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A major exhibition of Scotland’s early silver comes to the Museum nan Eilean in Lews Castle, Stornoway, from May 3 to June 23 on a Scottish tour, displaying a hoard of coins unearthed at Storr Rock on the Isle of Skye.
The Scotland’s Early Silver exhibition, currently on display at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, includes fascinating objects and shows for the first time how silver, not gold, became the most important precious metal in Scotland over the course of the first millennium AD.
The exhibition includes the recently unveiled Dairsie hoard, which dates to the late third century AD and is the earliest known example of hacksilver from anywhere beyond the Roman frontier.
Also on its first full public display is the Gaulcross hoard, discovered in Aberdeenshire in 2013. Since its excavation, research has revealed striking similarities with another find, from Norrie’s Law, in Fife. Both hoards have been re-dated to the fifth or sixth centuries AD, and show for the first time how earlier Roman silver was recycled and repurposed over the centuries.
By the early medieval period, silver was being made into new power symbols, including massive silver neck chains. These striking objects are unique to Scotland and show both the importance of silver and the amount that was available in parts of Scotland – the heaviest is made from almost 3kg of silver.
The exhibition, produced by the National Museums of Scotland, is supported by The Glenmorangie Company. The basis for this association is the eighth-century Hilton of Cadboll Stone, on display in the National Museum of Scotland’s Early People gallery. The Hilton of Cadboll stone was discovered on land once owned by The Glenmorangie Company near its distillery in Ross-shire, and a design on the stone is the inspiration for the brand icon that adorns Glenmorangie’s whiskies.
The Glenmorangie Research Partnership, which was launched in 2008, has over three phases revealed new insights into the Early People of Scotland. The next phase of research moves focus from the first millennium AD to examine the archaeological evidence from the medieval kingdom of Scotland during the ninth to 12th centuries, which underpins the formation of the Scottish nation state.
The work will address important questions about how the kingdom of Scotland was created and its connections with the Anglo-Saxon world, Ireland and Scandinavia. The results of the research will be published in a new book.
Alongside the exhibition tour and the new research, the partnership will see the introduction of the Glenmorangie Commission, in which contemporary craftspeople working in silver will be invited to submit designs taking inspiration from the collections from the period ninth to 12th century AD. The winning design will be commissioned for Scotland’s national collections and the final piece will go on display in the National Museum of Scotland’s Art and Design galleries.
Scotland’s first silver came as coins and small dress accessories from the Roman world. Roman frontier diplomacy used payments of silver coins to buy peace and allies beyond its frontiers. This early silver coinage could not be spent beyond the frontier, but it was not just melted down – it was used by local elites to impress rivals and make gifts to the gods, hoarded and buried in the ground.
Local attitudes changed with a shift in Roman policy – the empire began to use ‘hacksilver’ for these transactions. Hacksilver refers to objects literally hacked into pieces, converted from beautiful treasures into raw silver bullion.
Roman silver began to be melted down and made into new, local power symbols. This was the start of generations of recycling this most valued of materials.
After hundreds of years of recycling the same silver, supplies became scarce and diluted, debased by bronze added to make limited supplies stretch further. The first new sources of silver in almost 1,000 years arrived with the Vikings, and the exhibition ends with objects illustrating the new ideas that came with these new metal supplies.