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Scottish Highland Officer’s “Pinch of Snuff” Basket Hilted Sword

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Price: £6,750

Ref: 076.17

Item Description

A fine and attractive Scottish Officer’s “Pinch of Snuff” basket hilted broadsword dating to the  middle to third quarter periods of the 18th century. The sword is in good condition with its original grip and liner and mounted with an imposing blade of “cavalry” length. These swords were carried by Scottish officers on British Army service in Europe and in North America during the American Revolutionary War period.  

The hilt design identifies this sword as a member of an uncommon and distinctive group of Scottish military officers’ swords. The complex hilt structure consists of oval shaped apertures, mounted between structural guard bars, which are infilled with an elaborate lattice of finely wrought iron of lace-like delicacy. The pommel is of typical mid 18th century British bun shape with an integral pommel button. The pommel neck sits tightly in a circle of iron into which the upper arms of the basket guard are attached. The overall effect is a very elegant hilt which occupies a distinct place in the evolution of Scottish basket hilted swords.

The hilt type 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, is a silver hilted example with makers marks, “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 hilts that came out of the workshops of Stirling in the same period.

The hilt of this sword has frontal guard loops formed in the usual manner for traditional construction of Scottish basket hilted swords of the period, forged downwards from the base of the frontal knuckle bow bar to widen apart and curl upwards to join the bases of side guard bars either side of the blade. The same feature is seen 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 Pinch of Snuff swords were manufactured with loop guards forged as a detachable plate, usually pierced to the front with a heart and secured to the hilt by three screws. Some were manufactured with a vacant oval ring in “horseman” manner, as is the case with our sword.

The exceptional blade is of cavalry length at 39.25 inches long (100 cm). Of lenticular section the gently tapering blade has a short ricasso and a broad shallow central fuller either side which begins circa 8 inches from the hilt (20 cm) and runs almost to the tip. Between the fuller and the hilt a “sun in splendour” surrounded by stars is present either side. The wooden grip is covered with shagreen and spirally bound with twisted copper wire. Decorative iron ferrules are mounted top and bottom. The hilt retains a tailor made buff leather liner with red velvet exterior.

Overall the sword is 45.25 long (115 cm). The organic parts of the hilt, the grip and liner, are in fine and original condition. The sword is of robust manufacture and in fine condition overall with some parts of the hilt and blade exhibiting a minor pitting, patinated over, commensurate with age, as can be seen in the photographs.

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