Jedburgh violin maker conspicuous by absence from halls of fame

He might have produced some of the world's finest violins despite battling alcoholism for much of his life, but Matthew Hardie, a man dubbed Scotland's Stradivari in his day, doesn't merit a mention in either official or unofficial versions of the history of Jedburgh, the town of his birth.

William Allan's portrait of Jedburgh violin maker Matthew Hardie.
William Allan's portrait of Jedburgh violin maker Matthew Hardie.

Though geologist James Hutton and scientists Mary Somerville and David Brewster have been rightfully inducted into the town’s virtual hall of fame alongside rugby stars Roy Laidlaw and Gary Armstrong, Hardie’s link to the royal burgh appears to have been overlooked.

Perhaps the time will come to raise the profile of this master craftsman, however, even though his chaotic lifestyle saw him locked up in a debtors’ prison before his death in an Edinburgh poorhouse and burial in a pauper’s grave in Greyfriars kirkyard.

These days, Hardie’s musical instruments command premium prices around the world.

Recently, one of his 1815 violins was advertised on eBay by a US vendor with a price-tag of £55,900, and a Hardie-made cello sold for £28,800 in 2006.

Hardie, alive from 1754 to 1826, was the son of Jedburgh clock-maker Stephen Hardie.

The register of baptisms for Jedburgh parish shows Hardie was christened on November 27, 1754.

Young Hardie trained as a joiner, but in 1778, together with his brother Henry, he entered military service, enlisting in the South Fencible Regiment commanded by the then duke of Buccleuch.

The Buccleuch family were to come to his rescue as his patrons over 20 years later.

He was discharged from the regiment in 1782. From 1788 onwards, he is mentioned in several Edinburgh directories, described as a musical instrument maker working from a number of different addresses.

Most of Hardie’s work appears to have been for the Edinburgh Musical Society, but after the society closed in 1798, he embarked on a downward spiral into financial chaos and grinding poverty.

He could no longer always afford the premium-quality cuts of wood required to manufacture top-class violins even though benefactors tried to help him maintain his high standards.

Hardie certainly had confidence in his own ability, claiming that his violins were “inferior to none of the London-made ones”, but by then he faced competition from a growing volume of imported instruments of inferior quality helping to meet the burgeoning demand for violins in Scotland.

In May 1800, with Hardie’s fortunes close to rock bottom, the text of a poster reproduced on the informative Patrick’s People advertises a “subscription concert and ball for the benefit of Matthew Hardie and his family, who have been honoured with the patronage of her grace the Duchess of Buccleuch, Lady Charlotte Campbell, Mrs Dundas of Arniston, besides several other ladies and gentlemen of distinction, to be held in Bernard’s Rooms in Thistle Street on Tuesday, May 9, curt at eight o’clock in the evening”. Tickets were three shillings each.

Hardie’s fall from grace was complete, but at least he had the support of the Buccleuchs, and there was to be a repeat performance the following year.

This time, the advertisements – again reproduced at – declared: “A ball under the patronage of the Earl and Countess of Dalkeith will be held on Tuesday, February 24, 1801, in Bernard’s Rooms, in Thistle Street, for the benefit of Matthew Hardie, violin maker.

“Since the conclusion of the American war, when the South Fencibles were discharged, in which corps MH had the honour of serving, he has applied himself to making violins, but, on account of his numerous family, has never been able to acquire a sufficient stock to carry on trade to advantage, therefore the Earl and Countess of Dalkeith, with the officers of the regiment commanded by his lordship, have generously agreed to patronise him.”

Despite such interventions by the nobility, Hardie seemed unable to regain and hold on to financial stability.

For example, he was a member of the Edinburgh Musical Fund but apparently could not keep up his subscriptions, and when he was unable to pay off arrears dating back to 1817, his name was, after several warnings, removed from its membership list in April 1825.

The end of Hardie’s tortured life came a year later. The following entry is from the Greyfriars burial register: “Matthew Hardie, violin maker, died August 30, 1826, in a charity workhouse and was buried in Greyfriars on the 31st.” He was 71 years of age.

How good was Hardie, though, and did he merit the title of the Scottish Stradivari?

According to William Honeyman, author of Scottish Violin Makers Past and Present, written in 1910, “it is evident that the graceful lines of his violins and the perfect contour of his scrolls have come intuitively from the man’s brain more than from his patterns”.

He adds: “In every one of his violins, there is apparent in every line that subtle something which no one can define.

“It is the same with the tone. The trained ear at once notes that it is not a commonplace tone, though it sometimes takes a firm hand to show its real grandeur.”

Hardie’s customers, among them members of Edinburgh’s elite, were paying as much as six guineas for one of his sought-after instruments in the early 1800s. That’s the equivalent of £600 today.

And his reputation and popularity as a craftsman were such that he had his portrait painted by the noted Edinburgh artist William Allan in about 1822.

That picture has been in the ownership of the National Galleries of Scotland since 1960, but it is currently in storage rather than gracing a gallery wall. The galleries’ website wrongly claims Hardie to have been born in Edinburgh in 1755.

His son Thomas, alive from 1803 to 1856, inherited his father’s skills, along with his liking for strong drink, and he was no slouch when it came to instrument-making, but critics did not always afford him rave reviews.

Most experts, however, say his instruments possess excellent sound quality and are well made, though their craftsmanship is less precise than that displayed by his father.

Like his father, he had problems in maintaining a steady existence, and he died after falling down some stairs near his final residence at Advocate’s Close, Edinburgh, aged just 52.

A modest plaque tells its readers: “Buried in this kirkyard are Matthew Hardie (1755-1826), the Scottish Stradivari, and his son Thomas (1804-1858), master violin makers of Edinburgh.”

The dates might be wrong, but at least the Hardies’ last resting place is marked in some way.