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SCOTTISH COMMUNION TOKENS – in praise of small things

The little lead token in my hand is neither the most beautiful token I’ve handled nor the most valuable in monetary terms.  It bears the date 1648 and on the other side C P.  We think it is from Crossmichael, Dumfries & Galloway, made for John Semple, Minister at the church there from 1646-1660.   Or perhaps it’s from Carsphain  in Kircudbrightshire.  No-one’s sure.  It only measures 16mm. the size of a finger nail.   But the dates are significant for this was a time of religious upheaval in Scotland.

Communion token from Crossmichael, Fife, Bz1606, lot MB67-750

Communion token from Crossmichael, Fife, Bz1606, lot MB67-750

It’s a Scottish communion token, one of more than 7000 different types spanning three centuries. This type of early identity check would have been given only to those who, after an examination by the elders of the kirk and the minister himself, were deemed worthy to take communion in remembrance of the Lord’s Supper, and were neither a spy nor a traitor. It could provide safety during the Killing Times of the late 17th century when church and state were embattled and tens of thousands of people were killed.  It controlled the lives of people within their own small communities.

By its very simplicity and the power, this token tells part of a great story of battles between conscience and duty, church and state, Covenanters and Jacobites, and of the Scottish desire for independence from the English.   In isolation, it’s a slight piece.  But when so many tokens are gathered systematically, mapping the various twists and secessions in the church by town and hamlet, then you have a solid research base from which to make a chronicle.

Communion token from Logie, Fife, 1773 (lot MB67-1061)

Communion token from Logie, Fife, 1773 (lot MB62-1061)

Communion tokens, although originating in Calvin’s Geneva in the 16th century, are a particularly Scottish phenomenon, plotting the social and Protestant church history of Scotland over three hundred years and more.  The Church of Scotland was reformed along Presbyterian lines in the 16th century.  But with the restoration of king Charles II, state and church were no longer separated in Scotland and England; bishops were reinstated and given a place in government.   Presbyterians believed that Christ was the head of the Kirk, not the king, and that spiritual power flows upwards from the kirk (church) elders, not down from the king via the bishops in the Episcopalian tradition.  So signing any of the various Scottish National Covenants was seen as an act of treason.  The square lead token from Logie in Fife shows the typical format of shortened version of the name of the kirk with the date of issue (in this case Minister Robert Bogie, 1767-1802)

Given the importance placed on examination of conscience and the stress on learning the scriptures prior to taking communion, it is hardly surprising that the two most popular sacred texts mentioned on tokens are This do in remembrance of Me – from the Gospel of St Luke, chapter 22, verse 19, referring directly to the Lord’s Supper, and But let a man examine himself  St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.  This is usually abbreviated to 1.COR xi.24 – 28 – a warning to the would-be communicant to judge himself or be judged harshly by the community and ultimately by God.

Parish of Friockheim, Angus, communion token  of Minister Thomas Wilson 1837, lot MB67-765

Parish of Friockheim, Angus, communion token of Minister Thomas Wilson 1837, lot MB67-765

The communion service might have been held only once or twice a year, especially in the early years of the Protestant Church in Scotland, whether Episcopalian or Presbyterian.  It was a very important and solemn occasion for the community.    Communion was taken under the form of bread and wine in memory of the Lord’s Supper at communal tables set up especially for the occasion, often numbered for sittings as witnessed by the tokens, such as the one for Craigie, Ayr of 1835, with the number 2 punched into it.  Normally 10-20 people would gather at a table so numbers up to 4 or 5 are normal.  However, a token in the Macmillan collection from Cromarty in Ross, 1883, has the number 49!  This is feasible as there are written records of more than 2000 communicants at some services.

Galashiels, Selkirkshire, communion token of 1841, with table number 5 (lot MB67-774)

Galashiels, Selkirkshire, communion token of 1841, with table number 5 (lot MB67-774)

With so many different tokens needed for the various kirks and ministers, lead, or an alloy like pewter, was an inexpensive and practical material for tokens. Lead has a low melting point so tokens could be made by a local blacksmith.  The early tokens were cast, but those of the 19th century tend to be struck from dies made by professional die-sinkers and engravers, chiefly Kirkwood in Edinburgh.  Other materials have been used, such as brass and bronze or in rare cases silver.  But lead seems more appropriate. As Cresswell says in his book on World Communion tokens now out of print, it’s “as if to point the lesson that God uses the humble of this world to fulfill His purposes”.

The form and style of the token developed gradually, but retained its plainness and functionality.   Many of the early tokens simply have the rough initial of the church or minister with perhaps the letter K for kirk (church) on them, the reverse blank.  Others are unattributed with simply a letter K.   The inclusion of sacred texts, either in full or just chapter and verse came later, with the addition of certain symbols.  Some are quite distinctive like the token from Northmaven, Shetland, 1809 William Watson Minister, 1809-30; the fish was not only the early Christian church symbol Ichthus but also the economic mainstay of the local community.  The community on this most remote Scottish island of Fair Isle at that time numbered almost 400 – now it’s about 70.   About 134 islanders emigrated to Nova Scotia in 1861 and the population never recovered.

Northmavine, Shetland, communion token with fish symbol.  Lot M67-1144

Northmavine, Shetland, communion token with fish symbol. Lot M67-1144


The Melrose token is a rebus with a hammer or mell  and a rose.  Other symbols illustrate the fundamentals of the service, like the token from Aberdeen Old Machar of 1820 with two wine cups and a plate of bread within the square table border.  Or this 1817 token from Glenisla, Angus,  simply shows the communion cup, and again a reference to St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.

Glenisla  token, 1817, with communion cup, , Andrew Burns Minister, lot MB67-840

Glenisla token, 1817, with communion cup, , Andrew Burns Minister, lot MB67-840

Only Episcopal tokens have the cross and I H S monogram like those from Turriff Aberdeen, and Forfar, Angus 1754,  while the Presbyterian tokens very often feature the burning bush with the device nec tamen consumebatur – ‘and yet the bush was not consumed’, referring to the account of Abraham’s sacrifice.  This was the emblem of Presbyterianism and of the Free Church of Scotland in the 19th century.

Inverkeithny communion token, 1865, 'burning bush' type with Latin inscription, lot  MB67-894

Inverkeithny communion token, 1865, ‘burning bush’ type with Latin inscription, lot MB67-894

With the Disruption of 1843 and the creation of the Free Church of Scotland there was a massive re-issue of tokens.  Developments in minting technology meant that stock tokens could be inexpensively made.  They were slightly more decorative than before.  Some referred to a single area, others were for general use.  The oval and the oblong with cut corners dominated but all sorts of shapes were used from triangles to hearts.

By the middle of 20th century the metal communion token had died out in favour of the communion card.  But by this time the practice of issuing communion tokens had been exported to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the USA and wherever Scots had emigrated, taking their religion with them.

The Scottish collection created by Andrew Macmillan which Simmons Gallery sold in 2006 was more comprehensive than some more numerous collections as each token is different, noted with variants, and only the highest table number for each church was retained (noting on the ticket whether a higher number exists elsewhere).  Every token was identified, and the provenance recorded with ancillary notes, cross-referencing his collection with those of the Church of Scotland, Burzinski, and Cattanach (the latter two both dispersed).   It was probably the best researched collection in private hands at that time. Other collectors have benefitted from its dispersal including Bob Merchant whose extensive collection we are now selling by auction (2013-2014 – Part III for auction 14 May 2014, Church of Scotland tokens F-S).

Until now, most of the research and collecting of this series has been painstaking listing, attribution and correcting previous errors, mainly by ministers of religion and those closely associated with the church.  It makes very dry reading. We hope that new and existing collectors will seize the opportunity to use this studiously accumulated knowledge to tell the story of those individuals and communities whose lives are mapped by these unassuming tokens.

Background reading:

Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland – the essays of Brook, Dick, Keir, Lamb and Lockie
Communion tokens of the World Lester Burzinski 1999
Comprehensive Directory of World Communion tokens  O D Cresswell 1985

Simmons Gallery Auction catalogues for Andrew Macmillan collection and the Bob Merchant collections.  Photos in this blog from the Bob Merchant collection of Communion Tokens, many of which arrived in paper/film packets which contained reference details.

Copyright F Simmons April 2006, first published in Coin News, updated April 2014

3 Responses so far.

  1. Chris says:

    We are looking for a copy of the book on Scottish Communion Tokens by Burzinski. Hope you might have an idea where we might be able source it. Thanks in anticipation! Chris

    • SImmons says:

      We don’t have a copy of Burzinski available at present but always on the lookout for one. Will let you know when a copy turns up.

  2. Stewart Donaldson says:

    An Old pouch of Tokens have found in an old building in Edinburgh in the Canongate, very near the old Canongate Kirk. On obverse side there is the date 1743 and on the reverse the letters CK. The size is approx that of an old sixpence, would these have been Communion Tokens do you think?

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