Monday, 2 January 2017

Two 19th Century Scottish Carved Butter Stamps

Mirror image of the Butter Stamp of John Watson of 'Candermains Farm',
Dalserf, Scotland, The design features a sheaf of wheat, circa 1870's

I recently discovered that 19th century butter stamps have become very collectable and those with more decorative patterns now command a reasonable price at sale. I have two such Victorian era examples, which thankfully have a known provenance, along with a companion oval moulding / working board, and a couple of period and more common butter pats. The larger stamp bears the name of the dairy and cropping farm of "Candermains", a farm owned by the Dukes of Hamilton and tenanted by my maternal Scottish Great Grandparents in the Parish of Dalserf (near Stonehouse) in Lanarkshire, Scotland. Their tenancy of two consecutive periods of 19 years lasted from 1872 to 1910 so the stamps should date to the earlier period.

Butter stamps and oval working tray from the farm of John Watson
of 'Candermains', Dalserf, Scotland, circa 1870's

These carved wooden butter stamps, one being 10cm in diameter and the other being 4cm in diameter, are both fitted with handles, and were used to stamp home made butter. Both examples would have been used to stamp larger and smaller quantities of butter prior to commercial sale although the smaller one could also have been used for domestic use. I do not know how common it was to include the name of the producer and / or farm on the butter stamp as I have found very few such examples. And in fact I have not found one example of the well used oval shaped working board which accompanies the smaller stamp.

But I do rather think that stamping the butter was a useful way of promoting and identifying a locally made product from producer to consumer. This is something that would be very much encouraged today if current and very stringent food safety requirements made the public sale of domestically produced home butter or milk products even possible without now obtaining an expensive permit, inspection of an approved place of manufacture, and enough regulations to discourage all but the most dedicated semi-commercial producers.

With public health in mind, I note that the first comprehensive legislation on the production and sale of milk did not occur in the United Kingdom until the "Milk and Dairies Act" of 1914 (including a Scottish Bill introduced simultaneously) which superseded less stringent acts passed in 1885 and 1901. But still, it appears not to have been the intention of making "...these necessary safeguards unduly vexatious or burdensome to the rural communities engaged in providing milk".

Ayshire cows at 'Candermains' farm, Dalserf, Lanarkshire, Scotland
Photo taken by John Watson Jnr. around 1904 and
scanned from the original glass plate negative

Surviving period records confirm that my family owned and milked up to 20 Ayrshire cows. During winter the cows were normally kept under cover and hand fed with hay (you can see the hay ricks in the above photograph) and "Bibby's" commercially made oil cake. I can confirm the latter from the late 19th century bound copies of the "Bibby's Quarterly" I hold, including the subsequent gift of the annual "Bibby's Magazine" (and one year a sycamore wood art nouveau style jewellery box), from Mr Adam Grierson the local "Bibby's" supplier, all of which I still hold. I have also myself visited the farm I refer to and was kindly shown, by the then elderly owner (curiously also with the surname of Watson), the shed where the cows were wintered over. Cows would, I assume be hand milked to the last as no mechanical milking apparatus of any description was subsequently sold. A "Dairymaid" appears in census records until the beginning of the 20th century when the younger members of my family would have been old enough to assume that task.

A coloured advertisement for "Bibby" Feeding Cake,
from "Bibby's Quarterly", August 1898 

My Great Aunt, being born at "Candermains" in 1898, spoke about the milk churns that would daily be sent off for sale by horse and cart. I assume this would either be delivered locally or taken to the Caledonian Railway Station to be taken to a larger town such as Hamilton. Refrigeration was not possible and the milk would be sent off as quickly as possible and most likely sold raw, ie, unpasteurized. Each churn would be stamped with the name of the producer so that it could be returned to the owner. Once, when the churns came back, a decorative silver plate teaspoon was found in the bottom of one, I still hold it and also wonder how it got there, a child playing perhaps? So now, it is just a curious souvenir.

Butter Pats from 'Candermains farm', being used to work butter
into set quantities for sale and / or small balls for the dinner table

But prior to sale all or some of the milk would be placed in large milk basins and "skimmed" to remove much of the cream which would naturally rise, over a period of time, to the top of the milk. The cream, which would generally be left for as long as possible to improved the flavour, would then be placed in a wooden hand churn, salted, and churned until it formed into butter and butter milk. My family were also proficient in cheese making, continuing this skill for many years thereafter including, I note, as a local district fundraiser during World War One.

The smaller butter stamp with an engraving of a Scotch Thistle.
From the farm of John Watson, 'Candermains', Dalserf,
Lanarkshire, Scotland. Circa 1870's

 "Hand churns", including "butter workers", "Milk pails and tins" and a "cheese press" were all sold by public roup (auction) on the 25th October 1910 prior to my family emigrating to New Zealand. But sentiment obviously meant that the butter stamps were retained but probably not used again. I believe the butter pats continued to be used by my family as the butter would be worked into small balls for the meal table. Setting up a dairying operation in Southland New Zealand my family wisely invested in an expensive but decidedly less labour intensive milking machine and associated equipment only to sell it all four years later when sheep farming became the norm and support for the local dairy factory collapsed. Thereafter a cow was only retained for home supply of milk, being hand milked. It is ironic that much of my former family owned land has reverted once again to more profitable intensive dairy use.

Butter stamped with the Scotch Thistle pattern

As a point of interest I have attempted to use these stamps to mould shortbread but have been relatively unsuccessful. A modern moulded ceramic "petticoat" baking pan, which I also own, held the pattern far better.

Copyright of Images :

All images are from my own family collection and may be used for non-commercial use provided this site is acknowledged.

Sources :

- "Cheated Not Poisoned? : Food Regulation in the United Kingdom, 1875-1938", by Michael French and Jim Phillips
- Papers Past [National Library of New Zealand / Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa]
- Watson family papers, photographs and artefacts (held by the writer)
- "Bibby's Quarterly" and "Bibby's Annual" (from my own collection)


  1. Love the moulds, which could be given as presents to young married couples without costing a fortune.

    But I only saw them in the past as decorative for the table and not for promoting a local product etc. I don't know about shortbread, but wooden moulds are often adapted to decorate other food products that would otherwise be very plain eg jelly, blancmange.

    Happy 2017!

    1. Thanks Hels, It would be nice to find an occasional use for them. Never occured to me they might be presents but that is more than possible. A happy and healthy 2017 to you


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