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More than a century of scholarship has helped bring back to life the era of the Highlands ‘hammermen’: the 17th, 18th and 19th century Scottish silversmiths who, for reasons of distance and duty, chose to operate beyond the control of the assay office in Edinburgh.

From Aberdeen to Wick, there were at least 30 different Scottish centres of silver production making domestic and ecclesiastic wares with an extraordinary array of town and makers’ marks that first piqued the interest of silver connoisseurship in the Victorian age.

The market for Scottish provincial silver has since made big names of what were once relatively small concerns.

Hugh Ross of Tain, the maker of a small series of thistle cups that have long been icons of the collecting field, is among them.

The Ross mark was once the source of some confusion although it is now understood that the initials HR conjoined represent at least three different men working in the sparsely populated royal burgh across perhaps 90 years: Hugh Ross I (c.1680-1732); Hugh Ross II (c.1715-70) and Hugh Ross III (c.1745-87) were father, son and grandson.

Rare Ross I spoon


Tain masking or mote spoon by Hugh Ross – £3100 at Lyon & Turnbull.

A Tain masking or mote spoon by Hugh Ross I was among the highlights of the 90 lots of Scottish provincial silver offered on August 17 at Lyon & Turnbull’s (26% buyer’s premium) Scottish Works of Art sale timed to coincide with the return of the Edinburgh Festival.

Formed with an urn finial, a section of scroll work and a pierced bowl, this rare spoon seems to fit somewhere between the traditional Scottish masking or mashing spoon (used for stirring the tea in the pot) and the pierced English mote spoon (used to strain the floating leaves from the cup and clear blockages in the strainer or spout).

Just three of these Ross spoons are known, with the last example on the market (sold for £1900 at L&T in February 2008) now part of the Lottery-funded silver collection at Tain & District Museum. The present example, estimated at £1500-2500, sold for £3100.

Although not such a well-recorded maker, the small body of surviving work by John Baillie of Inverness is universally of a very high standard. He is considered the most accomplished silversmith in the town in the mid-18th century and on a par with many of his Edinburgh contemporaries. Quaichs appear to have been a mainstay of his work but so too were mugs (two pairs are recorded) and hot milk jugs (two are known).

The pair of 10oz salvers offered at L&T are the only recorded in Inverness silver and one of only a very small handful of Scottish provincial pairs extant. They are marked IB and INS plus the letter X. They were last sold at Phillips in 1988 (the first dedicated sales of Scottish silver emerged in the 1980s) and have since resided in a private Scottish collection. At L&T they sold for £5500.

Pricey optional extra

A particularly rare form in Scottish provincial silver is the tea tray – very much the pricey optional extra whenever a tea set was commissioned.

Only a handful of provincial examples are known (teapot stands, waiters and salvers are much more common) and it seems likely they would have graced only the wealthiest and most fashionable families and houses of Scotland.

The example offered here, of circular scalloped outline with scrolling hoof feet, weighs 35oz and carries marks for the Glasgow firm Milne & Campbell (in partnership between 1757-80). At the time the settlement on the Clyde was yet to grow fat on sugar and tobacco from the Americas and supported only a handful of silversmiths. It was not until 1819 that the city had an official assay office.

This tray is engraved to the reverse with the names and dates of William Crawford and Elizabeth Gow, a Glasgow couple who were married in 1731. It may have been made following Elizabeth’s death in 1787. It sold at the lower end of the £3000-5000 estimate.

Also by Milne & Campbell was a rococo oil and vinegar cruet frame that retained twin cut glass bottles with simple pull-off covers. Although a scarce form in Scottish provincial silver, a similar example by Adam Graham of Glasgow sold in the equivalent sale last year for £2600. This one made a more modest £1500.

Market tests

The market is tested with this much material only once, maybe twice, a year and, in a relatively small field, prices can rise and fall depending on collecting preferences.

An uncomfortably high unsold rate of over 40% is reflective of a market that, at this moment at least, is struggling to sustain prices at the top end and in need of entry-level buyers further down the price scale.

The unsolds here included almost all of the Perth silver lots (nine of the 10 were bought in) plus possibly the only piece of Arbroath holloware outside a museum (a snuff box by Andrew Davidson estimated at £4000-6000) and a rare wine funnel and stand by John Keith of Banff guided at £5000-8000. It had last sold at L&T in 2013 for £5600 (£7000 including premium).