Unravelling Collections Mysteries

22nd April 2021

With the historic house closed during lockdown, the Collections Team at Abbotsford finally found time to delve into the attics and tackle some jobs long overdue. Meet Box F26/14, long known as the 'bottomless' box, and help us unravel some collections mysteries...

Box F26/14 contains around forty small objects, spanning two centuries and the whole arc of the Scott family’s time at Abbotsford and their various social networks. These items are finds from cupboards and boxes: gifts, memorabilia, donations from all over the world, some obviously related to Sir Walter Scott and his literature and some more personal family effects. We were excited to delve into this mixed bag of goodies that successive curators never had time to properly examine and assess. But the job is so much bigger than we thought. Every object throws up a hundred questions! So, we’re inviting you to come along for the ride, and we’re calling all armchair historians, amateur sleuths and antiques hunters to help us get to the bottom of the bottomless box.

Every week we will bring out an object from the box. Help us to unravel its story.

Week 1: The ‘Naval’ Miniatures: A Case of Mistaken Identity

A set of three miniatures, described in our catalogue as naval miniatures. Who are the three sitters? The object came into the possession of the family in the 1950s as a donation – obviously because of the ‘Scott’ connection. The little stickers date from that time. When we opened the case, we found two more labels, also describing the central portrait as Scott and the sitter on the right as Nelson. We are positive that the central figure is not Sir Walter Scott. Could it be a different Scott? And if so, who? And is his companion really Nelson? It doesn’t look like any image of Admiral Nelson that we have ever seen. And who is their chum on the left? Can you help with their identification? And is there a link between the three individuals? Answers on a postcard please!

*** Additional information for local researchers: This item was donated to Abbotsford by R.S. Hayward. He was a prominent Galashiels mill owner, provost and benefactor of Galashiels, founder of the R.S. Hayward Foundation which provides grants to long-time Galashiels residents (over ten years) who are no longer working. We also have it on good authority that Hayward’s Circus was named after him. We’d love to find out more! Was he a friend of the Maxwell-Scott family? How did he come by the miniatures? Was he a collector himself?

Week 2: The Case of the Breeding Medals!

We found this unassuming bronze medal slipped into a presentation box containing another bronze medal from the Royal High School in Edinburgh, Sir Walter Scott’s alma mater. The mystery medal bears no name or motto, simply the side profile of a male and the dates 1896 – 1928. There are no obvious clues in the portrait’s costume that might suggest military connections, or indeed those of the Catholic Church so important to the family at this time. These dates do not appear to be related to the lives or professional appointments of any Maxwell-Scott family member, at least as far as we can tell but someone else out there may know more. The medal is inscribed ‘Pilkington Jackson 1930’, a prominent sculptor working and teaching in Scotland in the 20th century.

So, who might this individual be or what might this item represent?

Week 3: Looking for some razor-sharp intellect (excuse the pun)!

Another treasure found in Box 14 is this razor, allegedly once belonging to the man himself. We have no further archival provenance for this object. It is mounted for display with the backing board wrapped in brown paper and screw holes at the corners. Was it displayed at Abbotsford at one time or elsewhere? Does anyone remember seeing it displayed locally? Do any Kelso residents recognise the name of the person who presented it to the Scott family?

Week 4: The case of the mysterious handkerchief

This is the most intriguing object. Always described as Sir Walter Scott’s silk handkerchief – on closer inspection it would appear more of a shawl than a handkerchief. Made of silk and block printed with a ruddy border of leaves and petals, it was obviously well loved and frequently used. It has the tiniest embroidered monogram J.D. in red thread, and a curious printed emblem of a stag’s head along with the motto DUCIT DOMINUS in its centre. It has come to Abbotsford via a donation in the second half of the 20th century that included a silver snuff box (more of that next week). The accompanying letter mentioned that these items once belonged to a Thomas Scott Johnstone who had a connection with the Scott family. But who was J.D.? Looking at the stag’s head – is there a Scott of Buccleuch connection, rather than an Abbotsford one? Or, might it be connected with the Dirom family of Mount Annan, who carried this Latin motto and the heraldic symbol of the stag. But if so, how does this fit with Thomas Scott Johnstone? And what is Sir Walter Scott’s connection to them both? So many questions!

Week 5: A Pinch of Inspiration

This week’s object is a fantastic example of how the Chinese whispers effect can play out with our family heirlooms as they are handed down over time. This snuff box* is the companion piece to the silk shawl we featured last week… or is it? It features monogram WS but does that really signify our Walter Scott (1771-1832) the laird of Abbotsford and the celebrity writer? There is a clue here that shows that the donor may have been a little confused in the attribution – can you spot it? The donor had understood that there was a connection between the snuff box, Sir Walter Scott and King George IV, but the kingly connection may have been suggested to them by the silver hallmark GR, that they equated with GEORGIUS REX, or King George in Latin. There are some fantastic online databases of silver marks – why not have a go at dating this piece and see if you are convinced by the story. Do all the elements of the box look like they date from the same period?

*Snuff boxes were used to carried powdered tobacco for snorting. This smokeless option delivered a fast nicotine hit and was thought to deter colds and prevent snoring!

If you have anything to suggest or share, please comment or message us on social media or contact us via email.