Old Scottish Plate, pp.294-296.

[Scottish National Memorials Contents]

   So much obscurity has until recently surrounded the early Scottish Hall-marks on plate – particularly those previous to 1681 – that it may be fitting as an introduction to this section to explain briefly the regulations by which the goldsmiths were controlled, and how the date of the work which they manufactured can be ascertained. 

   The main object of the Scottish enactments seems to have been to prevent fraud, rather than to preserve a record of the date of manufacture, or to form a source of revenue. For this purpose it was enacted, in the reign of James II. in 1457, ‘as anent the reformacione of golde and siluer wrot be goldsmythis ande to eschewe the desaving done to the Kingis liegis thair salbe ordanyt in ilk burghe quhair goldsmythis wirkis ane vnderstandande and cunnande man of gude conscience quhilk sall be dene of the craft. And quhen the werk is brot to the goldsmyt and it be golde quhat golde that ever it beis brot till him he sall gif it furt agane in werk na wer̃ than xx granys. And of siluer quhat ever be brot him he sall gif it furt agane na wer̃ na xj granys. And the said goldsmyt sall tak his werk or he gif it furthe and pass to the dene of the craft and ger examyn that it be sa fyne as is befor wrettyn. And the said dene of the craft sall set his merk and takyn thairto togidder wt the said goldsmytis. And gif faute he fundyne thairin efterwartis the dene forsaide and goldesmytis gudis salbe in eschet to the king and thair liffis at the kingis will. Ande the saide dene sall haif to his fee of ilk vnce wrot j d. And quhair ther is na goldsmyt bot ane in a towne he sall schawe that werk takinit wt his awne merk to the hede officiaris of the towne quhilkis sall haif a merk in like maner ordanyt thairfor and salbe set to the saide werk. And quhat goldsmyt that giffis furth his werk vtherwayis thane is befor wrettyne his gudis salbe confyskyt to the king and his life at the kingis will.’ 

   In 1483 it was enacted that, as ‘throw the negligence and avirice of the wirkaris… the pepill is ouer gretly scaithit and dissauit,’ there should be appointed ‘in ilka tovne quhair that goldesmithis ar… a wardane and a decane of the craft that salbe suorne thairto and examyn al the werkmanschip that cummys fra thair handis. And quhair thai fynd it sufficient set thair merkis thairto.’ 

   By the Act of 1485 ‘a dekin and a serchor of the craft’ were appointed, and it was enacted ‘that al goldsmytis werk be markit wt his avñ mark, the dekynis mark, and the mark of the tovne of the finace of xj d fyne.’ These enactments were more strictly carried out in Edinhurgh, where the great majority of the goldsmiths plied their craft, than elsewhere in Scotland. Yet, notwithstanding the supervision exercised, there are found constantly recurring complaints of the baseness of the silver. In the Act of 1555 it is mentioned as occasionally having been found as low as ‘six and seven deniers,’ and the standard is again fixed at xj deniers.1 

   In Edinburgh the goldsmiths formed a separate incorporation, although originally they were incorporated with the hammermen, like those in all the other Scottish burghs; and to them in 1586 James VI. granted a letter under the Privy Seal (ratified by Act of Parliament in 1587) authorising them to supervise the quality of ‘all gold and silver wark wrocht and made in ony pairt within this realme.’ And there are still extant letters which they issued to the other burghs calling attention to the deficiency of their standard. 

   On the back of the draft of one of these letters (undated, but assigned to about the year 1687) there are jotted down the names of those to whom it was sent, and from it we learn the number of the goldsmiths in the different burghs of Scotland. In Glasgow there were 5; Aberdeen, 3; Perth, 1; Inverness, 1; Ayr, 1; Banff, 1; and Montrose, 1. And from the minute-books of the incorporation it is calculated that at the same date there were about twenty-five goldsmiths in Edinburgh. 

   Up to 1681 there were only three statutory marks impressed on plate:- the maker’s mark, the town mark, and the deacon’s mark. 

   It will be at once apparent that although these deacons’ marks were not primarily intended to indicate a date, yet incidentally they do so, when the marks can be identified with the names, and when the periods during which they held office can be ascertained. 

   The records and minute-books of the Incorporation of Goldsmiths of Edinburgh, which date from 1525, have happily been preserved, and in them has been found a complete list of all the freemen of the craft and also of their deacons.2 The deacons’ names are also to be found in the minutes of the burgh records, for it was one of the privileges and duties of the deacons of the crafts to sit in the Town Council. 

   It will thus be apparent how it is possible to fix within very narrow limits the date of the older pieces of plate hereafter described. 

   The Edinburgh Incorporation made several alterations in the stamping of plate. In 1681 it abolished the deacon’s mark, substituting that of the Assay-master (altered again in 1759 to that of a thistle), and at the same time it added a date letter, which is still continued. In 1784 the duty mark of the sovereign’s head was added, making in all five statutory marks for silver plate, which is the number still in force. 

   Besides Edinburgh, the goldsmiths plied their craft in almost every burgh of importance throughout Scotland. Plate with the stamp of the following towns has been found:- Canongate (up till recently a separate burgh from Edinburgh), Old Aberdeen, (New) Aberdeen, Ayr, Banff, Dundee, Elgin, Glasgow, Greenock, Inverness, Leith, Montrose, Perth, Stirling, St. Andrews, and Tain. Silver plate was manufactured in all these burghs up to 1836, when, by Act of Parliament, Hall-marking was confined to the Assay Offices of Edinburgh and Glasgow. In most of these burghs the goldsmiths were incorporated with the hammermen, and their names have been ascertained principally from their minute-books and the burgh records. 

   The Act of 1485 appears to have left it in the option of the burgh authorities either to provide themselves with a town mark of their own, to be struck on all plate by the ‘dekin and serchor’ of the craft they were enjoined to appoint, or to permit the goldsmiths to have town marks of their own, which they themselves stamped on the plate they made. In Aberdeen the Town Council appointed in 1649 a ‘tryar’ of gold and silver, and furnished him with a punch of the town mark, but the appointment was not continued. An examination of the marks impressed on provincial plate leads to the inference that each goldsmith had a town mark of his own. Indeed, one goldsmith in Glasgow had his name cut on the mark he used. 

   The town marks of the principal burghs are as follows:- 

Canongate Dundee Leith – an anchor 
Old Aberdeen AB Elgin Montrose 
(New) Aberdeen Glasgow Perth 
Banff Inverness St. Andrews 

   Edinburgh – a castle, triple towered, and embattled. 

   Tain (the goldsmith’s mark is on the same punch as the town mark here). 

   Greenock – a ship in full sail and an anchor. 

   Many minor variations in these marks are also found, but in general they adhered to the main features of those here shown. 

   The goldsmiths in some of the burghs – notably in Aberdeen – added a number of marks which were not statutory, and which varied with the caprice of each individual goldsmith; and no explanation can now be obtained of the reasons which may have led them to do it. 

   There does not seem to have been any considerable amount of plate manufactured in these small burghs. With the exception of Aberdeen and Glasgow, where the trade was more general, it was confined to the making of the communion plate of the churches in the locality, and of articles for domestic use, such as bowls, quaichs, spoons, etc. In Glasgow and Inverness many of the old silver brooches of Celtic design appear to have been made and duly Hall-marked. 

   Although the Act of 1836 did not prevent the goldsmiths in these small burghs from working at their craft, yet the provision compelling them to have their plate Hall-marked either in Edinburgh or Glasgow has led to the withdrawal of all such craftsmen from these places. And now there are few manufacturing goldsmiths and silversmiths to be found in Scotland, except in Edinburgh and Glasgow. [A. J. S. B.] 

1  Pure silver was reckoned as 12 deniers, and the denier was divided into 24 grains. At present the standard is 11 oz. 2 dwt. to the 12 oz. 

2  A complete list of these craftsmen, both in Edinburgh and in the other burghs, with their marks, will be found in the Chapter on ‘Old Scottish Hall-marks,’ by Alexander J. S. Brook, in Old Scottish Communion Plate, by the Rev. Thomas Burns. Edinburgh: R. & R. Clark (now in the press). 

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