Friday, 27 July 2007

Highland gems

If you don’t know about “bickers”, “luggies”, “spongeware” or “hookies”, read on. Before 19th century industrialisation brought mass-produced consumer goods within the reach of everyone, communities relied on artisan craftsmen for their household tools and decorative knickknacks.

Nowhere is this more pronounced than in Scotland which has a long history of traditional crafts that are highly sought after today, particularly among tourist collectors looking to find objects related to the auld country. Perthshire dealer Becca Gauldie had all the answers.

Treen – the collective term for domestic items made from a tree – is plentiful throughout Scotland which is sometimes surprising, considering the lack of native forests.

Bickers, piggins, luggies and quaichs are all treen bowls made by tinker families, many of whom travelled around the country selling their wares from door to door. A bicker is a two-handled small, straight-sided bowl with flat handles. A piggin is similar but with upright handles, while a luggie is slightly larger and with one splayed upright handle. ll have an intricate "feathered" construction which picks them out as being Scottish.

A quaich is the smallest and best known bowl with two or more handles used for drinking whisky. Although most of these objects were made from native holly and sycamore, quaichs were also made in metal, silver and other materials. The decorative feathering process refers to a method of coopering that involved overlaying tiny slivers of wood in the staves to use as joints. When damp, the wood swells making the bowl watertight.

Willow lathies were bound around the outside of the vessel to keep the object together, in case it should dry out. Sadly, many of these have fallen apart when they were no longer in use, usually as a result of central heating. All these items vary dramatically in price according to their size, but collectors should expect to pay upwards of £180, depending on the complexity of the design and condition of the article.

If you fancy collecting something made by the travellers but can't afford drinking vessels, then pegs and baskets offer still excellent value. They were one of the last traditional crafts to survive and were sold from door to door up to the 1950s. Pegs are beautifully made and make attractive paperclips, while the baskets are stronger and more durable than their modern day alternatives.

Beautifully turned elm dairy bowls and deeply carved butter stamps, made from the 18th century through to the early 20th century, are also highly desirable. While many butter stamps typically feature the carved outline of a cow or a thistle as part of the stamp, it is also possible to find examples carved with the name of a farm. These are of particular interest to collectors since they relate directly to one place and are undoubtedly unique.

Another particularly Scottish kitchen article is the spirtle, the unusually long-handled stick for stirring porridge. Fine examples often have a finial in the shape of a thistle and but a plain one can be picked up for under £15. They look good in a kitchen jar and, according to Becca Gauldie, are also good for stirring spaghetti!

Perthshire and Angus are renowned for their Laburnum furniture and table treen. This is usually characterised by extreme tones of light and dark in the same piece of wood, originally caused by the damp or dry conditions in which the wood was grown. Laburnum is not a wood used to any extent elsewhere in Britain and so is particularly interesting to collectors of Scottish pieces.

Also commonly found in a farmhouse kitchen is the candle box. Usually made of Scots Fir and wall mounted, they feature varying levels of decoration, from Celtic motifs, biblical quotes to animal figures. Quite often candle boxes finished in what is called a buttermilk stain, a shiny brown finish of several layers of different coloured paints. Although they vary dramatically in price, a plain painted candle box will sell for around £90.

It is impossible to ignore one item of treen that is not native to Scotland but was commonly found in cottages throughout the fishing areas that it has become very much a part of the Scots heritage. Brightly decorated ‘Riga’ ware was brought to the Orkneys and Shetland Isles by the Baltic fishermen and traded for illegally distilled whisky with their Highland neighbours. Riga ware is made from feather light Baltic pine and, with its deep and brightly coloured traditional decoration, is quite different from anything made in Scotland.

Until quite recently it was a common sight on the windowsills of cottages in many seaside villages. Riga ware has become scarce in the last 10 years and yet it still compares favourably in price with Scottish treen, a small bowl selling for around £10, while a spectacular piece would cost at least £400.

A famous character in the development of Scottish folk art is the Blind Man of Ayrshire, a homeless individual who travelled the area in the mid 19th century and whose carvings of ladles, plaques and wonderful three dimensional integral hinge snuff boxes are without comparison. The depth of his carving is attributed to the fact that he was blind and carved entirely by touch. His scenes are often drawn from the work of Robert Burns – depicting figures dancing and drinking with sheep or hounds in attendance.

Most cottages homes across the UK would have a hanging dresser, or plate rack, made by a local craftsman. Scottish examples usually have a bar across the front to allow the plates to lean forwards, which saves a little in height for cottages with low ceilings.

Increasingly sought after today and very hard to find, they look particularly attractive when adorned with the typical Scottish spongeware cottage pottery.

Bowls, mugs, plates and jugs, hand-decorated with images of animals, flowers, mottoes, butterflies, shells and native birds applied by the deft application of coloured slip with a sponge are collected across the world.

Competition for the best examples is always fierce among collectors. However, there are many mass produced modern copies, but they have none of the charm of the original pieces, and are easy to spot.

Condition is almost unimportant. Since these items were in constant use, undamaged pieces are hard to find and many collectors are happy to accept a little wear and tear.

A simple sponged porringer (porridge bowl) in good condition will cost upwards of £60.

Horn and bone items are also strongly characteristic of Scotland.

Snuff boxes carved with images of fish, snuff mulls decorated with elaborate carving and with Cairngorm finials, powder horns with scrimshaw decoration, ladles for punch and snuff, and spoons for porridge are all very much a part of the Scots heritage.

It is also possible to find intricately carved snuff boxes made from Baleen ivory, a by-product of the whaling industry.

Look out for the beautiful little ladles for reaching into tobacconists’ jars and pierced spoons made from mutton bone and designed for taking snuff.

A simple horn spoon can still be bought for about £10. Snuff boxes of simple design cost from about £50, although snuff mulls command higher prices from around £250 upwards, depending on their quality.

Scotland is particularly known for its wonderful patchwork quilts, made in traditional Scottish patterns, sometimes with pieces of old tartan plaid.

Rag or ‘hookie’ rugs, made from scraps of worn clothing or left over material, often in unusually bright colours and patterns, are also sought after. They make an ideal addition to the home lying in front of the hearth and a roaring fire.

Look out too for bannock turners and toasters, (for baking oatcakes in front of the fire), made by blacksmiths.

Local craftsmen made elaborate wirework garden furniture, unique stone items such as the very unusual Scottish garden watchstands, and cheese presses. They were the same craftsmen who made gravestones in Perthshire and Angus.

And Becca Gauldie’s advice for new collectors? Buy while you still can - there isn't a limitless supply of good folk art and the best pieces are too often snapped up by overseas buyers happy to cash in on the fact that Folk Art from the British Isles is less expensive than their own.

Pictures show
A selection of Scottish treen which Becca Gauldie has for sale

Distinctive spongeware pottery, unique to Scotland. Note the carpet bowls, much loved souvenirs of Victorian tourists

Charmingly naïve Scottish scrimshaw, in the form of a beaker and a decorative powder flask

The Victorians loved the wirework garden chairs and flower planters made by craftsmen north of the border.

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