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Ten rare Scottish coins that tell the story of Scotland’s monarchs

The Hunterian Museum in Glasgow is plundering its peerless collection of coins for a display of uniquely Scottish coinage, here’s ten of the best

Nobles, lions, unicorns, ryals, testoons, merks, dollars, bawbees, groats and placks can be found in the collection at the Hunterian, which was amassed by a trio of committed numismatists including the eponymous Dr William Hunter as well as William Cuthbert and Lord Stewartby. The collection featured in the display, Scotland’s Own Coinage, comprises a spectacular variety of gold, silver and base metal coinage and takes in six centuries of the most turbulent and dramatic periods of Scottish history.

David I Penny

a composite photo showing the front and back of an old coin with a cross and flower motif

David I Penny (obv) © The Hunterian, University of Glasgow 2017.

Minted over 850 years ago during the reign of David I, this silver penny is the earliest example of a Scottish coin in the display. It was struck in Roxburgh in the Scottish Borders in around 1150 towards the end of David’s reign. A protégé of Henry I, David was the Prince of the Cumbrians and later King of the Scots from 1124 – 1153. As king he oversaw a period of governmental reforms and the introduction of feudalism to Scotland.

Alexander III Penny

composite photo showing the front an back of an old coin with a kings profile

Alexander III Penny © The Hunterian, University of Glasgow 2017.

More mints existed in Scotland during Alexander III’s reign than any other period – testament to the Scottish King who ascended to the throne aged just seven in 1249. After 36 years on the throne he died in 1286 after a fall from his horse on the way to Fife to visit his new queen Yolande De Dreux who he had married the previous year to try and secure an heir. This rare silver penny was struck in Glasgow between 1250 and 1280.

David II Noble

a composite photo showing the front and back of an old coin

David II Noble © The Hunterian, University of Glasgow 2017.

This is probably the rarest of all Scottish coins. Minted in gold in Edinburgh in about 1357, nobles were struck in payment for the release of David II from English captivity. Despite a turbulent reign which included a defeat by the English at the Battle of Neville’s Cross in 1346 followed by eleven years held in comfortable custody in England his reign is said to have left the Scottish Monarchy and the country’s finances in a good state of prosperity and strength. This noble is one of only four known in the world. It also marks the first appearance of the lion rampant on a Scottish coin.

Robert III Lion

a composite photo of a gold coin with Scottish lion motif

Robert III Lion © The Hunterian, University of Glasgow 2017.

This gold lion features the earliest depiction of St Andrew on a Scottish coin. It was struck in Edinburgh between 1390 and 140 during the reign of Robert III who ascended to the Scottish throne aged 53 in 1390. History however has not been kind to Robert III who’s reign is often characterised as a period of weak leadership and instability riven with disputes between the crown and the lords.

James III Groat

a composiet photo of two sides of a silver coin with a head of a long haired king

James III Groat © The Hunterian, University of Glasgow 2017.

This silver James III groat, struck in Edinburgh between 1484 and 1488, shows a unique ‘renaissance’ portrait, with a modern design flair not seen on the coins of any other Scottish monarch. The reign of James III has however been recorded as one of the most unpopular in Scottish history – not least for his attempts to seek an alliance with England – and he was defeated and killed in 1488 at the Battle of Sauchieburn by an army led by disaffected nobles.

Mary Queen of Scots Thirty-Shilling Piece

a photo showing the two sides of a gold coin including the profile of a queen

Mary Queen of Scots Thirty-Shilling Piece (obv) © The Hunterian, University of Glasgow 2017.

One of Scotland’s best-known and tragic figures, Mary’s coinages were the first to feature portraits of a female monarch. This beautiful gold thirty-shilling piece was struck in Edinburgh in 1555 in the middle of a reign, which ended when she was forced to abdicate following an uprising in 1567. Mary’s eventual demise came after the Catholic queen was found guilty of plotting to assassinate her cousin, the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I of England, in 1586. She was beheaded in 1587.

James VI Thistle Merk

a photo of two sides of a sliver coin with thistle motif

James VI Thistle Merk © The Hunterian, University of Glasgow 2017.

One of the most famous symbols of Scotland, the thistle first appeared on Scottish coins in 1471. This thistle merk, struck in Edinburgh in 1602, offers one of the best illustrations of the national flower on a coin. It was made during the reign James VI, son of Mary Queen of Scots. The Scottish king also ascended to the English crown in 1603 when Elizabeth I died, and his long and eventful reign saw him authorise the translation of the Bible (the King James Bible) and was witness to the Ulster Plantation, the colonization of America and the Gunpowder Plot.

James VI Twenty-Pound Piece

a photo of a gold coin with a king bearing a sword

James VI Twenty-Pound Piece © The Hunterian, University of Glasgow 2017.

The ten coinages of James VI offer some of the most distinctive portraits of all Scottish coins. This twenty-pound piece, struck in gold at the Edinburgh Mint in 1575, is the largest coin ever produced by a Scottish monarch. It was struck when the king was nine years old and barely seven years into his 57-year reign.

James VI Hat Piece

a photo of both sides of a golden coin with a side profile of a king wearing a large tudor hat

James VI Hat Piece © The Hunterian, University of Glasgow 2017.

This is probably the most unusual portrait of any Scottish monarch on a coin, depicting James VI in a fashionable tall hat instead of regal attire. Another unique feature is that the hat piece is the only Scottish coin to feature a Hebrew word – ‘Jehovah’ in the clouds on the reverse. This example was minted in Edinburgh in 1592 during a time of relative peace and accord in the Scottish kingdom.

William II/III Pistole

a photo of both sides of a gold coin with the side profile of a king with a hooked nose

William II/III Pistole © The Hunterian, University of Glasgow 2017.

The pistole and half pistole were the last Scottish gold coins. This pistole was struck in Edinburgh in 1701, using gold dust brought back from Africa by the ‘Darién Company’, during Scotland’s aborted attempt to establish a trading colony called Caledonia on the Isthmus of Panama on the Gulf of Darién. It marks the second full year of William of Orange who was King of England, Ireland, and Scotland from 1689 until his death in 1702. William was known as William III in England, he was the second William to be King of Scotland (the other being the medieval firebrand William the Lion who reigned as King of the Scots between 1165 and 1214.) so was known to the Scots as William II.

Scotland’s Own Coinage is on now at the Hunterian Museum, Glasgow. Admission is free.

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The University of Glasgow's Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery is home to one of the top five collections in Scotland, with over a million items ranging from meteorites to Mackintosh and mummies. The Hunterian is the legacy of Dr William Hunter, a pioneering obstetrician and teacher. His passion for collecting…