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Chip-Carving In Caithness

Crafts In Caithness Introduction Historical Articles

Artists In Caithness

McIvor and Allan, Chip Carvers of Castletown c.1890 to c.1955
James Dunster
23 December 2001

The original version of this account was researched and compiled for personal reasons and on behalf of the Castletown Heritage society which staged an exhibition of the firm's products during the Spring/Summer of 2001.  Enquiries had, of necessity to be curtailed in order to meet the timetable proposed by the Society, but at the time of producing the provisional account, many matters still had to be investigated.  After the exhibition closed, with more time available for research, it has become possible to fill out the picture to a greater extent by following up further lines of enquiry.

Very briefly, the art and craft of chip-carving in bone, wood and metals, is an ancient one, known to have been practiced in many countries throughout the world.  In Europe, museums, mainly in Germany and Scandinavia, hold examples of articles produced for domestic use.  It may be defined as the removal of chips from the surface of the object carved so as to produce a design lying below the original surface of the object carved so as to produce a design lying below the original surface of the piece, thus helping to preserve the carved pattern from damage.  The term "chip-carving" is thought to have been first used in England in 1888 and appears to be a direct translation from the German "Kerbschnitt"

It is natural that for many centuries past. particularly in well-forested countries, when outdoors work was impossible, people would spend some time making and decorating wooden articles of many kinds for everyday use, or for sale, only a few of which, by their nature, would have survived until the present day, except in museums. 

Two booklets, a "Guide to Chip-carving" by W. Jackson-smith, published in 1903 and another, by E Rowe, "Chip-carving and Other Surface Carving", published in 1908 by Batsford, both in the National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh, contain photographs of old artefacts from Northern Europe bearing certain unusual patterns identical to some found in articles produced by McIvor and Allan.  the second book also indicates, in a list of Batsford books on the subject of wood carving techniques and patterns, as well as the number of advertisements by makers of wood carving tools, that the technique was widely practised throughout Great Britain.  A School of Wood-carving existing in 1908, in South Kensington, is also mentioned.  In 1908, a set of nine tools could be bought for 6 shillings and 9 pence, post free.  The writer recently acquired and unused and unopened box of six chisels and gouges intended for the most delicate chip-carving, complete with an untouched, short explanatory booklet.  It was made in 1956, by the well known maker of carpenters' tools, Marples, and still bears the price label of 36.

A researcher at University of St Andrews has stated that chip-carving small items, such as boxes, small trays, and so on, was a widespread and popular activity among ladies of leisure in the towns and cities of Central/Southern Scotland towards the end of the 19th Century, but this seems to have declined during the Edwardian era and doubtless largely died out during the First world War.  This evidence helps to explain the otherwise rather surprising, almost improbable statement quoted later in this paper, relating how it was that John McIvor was taught to be the expert chip-carver he subsequently became.

Chip-carved articles of furniture are well-known from Northern India, dating especially from the Moghul period when, in accordance with tenets of Islam, pictorial representations of the human form were proscribed and patterns of great geometrical complexity became the norm.  Islam had spread outwards from Arabia in the 7th Century, but the motifs and patterns may well have gradually spread to Northern Europe through trade, as the British, French and Dutch progressively established themselves in the Indian sub-continental area.  During the Raj, British merchants, soldiers and administrators brought back with them from India, treasures of many kinds, among them, undoubtedly, furniture and other such items.  This is likely to be the explanation for the fact that sets of patterns, produced in quantity by means of tracing, some incorporating Moghul-inspired patterns and widely sold in Great Britain during the latter part of the 19th Century, came into the hands of McIvor and Allan.

As far as is known, no-one still alive has knowledge of how the patterns used by the firm came into its possession, nor was there left a record of this when the firm finally ceased to exist, but not only the chip-carved patterns but also the form of some of the furniture (e.g., the "Moroccan" stools/tables) have their counterpart in Indian furniture.

To uncover the underlying reasons why, apparently without a local tradition of such work the turn of the 20th Century, prospering until the Second World War, before finally closing down in the mid 1950's, has been a fascinating task.  Many people living in Caithness, or who have their roots in the county, have contributed greatly to the creation of this brief history.  The search for hard facts and for the background of the two founders of the firm, has brought to light just how many superb examples of the products of this firm still survive, to be treasured by their owners.  The 2001 Exhibition of the Castletown Heritage Centre will have reminded people of their history and importance of their possessions and a renewed interest in chip-carving has been awakened.

It is perhaps relevant to explain that the genesis of this enquiry was a desire to find out more about a table left to the writer by a very old Scottish lady, but the property, in 1900, of her mother who took it to Brazil, whence it returned to Scotland in 1937.

The now sizeable collection of letters and documents acquired during the investigation will, eventually be passed either to the County Archives, or to the Heritage Society.

Page Two of McIvor & Allan Chip-carvers

Calder Carvings continue the tradition today in a direct line from the famous firm.