Sunday 10 January 2016

The Quest for Monymusk

The “Knights of Monymusk” are a historical reenactment group who very kindly provided the entertainment for one of the parties I held at Balintore Castle. The combat demonstrations were really impressive, and throwing friendly knights and wenches into the proceedings, really helped the party to go with a swing.

Never one to avoid a google, I discovered there is an early 8th Century “Cabinet of Monymusk”, which is rare surviving treasure from Celtic Scotland, which is said to have once contained the remains of St. Columba. It was also used, allegedly, to provide spiritual assistance to the Gaelic army, at the battle of Bannockburn (1314).

This reliquary in silver, copper-alloy and wood was probably made in Iona. It has been associated with Arbroath Abbey (close to Balintore) and Forglen House in Aberdeenshire but now resides at the National Museum of Scotland. So on a trip to Edinburgh in December of last year on castle business, I went over to the museum specially to finally get a glimpse of the cabinet.

I went to the most likely section of the museum (next to the Lewis Chessmen) found some other cabinets but not the Monymusk one. I asked a museum attendant who took me to the exact same spot: he said “I thought it was here”. Towards the end of the day when I could not find the cabinet anywhere, I approached a second attendant who gave directions to the same place, but he thought it could possibly be on loan. Just as the museum was about to close I asked a third attendant. She was really helpful, taking me to the same spot and then said it was likely to be at the Celts Exhibit at the British Museum in London. How ironic, given I had just travelled from the south of England to Edinburgh!

Last week, when I unexpectedly found myself with free time in London, there was no doubt where I should go. This knight does not give up on his quests! :-) After being stung for £16.50 for entry to the special Celts exhibit, I finally tracked down the cabinet. It is tiny, much smaller that I expected, but absolutely exquisite, possessing that quintessential refined Celtic aesthetic at once entirely modest yet so beautiful.

the Cabinet of Monymusk - it takes the form of a house

Monymusk Cabinet: roof detail

Monymusk Cabinet: clasp detail

Monymusk Cabinet: roundel detail

Also on display some distance away was a tiny cabinet from Norway which was identical in design to the Monymusk cabinet, but this was in better condition though in a slightly less appealing colour-way. The Norwegian cabinet was part of a Viking raid, and it was thought to have been taken from either Ireland or Scotland. There was no explanatory text to link the two items, but to me they came from precisely the same stable.

It made me realise that this special exhibit was nothing more than a latter-day meta treasure raid, with the very best in Celtic art being purloined/gathered from all over Europe. The Moneymusk Cabinet got no special billing amongst the hundreds of other marvellous treasures, and in fact due to its small size I suspect most people would have overlooked it.

What could not be overlooked by any visitor was the massive Gundestrup Cauldron (200-300AD) from Denmark. It is the largest known item of Iron Age silver work. I knew a great deal about this piece already from TV documentaries and from private study, so was delighted to unexpectedly see it in the flesh. I took a couple of photographs with no flash and in all innocence, only be told off by a museum attendant, so I then felt unable to take a photo of the Moneymusk or Norwegian cabinets to prove my long quest had succeeded.

The  rich imagery on the Gundestrup Cauldron defines the Celtic universe of gods, animals and men and the strange chimera from mixing all three. Their mythology is largely lost, and so we cannot identify much of what the scenes depict. As there is no written record from the Celts, all we have is their art and this cauldron is as good as it gets.

the Gundestrup Cauldron

the Gundestrup Cauldron: interior detail

I did not know whether to write up the Moneymusk Quest for the restoration blog. The connection is relatively tenuous. However, the cabinet is decidedly at the core of Scottish history much like Balintore Castle. Last night I watched the first part of a new documentary series on Scottish art. Lo and behold the Cabinet of Monymusk featured, a sign perhaps that I should write this entry. Anyhow, if I use my photos of the Gundestrup Cauldron, then I will feel less bad about having to pay the £16.50, when I could have seen the cabinet for free at the National Museum of Scotland.

And irony of ironies, the Celts exhibition is coming to the National Museum of Scotland at the beginning of February. I have yet to find out whether visitors will have to pay South of England prices (£16.50) to view this 8th century coal to Newcastle. :-)

The cabinet images were stills I grabbed from the TV documentary: better than just getting something from Wikipedia.


  1. What a wonderful find!!!As always, thanks for the history!!

  2. Stop moaning! I went to Denmark and the Gundestrup Cauldron was at the top of my list - and the buggers had lent it to London!!!
    BTW, why do you refer to the Monymusk Reliquary (a.k.a. 'the Brecbbennoch of St Columba') as a 'cabinet'? 'Casket' maybe but hasrdly a cabinet!
    Here's a potted history: "It was significant because it was said to have contained Holy relics of St. Columba, the most popular saint in mediaeval Scotland, and from the 19th century believed to be the "Brecbennoch of St. Columba", a sacred battle ensign of the Scottish army, though this is now doubted by scholars.[2] It may have been handed to the abbot of Arbroath Abbey during the reign of William I (r. 1165 - 1214), who in turn passed it to someone else's care at Forglen. The custodian was charged with the care of the reliquary, so that it could be used for saintly assistance by the Scots in battle. It was carried by the Gaelic army who were victorious against the army of king Edward II of England at the Battle of Bannockburn (1314). It stayed at Forglen until the sixteenth century, when both Forglen and Monymusk came into the hands of the Forbes family. In 1712 it was transferred to Sir Francis Grant of Cullen. It stayed in the Grant collection until 1933, when it was acquired by the people. It is now in the care of the Museum of Scotland, where it is arguably one of the most important pieces in the Museum's entire collection." [ Ta, Wikipedia! I had been unaware of the Grant connection before.]

    1. You are perfectly at liberty to moan about having your cauldron whipped away! :-) I suspect that the mythology/history projected on the "casket" in the 19C is probably wrong. However, it looks to have been in continuous ownership (remarkable in itself) rather than dug up. You may have a claim to the Grant collection. :-)