Scottish Lettering of the 16th century

Aidan Harrison (Author)

Charles J Burnett (Author)

Engraved object, Manuscript, Tile, Carved stone, Armorial panel


Surviving visual culture from the early modern period that can be described as particularly Scottish in style is scarce. As a result, any evidence of such artistry is of national significance. The purpose of this article is to draw attention to a form of lettering which was used for the display of short inscriptions and initials in Scotland throughout the 16th century. Surviving examples are almost exclusively carved in relief in durable wood and stone. This distinctive letterform is drawn from the transitional styles which briefly appeared at the end of the 15th century as French artists and scribes transferred their allegiance from their traditional ornate Gothic capitals to the bold, simple Roman forms of the Renaissance. While a number of experimental letterforms fleetingly appeared elsewhere across northern Europe, Scottish scholars absorbed these new influences in France and developed them into a distinctive form which persisted in Scotland for over a century. After its first known appearance at the marriage of King James IV to Margaret Tudor in Edinburgh in 1503, the evidence suggests that the use of Scottish Lettering became confined to Aberdeen and the north-east, primarily in pre Reformation ecclesiastical applications. Following the Reformation, it became largely restricted to secular and funerary inscriptions.


Download data is not yet available.


Anon 1897 Gebetbuch Jakobs IV, von Schottland (facsimile edition). Graz, Austria: Akedemische Druk-u. Verlagsansalt.
Burnett, C J 2014 ‘The Original Armorials’, in Geddes, J (ed.) King’s College Chapel, Aberdeen, 1500–2000, 2nd edn, 164–9. Leeds: Maney.
Campbell, I 2014 ‘Bishop Elphinstone’s Tomb’, in Geddes, J (ed.) King’s College Chapel, Aberdeen, 1500–2000, 2nd edn, 149–60. Leeds: Maney.
Dennison, P, Ditchburn, D & Lynch, M (eds) 2002 Aberdeen Before 1800. A New History. East Linton: Tuckwell Press.
Dunbar, J G 1999 Scottish Royal Palaces. East Linton: Tuckwell Press.
Eames, P 1977 Furniture in England, France and the Netherlands from the Twelfth to the Fifteenth Century. London: The Furniture History Society.
Fawcett, R 1994 The Architectural History of Scotland, 1371–1560. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Fawcett, R 2013 Scottish Medieval Churches, Architecture & Furnishings. Stroud: The History Press.
Fraser, G M 1913 The Bridge of Dee. Aberdeen: The Bon-Accord Press.
Geddes, J 2007 ‘Cornelyus Symondson and the tomb railings of Lady Margaret Beaufort’, in Marks, R (ed.) Late Gothic England: Art and Display, 85. Donington: Shaun Tyas.
Geddes, J 2014 ‘The wooden furnishings of Bishop Elphinstone’s Chapel. Part 3: The Organ, the ‘Ambo’ and the Pulpitum’, in Geddes, J (ed.) King’s College Chapel, Aberdeen, 1500–2000, 2nd edn, 104–26. Leeds: Maney.
Geddes, J 2016 ‘Piping Pigs and Mermaid Groping: Six Carved Panels from Fetteresso’, in Geddes, J (ed.) Medieval Art, Architecture and Archaeology in the Dioceses of Aberdeen and Moray, 158–83. Abingdon: Routledge.
Gray, N 1986 A History of Lettering. Oxford: Phaidon.
Harrison, A 2012 ‘A Small Scottish Chest’, Regional Furniture 2012: 1–22.
Harrison, A 2015 ‘A Small Scottish Chair’, Regional Furniture 2015: 1–13.
Heal, F 2003 Reformation in Britain and Ireland. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Higgitt, J 1988 ‘Klebister, Shetland. An armorial stone and an archdeacon’s tend barn’, Post Medieval Archaeology 22: 1–20.
Higgitt, J 2014 ‘The Foundation Inscription’, in Geddes, J (ed.) King’s College Chapel, Aberdeen, 1500–2000, 2nd edn, 66–73. Leeds: Maney.
Holmes, S M 2015 Sacred Signs in Reformation Scotland, 1488–1590. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kelly, W 1934 ‘Carved Oak from St Nicholas Church, Aberdeen’, Proc Soc Antiq Scot 68: 355–66.
Kren, T & McKendrick, S 2003 Illuminating The Renaissance. London: Royal Academy of Arts.
MacCannell, D 2014 ‘The wooden furnishings of Bishop Elphinstone’s Chapel. Part 2: The Misericords’, in Geddes, J (ed.) King’s College Chapel, Aberdeen, 1500–2000, 2nd edn, 95–101. Leeds: Maney.
MacDonald, A 2003 ‘Princely culture in Scotland under James III and James IV’, in MacDonald, A & Vanderjagt, A J (eds) 2003 Princes and Princely Culture, 1450–1650, Vol 1. Leiden: Brill.
Mackie, R L 1958 King James IV of Scotland. Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd.
Macmillan, D 2000 Scottish Art 1460–2000. Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing.
McRoberts, D & Holmes, S M (eds) 2012 Lost Interiors: Rhind Lectures 1969–70. Edinburgh: Aquhorties Press.
Norton, E 1994 ‘Medieval Floor Tiles in Scotland’, in Higgitt, J (ed.) Medieval Art and Architecture in the Diocese of St Andrews, 137–73. London: Routledge.
Oram, R 2016 ‘The Medieval Church in the Dioceses of Aberdeen and Moray’, in Geddes, J (ed.) Medieval Art, Architecture and Archaeology in the Dioceses of Aberdeen and Moray, 16–33. Abingdon: Routledge.
Paul, J B 1901 The Accounts of the Lord High Treasurer, Vol 2. Edinburgh: HM General Register House.
Pflughaupt, L 2007 Letter by Letter. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.
Richardson, J S 1927 ‘The Campbell of Lerags Cross at Kilbride, near Oban’, Proc Soc Antiq Scot 61: 143–62.
Rosie, A & Ramsay, L 2001–2 ‘The Treaty of Perpetual Peace’, Annual Report of the Keeper of the Records of Scotland: 65–6.
Ross, L 2014 Language in the Visual Arts: The Interplay of Text and Imagery. Jefferson, USA: McFarland & Co.
Shaw, H (ed.) 1999 Medieval Alphabets and Decorative Devices of the Middle Ages. New York: Dover Publications Inc.
Simpson, G G 2009 Scottish Handwriting 1150–1650. Edinburgh: John Donald.
Simpson, S 2014 ‘The Choir Stalls and Rood Screen’, in Geddes, J (ed.) King’s College Chapel, Aberdeen, 1500–2000, 2nd edn, 74–94. Leeds: Maney.
Simpson, W D (ed.) 1949 A Tribute Offered by The University of Aberdeen to the Memory of William Kelly, LL.D, A.R.S.A. Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press.
Small, J W 1878 Scottish Woodwork of the 16th and 17th Centuries. Edinburgh: Douglas.
Smeyers, M 1999 Flemish Miniatures from the 8th to the 16th Century. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols.
Stewart, I H 1967 ‘Some Scottish Ceremonial Coins’, Proc Soc Antiq Scot 98: 254–75.
Swarbrick, L 2016 ‘Patronage of the Collegiate Church at Cullen’, in Geddes, J (ed.) Medieval Art, Architecture and Architecture in the Dioceses of Aberdeen and Moray, 121–39. Abingdon: Routledge.
Thirion, J 1999 Le Mobilier du Moyen Age et de la Renaissance. Dijon, France: Editions Faton.
Thomas, A 2013 Glory and Honour. The Renaissance in Scotland. Edinburgh: Birlinn.
Thomson, G 2009 Inscribed in Remembrance. Dublin: Wordwell Ltd.
Waldie, G 1868 The History of Linlithgow. Linlithgow: self-published.
Wehking, S 2006 Die Inschriften des Landkreises Göttingen. Weisbaden: Reichert.
PRO E39/81 Similar ratification of Scots. Doct. 92 (18) PRO E39/81 1502, The National Archives, Kew.
PRO E39/58 Similar ratification of Scots. Doct. 93 (12) PRO E39/58 1502, The National Archives, Kew.
NAS SP6/31 Ratification by King Henry VII of indenture on treaty of perpetual peace between England and Scotland. At Westminster. Signed by the King. SP6/31 1502, National Records of Scotland, Edinburgh.
Stevenson, J & Davidson, P 2009 ‘Ficino in Aberdeen: The Continuing Problem of the Scottish Renaissance’, Journal of the Northern Renaissance 1. Accessed 15 March 2018
How to Cite
Harrison, A., & Burnett, C. J. (2018). Scottish Lettering of the 16th century. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 147, 219–241.