Stunning signet ring made from first mined Scottish gold enters national collection

It tells the story of the hills, of history – and the future of Scottish gold.

Sunday, 24th May 2020, 7:30 am
The signet ring made from Scottish gold that has now entered the national collection. PIC: Hamilton&Inches.
The signet ring made from Scottish gold that has now entered the national collection. PIC: Hamilton&Inches.

Now, a signet ring made from the first gold ever to be commerically mined in Scotland has been acquired by National Museum of Scotland to sit among its contemporary collections.

Made from 22- carat gold mined from the summit of Beinn Chuirn near Loch Lomond, the piece also carries a piece of the white quartz ‘mother rock’ from which the precious metal is extracted.

Tiny diamond complete the piece, which was designed by Maeve Gillies as part of a small collection for Edinburgh jewellers Hamilton & Inches, where the ring was made by goldsmith Chay McClory.

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Ms Gillies said: “It was a great honour to get a chance to design Scottish gold for the first time.

“I do really appreciate where it has come from, the single origin mine, and I wanted to see how I could put that story into one piece . This gold represents a point in time in Scotland.

“I also wanted to also reflect the elegance and regality of Hamilton and Inches and the history they have in craft in Scotland.”

Ms Gillies drew on the traditions of Scottish pebble jewellery made desirable by Queen Victoria and the jewellery collection of Mary Queen of Scots for inspiration, with a fleur-de-lis representing heraldic traditions.

Ms Gillies visited the mine at Glen Cononish as part of forming the designs for the collection said she was instantly drawn to the white rock that “looked like snow” on the mountain.

She said: “It’s a very beautiful raw material . As soon as I picked up this rock, I knew I wanted to work with it.

“With the signet ring, you always have this story and here the ring tells the story of the mine.The rock is set into the gold that come from the rock that is in the ring. The ring tells the story of the mine to the wearer in one piece.”

Scotgold Resources, which own the Cononish mine, believes there is up to five tonnes of the lucrative metal in the area's hills.

It started commercial production last year after 12 years of trying to get an abandoned mine up and running in an area where copper and zinc was extracted for many years.

Mr McClory said some of the pieces in the Hamilton and Inches collection had taken up to six weeks to make with two work tables in the jewellery workshop dedicated to Scottish gold pieces in a bid to stop any contamination with other metals.

He used a traditional cuttlefish mould to make the signet ring.

Mr McLory, whose father and son are also goldsmiths, said: “It’s 22 carat gold which is quite soft. You could probably dent your teeth in it, which is actually how they used to check gold in the past.

“The pieces have all come out very well. They took longer to make because it was a new material but they are very special. Whenever I go to a museum the first thing I look at is the jewellery so it means a great deal for me to have this in the museum. I will take my dad and son there to see it when I can.”

While gold has long been exploited in Scotland, it emerged as a by product of lead mining and extracted through panning in rivers and burns.

Scotland’s search for gold intensified under the reigns of James IV, V and VI at a time when a King’s value was based on the amount of gold found in his country.

And the precious metal was found in such abundance and at such high purity that “God’s Treasure House” was opened for business with a string of prospectors and goldsmiths arriving from across the Continent.

During the medieval era, the Lowther Hills, particularly around Wanlockhead in Dumfries Galloway and Leadhills in South Lanarkshire, became the particular focus of those granted leases to search for gold.

In 1526, a group of Germans working the mines at Crawford Moor in Lanarkshire extracted over £100,000 worth of gold in English money- worth the equivalent of £1bn today.

Some 350 years later, a mini gold rush was sparked around Helmsdale in Sutherland when gold started appearing in the Kildonan and Suisgill burns.

Today, it is hoped that the mine at Cononish signals a new chapter for Scottish gold.

It is claimed the mine at Cononish offered up significanty more more gold from each ton of ore than its bigger counterparts in Africa, Australia and North America.

Dr Sarah Laurenson, Curator of Modern and contemporary History, said: "This gold ring is an exciting addition to the national collection, one that links past and present by fusing Scotland's diverse geology with centuries of quality craftsmanship that continues to this day.

“It is also a rare object, in that we can trace its special story from Scotland’s first commercial gold mine in Cononish Glen, through to the hands of the craftsman at Hamilton & Inches, one of this country's oldest jewellery firms, and on to the glittering finished piece."

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