Highland Brooches, pp.288-292.

[Scottish National Memorials Contents]

   From a very early period brooches of Celtic design, made in gold, silver, and brass, have been found, which have emanated from the Western Highlands of Scotland. The manufacture of the very earliest examples of these – such as the Tara and Hunterston brooches – has been ascribed to the Ceards, the peculiar beauty and power of whose work lay principally in the skill with which they designed and fabricated marvellous ornamental panels of filigree and carved panels from the solid metal. 

   The two Celtic brooches (Figs. 200 and 201, p. 291), which were both discovered in Perthshire, are characteristic examples of the best work of those artificers. 

   On the earliest specimens of these brooches it was not customary to have any inscription or lettering engraved. But on the Hunterston brooch what is supposed to be the name of the owner has been scratched in Runic characters, apparently by other hands than those that made the brooch. 

   In mediaeval times it was quite common to introduce some Latin prayer. often talismanic in its purport. On some brooches of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries such words as ‘JESUS • NAZARENUS • REX • JUDÆORUM’; or

will be found: while the favourite Latin prayer

will be met with not only on brooches, but on seals, signets, and monumental brasses. 

   It is curious to trace the history of these Latin inscriptions. As the knowledge of Latin declined they became more barbarous and unintelligible, until at length they assumed the form of an ornament resembling a black letter with a sufficient number of body strokes to fill the panel. 

   The Ceard, it may be explained, was an artificer, probably self-taught, who could work in many materials, – who could carve in stone, work in metal, and probably illumine on vellum. Indeed Dr. Joseph Anderson has advanced the theory, which is now generally accepted, that the intricate interlaced patterns were first elaborated on the manuscripts before they were carried out in metal. By training, the Ceard was far removed from the ordinary craftsman, and in social status he was much above that class. He may be said to have been the representative of the fine arts in the district in which he lived.1 

   The Highland ceard has continued from early times down to the present, and even yet some representatives of these ancient artificers may be found in several outlying portions of the Highlands. But the skill of the ceards has not proved hereditary, and it has markedly grown less and less as the centuries rolled on, till now their work is immeasurably removed from that of their ancient predecessors. 

   The art of engraving, of being able to use certain tools, and of fabricating certain articles, formed part of a liberal education in the twelfth and fourteenth centuries and onward. 

   We find Kali, who afterwards became Earl of Orkney, in the twelfth century, thus describing his accomplishments:- ‘I can engrave runic letters; I can use the tools of the smith.’ But the acquisition of such arts was not confined to the educated. In Martin’s Description of the Western Islands of Scotland, published in 1716, there are many notes commenting upon ‘the mechanical genius and quickness of apprehension’ of the Highlanders, which he describes as being superior to that of any other country. He particularly refers to their dexterity in engraving trees, birds, deer, dogs, etc., upon bone, horn, or wood, without any other tool than a sharp-pointed knife. In describing the dress, he also mentions the buckles of silver or brass, ‘curiously engraven with various animals,’ and frequently set with crystals or other stones. 

   The Rev. John Lanne Buchanan, in his Travels in the Western Hebrides, 1782-1790 (London: 1793, 8vo) remarks ‘that the common people are wonderfully ingenious… They make hooks for fishing, cast-metal buckles, brooches, and rings for their favourite females.’ 

   An examination of many of these brooches, dating from early times down to last century, apart from all historical references, leads to the conclusion that they are the work of men to whom it was an accomplishment, or one of many accomplishments, rather than a trade. 

   One prominent feature of these brooches which suggests this inference is, that the constructive ability is small as contrasted with the taste in decoration. The silver brooches are usually cut simply from a piece of silver, which has been cast in a skellet and hammered out to the required thickness. The brass brooches, again, are frequently more peculiar in their construction. The metal is often made to overlap at the point where the pivot, on which the tongue works, is formed. In all probability this was done to increase the thickness and strength where the tear and wear was undoubtedly greatest, and possibly because the artificer had not proper appliances to forge a sheet of brass of sufficient size from which to pierce it. The object could have been attained much more easily by hard soldering on a joint pin; but it is noteworthy that the application of hard solder was usually avoided, and even the openings in the tongues are not soldered. Now soldering, which to a trained craftsman is comparatively simple, is both difficult and dangerous to one unaccustomed to it. Failure means irreparable injury, for the least error of judgment in overheating may result in the fusion of the work. These ancient artificers evidently feared this difficulty, and an examination of their work will show that they invariably avoided it, and riveted rather than soldered. 

   Again, the manner in which they formed their ornament is noteworthy. For raised decoration, they formed it of wire and laid it on. This is a laborious, but comparatively simple process. A Nuremberg goldsmith would have accomplished it by embossing. 

   For flat ornamentation they engraved, and the result reveals the potentiality of the artist but the weakness of the artificer. Sometimes they inlaid it as well, both in the silver and in the brass brooches. The art of inlaying with niello is not so difficult as would at first sight appear. Niello might be described as a kind of metallic enamel. It is composed of silver, copper, lead, and sulphur. When prepared it was pounded down and stored in goose quills. It was applied much in the same way as modern enamel, but it does not seem to have required the same intense heat to cause it to liquefy. It is an art that could be learned by an amateur more easily than that of enamelling. 

   There are two features in work produced under these conditions that we should expect to find, and we find them:- 

   The first is, that the different specimens of work would be manifestly unequal, – everything would depend upon the skill of each individual artificer. After the establishment of the goldsmiths under the hammermen’s corporations in Glasgow and Inverness – the two burghs lying as it were on the outer fringe of the Highlands – many brooches (of which No. 1415 is an example) are to be found bearing the Hall-marks of these towns, and the uniformity of the work both in design and in technical skill is very marked. The conditions, of course, under which the trade was learned tended to produce this, and at the same time it brought about a great depreciation in the artistic designs of the earlier brooches. Little difficulty will be found in distinguishing the productions of the self-taught artificers of the Highlands from those of the craftsmen of the burghs. 

   The second feature is, that we should expect that men who made such brooches would make many other articles besides. An examination of the engraving on many of the brooches suggests this. Some of those in brass appear specially to be the work of men who could carve as well as engrave. The deep lines often appear to have been chiselled with hammer and graver, rather than to have been cut with the hand. 

   Mr. John Lanne Buchanan remarks that ‘it is very common to find men who are taylors, shoe- makers, stocking-weavers, coopers, carpenters, and sawyers of timber. Some of them employ the plane, the saw, the adze, the wimble, and they even groove the deals for chests. They make hooks for fishing, cast metal brooches, and rings for their favourite females. They make nets of different kinds for fishing, with all the other tackle and necessary implements: some of them even make as well as mend their own boats. As for other implements, such as pIoughs. harrows, rakes, casschrom and cassdireach, necessary for husbandry, every man is more or less used to make them.’ Their ingenuity even went the length of making wooden locks upon the principle of the ancient Egyptian lock, which is developed in that now known as the Bramah lock. 

   One difficulty presents itself at once in dealing with articles produced under these conditions, and that is the almost insurmountable one of fixing the age of any articles emanating from these artificers. 

   Many causes have doubtless contributed to the origin and continuance for so long of these self-taught artists. A similar hereditary skill and persistency of decorative style is found among all isolated races, and the language of the Highlanders, as well as the inaccessibility of their country, rendered a variety of aptitudes almost a necessity. It is remarkable that although many of them migrated to our large towns, very few of their names, notwithstanding their inherited mechanical genius, are to be found on the rolls of our trade corporations. Down to the commencement of this century there only appear the names of four Highland families – although there were several members of some of them – in the roll of the Edinburgh Incorporation of Goldsmiths. [A. J. S. B.] 

   With the exception of the two brooches illustrated, the series here enumerated is representative rather of the necessities of old Highland apparel than illustrative of Celtic art. In the attire of both men and women in the Highlands the brooch or some similar skewer was an essential feature. In the case of the men it was equally required for securing the ancient breacan-feile or belted plaid, and for fastening the separate plaid when the modern kilt and plaid were introduced early in the eighteenth century. Similarly, the plaid fastened with a brooch formed an unvarying article of clothing of Highland women, having been worn over the shoulders, and in stormy weather drawn over the head and secured at the neck. The poorer classes fashioned their own brooches out of such bits of metal as were available, and these, as may be seen by the modern examples from St. Kilda, were of a rude and primitive character. At best they were flattened rings of brass or copper, characteristically engraved; but the simplest consisted of stout wire bent into a ring-shape, on which the pin was passed by an eye-hole, and the ends were then beaten out or otherwise treated, to keep the pin from coming off. This bent wire, with expanded ends, was the origin of the characteristic Celtic form of penannular brooch with expanded ends. 

   TWO CELTIC BROOCHES. These highly characteristic ancient Celtic brooches are said to have been discovered in Perthshire. They are both of silver, penannular in form, and have the usual flattened expansions found in Celtic brooches. The terminations of the first (see Fig. 200) are in the form of circular discs, with raised ornaments on their rims, consisting of three animal heads. On the discs are three concentric rings, the interspaces being filled with thin gold plates, ornamented with filigree interlaced work, and plates of gold similarly ornamented occupy the semicircular panels at the junction of the discs with the ring of the brooch. The ornamentation of the second brooch, which is entirely of silver (see Fig. 201), consists of rings and panels filled with chased interlacing, radiating and dotted patterns. They are both figured and described in the Proc. Soc. Ant. Scot., vol. ii., New Series, pp. 450, 451; and in Dr. Anderson’s Scotland in Early Christian Times, Second Series, pp. 20-22. 

(1411) Lent by ANDREW HEITON. 

   SILVER SHOULDER-BROOCH, of Celtic design, 3 ¾ inches in diameter. There is engraved on the back DM • K•F. It bears the Inverness Hall-mark and the name punch of Charles Jamieson who was a goldsmith in Inverness from about 1780 till the commencement of this century. [A. J. S. B.] 

(1415) Lent by the MARQUIS OF BREADALBANE. 

   CASE CONTAINING THIRTY-ONE HIGHLAND BROOCHES. In this Collection there are six large brass brooches with engraved Celtic ornamentation, two silver annular brooches, one having niello ornament, and the remainder are heart-shaped Luckenbooth brooches variously treated, some being surmounted with a crown, and others set with rock crystal, garnets, etc. 

(1413) Lent by W. MURRAY THREIPLAND. 


(1407, 1409, 1408. 1410, 1406) Lent by J. MACNAUGHT CAMPBELL. 

   COPPER BROOCH, of very rude native manufacture, from St. Kilda. 

(1412) Lent by MRS. MOWBRAY. 

   A HIGHLAND BROOCH, of silver, engraved and ornamented with niello, inscribed ‘1756 . DG . M.McL-IC.’ 

(1414) Lent by the MARQUIS OF BREADALBANE. 

   BROOCH, found on the field of Harlaw. An annular brooch of brass, engraved with discs of Celtic ornamentation, and having the outer edge scolloped and pierced. 

(1417) Lent by ANDREW DAVIE. 

   TWO LARGE BROOCHES, of brass, with Celtic engraved ornament. 

(1418) Lent by ANDREW DAVIE. 

   THREE VERY LARGE CRYSTALS of Cairngorm. Cairngorms are translucent crystals of quartz of a warm brown topaz-like colour. The name is given to the Scotch Stones found principally in the Cairngorm group of hills, which divide the counties of Inverness, Aberdeen, and Banff. They are used for characteristic Highland jewellery and ornaments. 


   TWO SCOTCH BISHOPS’ SIGNETS, one silver and one steel. 

(1421) Lent by W. MURRAY THREIPLAND. 

   GLASS SIGNET, probably that of James, Earl of Montrose, previous to the creation of his Marquisate in 1644. It has the initials I.E.M. and the Montrose Arms, on a shield, quarterly; first and fourth, three escallop shells for Graham; second and third, three roses for Montrose. 

(1435) Lent by the DUKE OF MONTROSE. 

1  See also Journal of the Royal Hist. and Archæological Association of Ireland, April – July 1889, pp. 98-99; and Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society, vol. i. pp. 303, 355, 356 (Edinburgh: printed for the Society by T. & A. Constable). 

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