News uncovers the story behind 1691 collection discovery

THE story behind a rare set of 17th-century playing cards has been uncovered, thanks to the Evening News.

As we reported last month, the cards, printed in Edinburgh in 1691, were found in the rare books collection of St Andrews University but virtually nothing was known about their history.

They were bound into a book, featured a number of heraldic shields relating to Scottish nobility and a title card with the Capital's crest.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Following the article, two members of the Fairmilehead Association, Louise Maguire and Carolyn Lincoln, wrote to the News because they had come across two matching sets of cards in the collection of the National Library of Scotland (NLS) while researching the history of Comiston Wellhouse.

The wellhouse was built by a German or Flemish engineer, Pietr Braus, also known as Peter Bruce, and Ms Maguire said: "He also built and ran some of Scotland's earliest paper mills.

"He had mills in Canonmills, Restalrig and Glasgow, and managed to obtain a monopoly in the manufacture of playing cards. He brought in men from Holland, Flanders and elsewhere to design and carve the patterns and teach apprentices."

She said the Catholic engineer had suffered bitter persecution and his home in Canongate became the focus of religious riots.

He eventually sold his business to a man named James Hamilton, who appears to have printed both the St Andrews cards and the sets at the National Library.

Their research was passed on to cataloguer Daryl Green, who originally discovered the cards. He contacted the National Library and found that one of its two copies included an inscription saying: "These cards are printed, made, and to be sold by James Hamilton, at his house on the South-side of the head of the Canongate, a little above St. John's Cross."

The Scottish Book Trade Index confirmed that James Hamilton had "bought from Peter Bruce his patent for playing cards and his papermill at Restalrig in 1690".

The engravings from which the cards were made are believed to have been produced by Edinburgh goldsmith Walter Scot.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Mr Green said he had initially made a post about them cards on the university's rare books collection blog.

He said: "One of the reasons that we started the blog was to get the information out there and see what else we could find out. It was through the letter that the Evening News received that I started doing research."

NLS curator Robert Betteridge said: "He'd realised that we had some of the cards, but they weren't in our online catalogue so we've put them on there now. They came from a really big collection of a Lord Rosebery, so they don't have anything else on them that gives them any history."

He added: "Considering their age and ephemeral nature, their survival is remarkable."