Early modern Atlantic pearl trade
25 Aug 2009
A grant from the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland enabled a final research trip as a graduate student, expanding the study of the early modern Atlantic pearl trade to include Scotland's pearl fishing industry.
In May 2008, a generous grant from the Scottish Society of Antiquaries enabled me to conduct my final research trip as a graduate student, expanding my study of the early modern Atlantic pearl trade to include Scotland's pearl fishing industry. Over the course of the trip, and thanks to the generosity of the many archivists and specialists with whom I met, I discovered fascinating new material about the lucrative and contentious arena of pearl fishing in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In addition, I was introduced to the tremendous wealth of Scottish material culture, and the importance of the Scottish experience in shaping both the character and the composition of the international pearl trade in the early modern period.
The Society's grant enabled me to spend two weeks in Edinburgh, where George Haggarty of the Society of Antiquaries was a tremendous host, introducing me to numerous scholars and providing me with valuable tips for getting around town. Over the course of my stay, I made brief research trips to Glasgow, Perth, and Stirling. In Edinburgh, I worked at a number of record repositories: the National Archives of Scotland, the National Library, and the Edinburgh City Archives, where archivist Richard Hunter helped put me on the trail of pearl records. I also spent time in the National Museum, where George Dalgleish provided me with an eye-opening introduction to Scottish material culture. Alistir Tait of Alistir Wood Tait Antiques and Fine Jewellery shared his awesome knowledge of Scotland's natural gem wealth. Virginia Glenn first brought seventeenth-century pearl baron Robert Buchan to my attention; I continue to investigate his long-ago exploits with great interest. In Perth, I visited the Perth Archives, where Steve Connelly helped steer me in the direction of city's pearl fishing past. At the Perth Museum and Art Gallery, Susan Payne, Mark Hall, and Mark Simmons made available everything from poems about the competitive and dangerous nature of pearl fishing in the seventeenth century, to more recent articles and scholarship on the ups and downs of Scotland's contemporary pearl fishing industry. Martin Young at Cairncross Jewellers allowed me to view firsthand the beauty of Scottish pearls. Following my trip to Perth I visited Glasgow, where pearl expert Fred Woodward shared his unparalleled knowledge of the history and state of Scottish pearl fishing and gave me an extraordinary tour of sites of pearl-fishing relevance. He also introduced me to a number of his associates, all of whom generously shared their pearl knowledge. In Stirling, Dr. Bruce Lenman provided me with valuable advice and expertise on the topic of early modern Scottish trade routes and gem dealing.
Over the course of my visit, I met with and was assisted by more people than I could name in a brief report, and each of them greatly contributed to my understanding of the trajectory of pearl fishing in Scotland over the past several hundred years. I learned that Scottish river pearls were highly sought-after in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but also frequently a source of conflict and contention. I learned that the issues associated with modern-day pearl fishing in Scotland-environmental damage, regulation of access, and the changing profile of the pearl fishers themselves-have a complex and fascinating history. My numerous and varied discussions with experts of all sorts allowed me to develop a more holistic understanding of the significance of the industry for Scottish history and culture.
I just recently completely my doctorate at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, and am now an assistant professor at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas. Over the course of the next few years, I will begin the process of revising my dissertation for publication, and I expect that the role of Scottish pearl fishing will play an important part in the evolving manuscript. I very much hope to return to Scotland to further pursue the many intriguing strands of inquiry that I discovered while in Edinburgh last May. I am deeply grateful to the Society of Antiquaries for allowing me to explore and expand my investigation of the rich intersection of Scottish history and the history of early modern luxury trades.
Dr. Molly A. Warsh, 2008 Grant Recipient