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Fine Pair of Scottish Lobe Butt Pistols by Thomas Murdoch of Doune Circa 1760

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Price: £24,500

Ref: 005.16

Item Description

A fine and rare pair of 28 bore all steel Scottish lobe butt pistols by Thomas Murdoch of Doune, dating to the third quarter of the 18th century, presented in splendid original condition. These pistols are fine representations of the Doune gun making craft. Pistols of this type and date were popular with officers serving in Scottish Highland regiments on service in North America.  

The lobe butt pistol was the last of five types of traditional Scottish pistol to evolve, being preceded firstly by the “fishtail” stock pistol, which arrived in the late 16th century, followed by the “lemon butt”, “heart butt” then “scroll butt” styles as the 17th century progressed. The lobe butt seems to have appeared in the second quarter of the 18th century. The Penicuik Drawings, a series of sketches by an unknown artist, of both Jacobite and Hanoverian soldiery in the ’45 Rebellion, depicts some Highlanders armed with pistols of lobe butt type of similar proportions to those discussed here, suspended from their belts.

Both lobe and scroll butt styles were produced by the Doune gun makers in the 18th century. The only difference between the two forms being the shape of the butt terminal. The typical Doune decorative style applied to these all-steel pistols relates to the barrel decoration, the scrolls on the lock plates behind the cocks, and on the fore ends and undersides of the pistols. The scrolling and leafy features indicate a Celtic root to this style of Doune decoration.      

The pistols illustrated here are finished in this manner. Both cocks, and the areas behind them on the lock plates, are engraved with two roundels of scrolling foliage. The spines of the butts are inlaid with delicate silver Celtic ropework and engraved and parallel sets of lines infilled with chains of chevrons and waves. A silver oval escutcheon is inlaid on the spine of each, between the barrel tang and the vertical sear, inside a roundel and is engraved with a coat of arms formed from a crooked right arm rising from a floor holding a battle axe aloft.

The fore ends are engraved with scrolls, acanthus leaves, linear designs and chevrons on four planes. The button triggers are formed from cups of silver brazed together and engraved with four petals which radiate from the tang ends. Underneath the stocks the space is decorated with fine linear engraving of scrolls, parallel lines and crossed by three silver bands engraved with chevrons. The base of each butt is covered with a silver cap engraved with scrolls similar to those on the lock plates. The belt hooks are  attached to each stock with a roundel pierced and decorated with designs similar to those found on the guard panels of contemporary Scottish basket hilted swords.

The locks are of typical “Highland” form with a horizontal sear extending through each lock plate which holds the cock in the half cock position, and a vertical sear is present extending from the top of each trigger plate which protrudes through a small oblong aperture in the centre of the upper surface of each butt behind the barrel tang. The lock plates are each signed “T” with “MURDOCH” beneath, with a downward pointing scroll extension to the right hand leg of the letter “R”.

The four stage barrels have fluted sections near each base and flared muzzles with octagonal sides engraved with detailed scrolls. The middle sections of the barrels are rounded and boldly engraved with foliage. The overall length of each pistol extremity to extremity is just under 12 inches (just over 30.0 cm). The barrel lengths are fractionally over 7 inches (just over 17.5 cm).

Thomas Murdoch’s baptism is recorded as of 9th May 1735, son of John Murdoch and Margaret McMien in Tenemon. His marriage is recorded 18th December 1766 to Ann Buchanan in the Parish of Port of Menteith. Both events are detailed in the Kilmadock Parish Register (an administrative area which recorded births, deaths and marriages in the Doune region of Perthshire – Kilmadock burial ground where many of the Doune gun makers are interred is a short distance from Doune).

In 1774 Thomas Murdoch is recorded as “Gunsmith in Leith”. Presumably he moved his business to this Edinburgh port area sometime between 1766 and 1774, as demand for high quality and expensive Doune pistols started to shrink along the Highland Line due to the disarming measures taken by the Hanoverian government after the failure of the ’45 Rebellion. During this period pistol production in Doune all but ceased. The later pistols made by Thomas Murdoch which by style or signature (sometimes incorporating the place of work as “Leith”) are less elaborate, less well finished and most certainly less expensive to produce and sell compared to his better, earlier, Doune pistols. A development most likely due to increasing competition to supply the marine market with lower quality, cheaper, plainer pistols, coming on to the market at that time from both Britain and abroad. The high quality of the pistols illustrated here is a clear indicator that they were made in Doune in the early part of Thomas Murdoch’s career. 

However, there was still the occasional opportunity for a quality commission in the later 18th century. According to the Scottish Statistical Account a pair of pistols were made by a T. Murdoch “a tradesman taught in Doune” for the City of Glasgow and presented to the Marquis de Bouille in 1784 (see “Scottish Arms Makers, Charles E Whitelaw page 43). Thomas is recorded as active in Leith in 1774, 1780, 1782 and finally in 1790. It seems he was succeeded in the family business by his son William first recorded in 1793.

Some 80 years after their manufacture, our pistols were gifted in a new  lockable pistol case, with bullet tin containing wad patches,  lead bullets, a bullet mould, screwdriver and powder flask. A small envelope with a similar coat of arms to those on the pistols (the arms holding a sword rather than an axe) embossed on the flap contains a small hand written note stating:

“This pair of pistols belonged to my late uncle Peter McFarlane Esq …….. made in Doune by T Murdoch Presented to me by his Grandchildren John, Peter and Jean Syme, Children of the late John Syme of Alloa in 1842”. The letter is signed “John Stewart”.  

Provenance: Christies sale of 20th November 1991 lot 265

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