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Scottish craftsmen in the Renaissance and Early Modern periods (c.1450-1750) produced a wealth of silver artefacts. Although their work was largely influenced by contemporary British and European fashions, the country’s silversmiths also created designs that were unique to Scotland. Lyndsay McGill, Curator of Renaissance and Early Modern History, explores silver objects featured in the Uniquely Scottish Silver exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland.

Uniquely Scottish Silver showcases five types of silver objects: mazers, quaichs, thistle cups, ovoid urns, and heart brooches. Some of these objects survive in prolific numbers, are instantly recognisable, and are still used today as national icons. Others are among the earliest and rarest survivals of the Scottish silversmiths’ craft.


Mazers are communal drinking vessels that were popular during the second half of the sixteenth century. Traditionally, they were made of a wooden bowl, usually maple, with an applied silver rim.

A mazer, a type of cup, viewed from the front against a grey and black background. The mazer's bowl is made of wood, lined with gold-coloured silver covered in engraved floral designs. The mazer's stem is entirely metal with more floral engravings.

The Galloway mazer by James Gray, Canongate, 1569.

In Scotland however, there was demand for the mazer bowl to be mounted on a silver or silver-gilt stem several inches high. While England and Europe continued to favour those without a stem, the ‘standing mazer’ became a speciality of Scotland. Today, only nine Scottish mazers are known to survive and of those, seven have stems.

The Galloway mazer is one of the finest surviving mazers. It was made by James Gray, a silversmith working in the Canongate (now part of Edinburgh). There are engraved arms on the rim together with the initials ‘AS EA’ which represent Archibald Stewart and Ellen Acheson who were married in 1569, the year the mazer was created. The cup was probably commissioned to celebrate their marriage. In the same year, Stewart was also admitted as a burgess of the town, and ten years later he became the Lord Provost of Edinburgh. Through his nephew, his family went on to inherit the Earldom of Galloway.

Closeup of a gold-coloured engraved plate in the mazer's wooden bowl. Words in a stylised script sit above the year '1569'.

The engraved arms of Archibald Stewart and Ellen Acheson, who were married in 1569.

Closeup of the rim of the mazer, made from gold-coloured silver. The metal is engraved with the initials 'AS' and 'EA', and flanked by floral patterns.


Quaichs are quintessential Scottish drinking vessels. The name comes from the Gaelic cuach, meaning 'cup'. Originally produced in wood, they were often built in sections or staves. They were then bound with withies (strips of willow) with the handles carved as an extension the stave, or they were simply turned on a lathe.

A wooden quaich, or shallow dish, which looks as though it could be made from a whisky barrel. It has three short, stubby arms branching out from the rim, each with a small silver covering.

Wooden staved quaich with silver mounts possibly by Alexander Fraser, Inverness, c.1680 (K.2006.434).

A shiny silver quaich, or shallow dish, with two flowers engraved on its surface and two short, stout arms branching out from the rim.

Quaich by Matthew Colquhoun, Ayr c.1685 (K.2005.345).

During the mid-17th century, silversmiths turned their skills towards the wooden quaich and began adding silver mounts in the form of rims, feet, and fitted plates to the tops of the handles or the centre of the bowl. By the 1660s, silversmiths were making quaichs entirely of silver. Significantly, they continued to produce them in the same style as the traditional wooden ones, imitating the joins of the staves and the withies by engraving the silver. They also replicated the box-like handles, or lugs, and stayed away from flat handles like those seen on British and Continental wine tasters.

A silver quaich viewed at a high, oblique angle against a light grey background. The inside and outer surface of the quaich are covered in floral engravings.

Silver quaich made by William Scott, Banff or Aberdeen, c. 1681.

While national drinking vessels exist in other countries, the design of the quaich, with its shallow bowl raised on a foot rim and thick downward turning or flared lugs, is a uniquely Scottish phenomenon.

A shiny silver quaich being held delicately by two white-gloved hands against a black background.

Thistle cups

Thistle cups existed for a relatively short time, dating from approximately the 1680s to 1720s. They take their name from their thistle shape which is an inverted bell-shaped body with a flared lip, together with raised lobed decorations on the lower part of the cup. These features are believed to be reminiscent of a thistle-head, and all these components together make a distinctly Scottish form of cup. The name is a later invention, used by dealers and collectors as a way of identifying them.

A tall, hefty silver vessel resembling a jug against a black background. Its top widens to resemble a thistle. It has a very spindly handle and a simple, looping engraving pattern near the bottom.

The Huntly Race thistle cup, by William Scott II, Banff, 1695 (H.1996.275).

There is evidence that these cups were highly thought of. This cup was used as a horse racing price in 1695 as indicated by the engraving on its base which says 'Hountlie Coup / 95’. The Huntly Races in Aberdeenshire were horse racing events held once a year in September from 1695 to 1749 which coincided with the local fair. The Scottish Parliament granted that the fair would be called ‘Charles Fair’ in honour of the deceased Charles II. The landowner, George the 1st Duke of Gordon, followed by his son Alexander the 2nd Duke, were Catholics who continued to support the exiled House of Stuart and the races became an occasion where Jacobite supporters could meet covertly.

Closeup of the bottom of the thistle cup, revealing a circular engraving which reads: 'H A+A Hountlie Coup 95' and a faint assay mark.

The engraving at the inner base of the Huntly Race thistle cup. Note also the faint assay mark at the centre.

Closeup of the broad upper lip on the thistle cup, which splays out like a thistle's flower.

Ovoid urns

The creation of these wonderful ovoid urns occurred during the 18th century when luxury beverages, such as tea, coffee and hot chocolate, were becoming sought after drinks. As the demand for these grew, so did the work of the silversmith. People required new equipment such as hot water kettles, spoon trays, milk jugs and sugar bowls.

A set of five ovoid urns standing upright against a black background. They are very unusual, each egg-shaped standing on curved, spindly legs with wavy handles carved into the form of snakes. Each has a spout for pouring coffee out of.

Ovoid urns by Alexander Gairdner, James Ker, John Main, William Aytoun and John Rollo, Edinburgh, 1719–1760 (H.MEQ 1573).

These urns have been a source of debate with some suggesting that they were teapots. However, there are now more convincing arguments for them being used for coffee. The spouts are strategically placed a little up the body which would allow coffee grounds to settle in the base and the liquid to be drawn off without disturbing the sediment. In addition, there are records of very large coffee pots being produced.

This coffee pot (below) is mentioned in the account ledger of the maker John Rollo. It states that in December 1735 'The Honble Andrew Wauchope of Niddrie Esq' paid ‘£23.5.8' for 'one Coffe poot 62 ozn 2dr’ and that he paid ‘To Duty £1 11s’ and ‘12s’ for 'Ingraving round the mouth'.

Silver coffee pot shaped like an egg, held up on three curved silver legs and with two long, thin handles made to look like serpents. A pouring spout is near the bottom of the egg-shaped vessel.

Ovoid urn by John Rollo, Edinburgh, 1735-36 (K.2009.3).

Today this coffee pot weighs 61.11oz, which is less than the original 62oz and 2 drops. The discrepancy in weight can be accounted for the normal loss of silver which occurs over centuries of polishing.

To date, we know of only seventeen examples of ovoid coffee pots. All have Edinburgh hallmarks except one from Dundee. These surviving coffee pots date from 1719 to 1768.

Closeup of the handle of one of the ovoid urns and a small portion of the urn's body. The handle is extremely thin and wavy, its top end shaped to resemble a serpent's head.

Heart brooches

Heart brooches have existed in Scotland since at least the medieval period and while they are not unique to Scotland, they have become deeply associated with this country. They appear to have been a popular form of jewellery, indicated by the large number that survive.

Three silver heart brooches side by side against a black background. The left brooch is gold-coloured, the others classic silver. All have the basic shape of a heart, with varying levels of flourish and topped by crowns.

Left to right: Heart brooches showing typical Scottish features including a ‘bird-head’, ‘spectacle’ and ‘flared’ crown, by Inverness makers, Alexander Stewart, Charles Jamieson and Daniel Fergusson, late 18th to mid-late 19th century.

While variations of the heart brooch exist, it can be argued that certain design features that were popular with the Inverness silversmiths have transcended into a later generic style that could be considered classically Scottish. These include:

• a crown, either ‘bird-head’, ‘spectacle’ or ‘flared’ design
• small projections at the shoulders and near the base
• a chevron-style bar (inverted V shape) within the lower portion of the heart
• a three-lobed tip at the bottom

A simple heart-shaped brooch designed like the classic drawn heart. A short pin crosses the top third of the brooch.

Heart brooch, gold, 18th century. An inscription on the other side reads, ‘WRONG NOT THE ♥ WHOS JOY THOU ART’.

Heart brooches in Scotland are often referred to as ‘luckenbooths’. The word refers to the locked booths or shops that formed the goldsmithing and jewellery quarter in Edinburgh’s Old Town, next to St Giles Kirk, where it is believed that many of these brooches were made. However, it can be argued that Inverness and Aberdeen produced more heart brooches during the 18th and 19th centuries than Edinburgh, and in 1817 the Edinburgh luckenbooths were torn down to widen the High Street. No heart brooches were produced in these shops after that date.

Indeed, the name ’luckenbooth’ was not known to have existed prior to the late 19th century and it may have been created by Victorian antiquarians and collectors as part of their growing classification of historical objects. There is also the possibility that the sellers of such items concocted the name as a powerful marketing tool, using heritage as part of their sales pitch.

Detail of a silver heart brooch, highlighting the criss-crossed bars and crown-like top section.

Curator Lyndsay Mcgill With An Ovoid Coffee Pot, Silver, By John Rollo, Edinburgh, 1735 6 002

Uniquely Scottish Silver exhibition

These are just a few of the silver objects on display in Uniquely Scottish Silver. see them all by visiting the exhibition in the National Museum of Scotland's Grand Gallery, on display from 5 August 2023 - 26 May 2024.

Uniquely Scottish Silver
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