Scottish Samplers – Learn how to tell the difference between Scottish and English

Scottish samplers – how to recognise them

Today we take a look at how to recognise Scottish Samplers. This is the first in a series of antique needlework sampler blogs where you will discover, if you don’t already know, why people get excited…

The general rule is never to attribute anything on the basis of one indicator alone. Unless there is a place name which is definitely Scottish, serious attributions can only be made on the basis of two or more features. A sampler stitched in Scotland could have an inscription or a verse stitched in the French language. There is a  historical association with France through Mary Queen of Scots (8th December 1542 – 8 February 1587). Daughter of James V of Scotland who died six days after she was born she was sent to France at age six to be raised and educated.  Aged 18 she returned to reign as Queen of Scotland. It did not work out. She was forced to abdicate. Escaping to England in 1568, her cousin the reigning Queen Elizabeth I placed Mary under house arrest expecting her to press a claim to English throne, which she did. After nineteen uneasy years Elizabeth reluctantly ordered Mary’s death by execution (axe) in 1587 . You think we’re inventing this stuff? More on Mary Queen of the Scots Back to Scottish Samplers, what should we be looking at? Colours, alphabets, place names, family initials, surnames, peacocks, urns, and houses. What should we be looking for? Read on…


Stitching in red and green only, is a strong indicator of Scottish origin. 1804 Scottish sampler, alphabets, numbers and family initials

Scottish Samplers red and green thread only
Segment of a Scottish Sampler, 1804, stitched in red and green threads only

On the left is a portion of a plain, pre-Victorian band sampler with no name, just a set of three family initials, SM, IM, BM, indicating this could be one of those Scottish samplers. Thread in red and green only confirms the attribution. Alphabet and numbers samplers in this style are commonly found in Victorian needlework and earlier. It had been decided that schoolgirls should learn words and numbers. World’s largest online gallery of antique SAMPLERS


Occasionally a clue to a sampler’s origin may lie in a verse. However we have chosen the following verse for different reasons… Moral guidance needed to be drummed into young minds. Average life expectancy in 1840 was a mere 34 years. Education included preparing children for what might be around the corner.     More demographics, Victorian Scotland. So we give you a verse from one of our Scottish samplers. Victorian style motivation for children. Scottish? House sampler with verse, for sale “Keep death and Judgment always in your eye / None’s fit to live but who is fit to die / Make use of present time because you must /  Take up your lodging shortly in the dust / Tis dreadful to behold the setting sun / And night approaching e’er your work is done.”


Scottish samplers curlicues from Huish
Curlicues ref. Marcus Huish book published in 1913

Alphabet bands with curlicues are a very strong indicator of Scottish samplers. Curlicues are those wonderfully intricate curly

Scottish samplers Holbein stich or Curlicue
Holbein stitch

Holbein stitches used to decorate letters in the alphabet and elsewhere.

Place names

The name of a Scottish town or school is obviously a very strong indicator of a Scottish Sampler. Amongst the samplers illustrated in this blog we have seen ‘Perth’ and ‘Kelso’.

Family Initials

1825 Scottish Sampler
Upper portion of the 1825 Scottish Sampler by Euphemia Gibson

1825 Scottish sampler by Euphemia Gibson A strong indicator of Scottish origin is the use of family initials. Interestingly this tradition is also found in Flanders. The two cultures have been well integrated for centuries. Some have called this the North Sea Culture. Back then it was the German Ocean. They appear either in bands as in this sampler, or scattered around. In this case, there is the added indicator of a Scottish town name ‘Kelso’. In other instances there is no added indicator so a ‘Scottish’ attribution is not possible. On this link is an example of a sampler with family initials only.


A Scottish name like McTavish or MacIntosh might be construed as a clue, but caution is advisable. There were very significant population movements out of and into Scotland so surnames are spread all over the world. There has been an exchange of populations for centuries with the coastal region known as Flanders now North Belgium (Dutch speaking). John Irvine and Alex Fleming of the Abertay Historical Society are researching the Flemish in Scotland. They are asking for Scottish families with the following surnames to contact them: Fleming (Flemyng, Flemeng and Flandrensis), Baird, Balliol, Beaton, Brodie, Bruce, Cameron, Campbell, Comyn, Crawford, Douglas, Erskine, Graham, Hamilton, Hay, Innes, Lindsay, Murray, Oliphant and Seton.



The peacock with fanned tail feathers is a strong indicator.


The handled urns with five flowers are another indicator. Not always five flowers.

Scottish sampler motifs
Scottish Sampler motifs

This clip is of a page from the Marcus Huish book ‘Samplers and Tapestry Embroideries’ published in 1913.  The sampler is a long sampler by May Barland aged 11 Perth (a town in Scotland)  September 1779. It shows two typical fan-tailed peacocks and two handled-urns with five flowers each. Thistles may be a clue but not a useful one as they appear in proven English samplers.


Elizabeth Feller in her excellent book ‘Micheál & Elizabeth Feller The Needlework Collection: 2’ notes the frequency with which grand houses appear in Scottish samplers.

1840 Mary Eldridge sampler
1840 Mary Eldridge Scottish? sampler with family initials

Scottish? 1840 House sampler by Mary Eldridge The sampler illustrated here is available for sale from Madelena online. It has a combination of family initials WE WW EW and ME. It also has a grand house with smoke coming from the chimneys, similar to the one in Elizabeth’s book. On this basis we tentatively attribute a Scottish origin to the Mary Eldridge sampler. Scottish Samplers currently available from Madelena

A word about fading

Whenever we see the words ‘Antique cross stitch sampler for sale’ we get excited. Buying antique needlework samplers and pictures is our passion and a significant part of our business. The best find of all is the unfaded sampler that has been rolled up in tissue paper in a drawer for 250 years with colors as bright as day. For practical reasons many were folded leaving creases and wear. Others were displayed for generations and became faded, some colors more than others. Some are burned out by exposure to sunlight. Some have suffered attempts at washing resulting in running colours. In later blogs we will talk about how samplers developed in step with the role of women in the home; materials and stitches; the many different types of samplers; countries of origin; conservation; and value.

I have added a reminder of another excellent book on Scottish Samplers below.

Naomi Tarrant, 2014, excellent book on Scottish Samplers
Naomi Tarrant, 2014, excellent book on Scottish Samplers


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Antique samplers – verses

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The Sampler Guild (UK)

Antique samplers – a selection of  interesting verse samplers

Before we get started here’s a question.  May one overlook fading when evaluating antique samplers?

If a sampler is appealing enough in other respects we think you may, but as always it is a matter for individual taste.

1787 Antique sampler – Some men get riches…

Here is an example of an antique sampler with a fairly early date, a great verse, a strong strawberry border and a circa 1860 Hogarth frame that makes it a darling despite the fading.

By the hand of providence the heavy stitching or stronger color in the thread allows the verse to stand out. Take a look at the sampler to see what I mean: 1787 verse sampler


“Some men get riches, yet are always poor, some get no riches yet have all things store.”

“How very true” we murmur. A verse like this means something to everyone. The words will be as true two centuries from now as they were 228 years ago when the sampler was stitched by Mary Ann Shepherd.

Biblical antique sampler – inscription from Proverbs

Proverbs 1:8
Proverbs 1:8

“My son hear the instruction of thy Father, and forsake not the law of thy Mother”

Quotations from the Book of Proverbs are as popular today as ever they were in the past. This pithy epithet is typical. While families remain the bedrock of society it will never lose it’s power.

Antique samplers currently available for sale from Madelena with the word ‘Mother’ in the description

Antique samplers currently available for sale from Madelena with the word ‘Father’ in the description

The Drowning Fly –  a rare antique sampler verse

Unusual 1820 verse sampler
Unusual 1820 Drowning fly sampler. Detail.

1820 Drowning Fly sampler is available for sale.

An unusual verse immediately arouses curiosity:

Where does the material come from?

Might the governess of this seven year old girl have had the imagination to write something original? And if she did would such behaviour from an employee have been acceptable?

Or would she ask her employer, the girl’s mother, to choose a text? Could it have come from the bible, a treatise, a play, a sermon, a magazine, a newspaper?

I could not help but google a phrase trying to find the source. And here it is. Probably an ‘approved’ publication widely read by ladies of the day.

sampler verse source ALL SOURCE

My guess is that seven year old Ann was curious about insects, flies in particular. Mom chose this poem for her sampler in the hopes that it might hold her daughter’s interest long enough for her to absorb the subject matter of the verse.

sampler verse source ALL

It is fun trying to guess what was in the minds of families living generations ago. Isn’t this part of the attraction of antique samplers?

They add color to our understanding of society in a particular era, which is in this example is late Georgian. In the US, while this sampler was being stitched during the year of 1820, James Monroe was elected president effectively unopposed.

World’s lovliest verse sampler at the V & A

Picture and caption from V & A website article on antique samplers
Picture and caption from V & A website article on antique samplers

The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has the finest antique sampler collection on the planet. The samplers are to die for. No article on verse samplers can fail to mention the world’s foremost (in our opinion). The verse begins

“As I cannot write I put this down simply and freely as I might speak to a person to whose intimacy and tenderness I can fully entrust myself and who I know will bear with all my weaknesses.”

If you are not able visit the museum in person click here to visit the V & A website to read more about this unique antique sampler.

MADELENA Shop, Sell, Discover
World’s largest online gallery of antique SAMPLERS
The Sampler Guild (UK)


Antique Samplers, Houses and Churches

Madelena Shop, Sell, Discover
World’s largest online gallery of antique SAMPLERS
The Sampler Guild (UK)

Some of us are fascinated by those English needlework samplers that depict buildings, so much so that some collections consist of nothing else.

One collection known to us consists only of Solomon’s Temple samplers.
Solomon’s Temple was a teacher’s favourite as it would likely have been used as a focal point around which a variety of religious topics could be taught. While the veracity of the depictions would not have been questioned by mere children the importance of the original site on Temple Mount (Mount Zion) in Jerusalem is undisputed. File:Vistaescorial.jpg Vista de El Escorial desde el Monte Abantos, twenty miles northwest of Madrid

Extensive research by numerous historians has resulted in varied reconstructions of the temple design in later centuries. That of the Spanish Vista de El Escorial, was possibly the most magnificent and definitely used as the pattern used in some of the sampler designs including the Solomon’s Temple sampler on the Madelena website at time of this post (click the link to see what we mean):

1802 Solomon’s Temple sampler by Jane Batty

House samplers depicted the homes of the girls under instruction and are hugely popular with collectors. These were their own homes, fields, sheep, dogs and so on. The connection with the past is palpable. We maintain a collection of great examples to purchase online. At the time of this post we have the following house samplers available for sale in our online store:

1821 House Sampler by Mary Hassack

1839 House Sampler by Ann Norgrove

1840 House Sampler by Mary Eldridge

Churches are of particular interest because they are most likely to be still standing. Most of the country mansions similar to those depicted in the house samplers listed above were demolished after 1945 due partly to the introduction of heavy taxation on inherited property (‘death duties’) and partly to the demise of primogeniture (the right of the firstborn child to inherit the family estate) in a world upside down following the great war to end all wars. The online Madelena store has two great examples still available at the time this blog is published:

1842 ‘Saint Marks Church, Witton’ Sampler by Alice Walsh

1822 Halstead Essex Church Sampler

Both churches still stand.

Saint Marks Church formerly in the parish of Witton, stitched in 1842 by Alice Walsh aged 10
Saint Marks Church formerly in the parish of Witton, stitched in 1842 by Alice Walsh aged 10


On the left is an image of Witton Church in its former glory as depicted in this wonderful sampler.

A great little snippet from this wonderful sampler is this tiny stitching error. See how ten years old Alice has stitched ‘Thou God seets me’? I am pretty sure she intended ‘Thou God seeth me’. What do you think? Maybe she misheard her governess or misread her writing…

Inscription detail from the Saint Mark's Church sampler
Inscription detail from the Saint Mark’s Church sampler

I feel a connection with this darling girl of so many generations past. I feel her grandmother’s delight as she willingly overlooks the mistake.

St Mark's Church, Blackburn
St Mark’s Church, Blackburn, photographed 2014

Present day pictures show this Church of England original much added to and frankly now become a  much less attractive shape.

Alice stitched her sampler four years after the church was consecrated in 1838.

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Saint Mark's Church, 2014
Saint Mark’s Church, photographed 2014

The south transept was added in 1870, the north transept and vestry between 1881 and 1887.

Various restoration work was done at the same time.

The original structure was designed to seat a congregation of over 700 souls.

Antique needlework samplers were made by children and every one of them unique. How wonderful is that?

To see in reality an actual building depicted in a sampler by a child elicits a powerful sense of connection between past and present, reminding us of all those changes that have taken place in the material world since our girl skipped to church glowing with youth: life expectancy has doubled; photography, electricity, bicycle, motor car and air travel have all been invented; women’s roles and rights in society have been transformed; and lately the information revolution and a digital age has dawned making it now possible to share with everyone the magic of discovery. Halstead Essex Church sampler 1822

  • 1822, Halstead, Essex, England, Church Sampler (detail)

Nearly two hundred years ago, Mrs Pask ran the local school in the country town of Halstead, in the county of Suffolk, close to Dedham Vale an area known as ‘Constable country’ after the renowned but financially unsuccessful landscape artist John Constable who lived there and wrote to a friend in 1821 “I should paint my own places best.”

A year later… one can sense the excitement on that warm summer day… Mrs Pask gathers her pupils together to announce that the school will today be visiting the local church, and the older girls will be sketching its outline to make patterns for samplers they will be stitching to show their parents what wonderful progress they are making with their needlework and education. Many months later a sampler is proudly completed, dated 1822 and inscribed ‘This sampler was worked at Mrs Pask’s School, Halsted, Essex’. The name of the stitcher is unfortunately indistinct.

1822 Halstead Essex Church Sampler

Now to a photograph of the very same church taken eighty years later from a different angle, but allowing for children’s inaccuracies undoubtedly the same building.Halstead Essex Holy Trinity Church 1903, Holy Trinity Church, Halstead, Essex, England.

And here it is again today, exactly one hundred and eleven years later.


Does it not make you tingle all over to know that one may even today enter this church, tread the flagstones trod by those girls and perhaps seek out the pew wherein our young stitcher might have pondered the meaning of salvation between pre-teen distractions. We can even pore over the indistinct lettering of lichen encrusted headstones in the churchyard outside, hoping to find the last resting place of Mrs Pask and wondering if her pupil, our stitcher, is herself somewhere buried here.

Madelena Shop, Sell, Discover
World’s largest online gallery of needlework SAMPLERS
The Sampler Guild (UK)