Rare playing cards found in archive shuffle


The title card bears Edinburgh’s crest

A PACK of rare playing cards, thought to be one of only two in existence, has been unearthed in Scotland.

The 17th century deck was unearthed amongst a collection of rare books in the archives at St Andrews University.

The cards bear the crest of Edinburgh along with the date 1691. Printed on the title card is also the phrase

“Phlyarcharum Scotorum gentilicia insignia’ (corr), which translates as

“Family signs of the princes or Scotland.”

They were printed on paper and mounted into a book in the late 18th century.

The man who discovered them, cataloguer Daryl Green, has managed to trace one other similar set in the library of Sir Walter Scott at Abbotsford in the Borders.

Like modern playing cards, the vintage set contains four suits with numbers and pictures and also bears a number of drawings relating to heraldic shields of the Scottish nobility.

It’s thought that they could have been hidden in the university for a century before their rediscovery.

Daryl said he was

“surprised and impressed’ to come across the cards.

“They’ve certainly been in the collection for probably the last 100 years or so. They were stored in our strong room and I’m working book by book through the catalogue. At first I didn’t know what I had in my hands. “

When he discovered the book, Daryl tried to research their history but found it difficult because there was no trace of them in British Library records.

He said:

“the paper that they are mounted on is late 18th century so it looks like somebody bought them at a sale and mounted them into a book.

“Normally playing cards in the 17th century, like cards now, would have been mounted on a thicker board and in these there’s no evidence of that, so I don’t know whether they were bought in a sheet and cut out to be mounted in the book. “

The discovery of the Abbotsford deck led to the discovery of records naming the cards’ maker reading

“Walter Scot, goldsmith of Edinburgh, was admitted into the fraternity of his craft in 1686.”

Daryl explained it was not unusual for a goldsmith of the time to also work as a printer.

“Gutenberg [inventor of the modern printing press] was a goldsmith, they went in tandem for a long time. He was used to working in metal so engraving would have been second nature to him. “

University records show their book originally belonged to Edinburgh antiquarian David Laing, who died in 1878, before being bought, possibly via Sotherby’s, in the 19th century.

Daryl said it would be very difficult to place a value on the cards.

“With a regular printed book it’s not that hard to do, but with ephemeral material like this the market does up and down a lot more.

“Because of the scarcity of these things – maybe a couple of thousand pounds. “

However, the cards are unlikely to come on the market any time soon, and will remain in the library’s collection, where they will be available to researchers.

“We don’t have any fixed exhibition space, but being in the library hopefully they’ll become a good tool for research and for teaching as well.

“If someone was interested in heraldry there’s research that can be done in particular. “