I’m eight years old again. Sat in the car with a butterfly stomach about to go to THE MUSEUM where I know wonderful things await me. I’m so pleased this excitement has stayed with me. I’m 63 and I’m going to Edinburgh 93 miles away to The National Museum of Scotland to see my treasure in the flesh - perhaps I should say in the metal. The drive amongst the Border Hills is always spectacular and today proves no exception, even going most of the way behind a lorry load of tractors doesn’t spoil the drive - rather it allows time to mark the sudden purple blaze on the hillsides and the swollen burns after last week’s rain. And time to speculate on my treasure - an 18th century serf’s collar.
Serf. There’s a word, a concept, to ponder on. In my mind ‘serfs’ were the peasants of old Russia and Eastern Europe. ‘Serfs’ were a feature of feudal society in the Middle Ages. The word causes discomfort in my conscience, considering the existence of serfs in 18th century Scotland, co-existing with the ideas of Locke and Hume, with the intellectual giants of the Enlightenment. Serfdom was not abolished in Scotland until 1799. So what story will a serf’s collar tell ?
There it is then, in the Trade and Industry section, gleaming like a Celtic circlet, incongruous in a case of primitive hand tools used in mining of the 18th century.
A closer look scrubs out a jewellery definition. At the back a hasp and staple arrangement show its purpose, three slots to adjust the grip round the neck, a reusable token denoting one person owned by another. I lean forward, read the legend, already intrigued. A man, Alexander Steuart, convicted of ‘theft ’ in Perth in 1701, sentenced to hanging commuted to being ‘gifted as ane perpetuall servant’ to another, Sir John Erskine of Alva, a mine and, apparently, a man owner.
My mind is buzzing What did he steal ? Why was he pardoned ? Why fit the collar when it was standard practice to brand the forehead with ’ ane mark the size of a sixpence’* to mark each criminal ? Is there something particular, something personal, about this crime, this criminal, that requires such a humiliating marker ? I lean closer, note the detail of the forging and rolling, the inscription, the decoration. Surely a simple metal collar hammered to a circle on an anvil would have sufficed ? My gaze shifts sideways to the paraphernalia of coal cutting by hand, a shoulder stool to support a man undercutting, a tallow-candle holder, a bottle for water, the diagrams of working conditions for men hacking, women and children hauling, in never-ending, unbearable toil. I imagine one among them, Alexander Steuart, bent to his work, irritated by the unremitting rub of the metal round his neck, considering his interminable future.
The following day comes a package from the museum - with more tantalising information - our serf, a Highlander, would probably not have had the skills to work in the mine, but may have been employed as a surface labourer.
He was one of four judged and sentenced to death that day in Perth by the Commissioners of Justiciary for securing the peace of the Highlands. It seems the prisoners (pennals) were to be returned to the Tolbooth while their ‘collars be made and putt upon their necks’ before being handed over to their new owners.
Inscribed on this collar is ‘Aler.Steuart Found Guilty of Death for Theft at Perth the 5th of December 1701, and gifted by the Justiciars as a Perpetual Servant to Sir Jo. Areskin of Alva.’ How long did that work take? Not a common skill, that quality and clarity of lettering.
And perhaps, being a Highlander and it being close to the 1688 Jacobite rebellion, judgements were aimed to humiliate a rebellious people. There could be no greater humiliation for a Highlander with a strong sense of brotherhood than to be owned by another man - a concept that might seem worse than death.
And, what manner of man was ‘Sir Jo. Areskin of Alva’ ? His name is on the collar - a very firmly inscribed note of name, crime, sentence and status on a collar with decorated rims. That decoration intrigues me - it appears to be hammered into the top and bottom rims of the collar. It serves no purpose other than to attract attention. The dynamic between these men, owner and serf, fascinates me. This is where I feel my creative instincts are drawn.
*His branding ’ a mark of the largeness of ane sevenpence or therby’.