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Scottish And Irish Coins

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Compared with the long history of English numismatics, the Scottish series covers a relatively short period from the twelfth to the eighteenth century. Recent research has now definitely attributed the earliest Scottish coins, which were silver pennies or stirlings, to the reign of David I (1124-53); in appearance they are markedly similar to coins issued by the English king Stephen with whom David was contemporary. The obverse depicts the crowned head of the king facing to the right with a sceptre in front of him, together with the legend DAVIT REx. The reverse bears a cross surrounded by the name of the mint and moneyer. Stirlings of a similar type were also struck by David's son Henry, earl of Northumberland; a new type with a facing bust of the king was, however, introduced by David's successor Malcolm IV.

Perhaps the commonest of the early coins are those pennies (for this they may now be called) of the second coinage of Alexander III (1249-86) which were struck in very large quantities. These bear the bust of the king facing left with the customary sceptre in front, surrounded by his name and titles. The legend is continued on the reverse, the central design of which is a long cross extending to the edge of the coin. It was this king too, who coined halfpennies and farthings for the first time, the design being similar to that of the penny.

The first gold coins of Scotland were issued by David II (1329-71), who succeeded his father Robert Bruce, well known for his defeat of the English at the battle of Bannockburn in 1314. These gold coins were called nobles and were struck in imitation of the English noble of Edward III. Their issue, however, was shortlived and they are now extremely rare, gold coins not becoming a regular part of the Scottish coinage until the reign of Robert III, some twenty years later. David was also responsible for the introduction of groats and half-groats; these are quite common.

Many attractive gold coins have been struck in the Scottish series, but perhaps the most delightful of them all are the riders and unicorns of James III. The former depicts the equestrian figure of the king wearing armour, galloping to the right and brandishing a sword, whilst the latter bears an admirable representation of that mythical animal, the unicorn, holding the shield of Scotland in its forepaws.

The reign of James V (1513-42), father of Mary Queen of Scots, is noteworthy for the abandoning of the medieval style and the emergence of a genuine attempt at portraiture. The gold coins of this reign, which bear the best portraits, are unfortunately rare, but the groats, which also have pleasing portraits on them, can occasionally be found in a reasonable state of preservation.

Billon bawbees equal to sixpence were produced in this reign for the first time, the obverse design being a crowned thistle between I and 5 and the reverse a St Andrew's cross through a crown.

The fact that Mary, Queen ofScots was married to Frangois II of France has already been noted in a preceding chapter. The marriage was of short duration, however, for in December 1561 Fran~ois died of an abscess in his ear, an event which prompted John Knox to write, `Lo, the potent hand of God from above sent unto us a wonderful and most joyful deliverance. For unhappy Francis, husband to our sovereign, suddenly perisheth of a rotten ear-that deaf ear that never would hear the truth of God.' Subsequently, in 1565, Mary married Henry, Lord Darnley, but in two years she was again a widow for in 1567 Darnley was murdered. The house in Edinburgh where he was lying sick was blown up and his naked body was found lying in the garden.

These unhappy events in Mary's life are reflected in the coinage which may be divided into five main periods; that prior to her marriage to Frangois in 1558; the period of her marriage from 1558 to 1561 (the coins may again be divided into those issued 1558-60 when Frangois was dauphin and those struck in 1560-1 when he was king); the first widowhood of 1561-5; the period of her marriage to Darnley 1565-7 and her second widowhood which lasted only a few months.

The year 1603 saw the accession of Mary's son James to the English throne and the Scottish coinage underwent several alterations incorporating his new title; the arms of England are also now placed in the second and third quarters of the shield. From this time on until the cessation of the Scottish coinage at the union of the two kingdoms in 1707, many of the Scottish coins are similar to the English, although in some cases the Scottish thistle is used as a reverse design. An unusual feature of some of the later milled coins is the incorporation of the value in the design.


The early numismatic history of Ireland is shrouded in uncertainty. The coinage seems to begin circa A.D. 1000 when the Vikings who had settled in the country around Dublin began to strike coins in imitation of the pennies of Aethelred II of England. The bust that appears on the obverse is usually crudely executed and the legends often include the name of Sihtric Anlafsson. Later issues become very much more crude so that by the middle of the eleventh century the legends are practically indecipherable.

It was not until after John became Lord of Ireland in 1177 that a better executed coinage was produced; halfpennies and farthings were struck and following John's accession to the English throne pennies were produced in the early years of the thirteenth century. Henry VI (1422-61) was responsible for the issue of the first coin of a higher denomination, the groat, which appeared in 1460. This bears no legend on the obverse, simply a large crown within a tressure of arcs, an unusual design for so large a coin; the reverse bears a long cross extending to the edge of the coin with pellets in its angles and the legend CIVI/TAS/DUBI,/ INIE. Another unusual coin, this time issued by Edward IV was the double-groat or eightpencei examples of this are rare and are seldom found in good condition.

Henry VII succeeded to the throne in 1485 and immediately began to strike Irish coins in his own name. The following year, however, the Yorkist party in Ireland pinned their fortunes on Lambert Simnel, offering him to the people in the north of England as `Edward VI'. A number of rare groats and pennies of a similar type to those of Edward IV and a groat of Henry VII with the `h' below the name altered to an `E' have now been tentatively attributed to Lambert Simnel.

The coinage of Henry VIII is of particular interest since on some of the groats and half-groats, reference is made to three of Henry's wives; Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour; the initials `h k', `h A' or `h I' appear on the reverse. Copper had occasionally been used as a coining medium for Irish coins since the reign of Henry VI but the coins thus produced were only of a very limited number and the first extensive use of this metal came in the reign of Elizabeth when large quantities of pennies and halfpennies were produced.

Charles I also made use of copper to some extent but his reign is characterized by the large amount of crudely struck `money of necessity' that was produced at Dublin.

Without doubt some of the most unusual (but also the most common) Irish coins is the `gunmoney'. Since that time, with the exception of a quantity of copper coins struck during the reign of the four Georges and a series of silver Bank of Ireland tokens, little coinage has been produced specially for Ireland.

With the inception of the Irish Free State in 1928 a coinage of silver, nickel and copper was produced ranging from the halfcrown down to the farthing, each denomination taking for its reverse design a living creature such as a horse, a salmon or a woodcock. In 1939 the name of the country, Saorstat Eireann, was changed to Eire and the coinage was altered accordingly. The silver half-crown, shilling, and sixpence were debased from silver to cupro-nickel in 1951.