Sunday, 2 December 2012

Exploring an 1833 Scottish Sampler

Sampler worked by Miss Helen Dougal, Lanarkshire, Scotland, 1833 

I am indeed fortunate to have inherited a large 18 inch square embroidered sampler worked in 1833. Samplers were very commonly worked by young women to exhibit their needlework skills and many beautiful examples survive today. But sadly, damaging sunlight causing fading and rotting, unqualified attempts at cleaning and restoration, and inappropriate storage over the space of close to 200 years have taken their toll on many fine pieces. If cleaning of an old sampler is absolutely necessary I would strongly advise you to seek the assistance of an experienced fabric conservator who will test fibres for colour fastness and may also use specialised cleaning equipment including a dust vacuum. Professional museum staff are the best people to ask for advice on who should undertake such work.

Thankfully, this sampler is in good condition for its age, being worked on a backing of typically coarse weave linen which has darkened slightly with age. Being framed behind thin glass in a very old polished wood frame will at least will have kept dust and grime to a minimum. For at least the last 90 years it has always been hung in dark hall-ways well away from direct sunlight.

Rather than including the conventional elements of a sampler such as the alphabet and number sequences, this particular sampler has helpfully been designed as a genealogical family tree. But additionally, some interesting motifs also appear which have a recognised and deeper meaning. Intriguingly there is also the riddle of "Solomon's Temple". But more of that shortly.

Knowing the provenance of an artefact and the story of its creator adds considerable interest and value. Ownership of this sampler has always been retained by family descendants. Recent research on the history and format of samplers now firmly points to it being worked by Miss Helen Dougal, then aged about 16 years, and residing at Marshill Farm, Draffan [Drafan] in Lesmahagow Parish, Lanarkshire, Scotland. The names of her parents, Thomas Dougal and Mary Dykes, appear along the top of the sampler. Helen has also made a point of highlighting her own name in full but only the initials of her six siblings, all being born between 1817 and 1831. The initials of her Father and his own siblings born between 1781 and 1798 have also been included.

Marrying Thomas Watson of 'Muirhead' Farm, Dalserf Parish in 1843, Helen Dougal died in May 1882 while in a state of "melancholia" after the death of her husband in October 1881. Both were interred in Dalserf Parish Churchyard. Unfortunately there is no known photo of Helen. The sampler was then brought out to New Zealand in 1886 by Helen's daughter, Miss Helen Watson. It has subsequently passed to me, being a Great Great Great Nephew of Helen Dougal.

This sampler is primarily in a traditional two-tone green, white and gold colour scheme. A skillfully executed decorative border surrounds the work. Notably visible among the many motifs are the large Scotch thistle signifying Scottish ancestry, two doves perched on a heart over the words "Amor" signifying love, and a number of birds and animals. In the centre are the words of the almost obligatory 'moral verse', in this case :

"Be virtuous while thou art young so shall thine age be honoured

This verse is attributed to Robert Dodsley in his 1750 work "The Economy of Human Life", being frequently reprinted in subsequent years including in "Elegant Extracts in Prose : Selected for the Improvement of Young Persons" published in 1816 which ran to at least 10 reprints.

The meanings of many of the motifs may elude me but an interesting list of meanings may be found HERE. But what of the intriguing reference to and representation of "Solomon's Temple"?

While many samplers include a typical representation of a school house or even of the family home, this sampler specifically includes the words "Solomons Temple" and an image of the 'temple'. This small architectural feature on a sampler is often referred to as "Solomon's Porch". Very similar images are found on samplers of the period and it is generally believed that this was a representation of part of Solomon's Temple which appeared in The King James version of the Bible published by John Field in 1660.

A 1660 Engraving of 'Solomon's Temple' published in
The King James version of the Bible by John Field in 1660.
[Source : Needleprint]

The 'Needleprint' website records an especially great interest in Solomon's Temple between 1790 to 1850. Models of the Temple were even made and toured for display. But one factor seems to focus on the year of 1847, and that was the date predicted for the second coming of the Messiah. Therefore the Temple as a symbol of the Christian faith was topical and very much to the fore. We know that Helen Dougal was a Religious and pious woman, I hold three volumes of the sermons of the Rev. Charles H. Spurgeon which were in her possession.

But one intriguing fact has emerged in my research of this sampler. While searching for similar styles of sampler I stumbled across one which is extraordinarily similar in style, being held by the 'Wyndham and District Historical Museum', also here in Southern New Zealand.

Sampler by Mary Meikle, 1833
[Source : Needleprint]

This leaves me wondering if both Mary Meikle, who worked this sampler in 1836 and Helen Dougal who worked her sampler in 1833, both lived in Lesmashagow Parish, possibly having the same needlework teacher, or if they worked from a similar pattern book. While still individual works they are quite alike. Even the temple, doves on a heart, flower and Scotch thistle are the same. Mary Meikle, like Helen, has also made a point of highlighting her name in full.

I am not an expert on needlework but would welcome any comments on aspects I may have overlooked. A further Blog on my 1795 Scottish Sampler may be viewed HERE.

Bibliography :

- Toitu Otago Settlers Museum, Dunedin, New Zealand
- Needleprint


  1. It is interesting that in both samplers, the building looks like a regular Georgian house or institution (eg orphanage, hospital, church building).

    Now even the least sophisticated architectural historian knew that there were no Georgian buildings in Biblical Jerusalem, so what was the "model" proposing? I am guessing that every English home was its own centre of holiness, a temple to its own family.

  2. Good evening, what a lovely sampler and great story behind it. I am descended from a Samuel Dougall/Dougal, said to have come from Oban in Scotland. While we know something of his life after he arrived in America, we have not been able to confirm when he arrived here, or that he really did come from the Oban area. You are fortunate to have a sampler from an ancestor and to know some of the story behind it.

    The Needleprint blog is a wealth of information about samplers and other needlework. I'm a regular reader of it.

    1. Thank you Cindy! Yes, the sampler is a treasure and I feel sad when these items end up for sale and their family ownership & provenance is lost. The Dougal/Dougall family all hailed from Lanarkshire but I do hope that one day you can uncover more information, i've made some wonderful discoveries from hitherto unknown sources, it's worth continuing to "dig". Sincerely, Donald


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