Hunterston Stories and Legends

2 November, 2020

No family enjoying over 900 years of history would be complete without its stories and legends. Over the years the Hunters of Hunterston have uncovered precious objects, discovered famous cousins and made history through endeavour.  One such story concerns the Hunterston Brooch.

The Hunterston Brooch

In 1826, at the foot of Goldenberry Hill on the Hunterston estate, two labourers  discovered an ancient brooch of exceptional craftsmanship. The area, which is close to the site of the Battle of Largs in 1263, may be significant in giving this brooch its provenance as it may have been lost during the conflict.

Now in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, the brooch is considered to be the best preserved of its kind. Cast in silver, gilt and inlaid with amber (most now missing), it is thought to have been made around 700 AD. The filigree work is a combination of Scottish-Irish and Anglo-Saxon techniques which has been crafted by a highly accomplished jeweller. The Hunterston brooch has a complex construction which is typical of Celtic brooches: the filigree is intricately designed to conceal powerful Christian imagiary of beasts and the cross of Christ linking the Celtic and Christian beliefs. Moreover, the imagery is upside down when looked at in the display. However, the art of concealed symbolism suggests the brooch may not be not so much for overt display as for protection and personal reassurance, which gives the impression that the wearer would be able to read the symbolism only when looking down upon the brooch once fixed on his mantle. We’re looking at something very personal and intimate.

Hunterston Brooch

Although the original owner of the brooch is unknown, we can assume that because of its exquisite construction, it was made for a person of high status.  During a Viking raid which took place 200 years after its creation, the brooch fell into Viking hands. The new owner secured his possession and inscribed in the back of the brooch, in Scandinavian runes: “Melbridga owns this brooch”, which is still visible today

The Laird at the time of the discovery, was Robert Hunter. He and his brother-in-law, Robert Cochran-Patrick carried out further archeological excavations and found some cloth. Following Rober Hunter’s demise, his wife sold the brooch to the National Museum of Scotland where it is displayed and considered to be one of Scotland’s national heirlooms. A replica is displayed at Hunterston Castle.

The First Hunter of Hunterston

Hunting scene from the Bayeux Tapestry

During the reign of King David I of Scotland (1124 – 1153), Anglo-French (Norman) aristocracy were encouraged to settle in Scotland to rally support for the King. They were rewarded for their allegiance with lands and offices. William Venator was a Norman in the royal court of William the Conqueror and renowned for his expertise as hunter and forrester. He was invited to Scotland by King David I and eventually given royal recognition with the title of Hereditary Gamekeeper and Falconer of the kings and queens of Scotland and England. 

But how did this come about? The legend tells of a chance encounter with a stranger whilst a hunter (William Hunter) was out hunting. The stranger appeared to have lost his way through the forest and William wasted no time in taking the stranger into his own company. He so impressed the man with his talents at finding game, that the stranger promised to return to the area again one day. 

The Thrill of the Hunt – Allison D. Reid

By and by the stranger returned but this time in the company of an armed unit. William Hunter, spying the party of men from his cover amongst the trees, recognised the man he had previously encountered. On stepping out of the cover to greet his acquaintance, the armed unit immediately surrounded William, brandishing weapons. The stranger stepped forward to greet William acknowledging him as a friend whereupon the army withdrew. When they were gathering to leave, William asked one of the party the name of the stranger. The reply came: ‘ The King of Scotland’.

A Royal Charter dated 31st May 1527 from the court of King James V to Robert Huntar of Hunterstoune, 15th Laird, granting him the deer forest on Little Cumbrae, clearly establishes a long line of continued allegiance to the royal courts. The Charter recognises the continued official appointment of Hereditary Royal Huntsman to the Hunter family:  “Which islands and lands with pertinents, the said Robert and his predecessors have formerly held of us and our predecessors in hereditary custody….” The Hunters of Hunte were granted hereditary keepers of the Royal forests in Arran and Little Cumbrae in the Clyde estuary.

The Silver Pennies

The rent for the lands granted to the Hunters of Hunterston, was organised in a unique ‘blenche ferme’ agreement. This means payment of a nominal rent by farm tenants in lieu of services, to be paid to the sovereign only on demand. This was fulfilled by the presentation of two greyhounds and two falcons. Additionally, one silver penny was to be paid annually at the feast of Pentecost, but only on demand. To this end, a few silver pennies, minted in the reign of Robert II (circa 1374) and George V (1910-1936) are kept in the Castle at Hunterston in case the sovereign demands his or her rent!

Silver pennies

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You will find us off the A78 just north of West Kilbride. Look for our driveway marked by stone pillars and "Hunterston Estate" 


Hunterston KA23 9QG
Telephone: 07980 209060
*This number is not continuously manned, so please do leave us a message. 


Acccess to Hunterston Castle is strictly by appointment. Note that as a historic monument, wheel chair access is limited. More visitor information is available on our visitors page .  Please email us to arrange a visit.