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Collectors of Scottish weapons will be aware that some basket hilted sword makers working in the late 17th century, and the first half of the 18th, signed their work by stamping the initials of their first and last names onto the basket guard, usually at the juncture bars underneath the hilt. Often these initials are accompanied by the first letter of the town in which they worked, for example “S” for Stirling and “G” for Glasgow. Both places being important centres for basket hilted sword manufacture at this time.
Fine quality signed Scottish hilts are now rare and do not come up for sale often. The following description is of a basket hilted sword by John Allan of Stirling dating to the second quarter of the 18th century. The sword is interesting not only because of its known maker but also because of its fine, original, and uncleaned condition. The sword is a fine representation of the Stirling armourers craft during the years which separate the two major Jacobite Rebellions of the 18th century in 1715 and 1745.
Fig 1: Basket Hilted Sword by John Allan of Stirling – Left Facing
John Allan is one of the most important makers of high quality traditional Scottish basket-hilted swords and is most well known for his unique hilts with delicate brass, gold or silver patterns of Celtic inlay applied to the guards mainly on the primary and secondary guard panels. Examples of this finesse and finish are very scarce and can be seen, amongst other places, in the collections at the Royal Armouries and the National Museums of Scotland.
John Allan is first recorded in the borough records in 1702 as a journeyman booked by John Simpson (I), another important Scottish sword maker based in Glasgow. By 1714 he had moved to Doune, a small town near Stirling, and is recorded as “John Allan, swordslipper in Doune”. Doune was an important centre of steel Scottish pistol manufacture at the time. The makers were renowned for the high quality of their output including the patterns of soft metal, mainly silver, inlaid into the stocks of their pistols. Later in 1714 John Allan was admitted as “burgess and neighbour” to the incorporation in Stirling where he remained for the rest of his recorded working life. His hilts blended a unique combination of both the flowing lines of hilt architecture typical of the Glasgow smiths and the delicate patterns of soft metal inlay influenced by his time alongside the Doune gunmakers and applied to his most expensive hilts.
It is not known when John Allan died or ceased work. But up to the mid 18th century, a significant number of other members of his family, plus non-family members, were employed in the business as apprentices and journeymen. Walter Allan, his son, is the most well-known, renowned for the high quality and imaginative hilts that he made. Walter was admitted “burgess and neighbour” in 1732 and elected Deacon of the Incorporation in 1737. Clearly, John Allan put Stirling on the map as a sword making centre and this profile was enhanced by his son.
Fig 2: Basket Hilted Sword by John Allan of Stirling – Right Facing
In the early part of his career John Allan signed his hilts underneath the rear quillon with “I A”, the “I” representing “J” for “John” in the early 18th century form. At some time towards 1730 The “I” changed to the more more modern representation of a “J”, thought there is still some debate about whether “J” was the mark of one of his sons, also called John, applied to differentiate his work from that of his father. This now seems unlikely because this son “John”, although like his brother Walter, is recorded as an apprentice among others in the family business, and was admitted “burgess and neighbour” nine years after Walter in 1741, there is no evidence that he reached anywhere near the same level of prestige. Walter Allan’s most imaginative and unique designs started to appear from circa 1740 onwards. These broke the mould of basket hilt architecture.
As far as the fragments of information from borough and other records handed down to us can tell, plus insights provided by dated pieces, it seems that somewhere towards the mid-point of the 18th century John Allan ceased work. Given that Walter Allan was incorporated, as recorded in the Stirling borough records, in 1732, there was a period of overlap in the outputs of both father and son. At some point, it is likely that Walter took the reins of the business upon the demise or retirement of his father.
Fig 3: Basket Hilted Sword by John Allan of Stirling – Front Facing
The late Baron of Earlshall published a paper in the Spring 2018 edition of the Park Lane Arms Fair Catalogue focussed on this area of overlap. The earliest works of Walter Allan are of standard form, very similar to the fine quality standard hilts (less elaborate without the trade mark soft metal inlay) of his father, and undoubtedly influenced by him. In the 1730’s both men produced similar standard hilts as can be seen by a comparison between our sword and and the works of John and Walter Allan illustrated in the above mentioned paper.
Fig 4: Basket Hilted Sword by John Allan of Stirling – The Initials “J A” underneath the Rear Quillon
The initials underneath our sword of “J A” stamped into the outside face of the juncture of the rear quillon and the rear guard bar correspond to the later period of John Allan’s work. The basket guard has the flowing and attractive contours of the more well known John Allan hilts. The blade is of high quality German, probably Solingen, manufacture.
Fig 5: Basket Hilted Sword by John Allan of Stirling – Oblique Facing
The pleasing and graceful contours of the hilt are best outlined in the front facing, and front oblique facing, photos shown above. Sometimes the work of a master swordsmith can best be described by what his work lacks as well by what it possesses. In this example, as in all of John Allan’s swords known to us, there is an absence of awkward angles or imbalances compared to the work of less skilled smiths who non-the-less produced very fine swords. This is a difficult thing to achieve in iron, especially given that the bars of basket hilts were made largely by forging together component parts in flat form, the moment of truth coming when the assembly was finally brought together in oval form.
Fig 6: Basket Hilted Sword by John Allan of Stirling – Rear View of Basket
The materials which comprise the inside of the hilt are undoubtedly original and the sword seems never to have been taken apart. The baluster shaped wooden grip is covered with shagreen now worn, smoothed and darkened with age and use, and which is bound with silver wire band. At the top and bottom of the grip silver ferrules are applied made from thin beaten sheet decorated with scalloped convex cusps on the inside edges and with two raised bands of dots with two lines imbetween in raised relief. The red cloth liner is stitched in shape with a silken hem, now flaking is parts, and with a leather base.
Fig 7: Basket Hilted Sword by John Allan of Stirling – Blade Maker’s Marks
The blade is double edged with two pronounced fullers running in parallel down the centre of the blade from hilt almost to the tip and is 32.75 inches (just over 83 cm) long. On each side, each fuller is punched in capitals with the words ANDREIA and FARARA separated and flanked by double cross marks.
Fig 8: Basket Hilted Sword by John Allan of Stirling – Full Length in Scabbard
The sword retains its original scabbard made from thick leather with a stitched seam running down the middle on one side. The scabbard retains its chape and the mouthpiece is absent. The scabbard also retains most of its blackened exterior surface.