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  • Camille Basso

In Scotland, a treasure over 300 years old found in a fireplace

Earlier this summer, archaeological researcher Edward Stewart, from the University of Glasgow, decided to carry out excavations in the summer house of Alasdair 'Maclain' MacDonald, a 17th-century chieftain. One of the students involved in the project, Lucy Ankers, made a priceless discovery in the fireplace of the hunting lodge.

Photographie du site de Massacre de Glencoe en Ecosse
Site du Massacre de Glencoe, en Ecosse

Last spring, the University of Glasgow identified the summer house of Alasdair MacDonald, the head of the MacDonald clan from 1646 to 1692. According to their research, this hunting lodge served as both a feasting hall and a hideout for the leader of the clan. The excavations initially turned up pottery, leather goods, glass, spindles and numerous objects from the daily life of the clan. But when student Lucy Ankers discovered a jar of coins hidden in the hearth of the fireplace, the team was completely surprised. The collection of coins had almost certainly been hidden by Alasdair MacDonald, known as 'Maclain', because he knew he wouldn't be able to come back for them. However, it is a priceless treasure in the eyes of the archaeologists. In a statement, Lucy Ankers said she "never expected such an exciting find for a first dig, and [she] never thought she'd beat the feeling of seeing the coins emerge from the earth in the pot".

According to the team's initial analyses, the 36 coins were minted in silver and bronze between 1500 and 1680. Most of them are Scottish, but some also come from the Spanish Netherlands (now Belgium and Luxembourg) and France. The latter could be souvenirs of Alasdair MacDonald's travels abroad. "What's really exciting is that the coins were not minted after the 1680s," explains Michael Given, co-director of the excavation project and senior lecturer in archaeology. "This means that they were hastily buried as the massacre began at dawn on 13 February 1692. [...] These exciting discoveries give us a rare insight into a unique and dramatic event. It is a real privilege, as archaeologists, to hold in our hands these objects that were so much a part of people's lives in the past."

Photographie du pot et des pièces de monnaie retrouvés dans la demeure d'Alasdair MacDonald. Gracieuseté de l'Université de Glasgow
The pot and coins found in Alasdair MacDonald's home. Courtesy of the University of Glasgow

Indeed, 13 February 1692 was the scene of the famous Glencoe Massacre, in which a large part of the MacDonald clan was murdered by the troops of Robert Campbell of Glenlyon. More than 100 government soldiers landed on Scottish soil at dawn, under the orders of the monarchs William III and Mary II. As the MacDonalds had not sworn allegiance to the government in power, the authorities decided to decimate them. Maclain perished in the massacre, while a few lucky members managed to escape in time. Today, the Glencoe area is also known for its panoramic views and numerous footpaths.

Excavation director Edward Stewart added that the research work carried out at Maclain's hunting lodge provides a better understanding of "the daily lives of the people who lived [there], worked the land and looked after the livestock. It allows us to tell their story as well as the great tales of the chiefs and their retinue". In his view, these discoveries demonstrate the importance of the Glencoe lands to the elite of the MacDonald clan in the 17th century.


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