The Sampler Sleuth Scottish Samplers: Their Diverse History & Motifs
Historically, Scottish samplers from the 19th century were made with strong colors—predominantly shades of reds and greens—combined with symbolic motifs, such as distinctive architectural styles, heraldic animals, illuminated lettering, evergreen trees, thistles and crowns. Historical textiles from Scotland nearly always include the stitched initials of family members. Initials stitched in black thread represented family members that were deceased, but not forgotten. These and other interesting features make samplers from this time and place quite an appealing group.
There are specific design elements that define Scottish samplers. A few examples, besides the ones mentioned above, include: the coat of arms of Scotland, peculiarly shaded mounds upon which often sit urns or fountains, Adam and Eve, and groups of rabbits in a row. The Alison Bathgate Watson 1856 Sampler, reproduced on page 36, incorporated many of these elements that were indicative of Alison’s heritage. According to Marcus Bourne Huish in his book Samplers
& Tapestry Embroideries (1913), the first documented border enclosing a sampler was worked in 1726. Antiquated motifs from Greek and Egyptian origins often appeared on Scottish works 100 years after their appearance on English samplers, and Alison’s “ribboned” cartouche encasing her name and the date is a prime example of distinct needle art.
One of the common design elements is the so-called “mystery mansion.” In her book Scottish Needlework Em
broideries: Medieval to Modern (1986), Scottish needlework expert Margaret Swain states the following: “The buildings that occur on several Scottish samplers are often thought to be imaginary … [I]t seems probable that the solid symmetrical houses appearing on so many Scottish samplers between 1750–1850 are not imaginary, but actual houses, too familiar to the needle woman and her family to need a label." Another common architectural motif in Scottish samplers is the castle; it stands as a silent reminder of Scotland’s ancient and violent past.
The heraldic peacock, usually with seven tail feathers symbolizing Britain’s trade links to the Netherlands and Far East, was a popular motif, along with dogs and rabbits.
The common thistle, native to Scotland, appears on many Scottish samplers as its pricklyleaved purple flower is the country’s official flower. Arcaded pansies stitched in triplet symbolize the Holy Trinity, and doves perched in the middle of a fountain symbolize the fountain of Eternal Life. Hearts and crowns are also widely used, perhaps representing the beloved Luckenbooth Brooch, a traditional Scottish love token.
The Luckenbooth Brooch, a traditional Scottish token of love, may have influenced the use of crowns and hearts in some historical samplers.
The majority of Scottish samplers were stitched in wool or a combination of silk and wool threads. Because of Scotland’s economic difficulties during the 19th century, young women were encouraged to use homegrown materials instead of imported ones, hence the frequent use of wool instead of imported silks. Both silk and wool threads were used to bring the original Alison Bathgate Watson 1856 Sampler to life, enabling the viewer to recognize that Alison had the means and access to fine materials.
Rows of uppercase and lowercase alphabet letters and sequential numbers began to be seen in English textiles in the 17th century. Examples of these influences can be seen on the upper half of Alison’s sampler in its rich autumnal palette. Alison has left the bottom portion of her sampler for the collection of “spot motifs” such as evergreen trees, dogs, rabbits, a central urn with flowers, and hearts and crowns.
Surviving historical Scottish textiles have come from the Auchterarder in the Tayside region Scotland, from northwest of Edinburgh, and from Dalkeith, located just south of Edinburgh, and from Lanarkshire. Alison’s 1856 sampler hails from the area of Livingston ( West Lothian) 15 miles west of Edinburgh.
Scottish needlework teachers began to incorporate patterns found on 17th century English samplers into their students’ assignments and continued using these attractive patterns long after they had gone out of fashion in England. Teaching situations throughout the 18th century were in demand no matter what the social or economic circumstance. The overwhelming majority of educational situations for girls utilized the sampler as a learning tool. Demands for this skill flourished as needlework ornamentation was seen as a marketable trade skill for future employment.
Every Scottish sampler that has survived is a historical record of one girl’s educational training, and the value placed on that education. The overall design and materials used give evidence of the maker’s culture, religion and personal accomplishments and abilities. Each textile that has endured today was valued when it was originally made. Samplers from that era were often framed and displayed on walls, and many were kept within families for generations as cherished heirlooms.
The lessons taught through the use of cloth and thread resonate throughout the centuries. If we take the time to pause and admire their handwork, we might still hear their voices whisper their wisdom in our modern 21st century, as in the verse below, found on a young girl’s sampler: Shine Lovely Maid in Needle Work, But Shine Not only There. Know Thou That for thy Self thou Most A Better Place prepare. Let thy Works only Give thee Praise, Be sure Shune Flattery. Thy reuin Sertain if thou Run, With Youth and Vanity. —Henreta Davidson, Glasgow, 1775
This portion from Alison’s sampler showcases a variety of motifs common to historical Scottish samplers.
The Luckenbooth Brooch gains its name from the “locked booths” that sold trifles along the Royal Mile near Saint Giles Cathedral in High Street in Edinburgh. Quite commonly given as a love token or betrothal gift.
The ribboned symbols surrounding her name demonstrate the unique use of motifs in Alison’s sampler.
The use of letters and numbers in samplers began in the 17th century. Here, the initials of family members are stitched in various color threads, with black representing those deceased but not forgotten.