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A very rare and important Scottish Silver Basket Hilted Sword dating to circa 1700 by William Scott II of Elgin

With a hilt made of solid silver rather than iron this imposing sword is a prestigious weapon. Although silver is a softer metal, the balance of the sword, and the high quality of its blade, as is the case with other surviving Scottish silver hilted swords, indicate that it was made for use as well as attractive appearance. Records exist of swords being taken from high ranking Jacobite prisoners that fought in the Battle of Sheriffmuir in 1715, some of which had silver hilts. Silver hilted swords were part of the imposing presence and flamboyant appearance displayed by some of the most important clan chiefs and gentry in Scotland at the time.

Fig 1: The Silver Hilted Sword by William Scott (II) of Elgin. Ex-Earlshall Castle Collection

Scottish swords mounted with silver basket hilts dating to before the end of the 18th century are very rare. Silver was expensive and those mounted with silver hilts formed a very small fraction of the total number of all Scottish basket hilted swords made. More convenient to sell on, and to remodel when obsolete (for instance it is known that the silver hilted sword which belonged to the Jacobite Patrick Stuart of Oxhill was fashioned into spoons), means that only a very small number have come down to us compared to those with hilts made of iron.

To date less than thirty Scottish silver hilted swords of all types including hangers, small swords, and basket hilted swords of traditional style, dating to the late 17th and 18th centuries are known to have survived. Twenty of these are basket hilted swords of various sorts of which twelve correspond to what can be described as fully developed typically “Highland” Scottish basket hilted swords. These were made by silversmiths (who also worked with gold) in the main towns and cities of Scotland.

Fig 2: Right side view of the hilt
Fig 3: Right side full length view of the hilt

The known owners of these swords were from the upper strata of Scottish society. One of these swords is marked by the silversmith “HB”, probably Henry Bethune of Edinburgh, and was made for the Chief of Clan MacLeod in 1728/9. It is depicted in a portrait of 1748 by Allan Ramsay of Norman the 22nd Chief in full traditional Highland dress and resides at Dunvegan Castle on Skye, the seat of Clan MacLeod, together with the sword. Prince Charles Edward Stuart is recorded as wearing a silver hilted broad sword upon his entry into the Palace of Holyrood in September 1745. A basket hilted sword in the National Museums of Scotland in Edinburgh associated with Charles Edward may be the same sword.

Fig 4: Left side view of the hilt
Fig 5: Left side full length view of the hilt

Six of these swords, including the sword discussed here, are of a particular design made in the North East of Scotland. Some of these were used as prizes at the Huntly Races and were engraved with presentation inscriptions. They span a period of some forty years.

The Huntly Races were held between 1695 and 1749 under the tenure of the 1st and 2nd Dukes of Gordon, after being granted the right to hold them by the Scottish Parliament. Termed the ‘Charles Fair’ the Races were organised in commemoration of King Charles II who reigned England and Scotland from 1660 to 1685. Huntly is in the North East of Scotland located near the border area of the Northern Lowlands and the Eastern Highlands.  The Race meetings were an important part of the social calendar for both Lowland and Highland Clan society across Scotland, a highlight in the year where business transactions were conducted, deals struck, and politics discussed.

Only a few Huntly Race Prizes are known to survive. Three are silver basket hilted swords directly attributable to the Races by virtue of their engraved dedications on the surface of the knuckle bow of each. Two are by William Scott II of Elgin (Note 1), one made in 1701, now in the National Museums of Scotland, and the other in 1713, now in the Royal Collection. A third was made in 1727 by Robert Cruickshank of Old Aberdeen which is also in the Royal Collection. Two other silver basket hilted swords associated with the Races are not engraved with dedications, one is in a private collection dating to about 1715, and associated on the grounds of style, and the other is the third such sword in the Royal Collection and dates to circa 1730. The sword discussed here is the sixth one of these rare survivors and is also without an inscription (Note 2). It may have been made as a Race Prize or as a prestigious commission. The earlier swords compared to those of later date have more substantial hilts incorporating more weight in silver as is the case with the sword discussed here, it is a meaty hilt well balanced with an imposing blade.

Fig 6: Frontal view of the hilt
Fig 7: Left side view of the hilt from above

To be bestowed with the commission to make a prize for the Races was a great honour for the silversmith involved, and a great opportunity for them to advertise the quality of their work, although each smith by virtue of their selection would already be known as masters of their craft.  The sword discussed here is remarkably similar to the sword made by William Scott II in 1701 in the National Museums of Scotland referred to above  and close examination shows that it was clearly made by the same man in the late 17th or early 18th century. Scott’s stamps are clear on the Museum example and although the remains of marks are present in the same places on our sword, they are indistinct (Note 3). The Museum hilt is damaged in that the bar which connects the upper left corner of the front right main guard plate with the knuckle bow is missing.

Fig 8: Right side oblique view of the hilt by William Scott (II) of Elgin for comparison with the the sword in Fig 9 in the National Museums of Scotland by the same maker
Fig 9: The hilt of the Huntly Races sword by William Scott (II) in the National Museums of Scotland collection reference: H.LA 158 for comparison with Fig 8

The subtle features of the hilt structure indicate that Scott was an accomplished maker. The first front panel, to the left of the knuckle bow when the hilt is viewed from the front, contains the royal cypher of, “C R”, for Charles II, the letters formed in foliate style and linked by a small saltire, within the panel border which is shaped as a heraldic shield. A pierced Stuart crown sits above the panel. The second similar panel to the right consists of a pierced stylised thistle between two “I”s which represent the “II” in Charles II with a further similar Scottish crown above. The leaves emanating from the thistle base curve upwards either side towards the crown. This motif of the thistle beneath the crown has been an emblem of Stuart monarchs for centuries. By the late 17th century, it was a symbol, but not exclusively, of the Jacobite cause which hoped to restore the Stuart line of the deposed King James II / VII to the British throne (Note 4).

Fig 10: Close up of the left side guard panel with the Charles II cypher
Fig 11: Close up of the right side guard panel with the Stuart Arms

The structural bars of the hilt are of flattened oval section fashioned in a decorative gadrooned style. This is another similarity with the sword in the National Museums of Scotland referred to above by William Scott II. A further similar feature to the two swords, not present on the others, lies in the way the rearmost lower saltire bar of each of the front guard panels joins directly with the cross guard bar just in front of its middle rather than onto the base of the structural side guard bars just before they join the cross. A further similarity lies in the way the lobated terminal of the knuckle bow is screwed into the front of the pommel whilst the side guard bars butt against it. These similar features also indicate that our sword was made close to 1701 (Note 5).

Fig 12: View of the grip and liner
Fig 13: The hilt underneath

The pommel is of a slightly flattened spherical shape with a short neck beneath and a pronounced urn-shaped button on top of separate manufacture. It is decorated around its middle with two indented lines running in parallel lying just above and below the circumference. The space between is decorated with two further shallower parallel lines decorated with a row of stars between them. The spirally grooved wooden grip is covered with shagreen bound with two contra-twisted ropes of silver wire, enhanced with narrower ropes to the sides and straight lengths at the flanks. Silver tapered ferrules conforming the contours of the baluster shape of the grip are applied top and bottom shaped on the inward sides with cusps engraved with foliate designs. The sword retains a small fragment of scabbard leather inside its silver mouthpiece.

The broad double-edged blade is 2 inches (5 cm) wide at the hilt and of exceptional quality. It is 33.5 inches (85 cm) long and tapers to its rounded tip. It has a pronounced ricasso with deep short fullers cut inside from each blunt edge. From between these three broad fullers each side extend along the blade for 9 inches (23 cm). The remains of armourer’s marks can be discerned within the fullers and an orb and cross mark a short distance beyond. Overall, the sword is just over 40 inches (102 cm) long. The blade is probably German, of Solingen manufacture.

Condition:

The sword is in fine original condition. The hilt has maintained its pleasing contours and is without repairs or damage. The maker’s marks are worn. The blade has a consistent layer of shallow pitting all over symptomatic of dampness being transferred to the blade from the scabbard when the sword has been stored sheathed for periods of time. The scabbard is now absent apart from its mouthpiece with remnants of leather inside. There is a crescent shaped nick on the back edge of the blade near the blade tip.

Provenance:

The collection of the late Baron of Earlshall then Peter Finer Ltd.

Note 1:

William Scott II worked in Aberdeen where he became a burgess in 1691, He later moved to Banff where he worked for a period until he moved to Elgin and based himself there from 1701 until his death in 1748.

Note 2:

There is the possibility that an inscription may have been applied in the usual place on the knuckle bow and was removed at some time when the sword was sold on. It was a common practice in Scotland in the 18th and 19th centuries to remove dedications from silverware  when it was sold because sellers did not wish to broadcast that they were in financial difficulty and were resorting to literally selling the family silver. However, this is highly unlikely. The front knuckle bow and the side guard panels are shallowly engraved with an outline shape of the outside edge of the panels some distance inside in dog tooth manner with the remains of the smith’s marks visible inside this shape on the knuckle bow. The knuckle bow also has a shallowly engraved upturned fleur-de-lys which emulate those facing the opposite way at the base of the secondary guard panels. These shapes and engraving are consistent across the three surfaces which indicates that an inscription was never present because its erasure would have made the knuckle bow panel thinner and caused distortion to the border engraving. The sword in the Royal Collection dating to 1730 also has a vacant knuckle bow which is the only place on this hilt where a substantial inscription could be applied but never was. The inscriptions on the William Scott II swords work their way around the smith’s marks which indicates that they were not applied by the smith that made the hilt, and probably added later by another hand contracted to do so at additional cost, or not, as seems to be the case, with those swords with plain knuckle bows.

Note 3:

Of the total of surviving Huntly Race Prizes known only two are not swords. One is a thistle cup by William Scott of Banff made in 1695 (now in the National Museums of Scotland) and a cup and cover by Robert Cruickshank of Old Aberdeen made in circa 1725 (now in a Private Collection at Mount Stuart).

Note 4:

The inscription on the sword dated 1713 in the Royal Collection commented on above states that the winner of the sword was George Gordon of Glastiren in Banffshire. Glastiren was a Jacobite who was “out” in the 1715 Jacobite Rebellion. The sword in the Royal Collection dated to circa 1730 has a letter “I” to the left of the thistle in the right hand front guard panel, as is featured in the other swords, however, to the right is the letter “R” which changes the nature of the cypher to that of the exiled king in waiting, James VIII to the Jacobites, and gives another link between these swords and the Jacobite movement (“I” represented “J” until later in the century) . A further Jacobite link lies with a  second inscription on the pommel of the sword by William Scott II in the National Museums of Scotland which postdates the dedication on the knuckle bow and reads: “TAKEN AT DUMBLAIN BY ONE OF EVAN’S DRAGOONS”. For such a small group of swords the Jacobite links are remarkable.

Note 5:

It is of course possible that the swords without inscriptions were made in the same style but were not made for the Huntly Races. This viewpoint presumes, quite plausibly, that silversmiths made swords for other clients as well. However, this is unlikely given the style of these swords with the “C R” cypher and that Charles died in 1685. The use of the cypher after Charles’s death only makes sense if it commemorates a historic  association through an occasion or event rather than a living king at the time of manufacture of the sword.

References:

Philip J Lankester, “Notes on some Scottish Silver-Hilted Swords and related Swords”, Journal of the Arms & Armour Society, Vol XIV March 1994. At this time Philip J Lankester was a senior member of the curatorial team at the Royal Armouries and had examined the sword in-hand whilst it was still in-situ at the Earlshall Collection at Earlshall Castle, in Fife, Scotland.

A V B Norman, “Scottish Swords and the ‘45”, The Swords and the Sorrows, The National Trust for Scotland Trading Company Ltd, 1996, pages 22-50, specifically pages 37-39 for illustrations and descriptions of the three silver hilted sword in the Royal Collection described above.

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