Highland Bling

I am fairly sure I have not one drop of Scottish blood in my veins. It’s all Jewish, as far as I know. Had I been born in Aberdeen rather than Syracuse, New York, I would still consider myself a Jew and not a Scot, because we Jews have an inborn legitimate fear of getting kicked out of whatever country we’re in, and yes, I’m being paranoid. Nevertheless, I went through an ardent phase of collecting Scottish Victorian jewelry some years ago. I had romantic ideas about it, and I was in love with the hunt. This was before you could locate piles of the stuff with a Google search.

I’m talking specifically about ‘pebble’ jewelry—silver brooches set with stones native to Scotland: multicolored agate and granite, Cairngorm citrine (topaz from the Cairngorm mountains) and Sutherland amethyst. In traditional Highland dress, such brooches were used to pin your tartan wrap and matching kilt in place. (Until the mid-nineteenth century, tartan plaids were associated with specific regions rather than clans.) The brooch shown below and at the top of this post was my first purchase. The stones are glass, which often stood in for topaz and amethyst.

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Scottish Victorian silver brooch with inlaid agate and glass stones

I seriously doubt this brooch ever got near an actual Highlander’s tartan, authentic though it is. The wearing of tartans was banned in 1746, after the Jacobite rebellion was quashed at Culloden field. The Jacobites, as I’m sure you remember, fought to restore the British throne to the Scottish House of Stuart, but the German House of Hanover (in the person of the Duke of Cumberland, son of King George II) prevailed. The ban on tartans was lifted in 1782, at which point these woven plaid fabrics became the symbolic national dress of Scotland.

And then…Scotland got romanticized. In 1814, Walter Scott published Waverley, the first of his Scottish historical novels, about the Jacobite rebellion. He published it anonymously, because he was a famous poet and novels were considered an inferior form of literature. But his books became enormously popular. They were romantic tales with a subtext of resistance to tyranny in all its forms. One novel, Ivanhoe, is notable for its sympathetic portrayal of Jews.

King George IV was a huge fan of Scott’s novels, and in 1822, he paid a ceremonial visit to Scotland, stage-managed by Scott. The King decked himself out in a Royal Stuart tartan kilt, and British monarchs ever after, Germans though they were, became suckers for Scotland. Queen Victoria bought Balmoral castle there in 1847. It’s still a favorite royal retreat.

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My next acquisition: a Scottish Victorian brooch set with real citrines and amethysts

Victoria wore tartans. She gave Highland plaids and kilts as gifts. And of course there had to be brooches to secure these garments. A jewelry industry was born. (Read more about this here.) Around this time, railway service expanded throughout Scotland, drawing multitudes of tourists who wanted pebble jewelry as souvenirs. Demand was so high that English jewelers began producing their own ‘Scottish’ jewelry with stones from far-flung sources. There’s a ton of it on the market—not just brooches, but bracelets, lockets, necklaces and earrings, all intricately inlaid.

I bought my pebble jewelry from a dealer couple who used to have a booth at the holiday markets at Grand Central Terminal in New York. They’ve since dissolved their marriage and their business, and I miss them. They had beautiful things. The last Scottish piece they sold me was the bracelet below, which, unusually, is gold—possibly 15 karat, though like most pebble jewelry, it’s unmarked.

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Scottish Victorian gold bracelet with Cairngorm citrines and inlaid agate

When I acquired these pieces, twenty years ago now, I didn’t realize I was buying tourist jewelry—Scottish baubles for non-Scots. I knew only that I felt a connection to one particular Scotswoman, who probably never wore any of this stuff, though at the time I thought she might have. She was an Edinburgh-born contralto named Ann Drummond-Grant, who sang with the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company in the 1950s. The D’Oyly Carte, of course, were the performers of Gilbert and Sullivan for over a century. Ann Drummond-Grant had a profound influence on my life. (I’m working on a memoir about this.)

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Ann Drummond-Grant as Ruth in The Pirates of Penzance. The pin is part of her costume.

But the D’Oyly Carte was a touring company, on the road 48 weeks a year, and its members didn’t travel with much jewelry. She seems to have worn little of it offstage.

I stopped buying pebble jewelry because, much as I like it, I can’t figure out how to wear it, especially those brooches. They belong on the lapel of a jacket, but I can’t make them sit right. I own a Scottish tweed jacket, but it makes me look chunky, and adding a brooch makes me look chunkier. I could pin a pebble brooch to a hat—if I wore hats. Still, I love to look at pebble jewelry online, where it’s available at every price.

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Enameled silver brooch set with Cairngorms, for sale on Etsy. I admire it. I’m not buying it.

When I see a piece I fancy, like the one at right, I force myself to imagine it sitting unworn in my jewelry box. That stops me from buying.

Besides, I’ve discovered that my Scottish connection runs deeper than jewelry. A number of my poems have been published in Scotland. I have poet friends there, people I cherish and admire: Helena Nelson at HappenStance Press, and Gerry Cambridge at The Dark Horse Magazine. If you’re interested in good poems, you should know them.

I’ve visited Scotland three times now, and plan to return. The place is beautiful in a specifically Scottish way, yet it feels strangely familiar to a girl from Syracuse. The Scottish landscape, with its rounded hills and long glacial lakes, reminds me of Central New York; Loch Ness was clawed into being by the same geologic forces as the Finger Lakes I grew up with. In a literal, physical way, Scotland feels like home.

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My third Scottish Victorian brooch, inlaid with agate. I couldn’t resist it—and I still don’t know how to wear it.

4 thoughts on “Highland Bling

  1. Aha! I had no idea you had this Scottish stuff. But the final brooch – the one with the agate — would look rather good on a jacket I have, were the jacket not falling into disrepair. I love these brooches! Come back to Scotland and bring them with you!

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