This post is about the furnishings of tower houses, and the documentary record.

The first thing to note is that Scottish furnishings from the sixteenth- and seventeenth centuries are very rare. This may be contrasted with the apparent survival of quantities of English chunky Jacobethan furniture, and it occurs to me that a rather smaller Scottish upper class and nobility were rather more effective domestic modernisers. It’s also worth noting that the value and esteem of wooden furniture rather depended on its cloth accessories.

Having said that, at Craigievar Castle the hall table seems contemporary with the rebuilding of the castle in 1626, and is not unlike surviving Flemish tables of that period. It seems a little small for the hall, and might have once had extensions, and companions. It is clearly visible in Billing’s engraving of the hall, and is massive and immobile. On an upper floor landing at Craigievar, a panelled wall serves as the front for a box-bed, the ‘close-bed’ of the inventories. It has been converted to a bath. Obviously this survives here because it was nailed down. But fixed furniture would not be so useful elsewhere, so one expect such furnishings in abandoned houses to usually go for firewood.

Lamington and the Balnagown chair

AHSS Furniture talk Dec 2016

There was a famous chair at Lamington Castle, near Biggar. The place was supposed to have belonged to William Wallace or his wife, and the Baillie family of Lamington were supposed to be descendants of Wallace’s daughter.

The chair was moved to Bonington House near Lanark by Elizabeth, Lady Ross Baillie around 1800 and subsequently in 1833 to Balnagown House, where it remains. The chair seems to be, and probably is the oldest chair in Scotland, with a lot of grandfather’s axe type repairs.

So the chair served to advance the notion that the Baillies were an ancient established family, which they were, and were descendants of the national hero. The chair wasn’t really the star of this show; the story was about ownership, an ownership of Wallace’s legacy.

This narrative wasn’t about the chair itself, which was a token of this other association, connected with the place itself. So this could have been an old chair found in a church or abbey, perhaps already with another vague association to the wars of independence, transferred to Lamington to illustrate a genealogical claim.

This is important because the Scots weren’t yet antiquarian collectors in the late middle ages, but were keen to hang on to, or manufacture proofs that their families were or had been influential and wealthy.

Chairs at Crathes Castle

Ian Gow curator National Trust for Scotland examining a chair at Crathes Castle

So you’ll know the chairs at Crathes initialled for the couple who built it shortly before 1597, and their highly carved bed. There is also an older hunting horn that relates in story to their ownership of the lands. The chairs seem to be integral to castle and the themes of ownership and dynasty, and we might suppose they were used in the great hall at the top table. A number of later chairs survive with arms and dates, which had this dynastic function, which is why they survived as intended heirlooms, while other chairs mentioned in inventories do not. The majority of these chairs have Aberdeenshire associations, from an Aberdeen school of furniture making. There are records of furniture making elsewhere in the sixteenth- century.

The Traill bed (NMS)


This bed in the National Museum has the Trail family arms, and a date 1641, and so it’s clear that this was a useful piece of furniture which had an extended life as an heirloom beyond its heyday as a fashionable item.

However, it was bought by the National Museum with no provenance from the antiques market. And now it’s hard to say exactly who ‘TT’ was, which Thomas Trail this might be. There were Traills in Fife, in Orkney and Dundee.

Colonel Thomas Traill of Holland in Papa Westray could have been the owner, or an apothecary in Dundee, but whoever owned it, the bed could have been made anywhere in Scotland, though the urban centres of Aberdeen Edinburgh or Perth seem most likely.

The James IV box

AIDAN 7.4.10 001

Discovered about fifteen years ago, this small box has been associated with James IV and Margaret Tudor. This is because the initials I and M resemble some royal artefacts, particularly some tiles formerly at Linlithgow Palace.

This seems quite plausible, but might not be completely compelling. The Gothic ornament is similar to some other carvings in the National Museums, but all bear a strong resemblance to Flemish work. This is as expected, since Flanders work appears so often in inventories, and so makers in Scotland would certainly follow these models.

A Bed front in store at NMS


This is a bed front in storage at the National Museum, in its form very like the one at Craigievar, with an early seventeenth-century date, with delightful carvings including winged mermaids or harpies. The carving of the faces seems essentially Scottish to me.

Again, there is no record of where this from. Inventories mention a few bed types, and describe the curtains if they were made of rich silks. This is a close-bed, “stand beds” had posts, they were four nuikit, a ‘chapel bed’ had a canopy suspending from the ceiling.

The Ferniehirst inventory

Some inventories just mention beds, often in nearly every room. It’s important to realise that any room called a chamber was bedchamber.

This minimal inventory of Ferniehirst in 1646 mentions beds, tables and chairs, and a bed in a passageway.

The tables in the hall sat on trestles – but surprisingly that was rare, more often the tables were fixed with substantial frames called branders.

It’s not completely clear if this little scrap of paper represents everything in the house, or is intended just to record the wooden furniture and some ironwork. Fixtures that were the responsibility of the castle’s keeper

The Banff inventory and fabrics

Other inventories give a broader view, and are more detailed on fabrics. This is for the Earl of Buchan’s houses at Banff and Auchterhouse.

Bed coverings and counterpanes are frequently mentioned, like three pair of Bed plaids. A popular woven patterned covering was called an Arras work, these were relatively inexpensive, and nothing to do with Arras tapestry.

The words ‘sewed’ and ‘stitched’ mean embroidered, and serve to indicate very important treasured items.

Six sets of bed curtains were listed, one with a woven ‘marble’ pattern was noteworthy. There were three water pots and three green cloths for counters, the tables in the three best bedchambers. The word ‘counter’ clearly served for a variety of types of table and small cupboard, as well as shop counters and desks.

There were a variety of cloths used in the hall, in an elaborate theatre of display, and most inventories have interminable lists of tablecloths and cupboard cloths, napkins, and washing towels, all supplied in several qualities to ensure that guests knew their place.

Banff furniture

The furniture at Banff was all listed together, and the inventory maker made an interesting distinction between Scottish furniture made of fir and some Flanders items, newly imported. We can assume the Flanders item were good quality and worth the trouble importing them, but might wonder how a Scottish counter, here used in the best bedchambers, differed from the Flemish counter found other inventories .

A standing bed meant a bed with posts. A Flanders easement was a close-stool, a portable toilet. The rest of the stuff furnished the hall, including 20 spears, which might have been a kind of display.

It’s significant that no other types of reception rooms were mentioned. I have found no drawing chambers mentioned in Scottish inventories before 1626. Some domestic leisure and entertainment must have taken place in galleries, but unfortunately I have found few records of their furnishings.

Makers in Edinburgh

However, there are some surprising records of furniture making in Edinburgh, recently rediscovered in the City Archives by Dr Aaron Allen of the University of Edinburgh.

There was a corporation of craft workers, mostly masons and wrights, but also including coopers, painters and glaziers. The craft eventually came to be known as St Mary’s Chapel.

The craft reformed itself in 1554, probably in response to increased scrutiny by Mary of Guise, who wanted to tax incorporations. The oldest minute book records a resolution to have aspiring craftsmen make prentice pieces:

I will have a go at reading this out:

The which day Johne Owchiltre deacon & the 12 masters ordains & thinks expedient that every man enterand to be free man in tyme to come shall make an essay to be seyn & considerit if he be abell & sufficient to mak ye quenes grace lieges trew service or nocht

& gif he be abyll & worthy to be resevit, payand his upset & uther levy feis that is to say every outland man for his upset & daner in the whole – five li x ss & every man beand prentice in ye toun to pay for ye upset & danir – iiij li x ss.

The expectations are that craftsman are able and sufficient and give true service.

So to become a free craftsman in Edinburgh, you would have to make apprentice piece, pay a fee and host a dinner. Outsiders had to pay more to join than those who were prentices in the town; moreover later entries reveal that the essays of sons of existing masters were judged favourably.

Soon after the new rule was made, the first essay, a prentice piece of an extending table with two leaves, not unlike a modern dinner table, was recorded in these words:

The said day Thomas Wod wryt hes takine him to ane essay Viʒ to mak ane drawing burde with ane close case with thre lidds that is to say baith ye lidds to draw furth at anis & ye omest lid to fall doun in ye midds betwix ye tua undermaist, & he sall fall to the samyn the morne and bide till it be done & these are his masters assayers viz Andro Mansioun, Jhone Stewart, Jhone Cunninghame, & Jhone Mewrois.

So straight away we learn that master wrights in the craft made furniture. The four judges presumably also made furniture in Edinburgh. Andrew Mansion heads the list, he made and carved furnishings for James V, and also made stalls in St Giles. His sons Isaac and Francis continued making furniture in Edinburgh.

Pale dresser

Another essay is described in rather more obscure language. It was a dresser or cupboard with a back or canopy, perhaps a little like the surviving dresser at Towie Barclay, or the Wynne dresser in the Burrel Collection. The word dresser is quite rare in Scottish records compared with cupboard. Reading the description is difficult because this is almost the only description of carved furniture from sixteenth-century Scotland. The canopy was called a pale, the carvings ‘muldreis’ and ‘virgals’.

The dekynnnis & maisters hes assignit Thomas Kennedye to mak his own assay, as use is, betwix this and witsonday nixt to come viz ane pale dressour with ane squair bak & ane heide, ye hale wair of the dressour beand fillit with muldreis braid, with virglare inmait it,

At ye completing of the samyn the maisters hes ordanit Patrick Schang Jhone Stewart, Thomas Lyndesay and Adam Purves for to vesye ye said assay, gif it be relevant or not.

Again the first named judge, Patrick Schang seems to have been a furniture maker. An inventory of Regent Moray’s goods lists a bed made by Schang, which is very unusual. A contemporary minute book of the wrights and bowers of Perth (also unpublished) mentions several members of the Schang family

Andrew Mansion

The French craftsman Andrew Mansioun also crops up again slightly later in some records of Mary of Guise. Here he drew up and signed a receipt for work on the ‘queens table’. This was a frame for a new altarpiece for the Chapel Royal, which was installed on the eve of the reformation.

In 1559 furniture at Sanquhar Hamilton was described with the phrase carved ‘in the most courtly manner’. While ‘courtly’ may have simply meant fashionable or nice, it might indicate that there were a recognised group of carvers and furniture makers who worked and trained with Andrew Mansioun.

Surviving renaissance style furniture in National Museum and elsewhere is likely to have been made by this group: including the doors and portals from houses in the Lawnmarket and Leith that were traditionally associated with Mary of Guise.

Barroun family bill.

In 1558 Mary of Guise bought panel paintings for her altarpiece in Flanders. The merchant Patrick Baron, perhaps resident in Antwerp, was sent a ‘memorial’ explaining the commission, he otherwise bought fine sewing silks for embroidery, and a silver spoon, as directed by the lady in waiting Madame Livingston.

The finished altarpiece, so it seems, was a hybrid object, with Netherlandish paintings set in a frame made by a French carver working in Scotland.

Furniture and furnishing in Scotland, perhaps like the altarpiece was assembled and reassembled with mixes of foreign and Scottish components.

George Lord Seton

Scottish nobles had a taste for walnut furniture in the sixteenth-century. Like the pine furniture this has wholly disappeared. James V had some walnut beds bought in France, and walnut appears in inventories and wills, noted perhaps because it was relatively rare.

George, Lord Seton was a well-known supporter of Mary Queen of Scots. His chief residence was at Seton Palace in East Lothian. We know that James Baron imported French furniture for him in the 1560s because he didn’t pay for it and the debt remained on the books for decades, and was recorded in his widow’s will.

Barron had also lent Seton money and supplied him food, and sold him a pair of velvet bands that cost £24.

Item awand be George Lord Seytoun for ane bed & ane burde & ane dresser of walnute trie ye soume of ane hundred pund. Item mair be the said nobill lord £84 money. Item more for the rest of victuallis £422 pound

So Seton was indebted to Baron in a variety of ways, not just for fine furniture. Importing furniture was just something that a merchant would do by request and commission, however it seems reasonable to suggest the Barroun family had a particular interest in the luxury furnishing trade, as well as accumulating negotiable debts from wealthy aristocrats.

For Lord Seton, the French furniture held some kind of cachet, and it’s likely that other courtiers of queen Mary would have bought French furniture. There was a walnut bed at Tantallon Castle in 1593, in ‘my lords outer chamber’. Walnut furniture doesn’t survive as well as oak. Nevertheless there are some mid sixteenth-century French pieces at Hardwick Hall which seem to have always been there.

Walnut tables

In April 1581 a walnut bed was made for James VI of Scotland. The bed and a table were to be made out oak and walnut and painted, according to the treasurer’s accounts:

For timber of walnut tree to be a stand bed to his highness and for knappels to be a board for his majesty to eat at, and for the iron work of the said bed and board, and other necessaries to the master of the wardrobe and painter as the particular account bears, £20-3-0.

The walnut timber presumably came from France, the ‘knappels’ were Baltic oak. This was a court particularly inspired by French culture, under the influence of Esme Stewart, Duke of Lennox. Lennox gave Mark Ker of Prestongrange a dresser, which may have been distinctively French, and would have been used under the famous painted ceiling, which is dated 1583.

Walnut furniture, mostly chairs, occasionally a table or bed, appears in an increasing number of wills from the first decades of the 17th-century. Some perhaps all of these were imported from France. The owners are not always obviously wealthy. This imported furniture must have competed with local production.

In the same years Edinburgh wills inventory the booths and workshops of wrights who made furniture. They held stocks of pine and oak timber, the timbers used in surviving Scottish chairs, and did not have walnut.

Walter Denniestone

One of the most interesting makers was Walter Dennistone, who died in 1632, he had furniture in his booth, apparently for retail, not made for commission, ‘not outred’ as the will puts it. He made coffins as well as tables and beds.

The will mentions that a mort kist, a coffin was thirty shillings;  a little oak box was ten shillings; a gilt chair, meaning one covered with gilt leather was fifty shillings; a group of a bed, table, chest and press retailed at £42, while as an upholsterer he had a stock of made-up leather chair backs and new red leather skins.

However, after the union of the crowns, many of the nobility had embraced the same fashions as those current in England. Records of beds and chairs imported from London are quite common, despite the availability of locally made furniture, and London goods were clearly fashionable. The local trade seems abandoned, perhaps first by those who married into the English aristocracy. It may be that furniture made by Dennistone supplied the lesser lairds and emerging middle classes.

Aristocrats like Margaret Stuart, sister of the Earl of Moray had a Chinese bed in 1605, and so did William Douglas, Earl of Morton in 1640, whose son had married a cousin of the Duke of Buckingham. These were beds made up with delicate fabrics from India or China, a new British fashion. In 1631 the bedchamber and bed at Moray House was hung with pintado, a coloured calico, for Mary Sutton, the English dowager Countess of Home.

Lady Home visited London almost annually and shopped in the Royal Exchange. She bought beds, chairs and silver in London. Some chairs copied Venetian models.

At the same time Scottish clients were keen for Parisian luxuries. John Clerk of Penicuik supplied these needs. It seems he started out importing ribbons and garters from London in 1633 to festoon costume at the Scottish coronation of Charles I, and worked his way up to be a substantial moneylender foreclosing on his aristocratic clients.

In 1649 he commissioned and bought a large stock of Parisian luxuries, including a complete bedroom suite, a harpsichord, a pair of pistols, wall hangings, chairs and tables. He shipped all this to Edinburgh and set it all up in house on the Royal Mile, just like a modern show home, when merchants probably offered only rolls of fabric, and craftsmen showed a few chairs or a bed frame.

Clerk opened this show room to aristocrats, especially William, Earl of Lothian, and James Earl of Moray, and he played them off against each other to increase sales, as his correspondence shows. Moray gained the impression that Lothian was offered the finest things while he got the trash: while Clerk invited Lothian to come and buy before his rival Moray made his choice. It’s interesting that Clerk doesn’t seem to have made much from these sales, and was perhaps playing a longer commercial game.

So the interior furnishings of Scottish aristocratic homes in the early seventeenth might not have been easily distinguished from their English contemporaries. This is perhaps a direction of further research: to nuance this picture of Anglicisation, and chart of the influence of would-be fashion leaders.

However, to conclude, evidence from the craftsmen’s own wills and the survival, particularly of chairs, shows that distinctly Scottish manufacture continued and developed despite the partial disappearance of an aristocratic clientelle. Scottish wrights and chair makers continued to produce traditional forms informed both by tradition and by French and Dutch fashions, like these nearly contemporary chairs, satisfying differing markets.

This post is based on a talk given to Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland on 5 November 2016.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s