Seven teaspoons that tell a story

It is always exciting to find Scottish provincial pieces whose original ownership can be traced. Even more interesting is such an attribution when it adds to our knowledge of the working practices of a Scottish provincial silversmith. Usually silver carries just a crest or initials and, since crests often relate to a group of families, tracing an actual owner without additional information is often impossible.

However, such is not the case with a set of spoons that we have just acquired — 7 fiddle-and-thread teaspoons fashioned in a characteristically European style. All are similarly shaped and carry the same coronet and initial — the letter F below an earl’s coronet within a cartouche.

The first is Continental, made about 1775 - 1780. Four more were made in London: one around 1780 and three more in 1784 by George Smith. The last two bear the maker’s mark of William Byres of Banff and Aberdeen ( active 1778 – 1811) with a stylised N. The style and shape of fiddle-and-thread on these spoons is relatively unusual in England and even more so in Scottish provincial silver. [Click on underlined sections for the relevant image]

So, if one could locate an Earldom in the 1780’s commencing with the letter F, with interests in Scotland and connections to France, one could perhaps identify the ownership of these spoons.  In the 18 th century, there was less likelihood for the English aristocracy to have connections with Scotland or estates there — that only became fashionable during the reign of Queen Victoria.

In the 1780's, there were nine Earldoms beginning with an F. Of these, only two were Scottish and both had estates in the vicinity of Banff and Aberdeen. They were the Earls of Fife and Findlater. No link to Scotland has been found for any of the other seven English Earls after checking all the available sources.

James Duff, 2 nd Earl of Fife, (1729-1809) was an important local magnate, who served as MP for Banffshire from 1754-1784, and Elgin from 1784-1790. He was Lord Lieutenant of Banff from 1794 until his death. A thoroughly Scottish gentleman with no indication of connections with London, let alone France.

On the other hand, the obituary of James Ogilvy, 7 th Earl of Findlater (1750-1811) in the Gentleman’s Magazine records that he lived almost entirely on the continent after he completed his education. In 1779 he married, at Brussels, the daughter of a senior soldier of Scottish extraction in the service of the Hapsburg rulers of the Netherlands.

The Earl of Findlater was active in the field of the history of architecture and landscape [1]. Study of his papers reveals that he was on the continent in 1779 and in France and Germany between 1783 and 1784 [2]

Thus it seems likely that the first, French, spoon in this set was purchased around the time of his marriage. Then, the London examples were made to order to match the first spoon during his residences in Britain either side of his visit to France and Germany in 1783-1784. After some 6 years in Great Britain, Lord Findlater left for the continent in 1791 and did not return to Great Britain thereafter. He settled first in Hamburg and moved thence to Dresden two years later [3]. (He is buried at Loschwitz parish church [4] near the vineyards he had bought overlooking the Elbe.)

Given that it is highly unlikely that the Earl would commission Continental style spoons from a Scottish silversmith once he had moved out of Britain to far-away Germany, that effectively dates the final two spoons in the set. They were made in Scotland by William Byres at a date prior to 1791. Given the arrangements needed, and length of time necessary for a wealthy aristocrat like Findlater to plan any journey in the eighteenth century — let alone a removal to another country —  it seems likely that these spoons were made well prior to his departure.

If that were so, then there is a supplement to be written to our existing knowledge of Willam Byres occasioned by the presence of the ‘curly N’ on the two Scottish spoons.

William Byres was apprenticed to James Wildgoose of Aberdeen in 1767 for seven years. He seems to have gone to nearby Banff soon after the end of his apprenticeship. In 1778, he is recorded as joining the Hammermen of Banff. He served as Master in 1779 and Deacon in 1781. Then he disappears from their records in 1792. In 1811 the Burial Registers of Old Machar in Aberdeen record the death of ‘William Byres, silversmith of Aberdeen” [6]

‘ WB with a stylised N’ [7] has hitherto been attributed to William Byres during his time in Aberdeen because the same ‘stylised N’ is found on pieces marked by other Aberdeen makers, including James Erskine [8]. Yet these two teaspoons must date from 1791 at the latest and perhaps somewhat earlier.

There are two possibilities. The first is that Byres established a workshop in Aberdeen considerably before his presumed departure from Banff in 1792. The second is that he used these marks in Banff, in addition to the BANF mark [9] , and then took the punches to Aberdeen in 1792. If either of these two ideas is accepted then it is necessary to reconsider the attribution of some of Byres’ marks solely to his time in Aberdeen and consider them as relating to his work in Banff as well.

Luke Schrager

[1] Tait, A. A.: Lord Findlater, Architect: Burlington Magazine: Vol. 128, No. 1003: October 1986: pp.738-741.

[2] Ibid: footnote 3.

[3] Ibid: footnote 3.


[6] James, I.: The Goldsmiths of Aberdeen 1450-1850: 1981: pp.92-93.

[7] Jackson, C. J.: Silver and Gold Marks (ed. Ian Pickford): p. 584.

[8] See item 6214 on .

[9] Jackson, C. J.: Silver and Gold Marks (ed. Ian Pickford): p. 591.

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