A gold and Scottish river pearl Celtic Cross marked Kildonan, probably made in the workshop of the Edinburgh goldsmith, Peter Westren, circa 1869, who advertised such crosses for sale. The brooch commemorates St. Donan who founded the kirk at Kildonan in the 7th century on a tributary to the Helmsdale River in Sutherland. Mined for only one year using the Australian system of a Digger’s Licence, in this case issued by the landowner, the Duke of Sutherland. The Celtic triquetra endless knot decoration to the pendant is found on Scottish 8th century Pictish stones1 and the Book of Kells, produced in the late 8th century or early 9th century in a Columban monastery in either Ireland, Scotland or England. This continues an ancient lineage of decoration understood by this ducal family who collected Pictish stones for their private museum at Dunrobin. Collection Robyn Hawkins.

St. John from the Book of Kells, with Irish triquetra endless knot decoration in manuscript form, as created circa 800 AD.
Collection Trinity College, Dublin.

The discovery of Kildonan gold is recorded in well-illustrated detail by Ron Callander: Robert Nelson Gilchrist (1821-1877) A Scottish ‘Hargraves. What is not recorded is the history behind a small group of gold jewels made from the gold discovered by Gilchrist. St. Ninian, St. Finian, and St. Donnan in the east and St. Columba in the west were trying to convert the resident Pagan Teutonic Picts to Christianity. It is calculated that St. Donnan entered Scotland about the year 580 AD, accompanied by a much larger band of disciples than the twelve who had accompanied St. Columba to Iona. This is confirmed by the churches of St. Donnan named after him in Caithness, Ross and Inverness-shire. The kirk in Sutherland at Kildonan (the ‘kil’ prefix means church in Gaelic) is where:

The parish suffered grievously during the Clearances, Kildonan church has been a great centre of Irish missionary zeal; witnessed the plundering march of heathen Teutons; been cherished by the royal Abbey of Scone, less ancient than itself; and been deprived of its congregation by a heritor more interested in sheep than men.2

The pagan Celts accepted the Irish Christian missionaries even when they did not always accept their religion, hence Pagan and Christian symbols are found side by side on Pictish standing stones along the north-east coast of Scotland. A weathered natural carved triquetra stone that is much decayed remains at Kildonan.

The Book of Kells, now in Trinity College, Dublin, is probably the defining source of Irish triquetra endless knot decoration used to decorate Dublin-made Irish jewels from the middle of the 19th century, particularly by Edmund Johnson and his brother, Joseph Johnson Jun.3

The Class II Kirkyard Stone of circa 800AD, one of five standing stones in Aberlemno parish. This well-known group provided Christian stone crosses for Scottish jewellers to copy in the 19th century, one side using Celtic triquetra endless knot decoration. 4

The 9th century Ogham Brooch from Ballyspellan, Co. Kilkenny, in the Collection of the National Museum of Ireland, engraved with Celtic triquetra endless knot designs as found in the late 8th century Book of Kells, which, from the 17th century, has been at Trinity College Dublin. A copy of this brooch by Edmund Johnson was bought in Dublin in August 1849 by Prince Albert and given to Queen Victoria for Christmas; the Queen later designated it an Heirloom of the Crown, hence it remains in the Royal Collection. The cabochon garnets to the royal brooch are a 19th century enrichment, the original shown here having silver beads.

Donnan and his fellow monks finally settled on the island of Eigg, resulting in his martyrdom by a Pictish Queen when he and fifty-two of his followers were butchered within the refectory of the island monastery, leading to his sainthood.

This would suggest that this ducal family commissioned objects made of local gold as gifts to their friends. The Dunrobin Museum is in a garden pavilion, the front part of which was built in 1732 as a summerhouse, the back being an addition of 1878 which created a museum for the family collection of Pictish stones. This outstanding collection includes almost all those stones found on the narrow, fertile strip of land of the north-east coast of the Sutherland estates.

Aberdeen jewellery was generally of minimalist design with little, if any, engraving and featured salmon pink and grey granite. The best known Aberdeen jewellers were M. Rettie and Sons. The Edinburgh goldsmiths, G&M Crichton, excelled at plaid brooches in silver decorated with citrines and amethysts. Other notable Edinburgh jewellers include McKay and Cunningham, Marshall and Sons and Meyer and Mortimer. The key firms making Kildonan gold jewels were James Muirhead and Sons, Glasgow, Peter MacGregor Westren, 103 Princes Street, Edinburgh, and F.G. Wilson of Inverness.

A brooch made from Kildonan Scottish gold and freshwater pearls, the central citrine or ‘cairngorm’ is associated with the Cairngorm mountains. The authenticity of the triquetra decoration has been forgotten, suggesting a non-ducal commission. Engraved ‘MUIRHEAD & SONS / SUTHERLAND GOLD’.5

Gold was found in the banks of the Helmsdale, or Strath Kildonan, in 1868, by Mr Gilchrist, a native of Sutherlandshire, who had been a gold digger in Australia. The gold diggings were worked at Kildonan, with the approval and assistance of the Duke of Sutherland, for about four years with considerable success. Some heavy nuggets were discovered, the heaviest being valued at £l5. Specimens of Kildonan gold, in various forms, may be seen in the Dunrobin Museum. His Grace marked his sense of gratitude to Mr Gilchrist for having made the discovery by presenting him with a gold watch and chain, in presence of a number of gold diggers in Strath Helmsdale.

This gold watch was cased in Kildonan gold supplied by F G Wilson:
… jeweller Inverness. the well-known purchaser of the Sutherland gold, has in stock assortment of rings, brooches, earrings. scarf-pins. sleeve-links. studs, and other ornaments made of Kildonan gold, which is offered for sale at moderate prices.

Victorian nugget set locket, inscribed Kildonan, sold for £10,000, by Chorley’s Auctions UK.
A note with this lot reads: Locket made of gold from the Duke of Sutherland’s Mine at Kildonan (near Dunrobin) Sutherlandshire. Given to Louisa Blanche Howard (Mrs Cecil Foljambe) July 1869 by Charlotte Duchess of Norfolk [1788-1870] who was daughter of the 1st Duke of Sutherland and Elizabeth Countess of Sutherland.
The Celtic Cross model became standardised afte the raising of the Dean Ramsay cross in Edinburgh based on a cross from Iona. Completed in 1879 with bronze mounts by Elkington & Co., sculpted by Farmer and Brindley, and designed by Robert Rowand Anderson. The illustration of this important Scottish Celtic Cross Edinburgh jewel is courtesy The Antique Jewellery Company.6

2. Rev Archibald Black Scott, the Transactions of the Scottish Ecclesiological Society, in 1906, “St Donnan the Great, and his muinntir.”
3. Stratten and Stratten, Dublin, Cork and South of Ireland, pp. 99-100
5. National Gallery Scotland

John Hawkins will be exhibiting at the
AAADA Antiques & Art Fair Sydney
1-3 September 2023
The Great Hall – University of Sydney
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