Welcome to the third blog post in our Crafts Month Special – in partnership with the Folklore Museums Network! Throughout the month of August, we shall be featuring charms, amulets and other folklore objects housed in Museum collections, as selected by Dr Peter Hewitt from the Folklore Museums Network database. This week (20/08/22), our Session theme is Jewellery, Blacksmithing & Mining – and our featured object is “Cowan’s Taed Stane”…
Last week, we travelled to Newbiggin-By-The-Sea in Northumberland, England with “The Fisherman’s Lucky Stone” – a hagstone and string amulet housed at the Pitt Rivers Museum. This week, we’ll journey even further north across the border into Scotland, to take a peek at Cowan’s Toadstone – or rather “Cowan’s Taed Stane” in Scots – a folklore object housed by The Stewartry Museum, in Kirkcudbright, Dumfries and Galloway.
“Cowan’s Taed Stane” is believed to have been a precious heirloom passed down through generations of the Cowan family, starting with a man named John Cowane (b.1570, d. 1633) who traded with Dutch businesses in the 16th and 17th centuries, and quickly became one of the wealthiest merchants in Scotland. Rumour has it that Cowane had illegitimate children, but little is known of his personal life other than that he was a charitable fellow. On his deathbed, he donated vasts sums of money to philanthropic causes, including less fortunate members of his Merchant’s Guildhall, allowing them to live rent-free in their old age in a location which later became Cowane’s Hospital, in Stirling – where this dapper statue of him can still be observed.
Though, despite belonging to such a formidable owner, “Cowan’s Taed Stane” did not truly surface for more than two centuries – when it was submitted for evaluation to the Stirling Natural History and Archaeological Society in April 1888. Accompanying the toadstone was a letter from a Reverend Dr Robertson, from the parish of St Ninians, where a decree was said to have been placed “prohibiting the use of the charm as being one of Satan’s wiles to lead God’s people astray”. Later that year, the Archaeological Society’s book of Transactions appraised the object, describing it as a “round pebble about the size of a broad bean, in an old-fashioned and rather worn setting of silver, with an eye or eyelet through which a chain can be passed”. Their full assessment read as follows:
“The Taedstane was apparently an heirloom in the Cowane family, and must have passed down from generation to generation. It is next heard of in 1859, when it was in the possession of the postmaster of Kirkcudbright, who inherited it from his mother, Marion Cowane, a lineal descendant of the founder of the Hospital, through whom, again, it could be traced to her great-grandfather. After 1859, it passed into the hands of the Rev. Mr Underwood, parish minister of Kirkcudbright, and on his death in 1886, came into the possession of the Archæological Society, who now hold it.”
With this sudden reappearance casting doubts on the heirloom’s authenticity, several archaeologists at the time merely dismissed the provenance of this ‘cabochon’ as a tall-tale and concocted myth – for one, because there appeared to be no definitive documentation that proved Cowane had had any descendants; and second, because the Merchant’s Guildry Records of the 17th century did not seem to contain any references to such a valuable item either.
The toadstone itself was believed to be a mottled jasper, theorized to have been “brought from the East by some palmer”. According to folk belief however, toadstones were not gemstones – but some sort of secretion, as the name implies, found in the heads of aged toads. This material was believed to have healing and curative properties, namely to act as an antihemorrhagic put on wounds to staunch their bleeding. According to the book Dumfries and Galloway: People and Place, c.1700–1914, edited by (coincidentally) Edward J. Cowan and Kenneth Veitch, there was a rhyme in Galloway that would have accompanied the prescription of a toadstone:
“The water’s mud, an rins afluid
An sae dis thy bluid
God bad it stan, an so it did.
In the name o’ the Father, Son and Holy Ghost
In that regard, it would seem that more than a jewellery ornament, “Cowan’s Taed Stane” might have also acted as a protective charm passed down through generations – although we may never know for sure whether John Cowane was the original owner of the object that today sits in The Stewartry Museum, in Kirkcudbright, Dumfries and Galloway. Though perhaps, that is what makes it so intriguing.
Scottish Charms and Amulets, from the ‘Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland’ (1893).
Cowane’s Taed-Stane at the Glasgow International Exhibition 1901, from ‘The Stirling Antiquary’ (1900-1903).
Toadstones, from ‘Dumfries and Galloway: People and Place, c.1700–1914’ by Edward J. Cowan and Kenneth Veitch (2019).
The history of Cowane’s Hospital and John Cowane via Visit Scotland and Cowane’s Hospital Trust.
The Folklore Museums Network is a a Subject Specialist Network (SSN) promoting folklore collections in museums world-wide. Founded in 2020 by Dr Peter Hewitt, the FMN works collaboratively with its members to identify, display and disseminate knowledge about the material folklore collections held in museums across Britain and Ireland. For more information, visit: https://folkloremuseumsnetwork.org.uk/
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