The Scottish roots of a prized Native American decoration

Pocahontas wearing a string of Luckenbooth-style brooches around her collarPocahontas wearing a string of Luckenbooth-style brooches around her collar
Pocahontas wearing a string of Luckenbooth-style brooches around her collar
They were gifted by Scots as a love token or sometimes pinned to petticoats by the superstitious to ward off witches.

From the 1600s, the Luckenbooth brooch was a popular treasure among ordinary people of Scotland with the double heart pins named after the row of buildings by St Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh where traders and artisans hammered out and hawked their wares.

But it wasn’t just Scots who loved the Luckenbooth. By the mid to late 18th century, the brooch design had worked its way into Native American decoration and became particularly favoured by the women of the Iroquois, a powerful confederacy of Native American tribes.

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A portrait of Pocahontas, the famed Native American from Tidewater, Virginia, who was captured by the English, was later painted with rows of the brooches around her collar.

The Luckenbooths were first taken to then-British North America by Scots fur traders who used the brooches as bartering pieces.

The North West Company, the fur trading firm founded in Montreal in the late 18th century with a number of Scots at its helm, was particularly involved in the exchange of “trade silver” with native hunters and dealers.

While the Luckenbooths first travelled on the clothes of women and children, the brooches were made in bulk by Scottish silversmiths who had also emigrated.

The design was picked up by Iroquois silversmiths and ultimately became something of a “national badge”, according to George R Dalgleish, retired keeper of Scottish History and Archaeology at National Museums of Scotland and an expert in Scottish silver jewellery.

Dalgleish gives a definitive account of the Luckenbooth’s cross-cultural journey in A Kingdom of the Mind: How the Scots helped make Canada.

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He said: “Many types of silver ornament were traded with Native Americans, particularly medals, gorgets, ring brooches and crosses.

“One type of jewellery found particular favour with native peoples in the east of the country, namely the heart-shaped brooch. So popular were these small brooches with the Iroquois that the style became something of a national badge.

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“It is now well accepted that the design of these very distinctive trade silver brooches originated in Scotland.”

The Luckenbooths were also known as Queen Mary brooches, witches brooch and Johnny Faa’s brooches and were usually given as engagement or marriage gifts.

Dr Joseph Anderson, former curator of the then National Museum of Antiquities in Edinburgh, made one of the first links between the Iroquois decoration and the Scottish Luckenbooth in the early 1900s.

Meanwhile, anthropologist Arthur C Parker wrote in 1911: “When the Iroquois silversmiths copied the Scotch patterns they left off many things that were common in the original pattern and interpreted the design as their own education, environment or customs dictated.”

The two intertwined hearts became known as “two jaws interlocked” with the shape sometimes used to represent an owl.

Parker added: “The Iroquois traveller, faithful to the precedents of his sires of the older days, generally fastens a double heart brooch to his coat or vest as an emblem of his nationality and as a hailing sign to the wanderers of his tribe. Never does he suspect that the motif of his emblem is anything but a genuine product of his own ancestors and thus a worthy token of his aboriginality. In it he never dreams of the canny Scots of earlier times.”

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Tens of thousands of pieces of silver were being ordered by fur traders to exchange with hunters in late 18th and early 19th century.

Dalgleish notes the potential value of brooches traded with the Native Americans. One could be exchanged for the skin of a racoon or musquah, according to accounts.