A rare High­land brooch

The Oban Times - - News - Iain Thorn­ber iain.thorn­ber@bt­in­ter­net.com

LAST week I re­ferred to the Rev Alexan­der Ste­wart, the Church of Scot­land min­is­ter of Bal­lachul­ish who col­lected in­for­ma­tion on the nat­u­ral his­tory, leg­ends and folk-lore of the West High­lands which, with­out his in­ter­est and fore­sight, would have been lost.

Scot­land owes an­other debt to this man for en­sur­ing that one of the High­lands most beau­ti­ful and valu­able 500-year-old ob­jects found its way into the Mu­seum of An­tiq­ui­ties in Ed­in­burgh, now called the Na­tional Mu­seum of Scot­land, from a most un­likely place.

In Oc­to­ber 1881, an Ap­pin shep­herd was tak­ing a breather a few yards be­low the sum­mit of Beinn a’ Bhei­thir (Gaelic, the moun­tain of the thun­der­bolt), a 2,500ft hill above Bal­lachul­ish on the south side of Loch Leven, when idly pok­ing into the moss be­side him with his cro­mach, he turned up the shoul­der brooch shown in the ac­com­pa­ny­ing draw­ing.

The brooch, of solid sil­ver, mea­sures three and a half inches in di­am­e­ter and would have been at­tached to a cloak or outer gar­ment by a pin, or tongue, which is miss­ing prob­a­bly be­cause it was of iron, bronze or sil­ver gilt which would have rusted away.

The brooch, how­ever, is as fresh and strik­ing as it must have been on the day when it was lost or hid­den where it was found. It is en­graved, on one side only, and shows strange beasts and or­na­men­ta­tion typ­i­cal of the pe­riod but in the high­est style of me­dieval Celtic art.

Ev­i­dently the name­less shep­herd who, on know­ing of Mr Ste­wart’s in­ter­est in such ob­jects, must have taken it to him for an opin­ion and was per­suaded to sell it to the Edi n - burgh mus eum. It was greatly ad­mired lo­cally and cre­ated a good deal of spec­u­la­tion at the time. Whom had it be­longed to and how did it come to be on the top of a re­mote hill in Ap­pin where it was re­cov­ered?

We will never know but Nether Lochaber of­fered some thought­ful opin­ions. ‘We know that Ap­pin was at one time so fa­mous for its stags and wild-fowl, that two at least of the Stu­art kings, James IV and James V, fre­quently vis­ited Dun­can Ste­wart, the chief of the clan in his strong­hold of Cas­tle Stalker, for the pur­pose of hunt­ing and hawk­ing. We may eas­ily fancy a hunt­ing party, con­sist­ing of James IV and a score of favourite gen­tle­men, at­tended by the Chief of Ap­pin, fol­low­ing the stag in Glen Duror and Glen-a-Chao­lais, and the brooch be­ing

dropped or lost, as in the evening the party were cross­ing the moun­tains home­wards to Cas­tle Stalker. The Chief of Ap­pin him­self may have lost the brooch; for it is an ar­ti­cle not likely to have be­longed to any­one of meaner birth, or, for that mat­ter of it, may not this beau­ti­ful brooch have adorned the royal shoul­der of the king him­self?’

Per­haps this rare arte­fact will one day be repa­tri­ated to Lochaber where it rightly be­longs – in the same way as the com­plete set of Lewis chess­men should rest in Stornoway. The trustees of the West High­land Mu­seum in Fort William, should act to ac­quire what is now known as the Ben­vare Brooch ei­ther per­ma­nently or on loan for an ex­tended pe­riod.

If the Rev Alexan­der Ste­wart had been alive to­day, I feel sure he would have been fas­ci­nated by a small group of Cor­ran Ferry users who, un­like the usual daily com­muters, have taken up res­i­dence aboard for a few weeks. I am re­fer­ring to sev­eral pairs of black guille­mots who have not only been hitch­ing a lift across the Nar­rows and hop­ping off mid­stream when it takes their fancy dur­ing op­er­at­ing hours, but have ac­tu­ally nested aboard.

It all be­gan some years ago when a small colony of these at­trac­tive black and white birds de­cided the re­in­stated old Ard­gour Es­tate pier ad­ja­cent to the slip­way and which acts as a wind­break for the ferry ten­der, would make an ideal home dur­ing the nest­ing sea­son. Bored, per­haps, wait­ing for their sit­ting part­ners to pro­duce young, the males be­gan fly­ing to and from the ferry in the evening un­til, even­tu­ally, throw­ing cau­tion to the wind or tak­ing a shine to the ferry crew, be­gan alight­ing on the mov­ing car deck and up­per struc­ture where some of their part­ners, not to be out­done, elected to lay their eggs un­der some pieces of equip­ment pre­fer­ring a bare deck to a nest.

The black guille­mot be­longs to the auk fam­ily and in many ways dif­fers from the com­mon species and is not so widely dis­trib­uted. It is con­tained to Scot­land, the north­ern half of Ire­land, the Isle of Man and the Scot­tish is­lands. The birds are usu­ally black all over ex­cept for a broad white bar across the wing. In win­ter, how­ever, it is white, with black patches and on the wings. It lays two eggs and prefers to lie on them in­stead of stand­ing over them and prob­a­bly eats more crus­taceans than fish. Un­like most other divers, it is said to use its feet when swim­ming un­der water and not its wings.

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