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Beyond the Stones: Charmstones, Magic and Superstition




As we know many people might not be able to travel to Oban this year and see our new temporary exhibition - Beyond the Stones: Magic, Medicine and the MacDougalls, members of our staff and volunteer team have agreed to share some of their research into a series of blog posts. This one was written by Anna Bain, our Engagement and Learning Officer.


Our new exhibition at Dunollie, Beyond the Stones: Magic, Medicine, and the MacDougall’s, delves into the world of charmstones and superstition, shedding light on Scotland's rich history of belief in witchcraft and magic. Throughout the ages, certain elements and materials have been valued for their perceived ability to protect, heal, or bring good fortune.

 

In the past Scotland lacked the comprehensive healthcare provisions we now take for granted. Infectious diseases therefore ran rampant, and life expectancy remained tragically short. With professional physicians scarce and access to medical texts restricted, the majority of the population relied on home remedies and charms to alleviate illness.

 

Charms were a popular and affordable method for treating and warding off sickness. These talismans lacked scientific validation, however to many Scots they offered reassurance without the risk of harmful side effects. Modern medical research underscores the influence of belief in the healing process, highlighting the impact that the placebo effect could have on people.


These amber beads, once part of a necklace, served as a charm against blindness for the MacDonalds of Glencoe in Inverness-shire. Amber, esteemed for its amuletic properties, was traditionally believed to ward off illness and cure diseases of the eyes.



Protection wasn't limited to humans; animals, particularly cattle, were also safeguarded through the use of charms against disease and supernatural harm. This crystal ball charmstone, enclosed by silver mounts dating back to the 16th or 17th century, belonged to the Stewarts of Ardsheal in Argyllshire. Equipped with a suspension loop for attachment to a chain, this charmstone could be dipped in water and administered to people or animals as a drink to cure or prevent illness.

 



Tradition has it that the MacDougall charmstones were brought back from the Holy Land by Duncan MacDougall, the 2nd Chief, upon his return from a crusade. During their journey to confront the Campbells at the Battle of Red Ford in 1294, the MacDougalls sought guidance from a magic crystal ball. However, the crystal was spirited out of the seers’ hand mid-consultation, splitting in half, foreshadowing defeat. The MacDougalls were discouraged by this bad omen, prompting their retreat.



Belief in the healing powers of the MacDougall charmstones persisted for generations. In 1833, Elizabeth (Kitty) MacDougall, daughter of the 25th Chief, recounted the crystals being dispatched, reportedly to combat an epidemic. In 1969, the crystals were locked up in a cupboard, in a remote part of the house, for safe keeping. The cupboard was broken into, and the crystals were stolen. The culprit, however, was never caught. Just as the Brooch of Lorn was returned to a later generation, it may be that the stolen crystals will in time be restored to Dunollie.

 



The Brooch of Lorn, was said to be seized from Robert the Bruce during the Battle of Dalrigh in 1306. In the 16th century, it was reset into an elaborate turreted fixture, a form it retains to this day. Stolen by the Campbells during the siege of Gylen Castle in 1647, the Brooch remained lost for over two centuries before being recovered and returned to Dunollie. The centre stone of the Brooch, likely made of rock crystal, was prized for its perceived protective and curative qualities, serving as another talisman for the MacDougall clan against sickness and in battle, well into the 19th Century.

 

The Brooch of Lorne is currently on display in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.

 

The Brooch of Lorne replica is currently on display in our exhibition room at Dunollie Museum Castle and Grounds.

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