbell, 2nd Marquess of Breadalbane, was attempting to build a preserve of animals resembling extinct varieties once native to Europe. The seven Bison bison specimens were, apparently, intended to replace the famed Auroch (classified there as Bison urus). Unfortunately, the fate of Taymouth’s American Bison population was that of succumbing to an epidemic of bovine pneumonia that swept Britain.

Today, there exist at least four specimens of bison in Scotland, apparently descended from a native species that has been declared extinct numerous times throughout history, but that keeps popping up despite it.
Any speculation that this current batch might truthfully be descendants of Breadalbane’s American strain (also thought lost) would seem unfounded without further information. Probably impossible.
I wonder if there’s been a good DNA analysis?

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