Over the years, I have read many Regency novels set in Scotland, or which included Scottish characters. And yet, I have not found any mention of cairngorms in the pages of those novels, despite the fact that they are the very rock of Scotland itself. What happened to the cairngorms?
The stony story of the cairngorms of Scotland …
The cairngorms to which I refer come from the Cairngorms, a mountain range in the eastern Scottish Highlands. During the Regency, the bulk of this mountain range was located in the historic county of Aberdeen, with the remainder trailing off into the counties of Inverness and Banff. The Cairngorm mountain range takes its name from one of the mountains within it, Cairn Gorm, which is the most prominent peak in the range, though not the tallest. This range of mountains has been held in great affection by many people for many generations, especially by those living in the Scottish Highlands.
The Cairngorm mountain range was the sole source of a unique mineral, a smoky quartz crystal which took its name from the mountain range in which it was found. Most cairngorm crystals were a deep, rich yellow-brown color, though there were some which were more brown-grey in color. A small amount of ferric oxide in the quartz is what gave cairngorm stones their distinctive color, and this particular type of smoky quartz was only found in the Cairngorm mountain range of Scotland.
For several centuries cairngorm crystals were mined throughout the Cairngorm mountain range. These beautiful semi-precious gemstones were also known as the Scottish topaz. They were cut and polished for use in a wide range of jewelry and other personal items. Faceted or cabochon cairngorms were set into a variety of rings, necklaces, earrings and brooches. In addition, they were used to ornament kilt pins and cairngorms were very often set into the hilts of dirks and the sgian-dubhs which were worn with traditional Highland dress. Cairngorm crystals were also commonly used to decorate Scottish snuff boxes and mulls, from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries.
We know that cairngorms were worn as jewelery by Scottish ladies two hundred years ago, even to grand London social events. Elizabeth Grant, of Rothiemurchus, in her autobiography, Memoirs of a Highland Lady, wrote about a special evening when she and her two young sisters were to attend a rout given in honor of the Persian ambassador, in 1810. The rout was given by Mrs. Charles Grant, a family relation, at her home in Russell Square, London. Mrs. Grant had invited Elizabeth’s parents to the rout, and had extended the invitation to their three young daughters. While Elizabeth, and her sisters, Jane and Mary, were dressing for the evening, in their new muslin gowns, their mother came into the room in her own beautiful muslin evening gown. She presented each of her daughters with a cross set with cairngorm crystals suspended from a gold chain. The cairngorms had been found by Duncan Macintosh, the Rothiemurchus forester, on the Grant’s own property. The girl’s mother had had the stones set into the crosses for her daughters to wear to the rout. In her memoirs, Elizabeth wrote that the Persian ambassador was quite taken with their sparkling crosses set with the golden gem of the Scottish Highlands. According to Elizabeth, she and her sisters were all quite taken with the tall, handsome and rather exotic Persian ambassador and thoroughly enjoyed their evening.
Though cairngorms were once known as the gem of Scotland, this smoky, yellow-brown quartz crystal is no longer mined in the Cairngorm mountain range. Cheaper quartz crystals of a similar smoky color are now imported from Brazil for use in modern Scottish jewelery. Alternately, ordinary quartz is heated and irradiated to impart a color similar to the original rich yellow-brown of the cairngorm, but these man-made crystals are not genuine Highland cairngorms. If you want a true cairngorm today, you will be most likely to find one set in a piece of antique Highland jewelery or in the hilt of an antique sgian-dubh.
During the Regency, real cairngorms were still mined in the Cairngorm mountain range, and jewelers and goldsmiths in Edinburgh and throughout the Highlands set these lovely semi-precious gemstones into many pieces of jewelery and other articles of personal adornment. Highlanders, in particular, were very proud of their unique, truly Scottish gemstone, and would have worn it not only with their traditional Highland dress, but also would have had them set in less traditional, more fashionable jewels and bibelots. Dear Regency authors, please remember the cairngorm when you write about Scotland, and particularly about Highlanders. I hope that soon I will encounter a cairngorm or two in the pages of a Regency novel with a Scottish connection.