See all stories

Tokens of remembrance

Written by Emma Inglis, Curator (South & West)
A crumpled red poppy, made from material, with HAIGS FUND on the central button.
Remembrance Day poppy, c1921
Following All Souls’ Day and Remembrance Day, November feels like the right time to think about the physical tokens of remembrance in our collections – those personal or public objects that honour and remember the dead.

Typically, we think of war when we think of remembrance because of the great outpouring of mourning associated with these world events, and there are several items in our collections that relate to this.

At Weaver’s Cottage are a group of scarlet poppies, forever the symbol of the First World War. These early examples are made of cloth and marked HAIGS FUND. They represent the start of the Remembrance Day movement in 1921, the cloth poppies produced, sold and bought in memory of soldiers who died at war. More practically, the sale of the poppies raised essential funds to help find jobs and homes for returning soldiers. Over time, Remembrance Day poppies have become smaller, less individual and mostly disposable, but one look is still enough to impart their meaning.

A poster for a Scottish National War Memorial, showing what it might look like.
Poster inviting donations for the construction of a Scottish National War Memorial designed by architect Robert Lorimer

An obvious statement of public remembrance are war memorials, their monumentality a strong and permanent reminder of human endeavour, suffering and loss. The idea of a Scottish National War Memorial to commemorate the Scots and Scottish regiments involved in the First World War was first raised in 1917, and in 1919 Robert Lorimer of Kellie Castle was appointed as the architect. This poster, encouraging public donations to the cause, shows designs for a striking monument that was never built. Among fears that the heritage of Edinburgh Castle, the chosen site for the commemorative cloisters and shrine, might be compromised, Lorimer’s initial vision was dropped. Instead, a scaled-back approach was adopted, incorporating the memorial, beautifully worked by contemporary Scottish craftsmen and women, into an existing barrack block.

Miniature showing the head and shoulders of a man in a white powdered wig, wearing a blue jacket and a white shirt, with a large bow at the neck. The miniature is studded with pearls round the edge.
Memorial portrait of the Hon James Henry Hamilton-Gordon (1845–68), painted by John Smart in 1792

Behind every public statement of grief and remembrance there are personal stories, and not just relating to war. This lovely cameo portrait commemorates the Hon James Henry Hamilton-Gordon, son of the 6th Earl and Countess of Aberdeen of Haddo, who died aged 22. In the 19th century it wasn’t uncommon to carry a personal memento of a family member, often in the form of jewellery. This is a particularly fine piece, painted by John Smart and set in a gold frame decorated with pearls. On the reverse is a glass window enclosing James’s hair, finely plaited. The hair is surprisingly dark compared to the powdered image presented on the front – perhaps the private man as opposed to the public face. The whole ensemble speaks of love and devotion in a piece that could be carried close in a personal act of memorial but was also worn for others to see in a public act of mourning.

The Victorians are, of course, famed for their displays of mourning, and none more so than Queen Victoria with her lifetime of black dresses and deep grief following the death of Prince Albert. In our collections there are references to the clear social codes and customs developed around death and mourning, in the form of archival material (instructions or bills for funeral processions), dress and mourning rings.

The distribution of mourning rings by those with wealth was common practice by the late 18th century, though the custom had been around since at least the 17th century; apparently Samuel Pepys ordered 123 mourning rings for distribution after he died. At Brodick Castle and Leith Hall there are whole sets of black enamelled rings, bearing the names of the deceased and dates of death. There are multiple versions of small plain rings which may have been worn by lesser family members or servants for a prescribed period of mourning. Broader, heavier rings were possibly intended for wear by men. They build a picture of a very structured approach to death, as well as a willingness to embark upon outward mourning for sometimes quite distant friends and relations. Other, decorative rings feel more personal, enclosing hair and incorporating engravings, typically of urns and weeping willows, or studded with pearls to symbolise tears. Several of these remember children.

No matter what standards society dictates, the personal expression of grief and remembrance takes many forms. Perhaps the last lines should go to a husband who in 1804 wrote a love poem to his wife.

Alone! – twelve years – twelve joyless years are past
Since on this Angel face – I gaz’d my last
Since from mine Arms this matchless form was torn
And I was left – sad widower – to mourn
No lapse of time or life of lengthened age
Can blot her virtue out from memory’s page
I had no painters pencil – Graver’s art
To bring to view what’s treasured in my heart
Yet could her Virtues like her Form portray’d
Be to the World as faithfully displayed
They would a pattern to her sex supply
Teach them to live like her – like her to die

Protect Our Places, Protect Our History

Donate today