Two centuries ago, a hoard of silver was discovered at Norrie's Law - a cairn on the northern edge of the farm of Bonnyton within the Largo estate, close to the boundary with Teasses estate. The find is now known to be one of the largest hoards of Pictish silver ever to be found and has been dated to 500-600 A.D.. Unfortunately, back in circa 1819 the unnamed person who unearthed the finds was an unscrupulous individual who, rather than report the find to the appropriate authorities, sold the silver to an intermediary allegedly named Forbes who sold the pieces on to silversmiths. The objects, reportedly including a full suit of scale-armour, a shield, a helmet and a sword handle were melted down and recycled by the purchasers. Thus important historical artefacts, and the knowledge that they could have unlocked, were forever lost.
Word of the event eventually reached land owner General James Durham of Largo House. He had the site rechecked and further silver items were recovered, having escaped the notice of the original finder. Although General Durham had succeeded in preserving an important subset of the hoard, a mix of intact objects and hacksilver (fragments for recycling), he did not immediately share the news of his discovery. It was not until around two decades later that a man named George Buist brought the story into the public domain. Buist was a journalist and keen antiquarian. While researching sculptured stones, he heard of a stone recently rediscovered by General Durham (now known as the Largo Pictish Stone). While learning about the rediscovered stone at Largo House, Durham presumably told Buist about the silver.
George Buist (pictured above ) was born in Forfarshire in 1804. At the age of twelve, he enrolled at St Andrews University to study Theology. From 1826 he spent six years as a preacher, following in his father's footsteps. In 1832, a career change saw George became editor of the Dundee Courier. After two years, he left to set up the Dundee Guardian on his own account, as well as the Scottish Agricultural Magazine. He later edited the Perth Constitutional before spending six months in London in 1837, working in the library of the British Museum where he undertook historical and antiquarian research. A particular line of investigation of his was ancient cross-stones.
This interest, coupled with a return to Fife to become editor of the Cupar-based Fifeshire Journal, led George Buist to General James Durham. Buist recognised the similarity between the imagery on the Largo cross-stone and on a silver plaque amongst the hoard (what we know now as the Pictish double disc and Z-rod). George Buist's journalistic curiosity led him in 1838 to investigate the backstory of the original find and the lost majority of the hoard. He became convinced that more facts (and possibly even further pieces from the hoard) could be unearthed by bringing it to the attention of the public. Part of his strategy was to have pewter casts made of nine of the key objects. These could be taken with him while making his enquires to perhaps jog memories. The pewter replicas are pictured below (and were later donated to the museum at St Andrews).
The maker of the pewter replicas was Robert Robertson (1793-1877), a Cupar jeweller who lived and worked at 35 Bonnygate. He was a deacon of the Hammermen Trade (that is craftsmen working with metal, including silversmiths, goldsmiths, armourers, blacksmiths, wheel-wrights, cutlers and pewterers, saddlers and lorimers). He also became Chief Inspector of Weights and Measures for the County of Fife and was highly respected. So it is surprising that he was also one of those who had also illegally purchased some of the original hoard two decades before (he paid £35 for his items). Robertson was able to provide some more information that helped Buist gain a better understanding of the fate of the original portion of the hoard, including his recollections of the appearance of some of the lost objects and what he knew of other purchasers of the silver. He described a shield featuring a man on horseback and sword handle which appear in the illustration further down the post as items 8 and 9.
Incredibly, Buist reported that, as a consequence of his investigations, one additional plate and one pin, both matches for existing pieces, (items 4 and 5 in the image above) were "recovered from hands from which they might, like so much of what preceded them, have passed into the crucible of the silversmith". He stated that these recovered pieces had now "been added to the collection of General Durham, in connection with which they will hereafter be noticed without further distinction from the others". He also bemoaned the "absurd law in reference to treasure trove, which has occasioned the secretion and destruction of so many valuable relicts". In other words he believed that the law encouraged the type of action carried out by the man who found the Norrie's Law hoard - the speedy destruction of evidence.
Buist went on to publish a report to the Fife Literary and Antiquarian Society late in 1839 entitled "Silver Fragments in the Possession of General Durham, Largo - commonly called the Silver Armour of Norrie's Law" (which can be viewed in full here). However, just at the point that this was published and interest was high, Buist left Scotland to take up a new post as editor of the Bombay Times in India. General James Durham was one of the many to write a testimonial for Buist to ease his settlement there. The letter of introduction (further below) was written on 7 December 1839. James Durham died two months later on 6 February 1840.
So with General Durham deceased and Buist in India (where, aside from a couple of brief return visits to Scotland, he would live out the rest of his life), investigations into the hoard were discontinued. The surviving silver remained in the possession of the Durham family. In 1856 Mrs Dundas Durham sent the relics to an exhibition of antiquities and in 1864 she gifted part of the collection to the National Museum of Antiquaries of Scotland in Edinburgh. The remainder of the silver was donated to the same museum in 1883, following her death.
For over a century the 170-piece silver collection was assumed to be one cohesive group of medieval artefacts. The additional items 'rescued' by Buist's efforts in 1838-39 were treated as a genuine part of the hoard. However, in recent years the objects and their origins have been re-examined as part of the Glenmorangie Research Project on Early Medieval Scotland. Project findings have thrown up a surprise and cast doubt over the authenticity of a couple of the key objects. The writings of George Buist have played a key part in unravelling the truth.
Pictured above are two pairs of virtually identical objects from the hoard. Recent analysis has revealed that these pairs of objects are each made up of a worn original and a direct copy. Where there were areas of damage on the original, these were also present on the copy. The silver composition of the copies was examined and the copies were found to be refined silver that lacked the trace elements one would expect to be present in antique silver. These items were different from the rest of the hoard and the question arose of when these copies were made.
The story of Robert Robertson making the pewter copies was widely documented. He would have had the necessary moulds. Could he have made the silver copies too? Was George Buist misled about the unearthing of these 'lost' pieces'? Or could have been in on the creation of the silver copies? Arguably both Robertson and Buist had something to gain by the miraculous 'finds'. For Robertson, being able to add to the surviving silver hoard could have eased his guilt over his involvement in the earlier illegal destruction of the lost items. For Buist, having something tangible coming out of his intense investigations into the hoard would have provided both success and closure prior to his departure from Scotland. The source of the 1838/9 supposedly-rescued pieces was never specified and Buist had seemed keen that "they will hereafter be noticed without further distinction from the others".
The full facts will likely never be known but certainly we understand more now than we did before and perhaps further information will come to light in the future. In the meantime, you can see the surviving hoard including the imposter pieces at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, where they are part of the Early People gallery. As for George Buist - after 20 years at the Bombay Times, he retired from journalism in 1859 to take up a government appointment at Allahabad. He died from dysentery while at sea, en-route to Calcutta on 1 October 1860.
Read more on the recent findings in this NMS blog - blog.nms.ac.uk/2015/03/19/the-glenmorangie-research-project-norries-law/ and also in this video -