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Behind the scenes as Antiques Roadshow hits Scotland

By Robert Wight, 13 July 2013 9.57pm.

For millions, Sunday simply isn’t Sunday without the Antiques Roadshow. After almost 35 years and 700 episodes, it’s cult viewing and has spawned a whole genre of antiques-themed shows.

Filming for the 36th series is under way, with valuation days around the country. Our reporter Robert Wight went to one of the Scottish shoots.

They turned out in their thousands at Scone Palace. A few laboured under the blazing sun with heavy centuries old furniture. Many more carried cherished medals, books, pots, paintings and myriad other items.

Some were worth thousands, others a few quid. But all were treasures — and many had fascinating tales.

There were retired couples, harassed mums with young kids and quite a few who’d bunked off work for the day. As the temperature nudged an un-Scottish 30 degrees, they stood patiently in a vast but good-humoured queue.

It snaked around the courtyard of the historic palace, down the long drive, into a huge marquee, around the inside and back out again down to the main gates.

Doors opened at 9.30am but people turned up a lot earlier, eager to have their goods valued by the show’s experts — as well as the chance to get on telly.

First person we met was Robert Tilney, resplendent in tartan trews and magnificent handlebar moustache. He’s the show’s resident firearms expert and — since the time someone turned up with a live hand grenade — greets the public at the main gates.

Robert, a fourth-generation gunsmith, explained: “Now I check every weapon before they get on the set. I make sure they’re legal and safe — and that rifles don’t have one up the spout.”

I asked what’s the most memorable piece he’s valued on the Antiques Roadshow. Without hesitation he declared: “A howdah pistol!”

A what?

“Howdah,” he repeated. “It’s named after the platform on the back of an elephant you hunt tigers from. If you mess up with the rifle, and have just succeeded in making a tiger angry, you reach for your howdah pistol.

“It’s a weapon of last resort — a massive calibre gun. If you have seconds to spare with a tiger intent on consuming you, it’s just the job.”

With a glint in his eye and a little twist of one end of his ’tache, Robert added: “This one had four barrels, was gold plated with an ivory grip — 25 grand it was valued at. Marvellous.”

As we chatted, the Sinclair family, from Perthshire, approached. Mum Sarah and kids Jake and Maisie carried an enormous spear.

I asked Sarah how on earth she came by the weapon. It belonged to her husband’s grandfather, John Robertson.

“It was a thank you gift from the Naga tribe. They were headhunters,” she said casually.

John, Sarah explained, had been an tea plantation manager in Assam, northern India. When China invaded in the 1960s, he went off to fight alongside the formidable Naga. As you do.

The spear’s shaft was covered in tufts of coarse fur. “We think it may be human hair,” said Sarah. Jake and Maisie looked positively gleeful at the notion.

At reception, treasures are given an initial appraisal and owners sent to join one of many other queues to see experts in particular fields — like glass, furniture, jewellery, clocks and the catch-all “miscellaneous”.

If an object is especially valuable, interesting, or has a quirky “back story”, the experts recommend it for filming. But with many thousands of artefacts to get through, they are selective.

Owners are told nothing about the piece until the cameras roll so their reaction to the big “reveal”, the moment they find that the vase Auntie Jean left them is priceless, or more likely worthless, is genuine.

In the “miscellaneous” queue I met Ross Wood with pals Georgia MacFarlane and Stacey Stewart. The three carry an impressive model of a sailing ship. Ross works for the YMCA in Perth and said it was donated to their charity shop.

He explained: “It looked too valuable to sell in the shop so we’ve been wondering what to do with it for the last few months.

“When we heard the Antiques Roadshow was in town we thought we might as well come along.”

The model’s named the Royal Caroline. It’s a wee bit tatty and covered in dust and cobwebs — so it’s got to be ancient.

Ross said: “We believe the previous owner paid about £400 for it quite a while ago.”

Unfortunately, the expert said it dates from the 1970s and is worth £150 at best.

Crestfallen Ross said: “He didn’t actually tell us it’s a glorified Airfix model, but his face said otherwise.”

At the militaria section I got chatting to Margaret Roy and daughter Holly Anthony. They had a display case crammed with medals and a portrait of a woman in an old-fashioned nurses’ outfit with the same gongs pinned to her chest.

“She’s my great aunt Catherine,” said Margaret. “She was such a lovely unassuming old lady who lived until 93. I didn’t find out about her past until she died.”

Catherine was a nurse in the First World War. Among her medals is one for bravery personally awarded by King George V after Catherine’s frontline hospital was bombed.

Another medal appears to have been given by the French in 1920 for Catherine’s efforts treating victims of the terrible flu pandemic which killed millions following the war.

Expert Bill Harriman was astounded by the collection.

“Are you sitting comfortably?” he asked after consulting his books. “These are worth perhaps £6,000 — it’s incredibly rare for a woman to be awarded such medals.”

Astonished, Margaret said: “Catherine was mentioned in despatches too. I don’t know what she did, but she must have been terribly brave.

“The medals are kept in the bank because they’re of such sentimental value — that’s definitely where they’ll be staying.”

One of the more valuable pieces of the day was a rare book owned by the Guildry Incorporation of Perth — which expert Justin Croft valued at a cool £100,000.

The Lockit Book dated from 1452 and lists every member of the association, which was the trading standards of days gone by, as well as the rules of the association.

Back at reception I found presenter Fiona Bruce. In between filming she likes to help out at the hub, greeting the public and pointing them to the right expert.

So has Fiona developed something of an expert eye over her five years on the show?

“Not at all,” she laughed. “If I’ve picked up anything it’s simply an interest in antiques. Any spare time I get, I’m rooting through junk shops or visiting auction houses.

“I’ve even started collecting needlework samplers. I reckon that working on this programme, you have to collect something!

“The best thing is you never know what’s going to come through the door. It’s fascinating.”

The most fascinating object Fiona had seen that day was a belt. “It was a stiff leather thong that teachers used to hit children with in Scottish schools,” she told me, utterly aghast.

Was it a Lochgelly tawse I ask?

“That’s it,” she said. “A tiny woman brought it in. She was a teacher in the ’60s and actually used it!”

I don’t get her enthusiasm. There must be thousands of belts kicking about. It’s not that long ago they were in use. They’re hardly antiques.

I ask if she ever got the belt at school. She looked at me as if I suggested she’s cruel to puppies for fun.

“I certainly did not,” said Fiona. “The very idea’s horrendous.”

We said our goodbyes and headed for the car. As I left, I bumped into the Sinclairs and their spear again.

It was valued at an impressive £800, mum says. Sadly the “human” hair probably belongs to a monkey.

“It’d take a DNA test to know for sure,” Sarah said with a smile. “The kids are a bit disappointed.”