Some musings on the origins of the modern Scottish quaich
It is thought name is derived from the Gaelic word ‘cuach’ It is often stated that this is in itself a derivation of the Latin ‘caucus’ meaning drinking cup. However extensive (about 20 mins) research has found that this dates back to a single dictionary entry in 1879. Source: Lewis & Short, “A Latin Dictionary”, 1879 As my father would have said “Ah hae ma doots”
Incidentally, my office window now overlooks a small hill on our neighbours farm called “Cnoc an cuiche”. (If you fancy a wee spot of glamping in beautiful south east Sutherland check out The Hirsel)
Although the origin is Gaelic, this type of cup was known and used both in the Highlands and in the Lowlands of Scotland certainly since the seventeenth century and probably before. It has been suggested that its ancestor was the scallop shell in which drams of whisky were taken in the Highlands and Islands. However, the origins of this theory seem to be based on references taken from the “Poems of Ossian”, which is now widely regarded as an immensely influential but ultimately a literary hoax.
With the origins of the quaich are now shrouded in the fog of history, a rich seam of traditions has continued to evolve. Many of the most impressive surviving quaichs were commissioned to mark special occasions, such as births or weddings. Some Scottish churches have superb early silver quaichs which seem to have been used in the baptismal ceremony, others have been used as communion cups.
Another late 19th century theory was that they were derived from 17th century shallow two handled European bleeding dishes. In the early 1960’s the american collector Richard L McClenahan suggested in his two volume monograph “Some Scottish Quaichs” that the quaich is more likely to have evolved from the ubiquitous medieval drinking vessel, the mazer. Although these often highly ornate and prized drinking vessels share many attributes with early quaichs, I’m less sure about them being the quaichs direct ancestors. These days I’m much more inclined to look to a Norse connection. I was nudged in this direction after a series of Scandinavian visitors commented in the apparent connection with similar traditional cups from their homeland. After looking at various “Kuksa”, “Guksi” and “Kjenge” and I am now more inclined to believe that the shape and form of quaich is like many of the place names around where I live, a cultural echo of the Viking period. I’m not suggesting that the Viking invented quaichs, their drinking horns are after all legendary. But some surviving treen from these period shows a lot of similar characteristics with early timber quaichs. It’s a tempting thought that we might have the Gall-Ghàdheil to thank for the quaich
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries there developed a strong tradition of quaichs within the British Armed Forces which continues to this day. Either as part of regimental mess silver or as retirement gifts. The quaich can be seen as a token of the strong sense of comradeship formed during military service.
The link to weddings is often attributed to James VI of Scotland who in 1589 is reputed to have presented Anne of Denmark with a quaich as a loving cup before their wedding. Although I have yet to find any source material for this. In more recent times the quaich has been used in a ceremony at the top table to mark the joining of two families in love and friendship and to welcome the bride and groom into their newly extended family. It is also frequently used in modern “hand fasting” ceremonies.
It seems that Christians, Humanists and Pagans all recognise the unique symbolism of this historic Scottish drinking vessel. After several hundred years of use the quaich has evolved from a simple domestic utensil to become a unique icon of scottish culture, hospitality and kinship.
The Quaich, Scotland’s cup of Friendship