Cog Icon signifying link to Admin page

The Friends of Hugh Miller

A golden find on a beach in South Africa

A golden find on a beach in South Africa

Added at 13:56 on 22 April 2023

A gold mourning ring engraved with the name, birth date and death date of Victorian era Scottish geologist, polymath and social justice campaigner, Hugh Miller, has been discovered by a metal detectorist on a beach at Gordon’s Bay, South Africa.

In June 2022, an unusual email dropped into the inbox of The Friends of Hugh Miller, the Scottish charity that works to honour Hugh Miller’s legacy. The message was from Cornell Swart, a local to Gordon’s Bay near Cape Town, South Africa, saying that she had found a gold mourning ring bearing Miller’s name and dates on her local beach.

“I was hunting on the beach, and I noticed a small area that had lost a lot of sand,” says Swart. “Initially I found some old pennies and buttons, and that prompted me to stay in the area and check it more thoroughly. I got a very faint, deep signal, and I dug down in between rocks and pebbles where I finally found the ring. From the first moment I saw it I knew it was special - when I realised it had historical significance I was over the moon.”

Swart looked up the name and dates from the ring online, where she learned who Hugh Miller was and found the contact details for The Friends of Hugh Miller charity.

“What an exciting few months it has been for both our charity and my family, with the news of a possible family heirloom discovery,” says Stephanie Kulesza, Hugh Miller’s great-great-great granddaughter. “I am delighted to say that Swart has donated the ring to the Miller Birthplace Museum, located in his hometown of Cromarty on the Black Isle, where it will be exhibited from next year.”

The ring has been validated as a genuine Victorian mourning ring, 18 carat gold, with engraved inscription “Hugh Miller Born Octr 10th 1802, Died Decr 24th 1856”. Exactly how the ring ended up on a South African beach is quite the mystery, though Kulesza has her theories.

“We know that Miller’s daughter, Harriet, travelled to Australia by ship in 1870, possibly via the Cape, as was common at the time,” says Kulesza. “Harriet died in Australia, and her daughters returned to the UK by boat in 1884 – is it possible the ring was lost on one of these voyages? Or was the ring stolen, or sold, and just happened to end up in the sand? I guess we’ll never know!”

The Friends of Hugh Miller also acquired a mourning brooch from a private seller in Australia back in 2007, which is currently on display at the Birthplace Museum.

“We would like to thank Cornell for this unbelievable donation to the museum,” says Bob Davidson, Chair of The Friends of Hugh Miller. “We were so excited to hear of this find, a truly golden gift for Christmas!”

For more details on this story, please head to Hugh's News issue 52 (Dec 2022).