06 May 2014
Author and conservationist Peter Spencer Davies explores the different uses of pewter in Scotland, from churches and cathedrals to its use as a measuring device for the sale of ale and wine. ...
Pewter is a low melting-point alloy made from tin, with small amounts of lead and/or copper and antimony, and was an everyday commodity in Scotland from the beginning of the sixteenth to the end of the nineteenth century. It was widely used in the Church, in the home and in trade. However very little has survived, at least partly because old and damaged wares were not simply discarded, but were sold back to the pewterer to be recycled.
Only a single example of pewter from the sixteenth century is known, and only about 30 from the seventeenth century. The majority of pewter wares available for study therefore date from the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by which time its use was in terminal decline. It is perhaps not surprising therefore that despite the importance of pewter in the history of Scotland’s material heritage, it is nevertheless one of the least known aspects.
A HISTORY OF PEWTER WARE
Pewter wares were first manufactured by the Romans, but little is known of its use in subsequently until manufacture began in England and in the rest of Europe in the late mediaeval period.
Scotland lagged behind, possibly because of a lack of an indigenous source of tin to make the alloy, and was therefore dependent upon imported goods, particularly from the pewterers of the Low Countries.
This was to have a lasting influence upon the styles of Scottish pewter wares, when manufacture finally got underway, during the sixteenth century.
Craft guilds in Scotland were termed Incorporations, and the pewterers were members of the Incorporations of Hammermen. In Edinburgh the first pewterer to appear in the records became a Freeman in 1501.
The craft grew in strength in line with demand for their wares, and statutes of the Council were required in order to regulate the quality of the metal that they used and also the capacity of their measures.
In 1562, they were directed to strike their marks on a slab of pewter (now referred to as a touchplate) on becoming a Freeman and Master, to affirm their conformity to the statutes. The two touchplates used by the Edinburgh pewterers over a 200 year period have survived and provide a complete record of their marks. These, together with other documentary sources, have enabled a complete list of the names and dates of all Edinburgh pewterers from 1501 to 1893 to be compiled.
Incorporations of Hammermen formed in many of the Scottish burghs, but the major centres were Edinburgh, Glasgow, Paisley, Inverness, Aberdeen, Dundee and Perth. It is likely that smaller burghs may not have had any pewterers working in them.
In the seventeenth century Church, pewter was used for communion bread plates and for wine cups, and it was also used in the manufacture of basins for baptism.
The eighteenth century saw an enormous expansion in the requirement for ecclesiastical pewter, often as a result of schisms and subsequent unions within the Presbyterian Church.
Flagons began to be used for the communion wine, initially based upon designs originating with London pewterers who also competed with their Scottish counterparts, as trade increased following the Act of Union of 1707.
New styles were introduced, and it is clear from the regional variations in style, that communion cups were then being made by pewterers in the provincial Royal Burghs as well as in the major centres.
Pewter measures were used extensively from the earliest years for the sale of wine, ale and other liquids. Those made in Edinburgh were of the eponymous ‘tappit hen’ form, which was based upon the style of hollow wares that were originally in use in France, a major exporter of wine to the port of Leith. Measures made in Aberdeen and Inverness was of a potbellied form, closely resembling the style of vessels made by their main trading partners in Holland.
PEWTER IN EDINBURGH AND GLASGOW
By the late eighteenth century, measures influenced by English forms began to appear, and these were superseded in 1826 when the pewterers of Edinburgh and Glasgow created new designs, unique to their respective cities. Tavern pots were another major source of revenue for the pewterers of the two cities, particularly in the nineteenth century, and again two divergent styles emerged. It was clear that at a time when English pewterers had abandoned innovation, Scottish pewterers were still prepared to introduce new forms in what was still perhaps a competitive market.
Pewter was undoubtedly widely used in the home, particularly in the dining room, kitchen and the bedrooms. Almost nothing from the seventeenth century has remained, but inventories, usually from the homes of the gentry, give some glimpse of the range of wares that were in use. What is unfortunately not clear, is how much of this was actually made in Scotland, since throughout the whole period of use of pewter, the country households continued their tradition of purchasing their wares from London.
The heyday of Scottish pewter was the seventeenth century, when Edinburgh supported more pewterers than at any other time. During the eighteenth century, demand began to decline as objects made from other materials, including pottery and porcelain, began to compete. However the death knell came in 1846 with the introduction of the Burgh Trading Act, which finally broke the monopolies on trade that had been exercised by the incorporations for some 200 to 300 years.
Peter Spencer Davies is the author of Scottish Pewter: 1600-1850, published by Birlinn at £55. Based on extensive research, this book describes in detail the characteristics of the metal, the ways in which it was fabricated, and the history of the pewterers’ craft, as revealed by archived manuscripts and historical records. Full colour illustrations of all known types of Scottish pewter, including a large number of objects not previously recorded, have been taken specially for the book.