Case Study: Anglo-Saxon Mount from Dornoch

Grace Woolmer-White with contributions from Susan Kruse

Metal detecting in the area of Dornoch over the years has produced a great number of objects which have ranged in date from prehistory through to the modern day. In 2005, one of the more exceptional finds from the area was reported to Treasure Trove: a decorated Anglo-Saxon style gilded copper-alloy disc mount.

Only approximately one third of the circular object was represented but it was very well preserved. It measures 56.4 x 37.5mm with the diameter of the rim boss 8.4mm and the diameter of central boss 5mm. It is decorated with chip-carved, interlocking, backwards biting beasts around the central boss and narrower, more ambiguous zoomorphic interlace around the outside, with imitation beaded filigree between and outside of these. The single surviving setting was empty.

Figure 1: Anglo-Saxon mount from Dornoch 

The decoration of the running interlocking beasts is similar to that found on Anglo-Saxon metalwork and manuscripts. An almost identical disc mount comes from Allington Hill, Cambridgeshire (now in the Ashmolean Museum), the decoration of which differs only in that the borders comprise three raised concentric circles with alternating zones of dots, whilst the Dornoch mount’s border is more rope like. The Allington hill mount also has raised dots along the jaws of the beasts, a feature that the Dornoch mount lacks.

Figure 2: Anglo-Saxon gilt bronze disc with chased ornament and garnets outlined with shell from Allington Hill, Cambridgeshire. ©Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

The Dornoch mount has been identified as a 7th century Style II mount and may have been used as part of harness fittings for a horse. It is one of only a small amount of Anglo-Saxon metalwork found on the northern Pictish mainland. Alice Blackwell (2018) identified 18 objects from ten locations, found at locations in Aberdeen, Moray, Inverness, Easter Ross, Caithness, and Highland. Many, like the Dornoch mount, are stray finds from metal detecting, but some come from contexts associated with forts, Viking graves, a hoard and the monastic settlement at Portmahomack. This regional assemblage is small, but it is significant as Anglo-Saxon finds are rare in northern Britain.

The Northumbrian kingdom reached as far as the Edinburgh area until 973, bringing new traditions of metalwork, manuscripts and church sculpture from the south. The exotic metalwork was probably traded north to Pictish chiefs. There were also clearly links to the monastery at Portmahomack as shown by styles of carving. As a result there are secular and religious contexts to account for this metalwork in the north. The Dornoch mount is also particularly interesting as it provides a new example of the backward-biting motif from Scotland and demonstrates stylistic links between Anglo-Saxon and Insular metalwork.

Further information

Blackwell, Alice 2018 ‘A reassessment of the Anglo-Saxon artefacts from Scotland: material interactions and identities in early medieval northern Britain’ PhD thesis available from theses.gla.ac.uk/30708

The mount is on display at Inverness Museum and Art Gallery (Accession No. INVMG 2006.004.001).

Treasure Trove ID: TT.39/05

Highland Historic Environment Record MHG49767