Saturday, 16 January 2016

Another Lost Treasure

I have previously mentioned a few treasures which were unearthed in Angus and appear to have vanished forever.  These include the priceless Bell of St Madden, a Celtic relic sold for a single penny in the 19th century and broken up, the unique bronze Pictish plaque found in the Hill of Laws, plus (maybe dubiously) the reputed Pictish crown which was recovered in the Den of Arbirlot.  It made me think of how many other mouth-watering hordes are lying in, around and under Angus, just waiting to be found?  Is there a more unlucky county in Scotland for historical heirlooms being lost?
   Searching for other fascinating historical artefacts which might be beneath our feet unfortunately proved to be a mainly fruitless venture.  Why are there no sunken galleons in the River Tay?  Didn’t Captain Kidd possibly come from Dundee, and if so, why didn’t he have the decency to stash a treasure chest or two nearby?  I know archaeology is more than the study of gold and jewels, but who could resist finding a cave full of gold and silver ingots?

   But there is one small treasure which was once lost, found, and then went missing again, unless anyone knows better about its whereabouts.  The story goes that when David, Earl of Huntingdon, was building the Church of St Mary’s in Dundee, in thanks for coming to land in Dundee after a hazardous time at the Crusades, he employed as an architect a man named Allan Dorward.  Possibly he was a progenitor of the Durwards of Lundie, who later became a powerful family in Strathmore and the wider kingdom.  When the church was completed in the year 1198, King William the Lion presented Dorward with a solid gold ring.  Soon afterwards Dorward participated in a wild boar hunt west of the town, at a placed called Sparrow Muir, which was later known as Hawkhill.  Somehow the ring came loose from Dorward’s finger and was lost.  Amazingly, the ring was said to have been found again around 1790 when foundations for Heathfield House were being dug at Hawkhill.  The ring was solid gold, weighed eight pennyweights seven grains and passed into the hands of the Webster family of Heathfield House and later to the Neish family of Laws and Omachie.  The ring was described by local historian Andrew Jervise (in Memorials of Angus and Mearns, volume one, p. 178) as being ‘ornamented with a beautifully engraved head, representing that of an old man, with a crown; and on the breast is a mullet or star of five points’.  

Detail of the Legendary Lost Treasure Ring of Dundee.

   At some point in the 19th century, a museum in Edinburgh is said to have possessed a historical notice advising of the loss of the ring and offering a reward for its finder.  Jervise reports that another version says that ring belonged to the master mason of King David II and it was he who carelessly discarded it on Sparrow Muir.  James Neish notified the Archaeological Institute about the ring and they carried a report of it, including a drawing of the figure in their journal (The Archaeological Journal 21, 1864, 185-7).  The report notes that the crown may in fact be a helmet, with items like horns protruding from it.  If it represents a royal, then it’s a very sinister looking royal.  This journal also thought that the style pointed to the late 14th century rather than earlier.  The star motif was linked to the Douglas family, who were Earls of Angus, and the ornamentation linked with the Franciscan order, who of course had a house in Dundee.  But where is the ring now?  Possibly in the possession of a Neish family member in some far flung part of the globe, or just possibly in a legendary bank vault in Dundee or Forfar along with most of the other Lost Treasures of Angus.
   Heathfield House in the Hawkhill is long gone too, but there is a student hall of residence nearby.  Does the ring lie beneath the building?

The West Port near Hawkhill.  Bring your metal detectors.

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