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Scottish Highland Officer’s “Pinch of Snuff” Sword with Scabbard

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Price: £6,650

Ref: 43.14

Item Description

A fine Scottish Officer’s “Pinch of Snuff” basket hilted sword dating to the  middle to third quarter periods of the 18th century. The high quality blade is of flattened octagonal section and engraved along its entire length with foliate designs, grotesques, suns in splendour and stands of arms and retains much of its original gilt inlay. The sword retains its original scabbard.

The attractive construction of the basket guard identifies this sword as a member of an uncommon and distinctive group of Scottish military officers’ swords. The complex hilt design consists of oval shaped apertures mounted between the structural guard bars which are infilled with an  elaborate lattice of finely wrought iron of unusual lace-like delicacy. The pommel is of typical mid 18th century British dome shape with an integral pommel button. The pommel base sits in a circle of iron to which the upper arms of the basket guard are attached.

The hilt is similar to at least three others depicted in contemporary portraits. The first is a painting dated between 1757 and 1763 called “The Pinch of Snuff” by William Delacour, after which the sword type gains its name, and shows an officer in a Highland regiment, probably on service in the Americas, with the sword tucked under his arm, whilst he pauses to take a pinch of snuff. The painting is illustrated in “History of Highland Dress”, John Telfer Dunbar, Oliver & Boyd 1962, Plate 47. The second shows Colonel William Gordon of Fyvie, in the uniform of the Queens Own Royal Regiment of Highlanders, painted in Rome by Pompeo Batoni in 1766, and illustrated in “The Clans of Scotland”, Micheil MacDonald, Brian Trodd Publishing, 1991, Page 108. The third is a painting of an officer in Highland military uniform, circa 1780, auctioned by Christies (“Pictures of Scottish Interest”, Glasgow, 2nd April 1969, lot 1) and now in the National Museums of Scotland.

The earliest dated sword of this type that we know of, although lacking frontal loop guards,  is a silver hilted example with makers marks, probably “TB”, which sold through Thomas Del Mar Auctions in London in December 2014 with London hallmarks for 1745 (lot 330). This example would indicate that the sword type arrived in the second quarter of the 18th century and thrived until circa 1780. Clearly the sword type was popular with the Scottish officer class at a time when Scottish regiments were increasingly being mobilised by the British Army for service abroad. The design is similar to some of the innovative hilt designs that came out of the workshops of Stirling in the same period.

The hilt type was manufactured with two styles of frontal guard loops. One form being a detachable plate fashioned into loops, usually pierced to the front with a heart and secured to the hilt by three screws as in the manner of our sword hilt described here.  This feature can be seen in the Christie’s painting mentioned above. The second style is where the frontal guard loops are forged into the hilt, similar to more traditional basket hilt construction as with the sword illustrated in “Scottish Swords and Dirks”, John Wallace, Arms and Armour Press, 1970, fig 44, and also as illustrated in the Batoni portrait. Some of these hilts were manufactured with a vacant oval ring in “horseman” manner and some with wrist guards. Our sword was not manufactured with an oval ring or wrist guard. The wrist guard was omitted in the construction of the hilt rather than lost during the working life of the sword.

The wooden grip is covered with shagreen and bound with twisted copper wire. An iron ferrule is mounted at its base and a leather fringe at the top between the grip and the pommel base. The hilt retains a buff leather liner with red velvet exterior. The sword retains its scabbard made of padded stitched leather and with a metal chape, mouthpiece and button, to which part of the original frog is still attached.

The blade is 32.25 inches long (82 cm). Overall the sword is 38.25 inches long (just over 97 cm).

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