Pro-log (get it?)
Readers of this blog know about the blogger’s compulsion to haunt the charity shops of his home city of Edinburgh, seeking out Random Treasure. They might not know, however, that he has been trying lately to resist this urge, having taken a vow to curtail his buying habit, and to restrict himself to bringing home only the most exceptional of found objects.
During the months of November and December 2022, I had little difficulty in keeping to this vow. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, charity shops vastly reduce the footage of shelf space normally reserved for bric-a-brac, in favour of Christmas cards and other seasonal merchandise. So there simply wasn’t much stuff out there to buy.
But even in the fallow season, just occasionally one’s eye snags on something that engenders a sudden overwhelming urge for ownership. Most often with me it’s ceramics, but I’ve also been known not infrequently to gather up objects made in other materials, be it glass, or metal, or fabric, or sometimes a picture, or (more than sometimes) a book. I have written about many such items in other posts on this blog.
It’s seldom wood. Don’t get me wrong. I love wood and I do indeed from time to time buy wooden objects (or “treen”) – a chair here, a woodcarving there, a box somewhere else. If you’ve read my book Random Treasure, then you’ll know that by far the most important discovery I have made in nearly 70 years of collecting was a walnut wood log carved around the year 1430 into the figure of a saint. If you haven’t read my book, I urge you to do so right now: click here to purchase a copy.
I do love wood, but I rarely buy wood in charity shops. Because in my experience such woodwares as appear amongst the miscellaneous junk are almost invariably justly that – junk.
Thus it came as a great surprise when, in a single week shortly before Christmas, my perambulations yielded two very special wooden objects which I simply couldn’t pass by. In Leith, a tiny sycamore-wood container, and three days later in Musselburgh, a small but robust oak chair. In each case I recognised immediately what the item was, and knew where and approximately when it had been made. In neither case had I ever seen a similar example for sale in a charity shop.
You might think that other than the class of material from which they are constructed, there wouldn’t be much similarity between a needle case and a chair, but there you would be wrong. The two pieces tell striking parallel stories about woodworking at the highest level of craftsmanship in Scottish small-town settings.
Mauchline is a small town in Ayrshire in the west of Scotland. The 1871 census of Scotland records the population as 1,574 (rising to 4,105 in the 2001 census). The town is 8 miles east-southeast of Kilmarnock and 11 miles northeast of the coastal town of Ayr.
In the late 18th century the town became quite well-known because Robert Burns lived nearby at Mossgiel Farm at the time when his Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect were first published in Kilmarnock in 1786. Burns’s wife Jean Armour, known as “the Belle of Mauchline” was the daughter of the local stonemason.
In the 21st century Mauchline is most noted for the output of a company called Kays of Scotland, which holds an exclusive licence from the Marquess of Ailsa to quarry small quantities of granite from Ailsa Craig, a big rock sticking picturesquely out of the sea a few miles off the Ayrshire coast. What gives Kays its worldwide reputation is the fact that the firm fashions its lumps of granite into curling stones. The firm supplies all major competitions, and made the stones with which the all-Scottish women’s curling team won a gold medal at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.
For much of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century, between Burns and curling, Mauchline derived yet greater renown – indeed world renown – from its main industry: the production of small superbly-crafted wooden souvenirs and trinkets: jewellery boxes, money boxes, napkin rings, card cases, photo frames, darning mushrooms, and so on and on. The timber used was sycamore, and the finished items were mostly decorated with transfer-prints and given a transparent varnish to show off the lovely honey-coloured wood grain. The printed transfers were taken from engravings of UK seaside resorts and visitor attractions, and the products were sold in their hundreds of thousands in souvenir shops throughout the country, to tourists who took them home to all parts of the globe as a memento or keepsake from the holiday visit.
Mauchline ware objects can be found just about everywhere. They are small, well-made, highly decorative, easy to display, available in countless variations, and for the most part affordable. So for people who like antiques, Mauchline ware ticks all the boxes for forming a collection.
The biggest producer of Mauchline ware was the firm of W&A Smith, which developed the industry from small beginnings making snuff boxes. In time, several other rival factories set themselves up nearby. You need to be an expert to be able to distinguish the products of one manufacturer from those of another. The peak time for making Mauchline ware was the second half of the 19th century, and production finished in 1933 when the Smith’s factory was damaged by fire.
After the long preamble in praise of Mauchline ware, I have a confession to make. I don’t actually like it much. While I have very eclectic tastes in antiques, souvenirs aren’t a class of objects that I go for. I’m generally unmoved by cheaply-produced items made and sold to promote the names and images of mass tourism destinations. Particularly if such items take the form of pretty but rather bland yellow wooden trinkets. Sorry.
But not all Mauchline ware fits that description. While the most popular product line by far from the Mauchline factories was transfer-decorated souvenir ware, there were also several other lines. Of these, the best known is tartanware.
Tartanware was made just like standard Mauchline ware, but it looks very different because of an extra step in its production: instead of bare sycamore wood with a coating of varnish, the items were covered with tartan paper which was fused to the wood by a special industrial process developed by W&A Smith. The paper was then finished and strengthened with a layer of transparent glossy lacquer.
On some tartanware products a panel of bare wood (usually oval) was reserved for the application of a tourism-related transfer-printed engraving. But others are simply tartan all over, sometimes stamped in tiny gold-blocked letters with the clan name of the tartan pattern used in the decoration. To my mind, these particular products of the Mauchline factories are altogether classier and more elegant than the standard kitschy output.
Tartan-decorated antiques are an unfailing reminder of the extraordinary romantic power that Scotland and all things Scottish held over popular cultural imagination through the 19th century. Scotland was the land of highland peaks, misty glens, lonely crags, stags at bay, mysterious islands, warring clansmen, kilted heroes, and bonnie lassies. You can trace these pervasive images from the time of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Jacobite rebellion in 1745, through the craze for James Macpherson’s dodgy Ossian poems, through Robert Burns’s celebrated lyrics and ballads, through the Waverley Novels of Sir Walter Scott, and up to the purchase of Balmoral Castle in 1848 by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Throughout the following several decades, walking, deer-stalking, salmon-fishing and sightseeing holidays in Scotland became de rigueur for the prosperous educated classes – preferably along with the purchase of a grand sporting estate in Perthshire.
And as you set out on your journey home from Scotland, you bought elegant Mauchline tartanware souvenirs for your friends and relations. A visiting-card case, a letter-opener, an egg-cup, a napkin ring, a plethora of sewing accessories.
Perhaps it might be a needle case, like the one that I found in a Leith charity shop just prior to last Christmas. I think it’s a needle case, but it might be for hairpins or lacemaking bobbins or something similar. I believe it’s too narrow to be used for visiting cards. It’s small and slim, 92 mm by 45 mm by 9 mm, superbly made, covered with tartan-printed paper, with a lid which slides off smoothly to reveal an inner lip of bare wood. It is stamped in minuscule gold foil letters with the clan name McDuff.
As regular readers of this blog know, the author goes to inordinate lengths to verify the accuracy of everything he writes. It might be nonsense, but at least it’s accurate nonsense. With no grounds whatever for suspicion, I became concerned in case the makers of this item might have perpetrated a fraud upon unsuspecting purchasers of tartanware by stamping the clan name McDuff on a random or generic tartan pattern. So, in preparation for publishing this post, I decided to check that the pattern on the box is indeed the official McDuff tartan.
Fortunately, we have on our bookshelves (as should all Scottish households) a copy of the authoritative volume The Clans and Tartans of Scotland by Robert Bain, in a 1961 edition bound in padded silk in the Royal Stewart tartan. I compared the pattern on the tartanware box with the approved MacDuff tartan as illustrated on Page 171 of the book. They match. Thank goodness! Clearly the makers of tartanware were sticklers for authenticity.
The little tartanware container is enjoyable to look at, tactile and satisfying, a very fine example of Mauchline output at its simplest and least tacky. I like it a lot, and was astonished to find it on sale in a charity shop for £2.50. I don’t have anything more to say about it. Or perhaps you might feel that I have already given it more attention than it merits?
Arncroach has very little in common with Mauchline. Perhaps the greatest similarity is in their names, both derived from Scottish Gaelic, and both containing the ch sound, properly described as a voiceless velar fricative, as in the word loch, which most English-speaking non-Scots find difficult to pronounce.
My copy of The Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland  devotes more than a page and a half  to its description of the bustling town of Mauchline, but it has less than four lines  on the subject of Arncroach, a tiny hamlet surrounded by farmland, with an estimated total population of around 120, in the Parish of Carnbee some four miles inland from Pittenweem in the East Neuk of Fife.
Although I’ve never knowingly been to Mauchline, I have passed through Arncroach many a time, having spent several bone-idle years as a student at the University of St Andrews, just a few miles to the north, and having at one time owned a small holiday cottage (more of a shack, really) in Earlsferry, just a few miles to the south. I’m also a regular visitor to Kellie Castle, the entrance to which can be found about a quarter of a mile from downtown Arncroach.
It’s the Kellie Castle connection which gives Arncroach what small renown that it possesses, due to the patronage accorded by the owners of the Castle to Mr William Wheeler, the village joiner, wheelwright and undertaker. Largely thanks to the Lorimers of Kellie, Wheeler, who was followed into the trade by his son and grandson, became one of the best-known furniture-makers in Scotland.
From 1878 until it was sold to the National Trust for Scotland in 1970, the 16th century Kellie Castle was occupied by successive generations of the Lorimer family. During this time it was restored from a near-derelict state into a masterpiece of Scottish vernacular arts-and-crafts taste. Kellie is one of my absolute favourite National Trust properties. If you have never visited the Castle and its beautiful gardens, I recommend that you drop everything and go there right now. More information here.
The Lorimer family member most responsible for restoring Kellie was Sir Robert (1864-1929), an architect with a world-wide reputation, whose many buildings include the Scottish National War Memorial at Edinburgh Castle, and churches and mansion houses across and beyond Scotland.
Lorimer involved himself not only with the design and construction of his buildings and restorations, but also with their interior decoration and furnishings. Heavily influenced by the ideas of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement, he forged close relationships with the artists and craftspersons who executed his designs. While most of his major furniture commissions were manufactured by the market-leading firm of Whytock and Reid of Edinburgh, Lorimer also engaged the services of small local tradesmen.
And who better to make chairs to Sir Robert Lorimer’s designs than his local joiner William Wheeler of Arncroach?
Through the making of furniture for Kellie Castle and for Lorimer’s other clients, the reputation of Wheeler’s of Arncroach spread to other well-heeled customers, among them (so the story goes) Eva Anstruther, sister-in-law to the laird of the nearby Balcaskie estate, who
“sent a Chippendale-style dining chair to Wheeler’s workshop for repair. When she was discussing this job with Mr Wheeler, Eva also asked if it would be possible to make a chair of the same design, but on a much smaller scale, so she could use it by the fireside. Wheeler obliged and produced a little version of the larger dining chair, which she called a gossip chair because its size made it easy to lean in to conversations. …Robert [Lorimer] started a tradition of giving these chairs to children on their christenings or to couples on their wedding day.” 
Wheeler’s gossip chairs were made with several different patterns of pierced splat back in the style of the 18th century furniture designer Thomas Chippendale. They were available in oak and mahogany, with a cowhide leather upholstered drop-in seat (the leather was often later replaced by owners with a fabric covering).
Gossip chairs are immediately recognisable from their small scale and the quality of workmanship, and they aren’t especially rare. Even though Wheeler’s of Arncroach never employed more than a handful of workers, they must have made large numbers of these pretty chairs over a long period from the very early 20th century, perhaps right up until they went out of business in the 1970s.
An example of a Wheeler gossip chair is likely to turn up in a local south-east Scotland auction sale perhaps once or twice per year, and I have wanted to own one for the last several decades. They aren’t even all that expensive: you could probably procure one at auction for less than £100. But perhaps because I already have a considerable surplus of chairs (see my blog post on this subject at https://random-treasure.com/2021/02/05/seating-for-78/), I have never got around to buying one.
Until, that is, I happened one day shortly before Christmas last year to wander into a charity shop in Musselburgh, and there it was – a superb Wheeler gossip chair in oak, complete with its original hide-covered seat. I was delighted to hand over £30, and brought it home in triumph.
I have mentioned that gossip chairs are small in scale, but the images above don’t show just how diminutive they are. So here for comparison is a picture of my new chair alongside a standard-sized dining chair of fairly similar Chippendale-inspired design – an oak example, probably Scottish, from the early 19th century. Your immediate impression might well be that the gossip chair is so much smaller that it must in fact be made for a child.
But apparently this isn’t so. If you credit the origin tale quoted above, then you will accept that these small chairs were in fact designed for adults. We might be able to verify this assertion scientifically if we knew for certain that the prime mover in their production, the redoubtable Dame Eva Anstruther, writer and poet (1869-1935) could have sat comfortably in a Wheeler of Arncroach gossip chair.
Sadly, I can’t help here, for although we have a portrait photograph of Dame Eva, we are unable to trace any documentation recording her hip measurement. The best I can do is to provide some empirical evidence in favour of adult use of the chair, viz: it is demonstrable that your blogger’s posterior, which he considers to be of average size, can fit on to the seat in reasonable comfort and without unsightly overhang to either side.
My lovely gossip chair, carefully cleaned up and polished, now stands elegantly in a landing corner on my staircase, an ideal spot for a little chair, and one of the few locations in the house not heretofore occupied by some form of seating.
There’s no moral to this blog post. No symbolism or hidden meaning. Merely a happy coincidence. Within just a few days and at very low cost I was able to pick up two outstanding – but very different – examples of the best sort of provincial Scottish woodcraft.
Unlike the Black Forest (carved bears and cuckoo clocks), or Wales (love spoons), or New England (Shaker furniture), or Norway (isn’t it good, Norwegian wood), Scotland is not readily associated with production of a particular class of craft woodwares. Whisky – yes; golf – yes; woollen fabrics – yes; iron ships – yes; but treen? – no, not so much.
Yet Scottish wood indeed has its high points. And I’m pleased that examples of two of them – made by Smith of Mauchline and Wheeler of Arncroach – have now found honoured places in my Random Treasure collection.
 Ed. F H Groome, The Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland, New Edition, 6 volumes, London, W. Mackenzie, 1892
 Ibid., Volume 5, pages 12-13
 Ibid., Volume 1, page 74