Island Orchid Jewellery

The History of the Scottish Pearl - An Unfortunate Tale of Rivers Ransacked for Personal Adornment

The Pearl Mussel, filter feeder, fixed to the river bed, dark-brown and hidden in amongst the dark brown shingle while the river rushes and tumbles over. Decades and decades feeding and growing, only buffeted by the clean fast-flowing rivers.

And yet…“attention was called to the probability of the ultimate extinction of the pearl-mussel in the rivers near Perth, owing to the quantities destroyed in search of pearls, thousands of shells being left on the banks of the rivers where the pearl fishers had pursued their searches.” And “[the man] stands waist deep in the waters of the Tay, a glass bottomed bucket in hand. Behind him the risen river flows fully and the rain pours down. On the shoreline lie hundreds of discarded shells, the illegal debris of pearl fishers hunting their jewels.” What is the difference between these two quotes? Well, about 150 years: the first from The Times December 24th 1863 and the second from the Guardian on 2nd June 2005. The other big difference is that by 2005 pearl fishing in Scotland was illegal and the man standing in the river was sadly reviewing the decimation of pearl-mussel colonies by illegal activities.

There has been pearl fishing in Scotland for centuries. First mentions of British pearls come from the time of Julius Caesar. Suetonius wrote that Caesar invaded Britain for the freshwater pearls to be found there. Indeed, the Romans held pearls in very high esteem, but other Roman historians are less enthusiastic. Pliny says that although pearls do grow in Britain they are small, dim of colour and not like oriental pearls. Tacitus notes that the pearls from Britain were dusky or brownish.

However, in ‘The Book of The Pearl’ (1908) Kunz says that the writer Origen who lived 183 – 253, described the British pearls as next in value to the Indian. Their surface was of a golden colour – but – they were cloudy and less transparent than those from India.

In his book ‘Beyond Price – Pearls and Pearl Fishing’ (1993), R. A. Donkin says that actually the earliest reference to Scottish pearls is in a letter of 1120 in which one Nicholas requests the newly nominated Bishop of St. Andrews, Eadmer (a monk of Canterbury) to procure some [pearls], if necessary from King Alexander I “who in this commodity, is richer than any man” It seems Alexander I’s pearls were famous at home and abroad for their size and beauty.

We know that in 1355 Scottish pearls were being exported to Paris as there is a statue from that time of the Parisian Goldsmiths saying that gold and silver smiths were not to set Scottish pearls alongside Oriental ones. The only exception being for large projects such as for churches, where it probably wasn’t possible to acquire sufficient Oriental pearls without an item becoming too expensive.

Donkin also mentions that Pope Pius II, on his visit to Scotland in 1435 named pearls among the four products that Scotland exported to Flanders. Incidentally, the others were hides, wool and salted fish.

At this point it would be useful to put this in its historical context. King Alexander was crowned in 1107, the Scots defeated the Vikings at the Battle of Largs in 1263. The “Auld Alliance” with France began in 1295 and in 1296 the Stone of Destiny was removed to England. 1306 sees Robert the Bruce crowned at Scone. St. Andrews University was founded in 1450. The Union of the Thistle and The Rose came about when King James IV married Margaret Tudor, daughter of Henry VII of England in 1503. In 1513 James V came to the throne.

Now - an illustrious chapter of the History of the Scottish pearl as they are strongly connected to King James V and the Honours of Scotland. That is the Crown, Sceptre and Sword of State, now on display in the Crown Room at Edinburgh Castle.

In 1494 James IV was gifted the sceptre by Pope Alexander VI, apparently to show papal support for Scotland. James the V remodelled and lengthened it in 1536. The sceptre is described as featuring small figures of the Virgin and child, St. James and St. Andrew, flanked by stylised dolphins. The globe of the sceptre is a large rock crystal with a Scottish Pearl on the top. Sir Walter Scott writing in 1824 has a slightly different story saying that James V himself had the sceptre made in 1536 and that the pearl atop the sceptre is in fact an oriental one.

The Crown of Scotland was made in its present form for James V in 1540. It was refashioned from a lighter crown which had been damaged. The earlier, lighter crown was reputedly the one Robert the Bruce was crowned with. The base circlet was made of Scottish gold and was encrusted with rubies, diamonds and amethysts and Scottish freshwater pearls, taken from the old crown. The official website of the British Monarchy says that an Edinburgh goldsmith, John Mosman, refashioned the crown. Sir Walter Scott, however, reckoned that James V had the crown altered in France in 1536, saying that “the workmanship greatly exceeds what we should have expected in Scotland during that period.”

The Honours were used as Coronation regalia together at the Coronation of Mary, Queen Of Scots, a nine month old baby, in 1543. In 1567 they were used at the Coronation of her infant son in Sterling. He was James VI of Scotland and later, after the death of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603, James I of England.

James VI made a further change to the Crown in 1621 when the famous Kellie pearl was incorporated along with the other jewels.

The Kellie pearl is the largest freshwater pearl ever discovered in Scotland. It was found in a tributary of the River Ythan in Aberdeenshire. In 1621 the Privy Council of Scotland had issued a proclamation that any pearls found within the realm belonged to the Crown. Perhaps this was to protect mussel stock or possibly more likely to ensure that the most valuable pearls reached the King's treasury.

Conservators were appointed and in their turn they nominated experts to fish for pearls during July and August. The conservators and pearl-fishers could sell the ordinary pearls as reward.

Once discovered, the Kellie pearl was taken to the Lord Provost of Aberdeen, David Rutherford, who then presented it to King James VI.

In his book, Kunz says “No record appears of the reward paid to the finder; possibly it was not worth recording”. Some histories say that the finder's reward was to have the pearl named after him. However, as the name of the tributary of the Ythan in which the Kellie pearl was found is actually the Kellie Burn I think it more likely that the pearl is named after the location of its discovery rather than the identity of its discoverer.

Some historians have made the pursuit of pearls sound like a romantic pastime. In drought conditions, when the rivers bubble along, perhaps it was a pleasant enough occupation. However, the rivers in which pearl-mussel colonies are found tend to be deep and fast-flowing and personally I can't imagine that standing up to your shoulders in chilly, fast-flowing water is at all pleasurable. I think the incentive would always have been a financial one.

It seems that traditionally travelling families have been associated with pearl fishing (although police point out that nowadays pearl-fishers herald from a wider base). It does seem likely that knowledge of pearl-fishing would have been passed down the family line. As well as professional fishermen, Kunz suggests that “idlers and unemployed about the riverside towns, and also the farm servants in the country, search the waters in their neighbourhood in the hope of picking up some gems.”

In Callander there is a street called 'Pearl Street' reflecting the local history where some families once got an income from the pearls they harvested from the River Teith.

The method of pearl-fishing has probably changed little over the centuries. The Reverend James Robertson of Callander Parish wrote an excellent description in 1794 for the Statistical Account of Scotland.

“They are fished with a kind of spear, consisting of a long shaft, and shod at the point with two iron spoons, having their mouths inverted. Their handles are long and elastic and joined at the extremity, which is formed into a socket, to receive the shaft. With this machine in his hand, by way of staff, the fisher, being often up to the chin in water, gropes with his feet for muscles, which are fixed in the mud and sand by one end, and presses down the iron spoons upon their point; so that by the spring in the handles, they open to receive the muscle, hold it fast, and pull it to the surface of the water. He has a pouch or bag of net-work hanging by his side, to carry the muscles till he come ashore, where they are opened. The operation is much easier in shallow water.”

Kunz also mentions that good eyesight is a requirement as the mussel is extremely hard to spot amongst the stones on the river bed and that a 'box' could be used, in which a fisherman could sit or lie over waters that were too deep for wading.

So the pearl fishing continued through the centuries. “An account current betwixt Scotland and England” from 1705 gives the opinion of John Spruel, a pearl merchant of Edinburgh.

“I have dealt in pearls these forty years or more, and yet to this day I could never sell a necklace of fine Scots Pearl in Scotland, nor yet fine pendants, the generality seeking the Oriental Pearls because they are farther fetched. At this very day I can show some of our own Scots pearls as fine, more hard and transparent than any oriental. It is true that the Oriental can be easier matched, because they are of a yellow water, yet foreigners covet Scots Pearls”

A zoologist, Thomas Pennant, wrote about his Tour of Scotland in the late 1700's and says that there was a lot of pearl-fishing around Perth. And that from 1761 to 1764 “£10,000 worth were sent to London...but this fishery is at present exhausted, from the avarice of the undertakers.”

The pearl fishing continued further North as-well, Lachlan Shaw, the historian of Moray, mentions that there were many ripe pearls in the River Spey. John Gordon, writing a topographical dictionary in 1833, even mentions pearls being found on Skye.

The historical background of this pursuit of pearls is marked by such things as the Treaty of Union in 1707, the Royal Bank of Scotland inventing the overdraft in 1728, the opening of the Caledonian Canal in 1822 and the crowning of Queen Victoria in 1838.

Kunz says that from 1770 to 1860 the pearl market in Scotland actually remained fairly dormant. It was revived in 1861 when a German merchant, Moritz Unger, whom M.S. Lovell describes as “a foreigner” in “The Edible Mollusca of Great Britain and Ireland”(1884), made a tour round Scotland. He bought all the pearls he found, which people had kept, not realising their value.

This caused a revival of pearl-fishing and the following summer many people went pearl-fishing in their spare time. From Kunz : “Those who were otherwise employed during the day devoted hours of the long summer nights to diligent search after the coveted shells;while boys and old persons, who were without regular avocations, waded day after day where there was a probability of reward.”

The result was that Unger amassed a large collection of Scottish freshwater pearls, from all corners of Scotland. These he sold on to his noble and even Royal patrons. Lovell says that “Mr. Unger had a necklace of these pearls valued at £350” and that “the Queen purchased one pearl for 40 guineas”.

There was another inevitable and unfortunate side to this bonanza. In 1867, at the September Meeting of the Perthshire Society of Natural Science “attention was called to the probability of the ultimate extinction of the the Rivers near Perth”(Lovell from The Times).

The sorriest story of ruthless plundering comes from a book by James Ritchie called “The Influence of Man on Scotland”, published in 1920. He tells of a climax in 1913 when “two bands of fishers set out with motor bicycles and collapsible boats, and touring the country, harried rivers far and near. The financial result repaid their exertions...and the total proceeds covered the cost of bicycles and transport and secured an ample margin of profit. But the outcome is that many a river and burn has been almost cleared of its Pearl-mussels. A few such raids and the famous pearl-mussels of Scotland, already sadly reduced in numbers, will be almost exterminated and the Scottish pearl-fishery doomed.”

Nowadays the pearls we buy are, in the vast majority of cases, farmed. They provide livelihoods for many in the Far East, in countries such as China, Japan and Thailand. Khun Amorn had the largest pearl farm in Phuket. The industry had been started in Phuket by the Japanese who brought all their skill and knowledge and then Phuket people developed the business further.

A cultured pearl is formed when a small foreign object, the seed nucleus, is embedded in the tissue of a mussel or oyster. The resulting pearls are ready for harvest three to seven years later.

A mussel can produce 30 – 40 cultured freshwater pearls but even this seemingly certain huge return is precarious. The Asian Tsunami in 2004 destroyed Amorn's farm, and many others like it.

Although the pearl mussel is now protected in Scotland, recently fished Scottish freshwater pearls still turn up. Strathclyde police raided a Glasgow jewellers in 2004 and found a sizeable stock.

One of the few places in Scotland licenced to sell pearls that were legally fished before 1998, is Cairncross Jewellers in Perth. This shop is home to arguably one of the most famous and perfect freshwater pearls ever found in the entire world, the Abernethy pearl.

This extraordinary pearl was found in the River Tay by the professional pearl fisher, William Abernethy.

It is exceptional in terms of size, shape, colour and lustre. About the size of a marble, perfectly spherical, pinkish-white with a striking lustre and blemish-free. Cairncross Jewellers bought it from Abernethy for an undisclosed sum and people come from all over the world to see it. One pearl enthusiast, Kari Anderson describes her pilgramage from Iowa to Perth on her website. She testifies that the pearl 'amazes the eye'.

Scottish Natural Heritage now look out for the remaining colonies of the Scottish Pearl Mussel, Margaritifera margaritifera. It is one of the most critically endangered mussels in the world. This mussel is vulnerable not only to fishing but also to pollution and engineering work. Full protection was granted in 1998 and it is illegal to disturb,injure, take or kill this humble animal.

Let us hope it can be saved as it is an important part of Scotland's biodiversity and cultural heritage. It would be terrible if the ransacking of our rivers for a few pearls to adorn us, ultimately brought about the demise of the Scottish Pearl mussel.

Copyright Melanie M-McKay 2012


Pearls W. J. Dakin. Cambridge University Press 1913

Beyond Price- Pearls and Pearl FishingR. A. Donkin. Jesus College, Cambridge 1998

A Topographical Dictionary of Great Britain and Ireland John Gordon. Chapman & Hall 1833

The Book of the Pearl George Frederick Kunz. New York The Century Co. 1908

Historie of Scotland Bishop Leslie 1596

The Edible Mollusca of Great Britain and IrelandM S Lovell. L Reeve & Co 1884

Mystical Scotland Ann Lindsay Mitchell

The Influence of Man on Animal Life in ScotlandJames Ritchie. Cambridge 1920

Old Statistical Account of Scotland Rev James Robertson 1794

Description of the Regalia of Scotland Sir Walter Scott 1824

Pearls and Pearling Life Edwin W Streeter George Bell & Sons 1886

History of Scotland Patrick Fraser Tytler


The Glasgow Herald January 29th 1870

Culross Kirk-Session Records Northern Notes and Queries

F McPhersons Annals of Commerce Nichols & Son 1805

The Guardian 2nd June 2005

The Zoologist – Mollusca of Morayshire Rev G Gordon 1854

Cambrian Quarterly Magazine and Celtic Repertory Volume 5


Scottish Natural Heritage

All about gemstones


Beading Times


internet stones

Kari Pearls

The Monarchy