David Hay Fleming and the Bronze Bowl
Whilst undertaking research for my MSc dissertation on (1849-1931) as a book collector, I came across some intriguing correspondence (msdep113/2/4) regarding a bronze bowl. Known not only for his works on Scottish history, but also as an antiquary, these letters highlight Hay Fleming’s passion for keeping locally found antiquities local.
The bronze bowl in question was unearthed in burying ground (below) in February 1898 by the grave digger, Mr Mackie. In a letter to his friend W.A. Craigie, Hay Fleming described the bowl as having “a geometrical pattern in the bottom, and a very prettily incised cross on the cover” (ms36712/1-2). Wanting to know more about it he took the bowl to Dr Joseph Anderson at the National Museum, Edinburgh. Anderson was clearly intrigued by the bowl, and wrote to Alexander Hutcheson, an amateur antiquary in Broughty Ferry, asking him to purchase it for the National Museum from the grave digger. As Hutcheson was unable to get over to St Andrews, he in turn wrote to his friend Hay Fleming, asking him to carry out the commission, not realising that Hay Fleming had been the one to show the bowl to Dr Anderson.
Hay Fleming indignantly declined to hand the bowl over, having strong feelings “against the carrying off of local antiquities” (msdep113/2/4/3). But fortune was not on his side, for whilst he was away Dr Anderson claimed the bowl as Treasure Trove. Thus began a series of letters to the Exchequer Chambers by Hay Fleming, in an attempt to reclaim the bowl for St Andrews. Hay Fleming was keen to stress that St Andrews had “a large & valuable Museum (the joint property of the University & of the Lit. & Phil. Society) with as many elements of permanence & stability as the National Museum.” (msdep113/2/4/5). In response Hay Fleming was assured that if the Council of the Society of Antiquaries did not press for the bowl, it would be returned for the museum in St Andrews. Fortunately, the Council did not press to keep the bowl, and on 26th May Hay Fleming was informed that it would be returned to Mackie, on condition that he deposited it in the local museum (msdep113/4/2/8). This was an unusual request for the Crown to make, who was not normally concerned with how the finder disposed of the item, but “this case is so far exceptional that rights of the Crown are waived and the bowl is returned only in deference to representations advanced by you on behalf of St. Andrew’s Museum” (msdep113/2/4/9).
The bowl was not returned immediately, but was retained at the National Museum in Edinburgh to be exhibited at one of the meetings of the Society of Antiquaries, and to be described and illustrated in the Society’s Proceedings (v.33, pp.76-78). Afterwards, Dr Anderson wanted to show the bowl to Lord Balfour, and so it was not until 2nd March, over one year after the bowl’s discovery, that Hay Fleming triumphantly wrote to Craigie: “The little Bronze Bowl has at last come back to St. Andrews” (ms36718/1-2).
Hay Fleming’s hard work had paid off, and the bowl was duly exhibited in the museum of the Literary and Philosophical Society, which was housed in Upper College Hall in the United College Quadrangle (above). Upon the handing over of this museum to St Andrews University in 1904, the bowl was amongst the 280 items of local interest listed in Schedule II of the Agreement between the Literary and Philosophical Society and the University Court (below). This Schedule listed items which might be handed over if a town museum were to be established. In 1909 the St Andrews Cathedral Museum opened, which Hay Fleming was instrumental in setting up, and those items from Schedule II were duly handed over.
In the past 100 years, though, trace of this bronze bowl has disappeared, and its current whereabouts is now unknown. It would be a fitting end to this story to locate the bowl, so if anybody has any clues, please do get in touch!
Reading Room Administrator