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Silversmithing in Banff

Silversmithing in Banff

The production of objects in precious metals in Scotland goes back to prehistoric times, as shown by the few survivals of silver objects from the Iron Age and Early Christian periods. The Middle Ages saw the establishment of burghs in Scotland and the growth of the trade incorporations in the burghs to regulate standards of production of goods. Silversmiths were one of a number of metal-working trades grouped together in the Hammermen Incorporations of many burghs. The oldest of these incorporations is the Incorporation of Hammermen in Edinburgh who were granted a charter in 1483; the Incorporation of Goldsmiths in Edinburgh broke away from the Hammermen in 1492.

Silver was mined in Scotland in the Leadhills area, the Bathgate hills, on Islay, and in the Ochil Hills near Alva. Scottish-mined silver only ever provided a very small proportion of the raw material needed. In the mediaeval period the vast majority of virgin silver bullion came from Europe. After 1500 much silver bullion came from the Spanish colonies in America. A major source of silver was always reused old silver which explains the scarcity of older silver objects.

Pure silver is a soft metal. The addition of 7.5% copper results in a much stronger and harder alloy. To prevent inferior metal being passed off as having a higher standard, silversmiths were required to have their wares tested or “assayed”. The only assay office in Scotland was in Edinburgh from 1458 (plus Glasgow from 1819 to 1964). Silversmiths in various Scottish burghs used their own marks but these were never official; essentially, the standard and quality of their work rested on their local reputation. The Act of 1784 made local marks technically illegal, but most burgh silversmiths continued to use their own marks. The Act of 1836 compelled all Scottish silver to be marked at Edinburgh (or at Glasgow) and ended the use of Scottish provincial marks. (Such town marks as were used thereafter were in addition to the Edinburgh or Glasgow hallmarks.)

The trade incorporations in Banff included: Hammermen; Wrights; Coopers; Shoemakers; Taylors; and Weavers. These incorporations erected the Trades Hall in 1781 in Low Street (this was demolished about 1900). The incorporations owned various buildings in Banff which provided income from rents. Two buildings in High Street still have carved stones showing previous ownership by the Shoemakers Incorporation and by the Hammermen Incorporation.

The trades included in the Hammermen Incorporation were: smiths, masons, gunsmiths, bakers, glovers, apothecary chirurgeons, fleshers, saddlers, watchmakers, and gold and silversmiths. The Incorporation of Hammermen was wound up in 1843. The early nineteenth-century banner of the Banff Hammermen is today in the collections of Aberdeenshire Museums Service. The records of the Banff Hammermen have been missing since 1888 when the town’s historian William Cramond had access to them. Cramond listed the names of Banff gold and silversmiths from 1688. A number of these are known by name only and have no work or marks ascribed to them and about whom very little is known. The following paragraphs provide details about those Banff silversmiths known to have produced marked silverware. The dates given indicate known periods of activity as a silversmith in Banff. The marks used by Banff silversmiths usually consisted of their initials and an abbreviation for Banff. Other marks specific to individual silversmiths included a crowned heart for Patrick Scott, a fish for John Keith, and a covered urn for George Elder. Several silversmiths also used a thistle mark.

WILLIAM SCOTT (elder) (1688-1702)

The earliest known Banff silversmith is William Scott (elder). He was an Aberdeen silversmith who was admitted to the Hammermen of Aberdeen in 1666. He became a member of the Banff Hammermen in 1688, and of the Elgin Hammermen in 1701. (In becoming a member of the Elgin Hammermen, although resident in Banff, he was permitted to sell silverware in Elgin.)

WILLIAM SCOTT (younger) (1699-1748)

He was the son of William Scott (elder) and came from Aberdeen to Banff about 1699. Along with his father he became a member of the Elgin Hammermen in 1701 but continued to live and work in Banff. A thistle dram cup by him is the earliest piece of Banff silver in the collections of Banff Museum.

PATRICK SCOTT (1699-1731)

He was the son of William Scott (younger). He was apprenticed in Aberdeen about 1691 and came to Banff in 1699 with his father. He made the Boyndie communion beaker which is the second largest piece of Banff silver in the collections of Banff Museum.

PATRICK GORDON (1732-1741)

Patrick Gordon was admitted a gold and silversmith in 1732 and was last mentioned in 1741.

ALEXANDER SHIRREFF (1750-1761)

Shirreff was apparently not a member of the Hammermen’s Incorporation but was mentioned in Town Council records.

JOHN ARGO (1771-1806)

Argo was admitted a silversmith in 1771 and became a burgess of Banff in 1785.

WILLIAM BYRES (1778-1792)

Byres was an apprentice in Aberdeen from 1767 and worked in Aberdeen from 1774. He was admitted to the Banff Hammermen in 1778. He returned to Aberdeen in 1792 and died there in 1811.

DAVID IZAT (1794-1799)

Izat was an apprentice in Aberdeen from 1786 and worked in Aberdeen from 1793. He was mentioned in Banff between 1794 and 1799. He returned to Aberdeen in 1799 and died there in 1836.

JOHN KEITH (1789-1823)

John Keith was the most prolific of the Banff silversmiths. He was admitted to the Banff Hammermen about 1789 and served as Deacon of the Banff Hammermen 1804-05. He became a member of the Elgin Hammermen in 1808 but continued to live and work in Banff until his death in 1823.

JOHN McQUEEN (1816-1839)

McQueen was apparently not a member of the Banff Hammermen.

GEORGE ELDER (1819-1843)

Elder appears in the Hammermen’s records between 1819 and 1843 and is the only early Banff silversmith who appears to have made jewellery.

WILLIAM SIMPSON (elder) (1825-1855)

He is mentioned in Banff between 1825 and 1855.

WILLIAM SIMPSON (younger) (1852-1888)

He was the son of William Simpson (elder) and is mentioned in Banff between 1852 and 1888.

Banff Museum did not have any examples of Banff silver before 1975. During the period 1975-96, there was a concerted effort to assemble a collection of Banff silver, while in 2004 the Boyndie communion beaker was acquired for the collection. The collection, at present, contains examples of all but two of the Banff silversmiths whose marks are known (nearly half the known Banff silversmiths). Many of the items demonstrate a wide range of flatware (spoons, forks and ladles). There are a few examples of hollow ware, including an exceptional early 18th-century teapot and a communion beaker, as well as snuff boxes, a nutmeg grater and a spice shaker. There is also a rare piece of silver jewellery. The teapot and the Boyndie communion beaker are among the largest known pieces of Banff silverware.

An account of Banff silversmiths is found in Scottish Gold and Silver Work by Ian Finlay, originally published in 1956. A revised edition, edited by Henry Steuart Fotheringham, was published in 1991; this revised edition contains the most up-to-date and authoritative account of Banff silversmiths. The website of the Incorporation of Goldsmiths in Edinburgh displays the marks of Banff silversmiths.

Dr David M. Bertie