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A Scottish Scroll Butt Pistol by Thomas Murdoch of Doune circa 1770 to 1780

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Price: £8,750

Ref: 029.22

Item Description

Doune was a well-known centre for the production of high-quality steel pistols in Scotland in the 18th century and before. This pistol is typical of the high standards attained by the pistol makers there and is most likely one of a pair. Pistols of this distinctive scroll butt type and date were popular with officers in Scottish Highland regiments on service in North America through the Revolutionary War period and in Europe.

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

Thomas Murdoch started his gun making career in Doune. In 1774 he is recorded as “Gunsmith in Leith”. Leith was the main port for Edinburgh and Thomas was based at “Leith Walk”. Presumably he moved his business from Doune to Leith sometime between 1766 and 1774, as demand for traditional pistols made in Doune continued 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 some other Doune based gun makers, like Thomas, moved their businesses elsewhere to supply other markets, particularly the military.

The later pistols made by Thomas Murdoch sometimes have his place of work “Leith” marked near to his usual signature on the lock plate. These later pistols are often less profusely decorated with engraving and inlay than their earlier Doune predecessors. Whist the core construction of Thomas’s later pistols was still as robust and impressive, it seems that as time passed the progressive simplification in finish was the result of the need for lower production costs to ensure his pistols were competitively priced in new market circumstances.  This development impacted on other traditionally trained gun makers initiated by increasing competition to supply the marine, civilian and military markets with cheaper, plainer pistols, becoming available at that time from both Britain and abroad as the later 18th century progressed. The pistol described here is a handsome example of Thomas Murdoch’s work but because of its slightly plainer decorative finish it may have been made in the later part of his time in Doune or in the early part of his career in Leith.

Despite these irreversible economic developments and the pressures they exerted on the traditional Scottish gun making craft, there was still the occasional opportunity for a quality commission for Thomas in the later 18th century. According to the Scottish Statistical Account a pair of pistols made by Thomas Murdoch, “a tradesman taught in Doune”, were presented by the City of Glasgow to the Marquis de Bouille in 1784 (see Charles E Whitelaw, “Scottish Arms Makers”,  page 43). Other presentation quality pairs of pistols made by Thomas at this time are known which are profusely inlaid with silver and engraved. 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 at Leith Walk. Presumably William inherited the business and its premises from his father.

The pistol is a sturdy piece of work mounted with a 20 bore four stage 7.75 inch (just over 19.5 cm) barrel built with a flared octagonal muzzle. It is unusual for Scottish barrels in the 18th century to be proofed. However, this barrel is punched with two Tower “View” marks each consisting of a letter “V” underneath a crown inside an oval near the breech. This may be one of a number of barrels sent to London for proofing by Thomas and the peculiar marks of two View marks, rather than a View and a Proof mark, may be the contemporary way of marking barrels as proofed which were sent in to the Tower by gun makers that were not members of the London Gun Company. This was undoubtedly an initiative by Thomas to broaden the attractiveness of his pistols to people that placed greater importance on proofed barrels than the Scots in general had in the past.

The whole of the stock, lock, belt hook and barrel are decorated with panels with lined and wavy borders infilled with bold patterns of floral fans and scrolls. A horizontal seer extends through the lock plate which holds the cock in the half-cock position.

A silver roundel is bedded into each side of the butt. Intended to contain the engraved monogram or initials of the owner these roundels have been left plain. The button trigger and pricker are of steel and engraved with lines that radiate from the tang end in the middle.  Underneath the locks the space is decorated with fine linear engraving of scrolls, parallel lines and waves, crossed by two bands of silver engraved with a chain-like pattern. The belt hook is attached to the stock with a screw from the outside.

The lock plate is signed “T” with “MURDOCH” at the base, with a downward pointing scroll extension emanating from the right side leg of the letter “R” which extends to the front of the name then upwards and back to curl around the letter “T”, in typical form for the signature of this maker when he was working both and Doune and in Leith.

The overall length of the pistol measured from extremity to extremity is just over 12.75 inches (32.5 cm). The pistol is in fine condition with a crisp working action and retains all of its original parts including the ramrod.

Provenance: Bonhams Auctions, London, “Modern and Vintage Sporting Guns, Arms, Armour & Militaria, Thursday 7th February 1991, lot 147. Although not stated in the catalogue by repute the pistol came from Mar Lodge in Scotland.

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