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Properly pronounced with the guttural ‘ch’ (like loch), the word quaich comes from the gaelic cuach, literally meaning cup. Yet this isn’t the sort of cup you’d have your morning tea in (unless you really wanted to anyway), they were originally for whisky. At night round the table or fireside, the communal act of passing the shallow quaich and drinking down the spirit, bound groups together, whether in friendship, clanship, or some nefarious strategic plot. The earliest recorded use of the word seems to be from 1546.
The essential meaning of the quaich is so much more than just a means to get tipsy: the quaich symbolises the bonds of love, friendship and welcome. As such they are often gifts at weddings, as lifetime gifts for new-born babies and even as trophies for teams.
In from they have a shallow bowl and two (sometimes more) handles, delightfully referred to as lugs or ears. The quaich is another Highland tradition now gifted to the Lowlands and the rest of the world. The earliest examples were all in wood, either carved from single lumps of timber, or else pieced together from staves like a barrel. In the grand Scottish tradition of taking anything and finding a way to add silver decoration to it, when the practice crossed the Highland line in the seventeenth century, the silversmiths of the burghs started adding rims and decorative embellishments. Eventually the wooden origins were forgotten, and the silver took over, so now most quaichs will be made from metal.
There is some debate among historians as to whether the quaich has its origins in a type of medieval cup known as a ‘mazer’. These were similar shall bowl type drinking vessels, also made out of wood, the knots in the timber giving rise to the name, meaning ‘spotted’ (which has the same root as ‘measles’). Mazers did not have handles, unlike the quaichs, and tended to have a central mount or decoration within. The most amazing example from all of Europe to survive comes from Scotland, the Bute or Bannatyne Mazer (see here). This was made, it seems, in the reign of Robert the Bruce, and around a lazy lion appear the shields of Bruces’ chief noblemen.
Our own quaichs merge these two forms, being a traditional two-handled quaich, bit with a central mount and crest. Give us a little time, we might see if the design team will make us a lazy lion to sit inside.