Scotland has been making silver since the 15th century. In Medieval Scotland, silver was the most important metal used to create highly-regarded and powerful items, and provincial silver was given to a lot of churches and places of worship. Quite often, silversmiths couldn’t rely solely on this vocation for their income, therefore most trained in other trades, such as clock making and gunsmithing. One of the earliest references to silver trading was in 1504, when King James IV paid a Dumfries goldsmith to make falconry equipment. In these times, it was also common practice for the customer to bring their own silver to the silversmiths to be wrought.
Distinctly Scottish silver was primarly plain, with very little in the way of decoration. This is reflective of the economy in 18th century Scotland. For most, silver was a commodity that could act as a handy cash reserve. The emphasis was to create something from the silver itself, rather than using the silver to add embellishment.
During the 18th century, Scottish silver reflected the prominent fashions in London, and later, Sheffield and Birmingham. However, some styles of silver are seen as typical Scottish designs, such as that of the bullet teapot, the quaich, and the harsh spoon.
The Quaich is an item known as Scotland’s ‘Loving cup’ or ‘Cup of Friendship’. The word Quaich comes from the Gaelic word ‘cuach’, meaning cup. A traditional element of Scottish silver, the quaich is a shallow cup, with two handles on opposite sides which were carved out of wood or imitation scallop shell. Larger quaiches were also produced for the purpose of drinking ale. The quaich originated in the Highlands, and was first produced in the 17th century. They were originally crafted from wood but later were made out of silver, brass and pewter. The varying materials adhered to the fashions of the upper classes of northern Scotland. The centre of the bowls could often be engraved with ‘SGUAB AS I’ which means ‘Toss it back’ and, as the name suggests, the quaich was used to offer a welcome drink at gatherings whether that be clans, weddings, christenings or to welcome friends into the home.
The Bullet Teapot was another popular item often crafted in Scottish sterling silver. Bullet teapots have a spherical form, and are mounted on a footing. They were popular during the Georgian period, with some of the finest examples being made by William Ayton and Edward Lothian.
The Harsh Spoon is a serving spoon, normally 30-40 cm long, used to serve meat and potatoes.
Another piece of typically Scottish silver is the thistle cup. These cups were most commonly made around the turn of the 18th century. A bold usage of calix strap work ornaments the lower boder of the cup. The effect created here resembles the Scottish wilderness in which the famed flower thrives.
There is also the disc-end spoons that were produced predominantly in Scotland from the 1500-1600s. The design of this spoon was more advanced than spoons being created in England at the same time.
Scottish hallmarks originated in small towns, and were later freely created by both individuals and clans, resulting in a rich array. In addition, many silversmiths often travelled from town to town, meaning that it is now common to see the initials of silversmiths next to various town marks. Hallmarks tended to be based on a city’s coat of arms, but they sometimes also originated from Scottish legends. Up until 1964, there were two assay offices in Scotland, one in Edinburgh and one in Glasgow.
The only Scottish assay office that remains open today is in Edinburgh (one of the mere four left in the UK). First opened in 1457, this office was where the Incorporation of Goldsmiths of the City of Edinburgh was first established. When hallmarking was first initiated here, it could only be carried out directly by the Deacon (otherwise known as ‘head of the craft’). The town mark of Edinburgh is a three towered castle, an example of which can be seen clearly on this Scottish silver tazza we have here at AC Silver. This mark was accompanied by the maker’s mark and the deacon’s mark until 1681. After this, an assay master was appointed to oversee the process (the first of whom was John Borthwick), and a ‘date letter’ system was introduced. Hallmarks prior to 1759 have an additional Assays Masters Mark, which was replaced by the thistle mark in 1759. The thistle hallmark was used from this point up until 1975, when it was replaced with the rampant lion mark. The Assay office that is open today was transformed from a former church built in 1816, and was reopened by Princess Anne in 1999.
For some time, there was also an Assay office in Glasgow. It was open from 1819 to 1964 and was originally affiliated with the silversmith company ‘Robert Gray & Son’. The town mark for Glasgow is a tree, a fish and a bell, although items produced during the 17th century were marked similarly to the way in which other Scottish provincial towns were.
Despite Edinburgh and Glasgow housing the main assay offices, it was not often that silversmiths actually sent their items to either of these cities to be hallmarked. Consequently, many items were only marked with the maker’s initials and with the town the item was crafted in. This was generally in order to avoid the duty charge which was re-imposed in 1784. These provincial marks grew less common after 1860, rendering provincial Scottish silver quite collectable.
There was a much wider area of manufacture in Scotland than in England, and therefore many hallmarks for smaller areas. Some provincial hallmarks include:
Coline Allan Circa 1740-1774 of Aberdeen
Celebrated for the fact that he had mastered multiple trades, Coline Allan was both a silversmith and a watch maker. In addition to these crafts, he also founded a factory for making granite slabs, table tops and chimneys.
William Ayton Edinburgh (1739-40)
This silversmith made many items, varying from salvers to bullet teapots and tea urns. A candleholder and pair of candle snuffers from William Ayton can be found in the national museums of Scotland.
Hamilton & Inches (1866 – present)
This company was founded by Robert Kirk Inches and his uncles James Hamilton in 1866. For the first two years, one would take a night shift while the other slept in order to protect their wares from thieves. During the next twenty years, the company’s reputation increased rapidly, and in 1887, Robert Inches was granted the revered title ‘His Majesty’s Clockmaker’ (a title which is said to date from the reign of James I and IV). Hamilton & Inches is the only Scottish manufacturing goldsmiths company to survive from the 19th century, and continues to flourishes today.