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200 Years Of Medal Making!

Michael Atkinson discovers Scotland's last remaining medallist - nearly 200 years of history making medals for some of the world's greatest institutions.

In the magnificent St Giles' Cathedral on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh is the Thistle Chapel, chapel of the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle, the greatest order of chivalry in Scotland. Each member of the Order is allotted a stall in the chapel and when a new knight is appointed by the Monarch, a stall plate, carrying the crest of the new knight, is fixed within the stall. The crest plates are handcrafted by Alexander Kirkwood & Son, the near 200-year-old prestigious Scottish business, a historic silversmith, trophy maker and medallist, founded in 1826.

The origins of the specialist firm date back to 1774, when the skill of James Kirkwood's hand engravings were noticed by Sir William Forbes, head of an Edinburgh bank. Sir William subsequently commissioned Kirkwood to produce the metal plates required for the manufacture of Scottish banknotes. James Kirkwood’s son Robert went on to become a renowned engraver of plates for banknotes, maps and geographical globes. The expertise to engrave designs on flat copper and steel plates were passed from generation to generation and were similar to those required of a medal die-cutter. It was in this way that Robert's son Alexander eventually founded the company as it is today, becoming one of the most renowned and finest die cutters of the era.

Die cutting is a rare craft. To manufacture, a billet of steel is trimmed on a lathe to the exact diameter of the future medal. The image or design of the medal is then cut intaglio in reverse, a process which requires great talent and is an extraordinary craft, demanding a combination of creative flair, patience, detailed and precise metal working skills. The finished die is heated to high temperature in a furnace, before being plunged into cold water to toughen and harden the die. The surface is then carefully polished. To strike the medal, discs of copper, silver or gold are cut to a precise depth and diameter. A metal collar to exact the diameter is fitted round the disc before the medal is struck using a press.

Alexander Kirkwood & Son is now one of Scotland’s oldest family-owned and run businesses, a sixth-generation managed firm. It has a range of clients across the globe, including, amongst others, prestigious universities and golf clubs.

With clients including the ‘Grandfather of Golf’, Old Tom Morris, Alexander Kirkwood & Son has had a particularly close relationship with golf since its foundation, the business developing and expanding alongside the game itself, with the company creating the dies and striking some of the very earliest medals associated with golf.

With the game of golf fast evolving and developing in Scotland, and Alexander Kirkwood & Son having established itself as one of Scotland’s foremost businesses, it was natural that its services would be sought after to support the growing sport. There was an increasing requirement for the creation of medals as golf clubs became more formalised and competitions more regular throughout the 19th century.

One of the earliest established clubs was the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews. Alexander was commissioned by the R&A to create the intricate dies for the William IV Gold Medal in 1836 and the Royal Adelaide Gold Medal in 1838, gifted by and named after King William IV and the Queen Dowager, Queen Adelaide, respectively.

Queen Adelaide became the Patron of the R&A following the death of her husband and presented the Gold Medal “to be called the Royal Adelaide medal and be worn in compliance with Her Majesty’s wishes by the Captain of the Club at all meetings.”

Today, every captain of the R&A receives a miniature replica of the Queen Adelaide medal as a keepsake. Replica medals of the William IV Gold Medal continue to awarded annually, for the winner of the Autumn meeting, and are struck by Alexander Kirkwood & Son.

Another significant medal crafted by Alexander Kirkwood & Son was the Glennie Medal, commissioned in 1880 by William McCandlish of the Blackheath Golf Club ‘to honour the worth and service of an eminent golfer’, George Glennie, an esteemed member of both Blackheath and the R&A. Account ledger entries confirm that two medals were created and struck – one for each of these clubs.

The R&A medal is almost two inches in diameter, 22-carat gold, the gold being melted-down sovereigns. Originally awarded for the best score at the annual Autumn Meeting, to be retained by the original winner until his score was bettered, from 1882 onwards, it was awarded for the lowest aggregate scratch score at the Spring and Autumn Meetings. Today, miniature silver gilt replicas are provided to the winner.

Alexander Kirkwood & Son also produced one of the first known ladies’ golf club medals, creating an intricate medal, stamped 1868, for ‘Westward Ho!’ in North Devon, which depicts two ladies in long dresses and hats playing golf, accompanied by a caddie.

Alexander Kirkwood & Son also provided other specialist services to the golf industry. In the early days of golf club manufacture, the name of the club maker – Philp, Morris, McEwan, Parks – was stamped on the club head with a metal punch. The company produced many of these punches (ledgers show an account for ‘Tom Morris, Golf Club maker, St Andrews’, detailing the supply of steel name punches in two sizes, at a price of four shillings each) and nowadays, early hickory clubs stamped with these famous names can fetch tens of thousands of pounds, highly sought after by collectors.

In addition, the company provided equipment for the production of golf balls. In 1872, it was supplying moulds to press engraved lines upon gutta percha balls, requested again by Old Tom Morris.

More recent commissions have included conservation of historic golf trophies. These include renovation of The Old Club Cup of Royal Musselburgh, the oldest club trophy still being regularly played for, dating from 1774. Kirkwoods renovated the attachments to the gold and silver medals hanging from the rim, and supplied a new base before the trophy was loaned to the British Golf Museum in 1998.

Alexander Kirkwood and Son has also produced one of the most expensive golf clubs ever made - the rare club is a replica antique long nosed driver, handcrafted and made entirely from hallmarked sterling silver. The silver club was made for Atlanta Athletic Club in Georgia host to numerous prestigious tournaments including The PGA Championship, US Women’s Open, US Open and the Ryder Cup. Silver golf balls were attached to it to commemorate the presidents of the club and featured a single gold golf ball in memory of Robert Tyre Jones, more commonly known as Bobby Jones, a lifelong Atlanta Athletic Club member, a co-founder of Augusta National and The Masters and a four times US Open and three times Open Championship winner.

Other stunning silver clubs, individually made, continue to be commissioned by clubs and collectors, becoming some of the most expensive golf clubs in the world, with a five figures price tag.

Outside of golf, Alexander Kirkwood & Son crafted the silver dies for the Great Seal of Scotland, attached to official documents to confer Royal Assent by the reigning Monarch. The firm produced the dies in 1911 for the accession of King George V.


The business also created the prestigious ‘Livingstone Medal’, awarded by the Royal Scottish Geographical Society in recognition of ‘outstanding public service in which geography has played an important part, either by exploration, by administration, or in other directions where its principles have been applied to the benefit of the human race.’

Having created the dies from the design by the renowned sculptor James Pittendrigh MacGillivray, the firm has struck the medals since the award’s inception. The medals bear ‘on the obverse side a portrait of the great explorer, and on the reverse an allegorical representation of the Spirit of Civilisation bearing the torch of progress and the olive-branch of peace.’ Sir Harry Johnston, a British explorer, botanist and zoologist was the first recipient of the medal in 1901. Over the years, others have included Sir Edmund Hillary, Sir Ranulph Fiennes, HRH The Duke of Edinburgh and Sir David Attenborough.

More recent medals include The Edinburgh Medal, struck in silver and awarded by the City of Edinburgh to an individual who has contributed greatly within the world of science and the St Andrew's Award Medal, celebrating acts of bravery in Scotland.

In addition to medal making, the business also produces and supplies trophies, engraved silverware and glassware and works with clients on bespoke commissions.

Alexander Kirkwood & Son is now one of Scotland’s oldest family-run businesses, a medallist, silversmith, engraver and trophy maker to some of the world’s most famous and celebrated institutions and organisations. Over nearly two centuries, the business has continued to make dies and strike some of the rarest and greatest medals ever produced. A medal from this historic business is one of the ultimate and most prestigious signs of quality craftsmanship and remain highly collectible.

The business can be found at

About the Author - Michael Atkinson is a contributing writer for a number of lifestyle titles across the UK and USA, with a main focus on trends, businesses and brands within the luxury industry. He also writes on the history and heritage of golf and is the co-author of Golfland Scotland, the first comprehensive guide to all of Scotland's golf courses to be published in over two decades.


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