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Chip-Carving In Caithness

Crafts In Caithness Introduction Historical Articles

Artists In Caithness

McIvor and Allan, Chip Carvers of Castletown c.1890 to c.1955
James Dunster

Page Two

From official documents and records much is now known about the backgrounds and the lives of John McIvor and of his brother-in-law, Donald Allan.  Since the first account was compiled to be issued at the Exhibition, it has been possible to know more about other members of the firm, notably James (Jimmy) Waters, who took over the firm during its final years during and after World War Two.

But we must firstly deal with the two partners and founders of the firm.  John descended from a long line of farm servants in the Olrig area.  He was born on 22 October 1863, to his father, also John, and his wife Margaret, Nee Waters, and he was the eldest son among six children.  He had a younger brother, William, who is the Grandfather of Councillor Alistair MacDonald of  Hill of Forss.  On the 1891 Census form John is described as "aged 27, formerly a farm servant" and, unlike the other members of his family, he is not shown as having any other occupation at that time, the relevant box for "occupation" being left blank.  This raises the question as to why this was, at a time when to be without occupation was to be without means.  At this point it may be of interest to note that it has been impossible to identify any connection between Margaret Waters and James Waters, who became the firm's foreman (q.v.); Waters is a common name in the Olrig area.

A brief history of the firm was written from memory and hearsay, and never finished, by Benjamin Gordon Calder, the son of the first man to be apprenticed to the firm in 1903 and who worked with it for nearly 40 years.  It contains the statement that John "began to serve his apprenticeship as a joiner in the village, but took some trouble in his leg and had to give up his work."  If this information is correct - and there is no reason to question it - many years before 1891, when he reached the age of 27, he must have become a farm servant.  did a further incapacity arise while he was working on a farm and is this why he thereafter had to find another occupation that would enable him to earn a living while he could be seated?  Ben Gordon Calder's recollections of what he had heard from his father, Ben Calder, relating to an event so many years earlier, are compatible with the possibility that something occurred while he was a farm worker, that he was still recovering from it and so unable to work in 1891 and perhaps later.

This short Calder history, in manuscript form, only came to light after his death, making it impossible to elaborate upon the events he described.

At whatever date John did take up chip-carving, his early experience as an apprentice joiner would have been an advantage in taking up working with wood once again.
The brief account of the early days of the firm, by Benjamin Gordon Calder, alluded to above, contains the fascinating remark that " one of John's female relatives living in Edinburgh, came to Castletown on holiday and taught him how to carve".  Unfortunately, no date for this event is given, but the story has the ring of truth about it because, at some period between 1891 and the turn of the century someone must have taught the techniques to John and indicated where he could acquire tracings of designs.  However accomplished his teacher, John must also have had great aptitude for carving and would have been an artist in his own right, because the finest articles all seem to be his own work and bear the hallmark of a master carver.  It would have been he who taught and trained the other chip-carvers among the apprentices, numbering about twelve, employed by the firm in the years before World War I.  It was not unusual for more than one generation of a family to work for the firm, during its 50 years' existence

It was probably during the mid-1890's that the future brothers-in-law got to know each other and decided to go into partnership making and chip-carving furniture and other articles.

A picture postcard, produced in 1904 for publicity purposes, shows the two partners, and in white overall, someone the writer had originally conjectured might be Jimmy Waters, who later became the joinery foreman, (an incorrect surmise as we now know that Jimmy Waters was only born in 1903!  It is more likely that the person is Ben Calder, then about 18, the firm's first apprentice) and other unidentifiable older men, all standing outside the workshop.  John stands awkwardly, in a pose that could indicate he suffered and injury to one of his legs.  Unfortunately, it has so far proved impossible to trace an example of this postcard.  Only a rather indistinct enlargement, appears to be available, one probably produced on an enlarger/photocopier.  On the board bearing the name of the firm are the compass and set square, symbols denoting a connection with Freemasonry.

Donald was born in Dunnet on 31 December 1858, the son of William Allan, a farm servant, and Helen nee Banks.  He became a carpenter-journeyman, and on 15 February 1889, married Margaret nee Younger.  They went to the United States to live, but  she contracted cancer and Donald, accompanied by his younger brother William (who went to the United States for this purpose), brought his wife back to Castletown, where she died on 1 March 1893.

Seven years later on 12 June 1900, he married Maria McIvor, John's sister then 24 years of age.  He was described on the Marriage Certificate as "Master Carpenter"

Donald appears to have been mainly responsible for the joinery aspects of the firm's products, but around the middle of the 1920's onwards, he was joined by Jimmy Waters who later became the foreman of the joinery side.  However, Jimmy also learnt the technique of carving because the writer has recently see two very fine low tables made and carved by him, in very distinctive, more contemporary style.

The first record available in Wick of a firm "McIvor and Allan, wood carvers" in Castletown appears in the 1902 Olrig Valuation Roll, which covers part of 1901.  This mention could have left leave it arguable that the firm as such, had started to operate during a part of 1901.  However, the Sasines Abridgements held in the National Archives of Scotland give the full details of a transaction dated 21 April 1902 whereby the houses and the workshop concerned were bought jointly by John and Donald "both residing at Kirk House".  This confirms that the partnership , or firm was legally constitutes in 1902.

It is therefore clear that some appreciable time prior to that year, the partners must have decided to set up in business, John having acquired the high level of skill required.  They then had to obtain sets of the designs to be carved, decide on the range of articles they were to produce, find backers to put up capital to buy the house(s) and workshop that were to accommodate the firm and possibly, some of its employees, because several names are mentioned in the Valuation Rolls for a number of years.  They must also, before 1902, have produced sufficient quantity of goods to demonstrate the products for sale and establish that they had a potential market, calculated production costs and sale prices.

All this must have taken time, as well as business acumen, so that, effectively, the partnership must have been operating, perhaps without employees, before 1902.

The writer has written evidence that the table given to him (by a direct descendant of Thomas Telford, who was important to Caithness during the early 19th C..) and displayed at the 2001 exhibition, was in the hands of the donor's mother, living in Carluke, at the very latest by 1901, because that was the year in which she sailed to Brazil to become the wife of a missionary working in that country.  It was probably an advance wedding present, because it is a particularly fine article, one referred to in later catalogues as "No 2"., but it is even more elaborately carved than a number of other later examples of the same model.  Perhaps because, over time, the need to reduce production costs, or to increase production, these factors led to slight simplification of carving.  It could perhaps be regarded as a "special order"  or a "demonstration model", but irrespective of this, its main importance is that it is one of the only such tables, or other articles, to which, so far, we can confidently attribute a date of 1900. or "definitely not later than 1901"

It has not been possible to ascertain at what date the firm first produced a price list or an illustrated catalogue.  There are in existence and known to the writer, three illustrated catalogues produced at various dates, showing a very large range pr [products, large and small, grandfather clock cases, tables, stools, cabinets, picture frames, bellows and so on.  It is not difficult to establish their chronological order, although not their date of issue, because of price increases due, in ne case, to the impact of the Great War, but even the catalogue with the lowest prices and the smallest range of products must be later than the very earliest years of the firm.

The woods used for the top-quality products were American walnut and American oak, this this which has a closer and finer grain than European oak.  Many articles could also be supplied in pine, at a lesser price.  Because of the relative softness and less fine grain of pine, which makes them more vulnerable when carved across the grain, the patterns are generally less elaborate, but they could be supplied in a dark stain finish.  Articles in oak appear to be less common than those in walnut, although in the house of a descendant of one of the partners, stands a magnificent, large oak cabinet, not found in the catalogues, carved with the greatest precision and perfection.  The writer has also seen a well-worn tray that appears to be made of sycamore.

Products were made to special order and this may account for certain variations as well as one-off designs.  Over the years, it is also apparent that there took place some modification of the specification and of the patterns carved on catalogue items ostensibly identical in overall shape and design.  This may have been at the request of customers, or because they were made at different periods, or carved by different craftsmen.

Apart from producing to order variations of catalogue items, as mentioned above, it is evident that, notably between the Wars, the firm made a number of pieces of furniture, such as nests of tables, low chairs, stools, of a character different from earlier catalogue items.  These are likely to have been for special orders.  They were carved, sometimes with inlaid initials or other motifs, and in later life, John McIvor decorated more than one surface carvings of thistles, complete with many leaves, and "signed" these as his own work by always carving one leaf with its tip folded back.

McIvor & Allan Chip-carvers Page 3    Back To Page One

Calder Carvings continue the tradition today in a direct line from the famous firm.