In the 17th-century Scottish Highlands, gambling in the form of card games, dice games, and even horse races rose to prominence as a recreational sport. Now, centuries later, archeologists have unearthed coins potentially involved in these gaming activities in Scotland.
Archeologists from the University of Glasgow have discovered a collection of 36 silver and bronze coins, housed within a pot. This discovery took place at an excavation site located in a house in Glencoe, hailing from the Scottish Highlands. This house was historically owned by Alasdair Ruadh “MacIain” MacDonald of Glencoe, a significant leader of the MacDonald clan from 1646 to 1692.
The coins which were located beneath the house’s fireplace could have been intentionally interred. Post excavation, archaeologists have concluded that these coins were minted prior to 1690, a detail that frames a poignant backdrop given the MacDonald clan was brutally ambushed in 1692.
Historical evidence hints at several gambling card games frequently indulged in by Scottish locals. One such game was Bawbee Nap, a variant of the card game Nap and a popular trick-taking game in the UK. Each round of the game had players bidding on the predicted number of tricks they could win, injecting elements of strategy and bluffing into the gameplay. Points were rewarded basis on the comparison between winning tricks and their initial bid. The game derived its moniker from an old Scottish halfpenny, “Bawbee,” in circulation from the late 16th century until the mid-18th century.
The betting culture in the Highlands transcended beyond traditional card games, often transcending to encompass physical competitions such as caber tossing, tug-of-war, betting on the contestants in the famed Highland Games, or predicting results in matches of shinty, a game likened to modern Field Hockey.
A culturally significant episode in the annals of Scottish history took place at the end of the 17th century—The Glencoe Massacre of 1692. The MacDonald clan was victim to a betrayal-based violent ambush in the Glen Coe region in the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution of 1688.
The massacre was a resultant of a politically complex landscape. The Glorious Revolution led to King James II’s ousting, culminating in William of Orange’s ascension. The MacDonalds, who were loyal to the dethroned James II, were mandated to pledge allegiance to William and Mary by January 1, 1692. Yet, substantial winter conditions and location confusion led to Clan Chief Alexander MacDonald’s delay in performing the oath.
Recognizing an opportunity, Sir John Dalrymple—the Master of Stair and then Secretary of State for Scotland—sent in troops to quash potential Jacobite sympathizers and establish dominion over the Highlands. This directive led to the infamous massacre on the night of February 13, 1692, where Scottish soldiers slain 38 members of the MacDonald clan.
This historical tragedy is indelibly marked in Scotland’s chronicles – a significant backdrop against which the recently discovered coins serve as a poignant counterpoint to the region’s bloody past.