Buffalo Bill at Arbroath? 

This is the West, Sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

- from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance


The Forfar-born artist J. Watterston Herald painted a series of watercolours which are widely accepted as depicting Buffalo Bill’s visit to Arbroath on 22nd August 1904.

Paintings from the series have been sold under the description ‘Buffalo Bill at Arbroath’ on at least three occasions in recent years: at Lindsay Burns Auctioneers of Perth, on 23rd September 1999; Sotheby's, Gleneagles, on 28th August 2002; and at Taylor’s Auction Rooms, Montrose, in January 2007.

While the art world appears to have formed a solid consensus of the ‘blind leading the blind’ variety on the subject, the following specific difficulties arise:

1. The paintings clearly present a fairground barker and other figures on a walk-up stage, of the type which was in common use during the period in question. A wealth of photographic evidence relating to Buffalo Bill’s show has survived but no known image resembles the scene in the paintings, beyond the superficial characteristic that both were public entertainments, carried on around the turn of the 20th century.

2. No expert on Buffalo Bill can be found who is prepared to endorse the identification of these paintings as depicting his show.

3. Buffalo Bill’s show was a massive equestrian spectacular, taking place in an arena larger than a football pitch. The entire complex of canvas tents required a site a minimum of ten acres in extent. His newspaper entries routinely advertised 800 people and 500 horses. Several hundreds of riders appeared simultaneously during certain parts of the show. Exactly how did they all fit onto the stage? Note that only a couple of horses appear in the Herald painting reproduced at the top of this page - and they are in the audience!

4. There can be no serious suggestion that the paintings depict the main part of Buffalo Bill’s show - unless of course ‘artistic licence’ has been indulged in to such an exceptional degree that although the visit of Buffalo Bill provided Herald with his immediate inspiration, nothing in it is recognisable even to the experts. There are three remaining possibilities - that the scene depicts the main entrance to the show, the sideshow, or else the variety entertainment which in 1904 was given on a stage at the conclusion of the main performance. A picture postcard published at Dundee, the venue immediately prior to Arbroath on the 1904 tour, includes the main entrance and sideshow entrance but neither bears any resemblance whatsoever to the painting. The variety show took place inside the canvas arena and this fact would have been reflected in the paintings.

5. In the painting shown above, there is a clear and almost unobstructed view of a church, which is plainly located immediately adjacent to the show ground. Buffalo Bill’s show took place in a field on Culloden Farm, which in those days was right on the edge of the town. In the relevant ordnance survey map for the period, there were no churches indicated anywhere near the show ground. The Herald paintings face in at least two opposing directions, and there are buildings in the backgrounds of both. This would not have been possible if the venue shown in the paintings had been Culloden Farm. Note also the trees in their magnificent autumn colours. On 22nd August, they would still have been green - is this artistic licence too?

I pose a number of open questions for anyone who persists in the view that the subject matter of the paintings has been correctly identified as a scene from Buffalo Bill’s show:

1. Exactly which aspect of Buffalo Bill’s show are we supposed to be looking at?

2. The central figure with the black hat, red smock and beard - do you mean to tell us that this is Buffalo Bill Cody himself? If not, who?

3. The paintings clearly depict an ordinary fairground scene. How could you possibly confuse this with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West & Congress of Rough Riders of the World, the entertainment sensation of the age? With the greatest of respect to you and your profession, do you have any idea of what Buffalo Bill’s show actually looked like???

4. Can you positively identify the location? Am I conceding too much in provisionally accepting that it is even in Arbroath? If so, where?

5. Can it be substantiated - I ask because I genuinely do not know - that Herald himself ever claimed that his pictures were of Buffalo Bill?

6. Mr Jonathan Taylor is quoted as stating (Sunday Post, 25th February 2007, p. 16):

This painting has always been deemed to be of Buffalo Bill. Anyone in the art world will say that it is him.

Can anyone in the art world actually prove this assertion, or must we rely on Mr Taylor’s personal fiat? Or is it perhaps time that the art world questioned its own assumptions?

Perhaps is it rather a question of the immortal quote from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance -

This is the West, Sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

 The Solution 

In point of fact, a far better hypothesis exists.

A rival showman, calling himself ‘Buff Bill’, was one of the many small-time entertainers who made a living out of riding upon the coat-tails of Colonel Cody’s success.

On each occasion on which I have found a record of Buff Bill, there has been evidence of confusion with his more famous contemporary.

An article appeared in the Kilmarnock Standard, 5th August 1893, relating to a lion which had escaped from its cage in the town. The article was indexed by Dick Institute staff under ‘Buffalo Bill’.

In 1896, a lioness gave birth to three cubs at Hawick. A further highlight of this visit came when the show’s general manager, Mr William Pattison, donated a dozen python eggs to the local museum. The Hawick Express, 5th and 19th June respectively, (correctly) attributed these events to ‘Buff Bill’. However, when the story was resurrected in 1946 for the Hawick and the Borders 50 Years Ago feature, 5th and 12th June, ‘Buff Bill’ was revised as ‘Buffalo Bill’. It appears that the journalist in 1946 assumed that ‘Buff Bill’ was to be taken as an abbreviation for the name of his more famous contemporary. Almost undoubtedly, this is what Buff Bill intended his paying customers to think and people are still falling for the calculated deception today.

It is conclusively established, incidentally, that Buffalo Bill’s Wild West did not visit Scotland at any time between 1892 and 1904.

It is humbly submitted, therefore, that the misidentification of J. Watterston Herald’s paintings as depicting Buffalo Bill Cody is a further and spectacular instance of precisely the same error.

The waters are further clouded by the fact that several itinerant showmen apparently used the name ‘Buff Bill’. It is believed that the central figure in the Herald paintings is in fact Peebles-born William Kayes but this cannot be stated with certainty. Any specific information on this point will be received with thanks.

Crucially, at least two photos of Buff Bill’s show survive. The key elements - surreal figures milling around on a stage, the audience standing in front, a front-man with a beard, and a bass drum to the edge of the stage - bear close and unmistakable similarities to the Herald paintings.

These images cannot be reproduced here for copyright reasons but one of the Herald paintings and a photograph of Buff Bill on stage are included in ‘Your Fathers the Ghosts’ - Buffalo Bill’s Wild West in Scotland by Tom F. Cunningham.

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Buffalo Bill’s Wild West in Scotland