A Charming c.1820 Pen & Ink Naively Decorated Scottish Burr Root Wood Snuff Mull; ‘Tam o’Shanter’

Origin: Scottish
Period: Early Nineteenth Century
Provenance: Unknown
Date: c.1810-20
Height: 1.75 inches
Depth: 3.5 inches
Width: 5 inches

The Georgian Scottish table snuff box of wonderful colour, carved in burr root wood from a huge old tree, having a hinged cover naively decorated in pen and inkwork depicting a scene from ‘Tam o’Shanter showing a haunted church lit up, with witches and warlocks dancing and the devil playing the bagpipes amongst coffins, with the text ‘a present from little james’ above and ‘tam o’shanter’ below referring to the poem by Scottish poet Robert Burns.

Remaining in fair to good condition there is a small area of loss to where one would open the box and also the small middle section of the hinge is absent, with some old worm to the root side which we have treated as a precaution, otherwise it is presented in good order and it bears an exceptional colour and patination. The boxes interior has the remains of the paper lining and we cannot find a makers name.

Tam o' Shanter" is a narrative poem written by the Scottish poet Robert Burns in 1790. First published in 1791, it is one of Burns's longer poems, and employs a mixture of Scots and English. The poem describes the habits of Tam, a farmer who often gets drunk with his friends in a public house in the Scottish town of Ayr, and his thoughtless ways, specifically towards his wife, who is waiting at home for him, angry. After one such revel, late night after a market day, Tam rides home on his horse Meg while a storm is brewing. On the way he sees the local haunted church lit up, with witches and warlocks dancing and the devil playing the bagpipes. He is still drunk, still upon his horse, just on the edge of the light, watching, amazed to see the place bedecked with many gruesome things such as gibbet irons and knives that had been used to commit murders and other macabre artifacts. The witches are dancing as the music intensifies and, upon seeing one particularly wanton witch in a short dress he loses his reason and shouts,`Weel done, cutty-sark!' (cutty-sark : "short shirt"). Immediately, the lights go out, the music and dancing stops and many of the creatures lunge after Tam, with the witches leading. Tam spurs Meg to turn and flee and drives the horse on towards the River Doon as the creatures dare not cross a running stream. The creatures give chase and the witches come so close to catching Tam and Meg that they pull Meg's tail off just as she reaches the bridge over the Doon. The name is probably based on the Scottish forename "Tam" followed by "mishanter" (misfortune, ill-luck, the devil).

Table snuff boxes’ or snuff mulls were used mainly after dinner, when a host would offer guests snuff from a communal box. The word ‘mull’ is derived from a Scottish dialect word for mill, as the snuff was typically ground in a mill to a powder or meal. Mulls came in a variety of shapes and materials, including Tortoiseshell and wood. The most common snuff mulls are ram's horns, mounted in silver or Pewter.

The subject for this box makes it particularly interesting and its naïve decoration is a beautifully pure illustration of folk art; "Below thIs stanes lie Jamie's banes, O death, it's my opinion, Thou ne'er took such bleth'ran bitch, Into thy dark dominion!"