Not a member?
Register and login now.

Issue 17 - Time to get precious

Scotland Magazine Issue 17
November 2004


This article is 13 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

Copyright Scotland Magazine © 1999-2018. All rights reserved. To use or reproduce part or all of this article please contact us for details of how you can do so legally.

Time to get precious

Alistir Wood Tait talks about gemmology as if it's the new rock'n'roll. Here he provides a guide to Scotland's rarest stones

When the average High Street dealer mentions the setting of a precious stone he means how it is mounted on silver or gold. To Alistir, ‘setting’ is just as likely to refer to the precarious and windswept mountainside where he chipped it from the granite.

Rare among jewellers, he has regularly waded into freezing waters to pan for gold, taken to the mountains to cut quartz from the rock, or scoured bleak, rocky beaches for rubies. He understands the backbreaking work involved – and the giddy rewards for success.

What started as a boyhood fascination for collecting unusual rocks has blossomed into twin passions – on one hand Alistir is an accomplished mineralogist and lapidary, on the other he is one of the country’s leading experts on antique and fine Scottish jewellery.

It is fair to say that when he sees the distinctive outline of Scotland, it is like looking at a treasure map, one that is criss-crossed with X-marks, noting the spots where gemstones are literally waiting to be dug up.

As both a Fellow of the Gemmological Association of Great Britain and a member of the Society of Jewellery Historians, no-one is better placed than Alistir to provide a fascinating tour of ‘Precious Scotland.’

SAPPHIRES are among the rarest of all Scottish gemstones and can be found in just one location on the Isle of Harris.

The scarcity of the stones, and therefore their value, has increased because the area where they are found has been protected since it was designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) in 1990.

AGATES can be found at various locations, but most notably in parts of Angus (Montrose and Monifieth) and Ayrshire (Dunure and Galston).
Sometimes they can be found loose on beaches or in farmer’s fields, or they can be hammered out of rocks.

Alistir says: “It’s only when you saw them in half that you see what’s inside – perhaps crystal or banded agate. They are 350 million years old and you are the first person ever to see them. It really is thrilling.”

Agate comes in a range of colours and reached the peak of its popularity in Scottish ‘pebble jewellery’ when the polished stones adorned everything from pendants and cufflinks to skean dhus and snuff mulls.

Alistir explains: “The best place to find agates is around Montrose – in fact the most famous spot was known as ‘The Blue Hole’ and produced fantastic stones, many of which are on display in the National Museum of Scotland. It really did produce some big, magnificent, deep blue and
faultless agates.

“Unfortunately the original location is now lost and nobody knows where it actually is. That is the way these things happen, there must have been a break in continuity of collecting and people who maybe did know where it is just wouldn’t say. There is a great-deal of secrecy in this field. For obvious reasons people will jealously guard any location where they make such finds.“

CAIRNGORM AND MORION are ancient Celtic names for the coloured quartz found in Scotland’s mountains regions, most notably around Loch Tay, Perthshire.

Cairngorm is a smoky, yellow-brown colour and similar types found in other parts of the world are known as Citrines, because of their lemon-yellow transparent colour. Morion is found in a natural, opaque, black form.

Alistir says: “Cairngorm is an absolute mainstay of Scottish pebble jewellery. Morion is less well known.

“Because of the way the crystals are formed they can be treated to change the colour, but one of the best and most unique things about Scottish cairngorm is that they are all completely natural. In jewellery you are getting exactly the same colour that comes out of the rocks.

“Cairngorm was very popular in Scottish pebble brooches. These days there are still a handful of people who collect it and make a living selling it onto collectors or specialist jewellers like me. However the examples found these days tend to be relatively small.”

Crudely polished and finished quartz crystal was considered a talisman and many of the ancient Highland clans believed it to have magic healing qualities. Even today’s New Age devotees prize them for use in crystal therapies and treatments.

ELIE RUBIES are found exclusively at a beauty spot in the Kingdom of Fife which has earned the nickname, Ruby Bay.

In truth the name ruby is actually a misnomer, since these Scottish stones are actually garnets – known by the mineral name Pyrope – which have a distinctive, but unusual deep red colouring.

Alistir says: “What’s unique about them is that they are coloured by chromium, which is most unusual and gives them the transparent, ruby red colour. Most garnets are coloured by iron, which makes them a purple hue.

“These stones are best found after the winter has done its work and the spring tides turn over the loose gravel at Elie Ness, which is actually nicknamed Ruby Bay. Then they can be found by searching over the black, basalt rock.”

Marble may seem an unlikely stone to be used in jewellery and in truth is usually considered an ornamental stone, usually used in the making of larger ornaments.

However, both IONA MARBLE from the Western Isles and SHETLAND SERPENTINE MARBLE are much sought after.

The pale green Iona marble was used to make the font at historic Iona Abbey. However, smaller pieces can be beautifully polished, and have also proved popular, particularly in Scottish pebble jewellery.

Alistir says: “The Iona marble is very attractive and of course it has the most romantic connotations especially for people who want things made up which are truly Scottish.”

Shetland serpentine marble has also proved popular down the years in Scottish jewellery and comes in red-brown or mottled green colours.

STRATHBLANE JASPER is one of the few precious substance truly unique to Scotland – so much so that when the Queen visited the 1986 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, she was presented with a special baton, decorated with stones of jasper.

Alistir explains why the Jasper found in the hills known as the Campsie Fells is so different from the Japser found elsewhere: “This is a red or yellow, opaque material and what’s unique about the Scottish variation is that you get variegated pieces with both the red and yellow colours together. You don’t get that anywhere else.

The best location to find the stone is at Strathblane and is well-known to enthusiasts like Alistir, because once they have visited themselves it is easy to visualise the route of the rich seam through the hills.

Alistir adds: “It is pretty well known, because it is quite dramatic – like a vein of Jasper runs right through the hillside.

“The best time to go looking is after the winter when all the frost and bad weather has broken the rock and turned over all the scree. If you get out on a wet day it makes them look shiny and glassy.”

One of the prettiest precious stones to be hewn from the rocks is AMETHYST. Even before it is cut and polished the miniature, pale purple peaks of the crystal are dazzling.

It can be found in Kirkcudbrightshire, where enthusiasts chisel it from the granite.

Alistir says: “This is quartz similar to Cairngorm the crystals are a very pretty, pale purple colour when it is chipped out of the granite. “When it is cut and polished the stones are really quite small, so they lend themselves perfectly to making rings or small brooches.”

Rare Scottish PEARLS have been much sought after since Roman times – boasting a quality of colour and lustre which matches and even surpasses that of fine oriental pearls.

Alistir says: “Despite its beauty, the Scottish pearl comes from a rather drab-looking freshwater mussel – the kind you used to see washed up on the river banks after bad flooding. “It lives in pure, unpolluted and fast-flowing rivers of Northern Europe – including the Tay, Spey and other Highland rivers. If allowed to lie undisturbed mussels can live 100 years, growing several inches long.

“However, its habitat has been destroyed in many areas and now even the Scottish mussel is a protected species and it is an offence to destroy it or collect its pearls.”

Perhaps Alistir’s most important recent acquisition is the 13 ounces of SCOTTISH GOLD which he bought from a prospector who collected it over 10 years.

He was one of the few, hardy enthusiast who still search Scotland’s rivers and streams for tiny flakes of gold, particularly around Leadhills and Wanlockhead, Dumfries and Galloway.

However, after panning every viable gold river in Scotland, he decided to find a new hobby and put up his collection of gold flakes for sale – a move virtually unheard of among panners.

Scottish gold is among the purest in the world, however, it is so scarce these days that it is now one of the most expensive precious metals – easily fetching five times the price of normal gold.

Ominously-named Bloodstones can still be found on Rhum, in the Western Isles and Alistir said: “They come from Bloodstone Hill on the island and get there name from the deep red, blood-like flecks through the green stone.

“Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be too much of the red around these days, instead what you see mostly is the mottled green variety. In fact, jewellers and other experts often jokingly refer to it as plasma stone.“