Freshwater pearl mussels: Scotland's little-known royal gems
They're featured on the Crown of Scotland and are rumoured to have led the Romans to invade Britain. Now, a hotel in the Highlands is helping to save the UK's endangered pearls.
n a June afternoon in north-east Scotland, I hopped out of a Range Rover in the UK's largest national park, the Cairngorms, and wandered towards a trickling tributary of the River Dee. Given the rugged natural beauty of the area's glens, it's no wonder the late Queen Elizabeth II chose nearby Balmoral Castle as the Royal Family's summer residence.
All around me, the yellow-beige palette of shrublands covered the mountainous semi-tundra and pink pops of thistle punctuated the heathered expanses. The terrain's openness, which allowed me to spot red grouse and deer on the brow of a hill, stood in stark contrast to the nearby ancient Caledonian Forest, whose extensive coverage is a vestige of the past. A network of streams and rivers cut through the unsheltered landscape, but water levels were running low in the summer heat.
"That's a dry river – this should be a babbling burn," said Ben Carter, director of sustainable growth at Artfarm, a hospitality company owned by billionaire Swiss art dealers Manuela and Iwan Wirth. The couple's nearby five-star property, The Fife Arms, directs considerable attention to environmental conservation efforts and offers a host of sustainable nature experiences in the Cairngorms, including Victorian era-inspired pony picnics, food foraging and wild swimming.
It is in these waters sluicing through the Cairngorms that a particularly prized part of the environment exists: freshwater pearl mussels, which are among the planet's most critically endangered creatures. The jewels in the mussels are rare – about one in 5,000 contains these milky-white treasures – and, as such, they have historically been valued. According to Julius Caesar's imperial biographer, Suetonius, the leader was an obsessive pearl connoisseur who allegedly had the Roman army invade Britain in 55 BCE in part because of these iridescent gems. Appropriately, the Crown of Scotland – the oldest piece of crown jewellery, dating to 1540 and including materials from an even older diadem – features pearls from these molluscs.