LIKE DOTH QUIT LIKE, AND MEASURE STILL FOR MEASURE….
All of the articles which we’ve written over the last few years, particularly those relevant to glasses and bottles, will almost invariably have made mention of some sort of unit of measure or other – be it the capacity of a glass, the content of a toddy lifter or the volume of a decanter (and it’s not just me who rattles on about these things, Shakespeare himself was similarly disposed every now and then – hence the article title !)
It has occurred to me, however, that most of these units are very parochial and almost certainly vary in actual volume depending on when you might be based – there is not even any real unanimity between Scotland and neighbouring England – let alone farther afield. Of course, you can take it as read that there are certain inviolable differences with regard to comparisons based on whether you are north or south of Hadrian’s Wall, the girls are more beguiling, the spirits more rousing and the vittles’ more satisfying and tastier if you are to the northward (and you can switch those adjectives and their subjects around and they’ll all still hold true), and there are also salutary differences as to what constitutes a nipperkin, a muchkin, a dram or a gill or a pint according to your location, so it’s high time that we set out the formal Scottish Antiques guide to Antiquarian Scottish Measurements of Fluid Volume, so we all know (definitively !) what’s what . Well, we will as long as we’re referring to anything that comes from the Land o’ Cakes, that is…
It was as early as the 13th century when the first attempt was made to formalise weights and measures in the UK, albeit almost exclusively in England where the Magna Carta of 1215 tried to set out units to be used up and down the length and breadth of the land. However, although this standardised the terms of reference used for the trading of grain, cloth, wine and beer - the most important commodities of the day which needed to be accredited – the actual measurements, volumes and weights were not set in stone, or etched on to parchment. In any case, The Great Charter was only drawn up a few decades before the short-lived Treaties of York and Perth collapsed, the borders between England and Scotland dissolved under the predatory jurisdiction of the reivers and – ultimately – before full blown war broke out, so it was always going to be unlikely that the empirical niceties of weights and measures governance were going to be strictly observed by both parties; anyway, it was would generally suffice that the volume of blood spilled in sundry gory encounters be best quantified as “singularly sanguinary”, “enough to soak the verdant sod the deepest crimson” or simply as “lots” rather than being estimated to the nearest butt, tun or barrel by bean-counting matchday scribes of the day.
It makes some semblance of sense (well, to me anyway) to work our way through the catalogue from smallest to largest, so let’s first turn our attention to the gill (and that’s pronounced in the manner of a female ferret, or more obviously as in Jack and Jill, for those not well versed in the niceties of mustelid husbandry – and nothing to do with fish). The word itself first made an appearance in Britain in the mid 13th century, at the point just before Scotland and England were consumed by war. It may well have been the case that communications between the two kingdoms were sufficiently intact for the word to have spread across both before both the metaphorical and actual drawbridges were raised – hence giving us the commonality of the word itself and also the cross-border differential between its actual meanings, which were to be independently rubber-stamped, in isolation both north and south of the border.
Under King John Balliol and the Lion Rampant, it was determined that a gill should be the equivalent of around one quarter of a Scottish pint but, as has already been suggested, the lack of consensus and any mood for compromise – let alone the complete absence of accurate equipment – mitigated against the adoption of a properly formalised system of weights and measures, and it was not for some 300 years or more that there was any real attempt to set out a system of standards, by which time the goalposts, or at very least, the fill marks, had been moved.
The early 18th century sees a gill having been determined as one 32nd part of a Scottish pint, but a Scottish pint was the equivalent of three English pints, and a gill was therefore around 53ml. This is a pretty hefty measure for any one serving of alcohol, so there were smaller subdivisions to allow for more prudent dispensing of malts and liquors. A wee gill was ¾ of a full gill, half a gill might also be known as a jack, a wee half gill ⅜ of the whole, and a nip one quarter of a gill or 14ml – approaching a manageable unit; smaller still was a nipperkin – one eighth of a gill and the smallest unit of measure, unsurprisingly so as for anything less it simply wouldn’t have been worth opening your mouth to tip it in…
Conversely, larger measurements were needed for putting up alcohol for storage or transport, and so we find, on the next level up, a mutchkin, which consisted of four gills. This word was of Dutch origin, from the grain measure which was a mudde, modified with the suffix kin which was often used in the names of units of measure (as it is to this day, particularly in barrel sizes such as firkin and kilderkin and formerly, as above, with nipperkin). Gill, by the way, came from the Latin gello, for water pot, by way of Old French and Middle English. In addition, there were any number of locally used measures, which again varied widely from place to place, and had the same loose interpretation as did (seemingly) the entire system – a Hawick Gill, for instance, was said to be “at least a mutchkin or an English pint” – so somewhere between four and about ten gills; inexactitude was clearly the watchword of 18th century weights and measures officials ! By way of further obfuscation, you may well come across a mutchkin being referred to as a bodach, which is the Gaelic word for the same four gill measure.
If one wished to decant or store an amount equivalent to four mutchkins (sixteen gills), then you would need a container said to contain one chopine or chopin, which was a French name for half a pint; French and Scottish pints shared the same volume (32 gills), so we can see that this name fitted snuggly in to the Scottish system. There is limited evidence that another French diminutive, demiard – meaning half a chopin or one quarter of a pint – also found its way in to Scottish usage as a demenard, but I’ve seen just two examples of this, and tend think that it’s no more than a misspelling of the French original (as used on a bill of lading drawn up in Edinburgh in 1718).
Onwards and upwards, and were you fortunate enough to have two chopins, you might find it easier to say that, in fact, you had a (Scottish) pint, or a joug. The origin of pint is from the Latin picta, meaning to paint, and is believed to refer to the painted marks on a jug used to measure its (liquid) content – one unit so marked being the basis for a pint itself (the actual volume of this apocryphal amount has long been lost in the mists of time); joug is, of course, the simple appropriation of the term jug, however, it transpires that we are actually talking about a rather special type of jug ! Pewter jugs in Scotland from around the mid 17th century which were made to accommodate a (Scottish) pint are known by the rather splendid name of tappit hens. From our perspective, antique glass examples are virtually unknown, silver ones marginally less uncommon, with the majority if examples being made from pewter. The name itself does not denote the capacity of the vessel, you can get pint tappit hens, which is the most common size, along with chopin and mutchkin tappit hens, but they all share a common appearance which is that of a tall, relatively narrow flagon, having a hinged lid which – crucially – has a thumbpiece affixed by which said lid may be raised. It’s this additional element which gave the pieces their splendid name – as a tappit hen in Scots dialect is an actual hen of the egg-producing variety with a tuft or top-knot of feathers on her head – you only have to take a look at the pictures alongside this piece to see why this – alongside the “beak” of the spout – is such an excellent name ! It’s been mooted that the name should only really be applied to the pint versions, although with no more substantial a reason being put forward other than that of greater commonality, it has to be said. The name has become somewhat synonymous with drinking in Scotland, and can be found in use as the name of pubs and hostelries across the nation
Over and above the capacity of a pint tappit hen, we find the eight-pint gallon, which in Scottish terms (remember – three Scots’ pints to one English one) would have been a huge, unwieldly container, and which is the last step before entering the realm of the wooden barrel. These storage vessels have their own peculiar vernacular, and one which is rather outside of our remit.
And so, with the measures and their names having evolved over centuries, it can be of no surprise that – once the technology came in to being to repeatedly be able to manufacture items to some serviceable sort of standard – vessels were produced based on the same system. Following the same convention as for that of the containers in to which measured amounts would be dispensed, the earliest extant examples tend to be of pewter, with later earthenware and porcelain and then ultimately glass coming to the fore. There are also a number of brass examples, with the inference being that as they were solid and far more substantial than pewter, that the measures they dispensed would be more accurate. The disparity for units in use across the UK has inevitably disappeared as communication from one part of the nations to another evolved to be that much more straightforward and common place, and the need for standardisation for trade and other mercantile utilities became an imperative. However, the old measures remain on record, and if you have the opportunity to strike a bargain which entails you offering up one English pint in return for one of Scottish provenance, then grab it with both hands – or just the one hand, if you have had the forethought to ensure that there is a tappet hen about your person, for just such a happy circumstance !
here's our website link for all the gill measures that we have had - simply update the search term to look for similar items of differing capacities: