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It's In The Card

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Does A Scottish Curse Lie In The Nine Of Diamonds?


By James Donahue

March 2006


Planted deep within the mythology of Scotland is an old story that the playing card nine of diamonds contains a curse either on Scotland or from Scotland. Just how this curse is supposed to be played out, who is the recipient and who cast it is untold.


When you research the history of this curse, there are various versions. Whichever version you choose to believe, or not believe, is up to the reader. All we can say at this point is that the story seems embedded in the lore of old Scotland and is enriched mostly in the telling, depending we suppose on which part of the country you may be living or visiting when you hear it.


Among the earliest records of the curse is found in Houston’s Memoirs (1715-1747). In that story, a Lord Justice Clerk named Ormistone was so disagreeable he became universally hated and was referred to as the Curse of Scotland. At that time, when ladies encountered the nine of diamonds at cards, they called it Justice Clerk. The name stuck and that card became known as the Curse of Scotland.


Another popular story says that the nine of diamonds was used by Sir John Dalrymple, the Earl of Stair, to cryptically authorize the Glencoe Massacre. There is a resemblance between the way the diamonds appear on that card and the Dalrymple coat of arms. His order in 1692 led to the killing of 38 members of the Macdonald of Glencoe clan by the Campbells as they slept. After this there was a big anti-Campbell sentiment in the west Highlands. Thus the curse.


Another story appears in a book by W. Gurney Bentham about the history of playing cards, published in 1931. In the book Bentham says the card became a curse because the Scottish crown could only afford nine diamonds, while other neighboring countries placed ten diamonds in the crowns of their royalty. If anybody has examined the many crowns worn by the Queen of England, you realize this is a fairy tale at best. Those crowns are bedecked with not only diamonds, but the rarest of the finest cut stones in the world. Surely the Scottish royalty, from the days when royalty still ruled, did as well.


Bridge and poker players tell a story about how the curse relates to a game called Pope Joan in which the nine of diamonds is the Pope – or the antichrist among Scottish Presbyterians.


Yet other Scottish historians say the story reflects the 16th Century reign of Queen Mary at a time when nine diamonds were stolen from the crown of Scotland by an Edinburgh freebooter named George Campbell. Because of the theft, a special tax was levied on the people of Scotland to pay for the missing stones. That tax was called the Curse of Scotland. Somehow the playing card nine of diamonds got a black eye out of the story as well.


Other stories:


The nine of diamonds is the chief card in the game Cornette, which was introduced into Scotland by Mary, Queen of Scots, who was a very unhappy woman.


The dispositions for the fatal field of Flodden in 1513 were drawn up on the back of the card by James IV of Scotland.


The Duke of Cumberland scribbled the order on this card for “no quarter” to be given after the Battle of Culloden. Every man died in the ensuing battle.


And finally it has been said that the word “curse” has been misinterpreted and the phrase should be “Cross of Scotland,” or St. Andrew’s Saltire. The Saltire looks like the pattern used on the nine of diamonds.


And this is probably everything you ever will want to know about the so-called Curse of Scotland.


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