The Elusive Scottish Pearl

As a natural Pearl collector, and a Brit I’ve always wanted to add a rare Scottish Freshwater Pearl to my collection.

scottish mussels

‘Scottish’ Freshwater Pearls are found in the rivers of The Tay most famously, but also other fast flowing rivers such as the Spey. The Margaritifera Margaritifera species of Mussel in which the Pearls were found are now an endangered species and were awarded a protected status in 1998, making it ‘an offence to kill, injure, intentionally disturb or damage their habitat, or sell without a licence from the Scottish Executive’.

Only two retailers, Cairncross of Perth and Alistir Wood Tait have a licence to deal in Scottish Pearls and these only if they can be certified to have been taken before 1998 as it is illegal to possess any taken since this date.

scottish pearls

As Alistir Wood Tait says; ‘The pearls are characterised by a variety of natural colours and distinctive shapes which make every stone unique and highly sought after. They were traditionally fished by travelling people and a small band of professional fisher people during the summer months, some of whom, like Bill Abernethy (finder of famous pearl "Little Willie") have become minor celebrities in their own right.’

So my only chance to find one was to find an antique one… and being as they have no specific identifying marks to attain a certainty of origin, without a trail of provenance I could only hope and wish.

The world of Pearl collectors is small in numbers and niche, although at the same time vastly international. Collectively it is characterised by people who through experience and scientific knowledge know a lot about Pearls and the various molluscs they form in, and those who have a great enthusiasm and want to learn. Some come from a jewellery perspective (that’s me) and some by their care and involvement in the world of the bivalves. 

mary queen of scots pearl necklace

Having seen the legendary Mary Queen of Scots necklace of Scottish Pearls (from 1572) at reasonably close quarters and noted their dull porcelain like lustre and ringed colouring I always kept my eye out for these features, but natural Pearls from both rivers and seas are amany in antique 19th century jewels and I may have inadvertently passed many by with no knowledge of their prestige.

And so it was just a matter of very good luck when my precious find came in…

directory dundee

It came from a seller who was directed to our shop by another jewellery shop keeper as 'the lady over the alley likes Pearls'. An unassuming little Victorian three Pearl ring, the seller who had no interest in it was Scottish and said it was her G-Grandmother's and her family was from Dundee. It came in a battered antique celluloid box from a jeweller named John R Wilkie of 132 High Street, Dundee (not very far at all from The Tay River) who I managed to find listed in a directory of 1887-1888, although the ring is very likely a little earlier in date. Much excitement!


So, particularly as these look very like those that I've seen, and with the provenance trail which all checks out, I'm pretty happy that these are they. The elusive Scottish Pearl. A little disappointing in lustre, they look like nothing so much as badly worn Cultured Pearls, but the engraving on the ring is beautiful tho'.

See Scottish Pearls at Cairncross here. 

See Scottish Pearls at Alistir Wood Tait here. 

Article about illegal Pearl fishing in Scotland.


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