Metal detectorist unearths rare medieval knife near Penicuik

Scottish history enthusiast and metal detectorist Craig Johnstone had worked out that woods near Penicuik were probably an escape route from a 1666 battle and he went to see what he could find.

Monday, 30th November 2020, 7:00 am
Updated Tuesday, 1st December 2020, 11:00 am

But after coming across some musket balls which confirmed his theory, he unearthed something which turned out to be much older and unusual - a small, highly-decorated knife and scabbard which has been dated between 1191 and 1273.

"When I found the knife it was covered in mud," he said. "The knife was stuck inside the scabbard and I thought it was the top of a railing someone had cut off.

"I showed it to a couple of people and one of my friends worked for Midlothian council - he took it in to their archaeologist and straight away she knew it was a knife.

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The knife and its scabbard have been dated to between 1191 and 1273

“She advised us to heat it up slowly so we put it in the oven at a really low heat with the door open. It was a pure Excalibur moment for me when I pulled out the handle and there was a blade."

There were also two pieces of leather inside the scabbard to protect the knife.

Mr Johnstone, who lives in Penicuik and has his own data communications business, took his find from Deanburn woods to an independent expert in Edinburgh. "He knew it was from the medieval period, but he didn't realise how early it was - he thought maybe 16th century.

"After that I realised I had better report it to Treasure Trove - but they dismissed it as a 'relatively modern item'."

The knife is highly decorated and could have belonged to a nobleman

Undeterred, he paid to have it carbon-dated privately and was told it could be over 800 years old, originating between 1191 and 1273.

"I wasn't expecting it to come back with such an early date."

He passed the carbon-dating details to Treasure Trove and the knife is due to be considered by the Scottish Archaeological Finds Allocation Panel.

Mr Johnstone said the knife was about the same size as a skean dhu. "The blade is only about three inches and it's a high-grade, hollow-ground blade.

Craig Johnstone had only been metal-detecting for six months when he found the knife

"It's a very highly decorated item for its time. The blade would have had silver leaf on it, the handle is bronze would have been covered in gold.

“It would have belonged to a nobleman or someone of some substance.

“This is an important item. There's never been one found before that's as early as this.”

Mr Johnstone had only been metal-detecting for about six months when he made his discovery. He has since found a bronze age spearhead which has been dated around 1500 BC and he received £200 for it.

The scabbard, knife and leather insert were unearthed at Deanburn woods, Penicuik

But he says: “None of this is about the money or how much these things are worth. It’s about Scottish history and the knife getting the recognition it deserves.”

A Treasure Trove spokeswoman said: “This is a highly unusual object, comprising of a blade with a hilt and a metal scabbard with leather inside. While the leather and blade date from the medieval period, the hilt and scabbard are unusual for the period.

“Treasure Trove are still carrying out investigations into the object. It was due to be x-rayed as part of the investigation process, but this has unfortunately been delayed due to Covid-19 restrictions.”

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