An introduction to the history of the coinage of Scotland

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29 April 2019
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Alexander III penny
Dr Nick George of B&G Coins presents an introducing to Scotland's coinage, from the medieval era through to coins issued in the years before the Acts of Union.

England’s coinage is not alone in telling the story of the rich and interesting past of the British Isles. Coins have throughout history recorded and commemorated the events and milestones of their time. And the coins of Scotland, Ireland and the Islands have all played their part in this story.

On England’s Northern border sits its neighbour Scotland, which is not only inextricably tied to England geographically, but also tied in so many ways in its history and own fascinating coinage issues. And as such, collecting Scottish coins can be an extremely rewarding pastime.

What were the first Scottish coins?

As far as we are currently aware, the first independent type of coinage to circulate in Scotland was issued under David I who reigned from 1124 to 1153, although Viking and Celtic and even some Roman coins in particular circulated prior to this.

Following the capture of Carlisle in 1136 by David and his son Prince Henry, Carlisle, along with Edinburgh, Roxburgh, Berwick and St Andrews became the preferred minting towns of his reign. Many of these early coins are hard to come by and are often weakly struck and quite expensive to buy.

A treaty with King Stephen of England in 1139, saw David’s son Prince Henry being granted the English title of Earl of Northumberland and Huntingdon. Henry went on to mint his own coinage during his father’s reign right up until his premature death in 1152, the year before his father David died. 

Henry also chose Carlisle along with Corbridge and probably Bamborough to mint these coins. Imagine if Prince Charles were in his capacity as Duke of Cornwall, minting his own coins in Truro today!

As in early Saxon and Norman hammered coins of England, the obverse of the Scottish Silver Penny followed a similar ‘short cross’ style, although the cross itself was depicted in several different ways, rather than the mainly standard short cross of English coins.

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The Scottish penny

By the time Alexander III came to the throne (1249-1286) at the age of just seven, the Scottish penny had an established format. It was in Alexander's reign that following a ‘Transitional Coinage’ issue from 1249-50, the ‘Long Cross and Stars’ obverse came into use with his First Coinage of 1250-80.

Stars now being used in the quarters of the cross, instead of the pellets used in England. The amount and style of the star denoting the place the coin was minted and its denomination.

It was also towards the end of Alexander's reign that with his second coinage of 1280-86, the Halfpenny and Farthing (from the Old English word fēorþa and then Middle English word ferthe or forthe meaning due to four/four equal parts) were introduced for the first time to Scotland.

Alexander III coins are the most accessible of many other early reigns, they are better struck and also more affordable. Due to the variety of mints and issues, this period makes an interesting collecting area in its own right and a good place to start for those new to collecting Scottish hammered coins.

Alexander was briefly succeeded by Margaret the ‘Maid of Norway’ at the age of three. She sadly died in 1290 at the Orkneys, during her sea journey to Scotland form her native Norway. It was intended that she would marry the future Edward II and unite England and Scotland, how different the history of England and Scotland might have been, had this actually have taken place. However, no coins were minted at this time.

Coins during the time of William Wallace

There followed two years of jostling for the crown until John Baliol, who was a descendent of David I, was ‘chosen’ as king, from thirteen competitors, who agreed to abide by the arbitration of Edward I of England (Longshanks and the Hammer of the Scots). And in 1292 John Baliol started his short reign through to 1296, during which time he issued Pennies, Halfpennies and Farthings from mints in Berwick and St Andrews.

Scotland now entered into ten years of upheaval and a certain Sir William Wallace joins in the fight to push back Edward I and gain a truly independent Scotland. However, following the arrest of Wallace, he was taken to London, where on the 23 August 1305 at Smithfield, he met an ignominious end, when he was publically hung, drawn and quartered.

This brings us to arguably one of the best known Scottish Kings, when in 1306 Robert the Bruce was crowned at Scone. He reigned until 1329, having famously defeated the English at the battle of Bannockburn in 1314. It was not until around 1320 that he issued a silver penny, halfpenny and farthing, the only coins of his reign.

Changing times for Scotland's coinage

Despite John Baliol’s son Edwards claim to the throne, David (Bruce) II 1329-71, succeeded his father Robert at the age of five and was crowned in 1331.

During David II long reign, some numismatic innovations took place with the introduction of the Gold Noble around 1357 and with his second coinage (1357-67) both a Groat and Halfgroat also appeared for the first time.

Further new denominations were added under Robert III (1309-1406) with the Gold Lion and Demi-Lion, followed by the Demy and Half Demy during James I (1406-37) reign, the Gold Rider, Half-Rider, Quarter Rider and Unicorn in James III (1460-88) reign. It was also during James III reign a Billon (low grade silver) series, that a Plack and Half Plack were issued. A further interesting issue was his copper Farthing and Crux Pellit, which due to the nature of its design, was once thought to have been an Ecclesiastical issue.

Other denominations were issued, such as the gold Crown under James V and the Abbey Crown under Mary (Queen of Scots) 1542-67. We also see the appearance of a Twenty Shillings, Thirty Shillings, Three Pound, Ducat, Testoon, Half Testoon, Ryal Two Thirds Ryal, One Third Ryal, Bawbee, Half Bawbee and Twelve Penny Groat.

James VI (James I of England) issued a particular favourite of mine, in the Ryal, also known as a sword dollar for obvious reasons, it was a 30-shilling coin when issued but some examples bear the thistle countermark indicating the coin was revalued to 34 shillings 9 pence in 1578.

Following James VI came Charles I whose reign we know, ended in England in a civil war and the loss of his head in 1649.

In England the rare series of coins struck under the Commonwealth (1649-60) and under the Protectorate of ‘the Great Emancipator’ Oliver Cromwell bearing the dates 1656 and 1658, were minted. Whereas in Scotland, even though Charles II was proclaimed King within a month of his father’s execution on 5 February 1649, no coins were minted until 1664.

From 'Scottish' to 'British' coinage

Charles II was invited to return to Britain on 29 May 1660, his 30th birthday and was crowned king of Scotland at Scone on the Ist January 1651. He in turn being followed by James VII (II of England). Due to James being Catholic, the throne was offered to William of Orange, who accepted and led an army to England to overthrow James II in what has been called ‘The Bloodless Revolution of 1688’.

William landed in Torbay in 1688 and James fled to Ireland, where he was defeated at the battle of the Boyne. William and his Queen Mary, became rulers of Scotland in 1689 and issued coinage and also as in England, just depicting William following the death of Mary in 1694. William set about the oppression of the Scottish rebels, which resulted in the notorious and vicious massacre mainly of Clan MacDonald at Glencoe in 1692.

In 1702 Queen Anne came to the throne and although only reigning until 1714, she was as we know, responsible for The Acts of Union, which were two Acts of Parliament: The Union with Scotland Act 1706 passed by the Parliament of England, and The Union with England Act passed in 1707 by the Parliament of Scotland.

This in essence meant coinage was no longer Scottish and English, but rather both we and our coinage became for the first time truly British.

But at the same time, as benefiting from all the trade and security benefits that this union with near neighbours would bring throughout the ages, we were and still are able to maintain our individual identities. And this seems to be a very fitting way to end our brief introduction to the history of the coinage of Scotland.

B&G Coins

Dr Nick George is numismatic consultant at B&G Coins. The company founded in 1977 and specialises in buying and selling coins, medals and tokens. The B&G Coins website has a wide range of coins, medals, tokens and banknotes for sale and enquiries are always welcome.