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A Mid-18th Century Scottish Silver Basket Hilted Sword of Stirling Type

A very rare and important Scottish basket hilted sword dating to the middle of the 18th century. The sword hilt has been made in silver by a Scottish silversmith commissioned by Walter Allan, armourer in Stirling,  to use one of his own imaginative iron hilt designs as the model. Being made of silver this was a prestigious weapon. Although silver is a softer metal than iron, the balance of this 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 rather than just decoration. Records exist of swords being taken from Jacobite prisoners after the Battle of Sheriffmuir in 1715 of which some had silver hilts.  

Fig 1: Scottish Silver Basket Hilted Sword designed by Walter Allan of Stirling

Scottish swords mounted with silver basket hilts dating to before the end of the 18th century are very rare. The proportion of swords with expensive silver hilts was a small fraction of the total of all swords made to start off with. More easily damaged than iron, more convenient to sell on and convert into currency, and to remodel when obsolete (for instance the sword of the Jacobite Patrick Stuart of Oxhill was fashioned into spoons) means that only a small number have come down to us compared to those with hilts made of iron. 

Fig 2: Full length image Right
Fig 3: Full length image Left

To date less than 30 Scottish silver hilted swords of all types including hangers, small swords and basket hilts 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 basket hilted forms.  Some of these were made as commissions by silversmiths (who also worked with gold) in the main cities of  Scotland to show-off the standing and wealth of some Highland clan chiefs and gentry.

One of these is marked by the silversmith “HB”, probably Henry Bethune of Edinburgh, and was made for the Chief of Clan MacLead in 1728/9. It is depicted in a portrait of 1748 by Allan Ramsay of Norman the 22nd Chief which 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 which may be the basket hilted sword now housed in the National Museums of Scotland in Edinburgh and associated with him.  Six of these swords are of a style made in the North East of Scotland for presentation purposes such as the Huntly Races.

Fig 4: Hilt Right Side
Fig 5 Hilt Left Side

Three of these swords, including our sword, date to the middle of the 18th century and give an opportunity to explore the relationship between the traditional armourer making sword hilts out of iron and the silversmith hilt-maker at that time.

Walter Allan of Stirling was undoubtedly one of the foremost designers and makers of Scottish basket hilted swords. He was admitted as a freeman of the Incorporation of Hammermen of Stirling in 1732 and worked probably until he died in 1761. His earlier work produced hilts of traditional design of the highest quality. However, his later hilts, of importance to us here, were of the most imaginative and unique design that broke the mould of traditional hilt-making and are his legacy. These swords with hilts of iron are most prized by collectors today. Charles Whitelaw, a great authority on Scottish weapons in the early 20th century, referred to him as “the outstanding artist in this line in the country and a man of wonderful versatility”.

Fig 6: Hilt Oblique Right
Fig 7: Hilt Oblique Left

Walter Allan designed the hilts of the three swords being discussed. The first of the three is a sword in the possession of Cameron of Lochiel, the Chief of Clan Cameron residing at the seat of the Clan at Achnacarry in Lochaber. This sword is described fully in an essay by Stuart Maxwell in, “Scottish Weapons & Fortifications 1100 – 1800”, John Donald Publishers, 1981. An obvious imaginative design by Walter Allan , the hilt is important because it bears the initials of Walter Allan in the manner he adopted for marking his hilts of iron, the letters “W A” for his name, struck over a letter “S” for Stirling, underneath the rear quillon. The hilt also bears the letters “C M” twice in raised relief inside a depressed rectangle, a stag’s head in a depression and other marks identified as those of Colin Mitchell, silversmith and goldsmith of the Canongate who died in 1753. The manufacture of the sword is obviously a collaboration between Allan and Mitchell. A number of letters between the two men commencing with one dated 1741 uncovered in the records of the Edinburgh Commissionary Court indicate a close working relationship between them with Allan providing commissions for Mitchell to carry out in silver to Allan’s designs, not only for sword hilts but also for related furniture such as scabbard mounts and buckles. The letters are presumably only a fraction of the total number written between them and their relationship could have commenced some years before 1741 given that Mitchell was born in 1699 and is recorded as active in 1735 when he was 36 years old. By the standards of the time he would have been well established in his trade by then.     

The commercial relationship between Walter Allan and Colin Mitchell, the latter as customer to the former, indicates that Allan regarded silver hilted swords as an important part if not a mainstream part of his business. The silversmiths’  guilds and the conditions set by his own incorporation prevented Allan moving across trade boundaries and working in silver himself. Similarly Mitchell could not work in iron. So it is not surprising that Allan should work with a silversmith based in the capital city of Scotland to make new swords, and to repair existing ones,  where resources, skill levels and the availability of related services would be more available than in remoter Stirling where he was based.

The next two swords of the three do not bear legible silversmiths marks because they are obscured with wear. Neither do they retain legible  signature letters of Walter Allan because they presumably have also worn away. However, Allan’s marks are actually not necessary because his signature lies in the styles of the hilts which could not have been designed by anyone else. 

Fig 8: Hilt of an iron hilted sword made and signed by Walter Allan now in the National Museums of Scotland in Edinburgh Collection Reference SW37 Courtesy of the NMS
Fig 9: Front of the featured sword. The hilt is a copy of Walter Allan’s design of his iron hilted sword shown in Fig 8 and probably made by a Canongate silversmith to Allan’s instructions

The second sword to be discussed was sold at the London based arms and armour auctioneer Thomas Del Mar Ltd on 7th December 2011, lot 156 (https://www.olympiaauctions.com/sales/arms-armour/as071211/view-lot/156/). The design of this hilt is an obvious copy of a uniquely designed iron hilt signed by Walter Allan and now in the National Museums of Scotland in Edinburgh (Collection Reference: LA 125) and illustrated in Cyril Mazansky, “British Basket-Hilted Swords”, Boydell Press, 2005, page 161 . The worn silversmith’s marks are described in the auction catalogue as those of Colin Mitchell but this is highly unlikely. The remnants bear little resemblance to Mitchell’s marks on the Lochiel sword which were consistently applied to his other surviving work.

The third sword, our featured sword, is from the collection of the late Baron of Earlshall who identified the hilt as by Walter Allan. As with the Del Mar sword, the design of this hilt is an obvious copy of another unique iron hilt signed by Walter Allan now also in the National Museums of Scotland in Edinburgh (Collection Reference SW37 ex-Coleville Collection) and also illustrated in Mazansky page 160.  This is one of Walter Allan’s most unique and imaginative hilt designs. The entire curved front section of the hilt filling the space between the side guard bars is formed as a stylised thistle in the centre with a Scottish crown above with two large thistle leaves in outline emanating left and right from the base of the thistle head. The side panels consist of diamonds and hearts which resemble the designs of contemporary Luckenbooth brooches. 

Fig 10: View of the pommel, pommel ring and the Scottish Crown surmounting the thistle in the front of the guard
Fig 11: View of the grip with silver mounts top and bottom and silver ribbon binding to the grip cover

The letters between Allan and Mitchell indicate that Allan sent actual swords to Mitchell sometimes for delivery to customers, but also, from a practical point of view, so that Mitchell could use the actual swords in-hand as models. The two silversmith’s marks struck underneath the rear quillon of the hilt have worn away leaving but a trace. Two marks underneath the pommel may be a repeat of those underneath the quillon, and although more deeply struck in a place where almost no wear could occur, have not yet been matched with any known silversmiths’ marks.

The letters indicate that Walter Allan had a close working relationship with Mitchell and during their tenure Allan most likely did not work with other silversmiths. However, Allan may have worked with other silversmiths before he engaged with Mitchell which was at latest 1741. So the second two swords of the three may well have involved different silversmiths working for Allan before then. However, the advanced designs of the hilts most likely date to the  later part of Allan’s career, so it is also feasible that after Colin Mitchell’s death in 1753 he built relationships with other unidentified Canongate silversmiths with whom he worked until his own death in 1761. The number of matched silversmiths’ names and marks that have survived in Scotland from the 17th and 18th centuries from the different burghs is many times less than the number of silversmiths at work then so it is no surprise to find some marks that cannot be identified. Of the two marks on the pommel of our sword one does resemble a stag’s head somewhat malformed due to the mark being an inaccurate double-strike which may indicate a  Canongate connection.

As described above the hilt of our sword is formed from two structural side guard bars. The vertical frontal guard bar is expanded into a complex curved panel consisting of a stylised thistle with Scottish crown above and thistle leaves emanating from the base which curve upwards either side towards the crown. This had been an emblem of Stuart monarchs for centuries. By the 18th century the emblem may well have been 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.  A  frontal loop guard extends down from each side guard bar terminal to rise at the front and join the front quillon at the base of the thistle head. The space between each side guard bar and rear guard bar is filled each side of the hilt with a vertically symmetrical panel consisting of a diamond in the middle, a heart either side with merlons on the outside. A secondary rear guard bar and a scrolled wristguard which emanates from the rear quillon complete the structure of the hilt. 

Fig 12: Base of the grip inside the basket and the wrist guard
Fig 13: Underneath the hilt and rear quillon

The main guard bars are fluted. The side guard bars and the top of the crown to the front join onto a ring into which the base of the pommel sits. The pommel is cone-shaped with a pronounced button on top. It is decorated with four sets of triple lines which radiate from the button, the middle one being wider than those on its flanks in each case. The spaces between are filled with crescents formed in a similar manner. A single line extends around the pommel just above the pommel ring.

The designs between the guard bars have been forged and pierced as panels which have been soldered onto each other and onto the guard bars in a manufacturing technique similar to that applied to other Scottish silver basket hilted swords of the time. Of necessity the solder is formed from a purer silver which melts at a lower temperature than the parts it intends to join together which leaves a slightly different sheen at the  joins.

Fig 14: Remains of silversmith’s marks underneath the rear quillon
Fig 15: Two silversmith’s marks stamped into the pommel base

The spirally grooved wooden grip is covered with blackened pearlescent dog fish skin  bound with thin silver wire strip. Silver ferrules are applied top and bottom decorated with small punched designs. The hilt retains an old leather liner with red velvet stitched to the front.

The tapering back sword blade is of exceptional quality and 32.5 inches (82.5 cm) long. It has three fullers each side which extend down the blade from the hilt. The middle and lower fullers terminate some 4 inches (10 cm) from the tip whilst the upper fuller which runs underneath the spine of the blade terminates 8 inches (20 cm) from the tip after which the blade is double-edged. Overall the sword is 38.5 inches (98 cm) long.

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

References: Stuart Maxwell, “Letters from Walter Allan, Armourer in Stirling, to Colin Mitchell, Goldsmith in Canongate, 1741-1750” in “Scottish Weapons & Fortifications 1100 – 1800”, John Donald Publishers, 1981.

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 and referred to it as “An outstanding silver hilt in the Earlshall Castle Collection….” page 281 and in note 77 page 309. In the table page 299 the sword is described as “Probably designed by Walter Allan of Stirling. Edinburgh Museum of Antiquities (as the National Museum of Scotland was then called), No SW 37 has a similar hilt of ferrous metal, signed by Allan.”   

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