Edinburgh PR agency helps gemmologist provide definitive treasure map of Scotland’s natural resources
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Holyrood PR is an award winning PR agency in Edinburgh, Scotland and worked with jeweller Alistir Wood Tait to produce a guide to the parts of the country where native precious stones and precious metals can be found. This post has been one of the most visited on our website every year since 2004. Contact us to find out how we can bring many benefits to your business.
ALISTIR Wood Tait talks about gemmology as if it’s the new rock’n’roll and it’s a passion which sets him as far apart from other jewellers as a pebble from a finely cut diamond.
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.
Those Indiana Jones-style exertions make him unique among Scottish 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.
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.
So he boasts a real insight into exactly why Scotland has such a rich jewellery heritage and 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 use his unrivalled knowledge to produce a map of “Precious Scotland”.
SCOTTISH 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.
Those used in jewellery are normally 0.1 to 0.5 carats and Alistir has an excellent supply of the midnight blue stones which all predate the protection order which now prevents them being removed from the dyke at Cnoc a’Chapuill on the Isle of Harris, in the Outer Hebrides.
Alistir added: ”Scottish sapphires are even more special as they are not heat treated or enhanced in any other way, whereas sapphires found outside Scotland often have to be heat treated to bring out their dark blue colour.
“The fact that they have become protected means that they are no longer readily available. The stones I have obtained have been collected within the past 10 years and will be used to produce one-off design pieces.”
Sometimes they can be found loose on beaches or in farmer’s fields, or they can be hammered out of rocks.
Alistir said: 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.
It may not be on the same scale as the lost cities of the Incas, but Scotland even has its own enduring mystery for treasure hunters: a rich agate source which has vanished from all maps.
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 said: “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.
For instance, citrine essence is believed to help assists control the emotions and give a new sense of purpose to those who may feel they have lost their way in life. It is also believed to help improve the circulation.
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 said: “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. I have actually found a couple myself, thought of fairly poor quality.
“However, the chap I get mine from lives over there and has turned it into something of an art form. He really has an uncanny knack and almost seems to possess special eyesight when it comes to finding all the big ones.”
IONA MARBLE from the Western Isles and SHETLAND SERPENTINE MARBLE are much sought after for jewellery making purposes.
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 said: “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.
“Iona has a special resonance because of its links with St Columba and the beginnings of Christianity when it was at the very edge of civilisation. For many people that makes anything from Iona more than a wee bit special – not to mention that Iona Marble is very scarce.
“I still occasionally go with friends and you can still find the odd pebble of marble on the beach, but it is really quite rare now.
“Recently I made the most beautiful engagement ring for a couple using Iona marble. It was a broad and blocky and I cut out a cell recess, then sunk the piece of marble into it. It was a stunning and totally one-off piece.”
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 substances 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 Queen’s baton was set with Strathblane Jasper because it is truly, uniquely Scottish – it could not have come from anywhere else in the world.”
The best location to find the stone is at Strathblane and is well-known to enthusiastls like Alistir, because once they have visited themselves it is easy to visualise the route of the rich seam through the hills.
Alistir added: “It is pretty well known, because it is quite dramatic – 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.”
SCOTTISH AMETHYSTis one of the prettiest precious stones to be hewn from the rocks is.
Even before it is cut and polished the miniature, pale purple peaks of the crystal are dazzling. It can be found in Kirkcudbrightshire and Alistir said: “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.
The name amethyst is one of the most readily recognisable names of precious and semi-precious stones.
“In fact amethyst is also the birthstone for the month of February, which can be another deciding factor when someone is looking for the perfect Scottish gift.
“Historically amethyst was thought to be a ward against drunkenness and is also traditionally used to make bishop’s rings – though I don’t think the two are necessarily connected.”
SCOTTISH PEARLS are one of Scotland’s rarest commodities and 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 said: “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. 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.”
The moratorium on collection of pearls means they are becoming rarer by the day, however Alistir has a substantial selection, some already mounted on fine antique pieces, others awaiting the right commission.
Traditionally the mussels were fished during the summer months by gypsies, other travelling people and a small band of specialist, professionals.
They included Bill Abernethy, who became famous in his own right after finding Scotland’s biggest ever pearl, known as “Little Willie”.
Alistir added: “Scottish pearls are incredibly delicate and have to be treated with the utmost care. They should never be wrapped in cotton wool and must be protected from abrasion at all times particularly from other jewellery when kept in a jewellery box.”
SCOTTISH GOLD from Scotland’s streams and rivers has been sought for centures.
Perhaps Alistir’s most important acquisition was the 13 ounces which he bought in 2003. It was offered to him by a prospector who collected it over 10 gruelling years, but grew bored of his hobby and decided to find a new pastime.
Until that point 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.
Alistir was delighted with his haul, knowing only too well the effort which must have gone into collecting it and added: “It is cold, wet, miserable, finger-numbing work – I know, I used to pan myself.”
Scottish gold is among the purest in the world, however, it is so scarce it fetches five times the price of normal gold.
However, early Celtic tribes in Scotland possessed large quantities of gold and that men of high office wore large torque collars to signify their status. In 1511 King James IV raised the finance to prospect for gold at Crawfordmoor.
The search was so successful, the area became known as “God’s Treasure House in Scotland”.
Much of that was used to expand the Honours, Scotland’s crown jewels, which are among the oldest in Christendom. It was also used to mint many coins during the reigns of King James V and Mary Queen of Scots – more recently the silver mace presented to the new Scottish parliament by Queen Elizabeth was adorned with a ring of Scottish gold.
Alistir said: “It is an incredibly precious resource and as a Scottish jeweller I know just how fortunate I was when I was offered the chance to buy a not inconsiderable quantity.
“Only a small number of jewellers can offer one-off pieces made entirely from Scottish gold, which gives each item an incredible sentimental value. We expect a lot of interest from people who will love the prospect of owning something truly Scottish and unique.”
A wider range of our work on behalf of the renowned jeweller can be found at the Alistir Wood Tait Antique and Fine Jewellery dedicated PR Hub – where you will be ables to see a wealth of informaton, including a series of impressive PR photography galleries.
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