Silver quaich and whisky have played an important role in Scottish daily life for the past few centuries. In addition to the obvious enjoyment, there is a ceremonial purpose of welcoming friends and family. This famously involves drinking from the Quaich. Normally seen at weddings, the Quaich is an antique cup which is often passed down from generation to generation. Usually crafted from sterling silver, the Quaich has enjoyed an interesting history.
What is a Quaich?
The Quaich is really a small cup with two or more handles on the side. The name itself comes from the Scottish Gaelic word “coach” which means “cup”. Over the years, the name has changed slightly, but the meaning has always remained the same. The Quaich is sometimes called a “loving cup” or “cup of friendship”. However, it was initially created specifically for a ceremonial purpose.
To drink from the Quaich is symbolic of friendship, trust, and love. This is why drinking from the Quaich is common in marriages in Scottish culture. To drink whisky from the same cup is metaphorical to the love and happiness a couple plan to share. The Quaich is also used to toast the health of a newborn, often called to “wet the baby’s head”.
Until the 17th century, the Quaich was usually a simple design carved out of wood. However, the introduction of metal, particularly silver along with brass and pewter, allowed for more ornate designs. These often included the initials of the owner engraved on the side. As the times changed, so too did the design of the Quaich. However, it did retain its relatively small size and classic two handles. It is still a common gift at weddings. As a result, even today, the Quaich is present in many Scottish households.
The traditional two small handles means that the Quaich is held in both hands with the fingers cradling the cup. Once a toast is taken, the Quaich is given to the receiver who holds it in the same manner. The trust element of the Quaich is present because both hands are needed to hold the cup properly. This means that there is no free hand to grasp a weapon.
The exact origins of the Quaich are not known. It can, however, be said that the Quaich arguably pre-dated the introduction of whisky in Scotland. What is known is that the Quaich came from the Scottish Highlands. Here, they were crafted from wood, much like cups and utensils at the time. As with most ceremonial items, they were an important part of celebrations, unions, and friendships.
The wooden Quaich cups were crafted on a lathe from a single piece of wood. Once the basic shape took hold, another group would carve a weave pattern on the side. Besides wood, you could find a Quaich made from stone or even a horn. Natural materials soon gave way to refined metals such as brass and pewter.
The Quaich did not make its way down from the Highlands and into the cities such as Edinburgh or Glasgow until the turn of the 17th century. By the end of the century, they were being fashioned mostly from silver.
Introduction of the Silver Quaich
With the rise of silver in the latter part of the 17th century, it was not long before the precious metal was used to make the Quaich. In fact, there was a time when the wooden Quaich was still being produced, such as from sycamore trees, and would feature a silver rim or lip. The full transition to silver allowed for more elaborate designs on the Quaich.
The shift from silversmiths to industrial mass production had a profound effect on many items crafted from silver or sterling silver, such as cutlery and utensils. The Quaich was somewhat of an exception since it was mostly used of ceremonial purposes. This meant that the Quaich had a special place in the home and its unique nature meant that custom or specialty Quaich cups were being crafted.
With the rise of whisky, the Quaich became forever associated with this drink, along with brandy. By the 19th century, Sir Walter Scott had dispensed drams in silver Quaich cups. Interestingly enough, Scott owned the famous Waterloo Tree Quaich which was carved from an elm tree that occupied the Waterloo battlefield. Scott owned a significant collection which included those made from such diverse sources as a Wallace Oak, a Falkland Oak, and a yew from Queen Mary.
However, silver was the most common material used mostly because it was easier to shape and lasted longer compared to wooden versions. Silver was used for good reason, its durability, longevity, and ease of shaping.
Even the Quaich became mass produced which meant a loss of the unique designs and often the owner’s initials which were an important part of this cup. By the turn of the 20th century, the Quaich was being produced for the most part by the same industry that created knives, forks, and spoons for the masses.
The Quaich Today
Although weddings and the birth of a child are the two most traditional uses of the Quaich, it is still used in many ceremonial functions in Scotland. The 2014 Commonwealth Games featured a Quaich for all medal winners instead of the normal flowers. For the Commonwealth Youth Games, a special silver Quaich was created in 2000 that is passed to each nation that hosts the games.
You can still find the Quaich in many homes in Scotland, some may be hundreds of years old depending on the tradition of the family. An antique Quaich crafted from sterling silver can be valuable, although that does depend on its history more than the presence of the silver itself. Although the importance of the Quaich in Scottish life may not hold as prominent a place as it once did, it is still a presence at weddings, the birth of children, and ceremonial functions today.