Case Study: Annular Brooches

Susan Kruse

In the medieval period clothing was fastened with small round brooches. These brooches became fashionable from c. 1200 onwards throughout Europe. Although their use declined elsewhere after c. 1400, they continued to be used in the Highlands, becoming larger and gradually evolving into the large annular ‘Highland brooch’ of the 16th–18th centuries (Shiels and Campbell 2011, 71–72).

Two views of an annular brooch, the front and back. The front view shows a design of four triangles with line decoration between them.
Figure 1: Medieval annular brooch. ©Historylinks Museum

While in a few cases they were made of silver, the explosion in metal detecting has shown just how common these were in copper alloy. Substantial numbers have been found in Dornoch, Easter Ross and between Inverness and Nairn, but this distribution reflects, in some ways, the areas of intensive metal detecting over the last couple of decades, and we can assume they had a wider spread. Most of the examples are cast, but some are made from beaten sheet metal. They can be surprisingly thick. Some are plain, but others are decorated with geometric designs.

There is no existing corpus for these objects, but information has been collated on medieval examples mainly from Treasure Trove reports (see Datasheet 9.1).

Map 9.1 Medieval Annular Brooches

Use your mouse or touchpad to zoom in and out of the map. Click on the data point for more information about the find and a link to the HER record. This map is based on the information in Datasheet 9.1 (please note that some finds in this datasheet may be missing from the map, for example where there are no co-ordinates for antiquarian finds, so please view the datasheet for the further information).

The emphasis is on the southeast Highlands, where there do appear to be workshops, but it may also reflect areas of active metal detecting.

Altogether this suggests local workshops, although none have been identified. They are also a valuable insight into the less affluent members of society.

Further information

Shiels, Jenny and Campbell, Stuart 2011 ‘Sacred and banal: the discovery of everyday medieval material culture,’ in E.T. Cowan and L. Henderson (eds), A History of Everyday Life in Medieval Scotland 1000-1600, pp. 71–72.

Lelong, Olivia and MacGregor, Gavin 2003 Loch Borralie, Kyle of Durness. Project 950, GUARD: Glasgow, pp. 45.

Morris, Christopher D, Batey, Colleen E and Rackham, D James 1995 Freswick Links, Caithness. Excavation and Survey of a Norse Settlement, Historic Scotland /Highland Libraries. Morris et al 1995, pp. 121–122.