Case Study: Golspie Pictish Pin

Grace Woolmer-White

In 1974 a decorated gilt bronze pin was dug up in the garden of a resident in Golspie (MHG11648). This pin, subsequently donated to the National Museums Scotland, was identified as a unique cast Pictish dress pin, dating to the 7th or 8th century. The shaft is bent and broken with the point missing, but otherwise it was in good condition. The remaining part measures 55mm long, and the flat head of the pin, 20mm long and 15mm wide, is what makes it so unique, as it is decorated with the frontal representation of a human face. Although the corpus of evidence is small, this appears to be very rare within Pictish art.

Gilt bronze pin with the pin head decorated with a human head.
Figure 1: Golspie Pictish pin. ©NMS

The face represented on the pin is clearly male as below the chin is a pattern of interlace representing a beard. The man’s eyes are large and oval and his ears protrude from the otherwise oval shaped head of the pin. Across the man’s forehead are three horizontal lines, giving the appearance perhaps of a furrowed brow, a more aged face or even painted or tattooed lines. Whatever they represent, there was clearly some significance behind this design feature. The surface of the face was gilded, although all that survives of this are traces within the crevices. This gilding, along with the design, would have made for a very striking piece of jewellery.

Human representation within local indigenous Scottish cultures is rare before the mid first millennium AD and even after this, within the Pictish culture, it is mostly limited to figures carved in profile on sculptured stones. No other pin of the type from Golspie is known and it cannot be paralleled in metalwork. The closest comparison is a possible whetstone from Portsoy, Banffshire, now in the British Museum (museum no. 1921,0709.1). On either end of this small, elongated pebble are oval shaped, incised faces with horizontal lines across their foreheads, designs of the same style as the Golspie pin. The whetstone additionally includes symbols of fish, crescents and a cross, further suggesting a Pictish context for it, and by association, the Golspie pin.

There are a number of other Pictish finds from Golspie and the surrounding area including sculptured stones, brooches and cist burials. It is clear that the area was populated in the Pictish period; this pin is likely to have belonged and been used by an elite member of society. The pin was a symbol of their higher social status and its uniqueness makes the pin an important and significant find for the period and the area.

The pin is part of the collections of National Museums Scotland. Its accession number is X.FC 301.

Further information

Close-Brooks, J. 1974-75. A Pictish Pin from Golspie, Sutherland. Proc Soc Antiq Scot. 106 (1977-5): 208–10

Ritchie, Anna, Scott, Ian G and Gray, Tom E 2006 People of Early Scotland from contemporary images, The Pinkfoot Press: Angus. pp 50–51.