What is a Quaich?
A Quaich is a large, shallow cup with a long handle (or lug) on either side. It has been used in Scotland for centuries as a symbol of friendship and trust. The precise origins of the quaich are unclear, as it has no obvious antecedents in Europe. One popular theory holds that the vessel is descended from a scallop shell, from which ancient highlanders would drink whisky; another holds that it played an important role in druidic blood sacrifice.
While the origins of the quaich are disputed, most agree that quaich is a uniquely Scottish invention. It was predominantly used to drink spirits, such as whisky and brandy – though larger forms of the quaich were also used to drink ale.
They were also carried by travellers, since they could be easily hung from a saddle or belt. It could be used to drink from streams, as well as in taverns and inns along the road. Over time, the quaich became a standard means of measurement, with one finger being the rough equivalent of one contemporary dram.
The Quaichs social function
The quaich was a social drinking vessel which came into being during a time when no-one drank out of someone else’s cup. The quaich thereby came to symbolise friendship; one person would present another with the quaich, using both hands – which would render them incapable of holding a secret weapon. In this way trust was fostered between warring clans.
It also became a traditional gift at important gatherings and ceremonies such as weddings and christenings. A newlywed couple might drink from the same quaich in order to indicate that they trusted one another, while at christenings the quaich might be passed between attendees, who would then drink from it to indicate that they were all good friends.
What is a Quaich made from?
Earlier forms of the quaich were made from a variety of materials (including bone) but the most popular was wood, since wood was widely available. A quaich could either be hewn from a single body of wood, or spun from individual staves. Of the latter sort, the most elaborate were made from many different sorts of wood, in shades both light and dark, which were interwoven in complicated patterns and bound together with withies (strips of willow) or bands of silver if you were rich.
In the centre of the basin usually lay a large coin or medallion, which would seal the area where the wooden strands met. These coins would usually then be engraved with one of any number of different ways: with a coat of arms, a set of initials, a motto, or a toast: ‘cheers!’
The evolution of the Quaich
Since the quaich was so often offered as a gift at special occasions, there arose a demand for more impressive versions of the vessel. This meant that the skills of those that could make such items became more sought-after. Quaich-makers came to be regarded as artisans and the best Quaichs were regarded as masterpieces; that were prized not only in Scotland, but in England, too.
By the late seventeenth century, the quaich had become a highly sought after item. It had to be altered to suit the needs of aristocracy. Some of the early Quaichs were very large, cumbersome devices – not entirely suitable for a refined lord or lady.
Fortunately, this rise in popularity coincided with the increased availability of lighter materials, such as silver. As quaich-makers began to make use of these materials, their products became progressively better and easy to make.
As a by-product of this, skilled quaich-makers could then use metalworking to create patterns of great complexity and artistic value; and from then on more decorated Quaichs became widely available than ever before. The lugs of the quaich, while functional, are also a source of the vessel’s aesthetic appeal and served as a canvas for elaborate engravings.
Later on came glass-bottomed variants of the quaich, which – in slight contradiction with the Quaichs traditional background – allowed the drinker to keep an eye on their companions, even whilst drinking. Other variants placed two panes of glass at the bottom, so that a keepsake (such as a lock of hair) could be preserved at the bottom of the glass. In 1589, King James of Scotland presented his wife, Anne of Norway, with one such quaich as a wedding gift.
Though wooden Quaichs are still widely available, modern Quaichs are typically made from metal, since this allows for cheaper manufacture; pewter, in particular, is very popular. They remain an ever popular gift at weddings and christenings.