FOR generations of Scottish schoolchildren it was an instrument of terror that could cow the unruliest of spirits. But now the dreaded tawse has become an expensive collector’s item.
Antique shops are selling the leather straps to collectors across the country who are willing to spend hundreds of pounds for a rare article in mint condition.
Leather tawse, once cut by country saddlers, are pored over like works of art, with collectors eager to get their hands on a four finger ‘Huntly’ or a heavyweight three finger ‘Lochgelly’.
Demand is so strong that retired secondary school teachers are being offered up to 100 to part with tawse they kept after leaving school. A tidy profit, given the average cost of a tawse in 1982, when production ceased in Scotland, was just under 6.
Antiques dealer Neil Rankin of Church Antiques in Crieff is one of an increasing number of dealers who are selling the straps. "There is a dedicated band of collectors out there," he said. "We have bought a couple recently and have a fair number in stock. It’s mainly retired teachers who bring them in.
"We have 20 people on our mailing list and some of them are very serious collectors. They are looking for extremely old and rare tawse from different parts of the country.
"They are very shy of publicity and fearful of being cast as dirty old men in shabby raincoats but they are perfectly respectable. But we are finding it increasingly difficult to locate the older and more unusual belts."
Until they were banned in the mid-1980s after two Scottish mothers went to the European Court of Human Rights, a rap across the hand with a tawse was a standard part of school life for hundreds of thousands of pupils. According to a survey in 1980, only one in 20 boys escaped being tawsed during their school career.
Despite their infamous role in school discipline, collectors say the leather straps hold the same fascination as any other antique.
One tawse collector, who refused to be named for fear that people would not believe his motives were purely innocent, said: "It may seem unusual to some people. But it’s no different from collecting chairs or tables. The challenge is to get as many different varieties from different areas.
"They come in a surprising array of different types. Some are in blond leather with four or even five tails, others are dark and heavy with two fingers. There is a lot more to a decent tawse collection than a bunch of boring Lochgellys."
Even antique collectors who don’t stock tawse are being inundated with inquiries.
Perthshire antique dealer Bob Dakers said: "It is surprising how often I am asked about these things. But they are not something I stock, they bring back too many memories of my school days."
Most tawse still in circulation are Lochgellys, named after John J Dick, of Lochgelly, who dominated Scottish tawse production by the 1970s.
He offered nine different varieties of belt, ranging in size from 21 inches to 24 inches.
John Hayes of the Museum of Childhood in Edinburgh said tawse are a hit with visitors. He said: "We have a collection of seven in the museum and they have proved to be one of the most popular attractions."
Author Ian Rankin still remembers those teachers for whom the belt was as essential to teaching as chalk and blackboards.
"At school there were certain teachers who you really didn’t want to get the belt from," he said.
"They used to hang the tawse over their shoulder to provoke maximum fear - they were almost like gun slingers."