THE legendary thrift of the Scots and their careful husbanding of coinage has given “bawbee” a popularity much wider than north of the border. Few people in the English speaking world can be unfamiliar with expressions such as “minding the bawbees” but especially few are likely to know its precise meaning.
Scottish currency was roughly equivalent in value to that of England until the late 14th century when it began to depreciate by stages. By the time of the Acts of Union of 1707, when Scottish currency was abolished, a Scots penny was worth one-twelfth of its English counterpart.
Two Scottish pennies made a bodle, and two bodles made a plack. Three bodles were equal to a bawbee, and there were two bawbees to a shilling.
A merk was worth 13 shillings and four pence, while 20 shillings added up to a pound.
The almost banana republic exchange rate is illustrated by the comparative value of the pound sterling which was worth 12 times more than the scots version.
Yet the historian Alexander Galt lamented its passing in his book The Last of the Lairds: From that day (Union of 1707) the pound sterling came in among our natural coin and like Moses’ rod, swallow’t up at ae gawpe, plack, bodle, merk, and bawbie.
But why bawbee? There are a variety of explanations, some which are more colourful than accurate. One popular suggestion is that it derives from “baby” because it carried a baby’s head, marking the rule of infant king James V who came to the throne at only a few months old.
A good story, but quickly disproved by the fact that bawbees first came to circulation only in 1541 - near the end of James V’s reign – and bore no head at all!
Francophiles point to “bas bullion” – base bullion – as the source, but apart from the phonetic contortions necessary to justify this derivation, mixed metal coins had been common in Scotland for a century and a half previously, so it is unlikely that they would acquire a novel name in 1541.
The most plausible origin is no less fascinating. Scotland’s mint-master at the time was the Laird of Sillebawby, and it seems perfectly logical the coin should be named after him.
The bodle is similarly reckoned to be a corruption of the mint-master Bothwell, and in the reign of James VI there was a coin called the Atchison worth eight scots pennies and one third of an English penny) named after the assay-master in Edinburgh.
Maybe one of the strange new South African coins should therefore be called a Stals, after the Governor of the Reserve Bank.