Westray’s poignant link to Mary Queen of Scots

August 24, 2022

Westray’s poignant link to Mary Queen of Scots

Our founder, master craftsman Steven Cooper, hails from the island of Westray. At only 18 square miles, and remote, even by Scottish standards, Westray is a quiet and peaceful place, home to fewer than 600 souls today. The human occupation of Westray goes back more than five thousand years. In fact, archaeologists digging near Noltland Castle discovered the oldest known carving of a human in the British Isles, called the Westray Wife, a wonderful stone figurine.

The Celts, Vikings and Scots who came later also left their beautiful artefacts here for archaeologists to find, so you could say that Westray’s dramatic sea and landscapes have been inspiring artists for hundreds of generations, right down to Steven’s evocative, yet modern, jewelry collections.


Noltland Castle also has other famous connections throughout Scottish history, including one with none other than Scotland’s most tragic royal, Mary Queen of Scots. The fortress was started in 1560 by Gilbert Balfour, Sheriff of Orkney and master of Mary Queen of Scots’ household. With its 71 gun holes, it was clearly meant for defence. The inscription carved over the entrance is an enigmatic Bible verse from Exodus, “WHEN I SEE BLOOD I WILL PASS OVER YOU IN THE NIGHT”. 

But Noltland was never finished, for Balfour was implicated in the murder of Mary’s second husband, the notorious Lord Darnley. After Mary was arrested, he fled to his far-flung Westray stronghold to ride out the storm. Eventually, however, he tried to come to Mary’s aid, but it was too late. He escaped to Sweden, where he died, leaving the castle unfinished.

 

Noltland was owned by several families afterwards, and was occupied until at least 1650, when, during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, local Covenanters burned it down.

Today, you can visit the impressive ruins and imagine what dramatic set pieces in Scottish history these walls have seen. Neolithic stone carvers, Celtic jewelry makers, Viking sword smiths and important figures in Scottish history, all have made their mark on this tiny island of Westray. It’s no wonder that Steven finds inspiration here for his brooches, necklaces, rings, pendants, earrings and kilt pins. Each piece is handcrafted in Orkney using traditional methods passed on through his ancestors, in designs that evoke the past, but are always fresh and contemporary.



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