Friday, 24 January 2020

Iron Box of Jewels #1

Happy New Year to all our followers. We begin the year with a new mystery...

The Palaeography Group have recently transcribed a document which brings to light a mysterious iron box of jewels itemised in an inventory in 1654. This is the time of Oliver Cromwell's occupation of Scotland, and indeed his Governor in Orkney is one of the witnesses to the inventory.

But where have these jewels come from? Why are they in Orkney? Why are they to be handed over to the Earl of Morton? The information and people listed in this document bring up many questions which the Palaeography Group are investigating. If you can add any information to help, we would like to hear from you.

D38/2531/1 Document from the Earl of Morton papers, dated 1654

"Inventar of the Jewels wes found in ane iron box which wes left besyds William Cragie of Garsay by James Keith sometime Laird of Benholme. Which box wes broken up publically at the sight of Charles Earle of Dunfermling, Major Henry Ronnall Governor of Orkney, William Stewart elder of Maynes, Captane Edmund Leister, Patrick Blair Shirreff of Orkney, Captane John Hobblethorne, James Stewart younger of Maynes, Williame Cragie of Garsay and Capt Robert Irving writer (writer) hereof at Kirkwall the 25th day of August 1654 yeers.

Item ane Rose (or cross heart) of small diamonds whein ther wes 14 peece with a cross of small leser diamonds therin

Item fifteen roses of pearles contenning four pearles in every rose

Item ane carhat of small sparkes of diamonds contenning threttie three small diamonds therin upon a blak threed

Item ane string of seed pearls contenning three yards long or thereabouts

An example of some pearls

Item ane ring sett with diamonds lacking three peece diam[ond]s

Item eightene peece of peared (paired) amatists (amethyists) or granatts (garnets)

Item a [------?] cast of gold with two [------?] therin of gold

Item on two strings ane hundredth and nyne blood beads with fourtie and one small beads of amber with fourty and one of small corall beads

Item ane small dowe (dove) of mother of pearle with gold wings lacking the head

These above writtin particullars wes deposited in William Stewart elder of Maynes his hands by mutuall consent of Charles Earl of Dunfermling and Major Ronnall Governor of Orkney to be secured by him the best way he can upon the [-----?] of the owners, until such tyme as they be made appear to belong to my Lord Mortone. After which tyme the Laird of Maynes is to delyver them to any haveing pouer (power) from the Earle of Mortone and his curators. This is witnessed to be a true inventory and conclusion as their subscription under writtin witneseth day and place above writtin"

In the line above "Item a [------?] cast of gold with two [------?] therin of gold", we struggled with the word blanked out here. It could be pikwoth, or bikworth, or something else entirely. Can you help us with this word? Could it be a measurement of gold not now used?

There are some interesting names mentioned here.  Who was James Keith and why was he in Orkney? Benholm is a parish in Kincardineshire on the mainland of Scotland. In the book Who was Who in Orkney, James Keith is listed as Provost of Kirkwall from 1650, but we don't know if it is the same James Keith who is involved in the document. In the book Dictionary of Eminent Scotsmen a James Keith of Benholm is described as being involved in a jewel robbery from Benholm Castle in 1622. Is this the same man 32 years later? Are these the same jewels?

If anyone knows about any of the people mentioned or have heard this story before, please do get in touch. It is an intriguing mystery. We will post updates of our research on future blogs, just click on the label "Iron Box of Jewels" below to see all blogs relating to this story.

Sources used: Who was Who in Orkney by W.S. Hewison pub.1998; Dictionary of Eminent Scotsmen Volume 3, edited by Robert Chambers, pub. 1850; D38/2531/1 Document from the Earl of Morton papers


  1. How intriguing! I'll ask my daughter, a silversmith, if she knows what the mysterious "bikworth" might be. I'll be interested to see what comes of this.

    1. Thanks Sue, It'll be good to get an expert opinion of some of the terms used.

  2. My daughter found a reference to the history of Pennyweight (a measure of troy ounces). I hope it's ok to post a live link here. If not, please let me know--I'm getting notified of replies, and maybe I can email you the link. To me, the mystery word looks like it might be Pennyworth or something like that, based on reading the article I'm linking.

    1. Thanks Sue, the link is allowed and I was able to download it to read. I think you might be right that the Bikworth or Pikworth might be Pennyworth. I'll forward the link to the others in the group to see what they think. In another of the documents, which I'll post soon the word also looks like "piketooth" - just to annoy us.

  3. Oh, good, I'm glad you were able to see and use the link. My daughter will be tickled to know that she helped out.

    HAHA! Why couldn't our ancestors write and spell the way we do? But then, we wouldn't have nearly as much fun figuring out what they were talking about.

  4. I think this may well be connected to the wrecking of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) ship "Lastragger" on Shetland 2nd March 1653.
    There was reputed to be a significant amount of contraband onboard destined for Batavia from Holland. Although the ship was a complete loss, some crew and some of the cargo made it ashore.
    On hearing the news James Keith of Benholm arrived (from Orkney?) with a band of mercenaries with the aim of capturing some of the loot.
    I don't know how successful Keith was, but during a skirmish hes men raped and murdered the daughter of a local laird.
    I'd need to read up my notes for more information.

    1. Thanks Colin, that's interesting. It'd be good to know more and any sources you can recommend.

    2. Thanks Dusty, I've written a fuller account on Facebook:

      (The Institute for Northern Studies page, if the link above doesn't work)

    3. Copied from The Institute of Northern Studies Facebook page: Ok, I've had a look at my notes and this is what I can tell you so far. Then you can decide if this has any connection to your mystery or not.

      On the 2nd March 1653 the V.O.C. flute "Lastdrager" went aground on the Island of Yell, in Shetland. The ship had previously been damaged in a storm as it attempted to navigate the English Channel on the way to Batavia (present day Jakarta).

      It was rumored that the ship was so heavily laden with contraband that the Captain would not allow the cargo to be unloaded for proper repairs to be undertaken on the island of Texel. So when it set sail again, it was already poor condition when it was hit by the second storm, and quickly broke up on the rocks.

      One survivor was an 18 year-old boy who later gave a detailed account of the events that followed. After finding refuge in a blacksmiths workshop, the boy (Johannes) and the other 22 survivors managed to rescue a few chests of silver and brandy.

      Johannes troubles were only beginning however as the men drank the brandy and squabbled over the silver, with some attempting to kill the others to make away with their share.

      Johannes however managed to convince a smaller group to attempt to get back to Holland, and together they managed to recruit the assistance of the local laird, Ninian Neven.

      With the aid of Neven, the remaining crew managed to fend off other attacks from the breakaway group. And, using some of the retrieved silver they managed to purchase a ship suitable to take them back to Holland. The remaining treasure was buried nearby.

      On the 29th March (Johannes gives the date as 8th April), James Keith of Benholm arrived in Yell with a band of 60 soldiers in search for the shipwrecked treasure. According to Johannes, Keith was unsuccessful in stealing any of the silver, but in the skirmish that ensued, Nevens daughter was raped then shot. She died soon afterwards.

      Eventually, Johannes and the others made his way back to Holland and in the following year to his destination of Batavia. On the 11th January 1684 he was appointed Govenor-General of the Dutch East Indies.

      In the 1970s the site of the shipwreck was dived by the underwater archaeologist Robert Sténuit, who recovered many item including early examples of golf clubs, and clay pips. No more silver or valuables have publicly recovered.

      The all may be irrelevant to your quest, but it could we'll be possible that Keith was able to recover some of the contraband treasure. Some of which may be referred to in the documents you cite.

      As for the rest of the treasure, I'm sure it's still there!

    4. Colin's Sources: Ninian Neven:

      Johannes Camphuys:

      Book: Travellers in a Bygone Shetland by Derek Flinn

  5. Thanks for copying Colin's post from Facebook. (Not everyone in the world is on that website!) I was happy to be able to read what he wrote. Not being familiar enough with the coastline, I am unable to figure out whether the two occurrences are connected or not. Have you guys at the Archives made a connection between the two?

    1. Hi Sue, We do know that James Keith was appointed co-factor for the Earldom estate (Orkney) and Lordship of Zetland (Shetland) in 1649 by Robert Douglas the Earl of Morton, so it is likely that James Keith went up there because the shipwreck was near to the Earl's land in Shetland. But I don't know if the Jewels in the Iron Box could have come from this wreck yet. It's certainly another good clue to follow up.

  6. Very interesting. When your research is complete, I'd be interested in knowing what you find, even if it's inconclusive.

    1. Yes, I'll write another blog post soon with all our latest findings. Thank you for your continued interest.


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