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Scottish Gold glitters at the Hunterian

Like a gleam in the northern sky, a thread of gold runs seamlessly through Scots history.

As far back as 2000BC, gold was being used to indicate wealth and status for the great and the good of Scottish society. Scotland even had its own mini Gold Rush at various points during the last 1000 years, at Leadhills in Lanarkshire, at Wanlockhead in Dumfries and Galloway, and the Strath of Kildonan in Sutherland during the 19th century, when a nugget as heavy as ten pennies was discovered. But, as we are all taught at our mother's knee, all that glitters is not gold...

To this end, a new exhibition at Glasgow University's Hunterian Art Gallery shines a light on the history of gold in Scotland, painting a vivid picture of a nation in constant flux. You know you are hooked by an exhibition when you start to get excited about what you are learning in the process of looking at beautiful objects.

Scottish Gold contains countless examples of artefacts which contribute to this complex story, the oldest being The Forteviot Dagger, one of the earliest objects from Scotland to be decorated with gold. Dating back to the Early Bronze Age, the weapon was uncovered in 2009 after lying in a burial chamber at Forteviot, near Perth, for around 4000 years. Its decorative hilt includes horn, sperm whale tooth and a ribbed band of gold.

Moving on through this exhibition, set among darkened rooms with shards of light trained on the assembled golden treasures, you see other examples of the power wielded by this most precious of metals. An extremely rare seventh-century Merovingian gold coin know as a tremissis, unearthed two years ago in Kelso, is displayed for the first time, its beady eye flashing at the curious visitor. The first of its kind to be found in Scotland, it is a previously unrecorded coin, thought to come from the Royal Treasury of the Merovingian dynasty, which ruled much of modern France and Germany from the fifth-eighth centuries AD.

According to my guide, curator Donal Bateson, the gold tremissis would have started life in the Frankish kingdom and may have ended up in Scotland as a diplomatic gift from a visiting aristocrat. "It would not have been used as money," he explains.

Through another connection to gold, we also discover that, having established Scots independence after the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, Robert the Bruce ordered a magnificent white marble tomb to be sculpted in Paris and then had it gilded with 8lb worth of gold bought in Newcastle and York. The tomb was subsequently destroyed during the Reformation, but fragments were recovered in 1818 beside Bruce's corpse. Small sections are now on display in this exhibition alongside a tiny piece of the "cloth of gold" which was wrapped around his skeleton

With the introduction of a new pound coin making the news earlier this week, it's fascinating to learn here that history was made in 1603 by another monarch, King James VI of Scotland and I of England, when he introduced a gold coin called a unite, worth one pound (20 shillings). England and Scotland had their own versions of a unite, but both were used on either side of the border, and both bore the inscription "I will make them one people".

Scottish Gold brings together a glittering array of the finest gold specimens and objects from the Hunterian collection and other institutions across the UK, including the British Museum and the Royal Collection in London. The exhibition is divided into two sections, with one focusing on the part played by gold in terms of status and wealth, and the other dealing with the occurrence of gold in Scotland and Scottish gold-mining.

There is much to dazzle the visitor, including Queen Victoria's gold collar of the Order of the Thistle; Bronze and Iron Age gold torcs, including the hoard from Law Farm, Morayshire; a gold ampulla used at the Scottish Coronation of Charles I; the King's Gold Cup from the Leith Races of 1751; and 10 of the largest gold nuggets found in Scottish rivers.

The exhibition brings us bang up-to-date with contemporary items such as an 18-carat solid gold quaich made this year by Scottish goldsmith Graham Stewart and a Millennium gold medal produced by Malcolm Appleby for the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

At £5 in new money (£3 concession) to get in, I'd say Scottish Gold is worth every penny.

Scottish Gold, Hunterian Art Gallery, Glasgow, www.glasgow.ac.uk/hunterian, until June 15

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