Sneeshin – Scottish Snuffing

During my research into Regency snuff practices and accoutrements, I discovered that there are a number of specifically Scottish aspects to snuffing. As there are many people who are fascinated by all things Scottish, I thought it would be of interest to all of them, and perhaps others, to corral all of the information surrounding the appurtenances of Scottish snuffing into one article.

The Scottish perspective of snuffing …

The practice of snuffing in Scotland began more than a hundred years earlier than it did in England. Scotsmen and women were taking snuff from the late sixteenth century, originally for its medicinal properties. The use of snuff was supposed to cure such ills as tooth-ache, catarrh, and "naughty breath." But snuff at this time contained no tobacco. Rather, it was made of the dried and powdered leaves of the Achillea ptarmica plant, a member of the yarrow family. It was generally known as sneezewort by the 1590s, and had long been in use as a sternutatory herb. In Scotland, this herbal powder was know as sneeshin or shishon and the act of taking a pinch of the herb was sneesing. Scottish snuffers used a small quill to carry the snuff powder to the nose when they sneesed. Though the Scotsmen who accompanied James I to England took their sneeshin with them, it was not generally adopted in that country. By the decade of the Regency, the snuff taken by most Scotsmen and women was of the tobacco variety.

There were literally hundreds of varieties of tobacco snuff available throughout Britain during the Regency. A Scots gentlemen or lady might choose any variety that pleased their palette, but it seems that the most popular type of snuff throughout Scotland was that known as high-dried or high-toast snuff. All snuff was made of tobacco that was dried at low temperatures over many days. But high-dried snuff was made of tobacco that was dried for longer periods in higher temperatures, almost to the point of burning. Despite the high heat to which it was exposed, high-dried snuff was of a pale color. It was not typically flavored or perfumed as many snuff varieties were, since it had its own unique flavor. This snuff could include ground stems as well as leaves, which meant it was extremely strong and not for the novice snuffer. Many Scotsmen prided themselves on their ability to take this very strong unflavored type of snuff.

An important accoutrement for any sneesing Scotsman was his sneeshin miln. These objects are now known to collectors as snuff-mulls, due to the Scottish pronunciation of the word mill. Snuff-mulls were made of a ram’s horn, the point of which was heated and curled into a tight scroll to keep it from rubbing a hole in the pocket. The exterior of the horn was sometimes left naturally rough, but more often was polished smooth. In the early mulls, the interior was usually left rough and might be enhanced with additional internal cuts which would be used by the snuff taker to grind his own snuff in the same device in which he carried it. The rims of most horns were fitted with pewter, silver or more rarely, gold hardware at the rim which provided the hinge for a cover typically made of horn, and a thumbpiece for opening the mull. Suspended from the rim there might also be some small tools necessary to the snuff taker. The top of the mull, whether or horn or of any other material, was occasionally embellished with the central placement of a cabochon or facet-cut cairngorm. A cairngorm is also often called a Scottish topaz. It is a precious stone of rock-crystal which can be yellow to reddish-brown in color which is only found in the Cairngorm Mountains of the Scottish Highlands.

There are a number of instances in which a table snuff-mull was made from a single ram’s horn which retained its natural curl or a pair ram’s horns with pewter or silver mounts, including ornamented caps over the pointed end of the horns. There were also some table mulls made of a complete ram’s head. Many of these table mulls had a number of small tools attached by fine chains, including a small spoon for scooping out the snuff, a small scaper to remove snuff from the walls of the mull, and a hare’s foot for use in brushing excess snuff from the upper lip. In a few instances, the full ram’s head mull has small wheels attached, enabling it to be pushed around the table for those taking snuff after a meal. These ornate table mulls were usually made for and used in the officer’s mess of a Scottish regiment, or in the grand home of a noble Scottish laird.

Another popular type of snuff-box in Scotland, particularly in an officer’s mess or hunting club were those made of hooves, most often horse or deer hooves. There were a number of cavalry officer’s messes in which might be found a snuff-box made of the hoof of a favorite cavalry horse, most often one who had died in battle. In most cases, the hoof would be hollowed out and lined with gold, tortoise-shell or papier mache and fitted with pewter or silver cover and ornament. Half of the cloven hoof of deer killed in a hunt might hollowed out and similarly lined. But the curved side of the hoof became the bottom of the box, and it was fitted with pewter or silver hardware to attach a lid on the open part of the hoof. Snuff-boxes made of cloven hooves were more likely to be pocket snuff boxes, while those made of horses hooves were more commonly table boxes.

Laurencekirk, a small village in Scotland was the site of the invention and production of a unique hinge for wooden snuff boxes. James Sandy was a poor man who had lost the use of his legs as a young man. He was confined to his bed for the remained of his life, as he lived before the invention of the wheelchair. He was a clever and industrious man who turned his bedroom into a workshop and sitting room for all of the people who came to visit him because he was also a generous, warm-hearted soul. It was at his bedroom workbench that he invented the "Laurencekirk hinge" for wooden snuff boxes. It was very important that snuff be kept in an airtight container to retain its moisture and flavor. This had always been difficult to achieve with a wooden snuff box because no one had been able to design a hinge that was small, smooth and airtight. But Mr. Sandy put his mind to the problem and found an elegant solution. The knuckles of the hinge at the back of the box were formed alternately from the bottom and the top so that they fit together perfectly. A thin metal rod was then passed though the drilled knuckles of both halves of the box and the holes at each end plugged with tiny wooden stops. This hinge design made possible the production of cheap but airtight snuff boxes. Mr. Sandy did not patent his invention, but happily shared it with anyone who was interested. Soon an entire snuff-boxmaking industry grew up in Laurencekirk, which sustained the population through the hard times of the early nineteenth century. Most of these boxes were decorated with the designs of Scottish tartans. Eventually production was expanded to include tea chests and later small wooden objects which became popular as souvenir items. Though James Sandy died, still poor, at the age of fifty-three, in 1819, his inventiveness and generosity provided work for many of his fellow villagers and their descendants for many generations.

Snuff was so closely linked with Scotland and Scotsmen in the minds of most Englishmen that it lead to the widespread use of the carved wooden effigies of Scottish Highlanders in full dress taking snuff in front of many English snuff shops. It is said that after the Battle of Culloden and the outlawing of Highland dress, all the snuff-sellers of England petitioned the government to allow them to keep their wooden Highlanders in front of their shops. Through the years of the Regency, the carved wooden figure of a Highlander typically stood guard outside most snuff shops across Britain.

And there you have it, all of the various aspects of snuffing which are particularly Scottish.

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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11 Responses to Sneeshin – Scottish Snuffing

  1. Joyce says:

    Loved this entry – had no idea snuff was anything other than tobacco. And of course it would be a Scot who would pride himself on being able to manage something particularly strong!

  2. Tony Barr says:

    Curious… I never heard of or came across a high dry toast snuff which was dark in colour. All the toasts I’ve ever snuffed (in over 40 years of using snuff) have been very pale yellowish brown. The historical descriptions seem to bear this out but I would be interested to know the source which describes them as dark.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I believe it was Nicotiana, though it may have been Ten Minutes Advice in Choosing Cigars. It has been quite some time since I wrote this article, so I cannot be sure.

      If you have information to the contrary, from an experienced connoisseur of snuff, I would be delighted to know it.

      Regards,

      Kathryn

      • Tony Barr says:

        Thanks for the fast response.

        I’ve checked ‘Ten Minutes Advice in Choosing Cigars’ without finding anything, but in ‘Nicotiana’ (I’m presuming the 1832 book by Henry James Meller) in the part where the “invention” of high dry toasted snuffs is presented there is a mention of the snuff being burnt. I wonder if that might be the source of the idea of the snuff being black. I suspect the intent may actually have been to imply exposed to heat, which is what the toasting process involves. As the snuff toasts it gets drier of course and thus paler and the process has to stop before any burning takes place as that really would ruin the snuff. I’ve made that mistake myself with home made snuff.

        I’ll have to delve into this a bit further. Interesting topic.

        But I wouldn’t call myself a snuff connoisseur, just an ordinary bloke who enjoys his snuff!

        Cheers

        Tony

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          I think you may well be right, (she typed shame-facedly). Yes, I do mean Mr. Meller’s book Nicotiana. I went back and re-read the passage on the “invention” of high-toasted snuffs, and with you comments in mind, I believe I now see where I went wrong. One of the names given to Lundy’s high-toasted snuff was “Irish Blackguard,” and the following paragraphs discuss dark snuffs, which I believed were high-toasted. But re-reading them in light of your comments, I see that those paragraphs were simply about dark snuffs, which were not actually high-toasted. I will correct my article accordingly.

          Thank you for pointing out the error!

          Regards,

          Kat

          • Tony Barr says:

            My pleasure! Glad to be able to help. It’s easy to see how the confusion could arise, given the anecdotal style of ‘Nicotiana’. I also find that most if not all of the older books about snuff take much for granted. Snuff being ubiquitous, the authors naturally assumed a certain amount of knowledge on the part of their readers.

            To summarise, snuffs in the British Isles could and can be roughly divided into three styles:
            1). The unscented, fine, dry, pale and toasted snuffs, which were most popular in Scotland, Wales and of course Ireland (though none are made in Ireland now, more’s the pity). Ironically most of the Irish style of toasted snuff is now made in England, though at least one Indian manufacturer is making several sorts now.
            2). The coarse, moist, dark snuffs, which were more popular in England.They could be plain or scented. These are the rappees, brown snuffs and similar sorts..
            3). The medium snuffs, in the Spanish style (often abbreviated by the clerks to SP when scented with bergamot). Again these could be plain or scented and are probably the most popular today (though I am always sure to have a couple of pounds of High Dry Toast and Scotch Black stashed away!).

            I’ve written more on the subject at http://ermtony.pbworks.com/ if that helps. There are also some pictures of some of my Georgian and Regency silver snuff boxes there and on my blog (The Pipe and Snuff Place). Feel free to use any of the photos to illustrate your snuff articles.

            And finally, yes, I spotted the link to this page on the Snuffhouse forum, where I am also a mod, though I had found your other snuff articles independently some time ago.

            Cheers

            Tony

            • Kathryn Kane says:

              Thank you, very much, for so generously sharing your knowledge. You have, however, effectively demolished your claim that you are “not a connoisseur” of snuff! 😉

              I have taken the liberty of making the link to your blog active for anyone who would like to peruse your writings. I appreciate your offer of the use of your photos, but as you have probably noticed, I use very few images here. But I will provide links to them when I get a chance to edit my articles on snuff and its accessories.

              Regards,

              Kat

  3. Pingback: History A’la Carte 8-1-13 | Maria Grace

  4. Pingback: Where are the Cairngorms? | The Beau Monde

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