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Scotland The Picts in Scotland and their carved stones

Everyone has heard of the Picts, the confederation of northern tribes that fought against the Romans, but we know little about them. They left no written language and the only records are their carved stones.

The Pictish Kingdom spread from the far north of Scotland to the River Forth. The Picts developed from tribes in Iron Age Scotland and formed a unique cultural and political identity. They were a warrior people led by powerful kings and lords. Initially pagan, they became Christianised around 700AD and disappeared from history around 900AD. The Vikings were responsible for wiping out many of the Pictish nobility in a battle in 839AD. A few years late, Cinead (Kenneth) MacAlpine, a Gaelic king from Dál Riata in the mid C9th, brought together the remaining Picts along with other tribes, into a new kingdom of Alba which eventually became Scotland.

There are few examples of Pictish settlements. Burghead on the coast of the Moray Firth, north east of Elgin, is the site of a major Pictish Fort. The fort occupied the headland but much of the site was destroyed when a planned town was built in the early C19th. Now all that remains are a few grassy ramparts and a ditch - not a lot to see, unless from above…. The small Visitors Centre has examples of carved stones.

The Pictish Well is now surrounded by C19th housing. Steps lead down to a central pool fed by an underground spring. It may have been an important water supply for the settlement or an early Christian baptistry. Alternatively, it may have been a shrine to pagan water deities, or even a place of ritual execution by drowning...

Carved Pictish stones are found all over northern Scotland. The earliest date from around 600AD and predate the arrival of Christianity. These were unshaped stones with simple symbols carved onto the surface of the stone. These include animals, mirror and comb as well as the enigmatic double discs and Z or V-rods. The significance of some of the symbols is still unclear.

There are good examples of these simple stones in the porch of Inveravon Church in Morayshire, with their carving of an eagle, mirror, comb and V-rods.



Other examples with a carved serpent, double discs and Z-rod can be seen at Inverurie Cemetery, although these are now much eroded .


Later stones dating from 700AD are described as ‘cross slab stones’ as one side has a Christian cross which may be embellished with interlaced patterns, in typical Celtish designs. The stones are more carefully shaped before carving and designs are either picked out by incision or else left in in relief by removing the background. There are often figures or animals carved down the length of the cross shaft. The reverse side of the stone was decorated with Pictish symbols. These are the most commonly found stones.

The collection of stones at Aberlemno, illustrate how the carving of Pictish stones developed. The Roadside Stones are found on the south side of the B9134 through the village. The oldest of the stones, known as Aberlemno 1, is the furthest from the village. This was originally found in the field behind and re-erected here. Dating from the C6/7th, this is an unshaped stone with incised Pictish symbols. At the top is a serpent with a Z-rod below cutting through a double disc. At the base is a mirror and comb. On the back are traces of cup marks suggesting it has been reused.


The most southerly stone, Aberlemno 3, nearest the car park is an example of a cross slab stone with a high relief Celtic cross on the front with raised bosses. On either side of the shaft are angels holding a book.


On the reverse is a beautiful crescent with interlacing and a V-rod through it. Below is a double disc with Z-rod. Below is a hunting scene with four mounted men, three stags and three dogs. At the base is a depiction of what is thought to be Daniel in the lion’s den.


The best and most exciting is the cross slab Aberlemno 2, outside the church. This is often described as the ‘Battle Stone’ . It dates from the C8th and has been carefully shaped. (Ignore the hole at the top of the slab which was carved later.) On the front is a cross standing out in high relief with circles and interlacing. There are entwined beasts on either side of the shaft.


The reverse is thought to commemorate the Battle of Nechtansmere fought in 685AD. The site of the battle is thought to be about six miles south of Aberlemno. Around 650, Northumbrian Angles had spread northward into Pictland. One had married a Pictish princess and fathered a future king. For thirty years the Angles had held the southern part of Pictland until they were defeated in a decisive battle of Nechtansmere. The long-haired Picts are clearly victorious over the helmeted Northumbrians (Angles).


There are three battle scenes. At the top is a Pictish warrior with his sword raised and chasing a weaponless Anglian horseman. Below, a group of three Pictish warriors on foot with swords, shields and spears, confront an Anglian horseman armed with a spear. This may show how the Picts actually fought in battle. The front rank wielded sword and shield, covered by the second rank with their spears lowered to protect the swordsmen and ward off mounted warriors. Behind that the third rank of the Pictish battle line would stand in reserve. Below are mounted Pictish and Anglian horsemen fighting. The Anglian horseman on the right has drawn back his horse’s head to steady him and is about to throw his spear. The Pictish warrior has his shield raised to ward off the blow, and is preparing to hurl his own spear. On the right is a dead Anglian warrior with a raven pecking at this body.



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Pictish Stones Cont...

The purpose of the stones is unknown and they may have been set up as prayer stones along tracks or boundaries. Some were recumbent burial markers. While most stones are found scattered across the north east of Scotland, some are found clustered around important religious centres associated with the ruling Pictish aristocracy, eg at Meigle and St Vigeans.

Many of the stones are now much eroded and some are protected in perspex boxes. Others have been moved for display in nearby churches or in dedicated museums.

The Eassie Stone is late C7th and has been moved to a perspex container in the corner of the ruined church. On one side is an inscribed cross with winged angels at the top and a armed warrior and stag with hunting hounds below. The reverse side is a wonderful mix of Pictish designs and figures.

Easasie 1.jpg

Eassie 2.jpg

The Elgin Stone standing in the nave of the now ruined Elgin cathedral also has a simple cross with carved figures round the cross and entwined serpents at the base. On the reverse are Pictish symbols with a hunting scene at the base.



There are two stones in the small church at Wester Fowlis. Don’t be deceived by the large stone surrounded by railings in the square. This is a replica of that in the church. The original C8th/9th stone was moved into the church to prevent further erosion of the carving.

On the front is a large cross with raised studs at the centre. The carving is unique as the cross arms extend beyond the edges of the stone. The shaft and arms are carved with an interlaced pattern. The chain on the front is probably the remains of a medieval iron collar (jougs) which would have held a miscreant for public exhibition. On the back are figures on horseback and on foot



Even more impressive is the smaller cross slab on the wall behind, with its interlaced cross with carved animals and figures around it. The bottom right of the stone is broken and the damage must have been done during carving as the stone was discarded and the back is not carved. It was used as building stone in the church wall before being discovered and placed in the church. This accounts for its remarkable state of preservation giving an indication of just how much detail went into the carving of these stones.


The Glamis Stone is found in the Manse garden at Glamis. This is in a private garden, and there is now no public access. Dating from the C9th, this has a Celtic cross on the front. The rear of the stone is thought to be older and has a snake, salmon and mirror carved on it.



The Maiden Stone at Chapel of Garioch still stands a few paces from its original site. Historic Environment Scotland describes this as “a sculptural delight.” Elsewhere it is described as one of most spectacular pieces of Pictish sculpture, with every surface carved in a series of complex designs and symbols.

Dating from the C9th, all four sides were covered with carvings. The front with the cross is now so badly eroded, it is difficult to make out the details of the carving. The Pictish symbols on the reverse side are better preserved. At the top there are four animals. Below is a notched triangle with Z-rod through it. Below is a Pictish beast with a long snout which could possibly have been a dolphin. At the bottom is a beautiful carving of a mirror and two sided comb.



At the top of one side is a well defined notch. According to the local legend, a daughter of the Laird of Balquhain unwisely bet a stranger that she could bake a bannoch faster than he could build a road to the top of Bennachie. The prize would be the maiden's hand. The stranger was the Devil and road finished, he claimed the maiden. She ran from the Devil and, just as he touched her shoulder, she was turned to stone, leaving a notch where she had been caught.

Migvie Pictish Stone in the graveyard of the church is a huge lump of gneiss and a cross with interlaced knot work can just be made out on one side. On the reverse is a carving of a horse and rider, but we found the stone was so eroded it was impossible to make out this detail.


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Pictish Stones cont...

Nigg Sculptured Stone
has been moved from the graveyard into Nigg church. The stone has been broken at some time and is now patched up with modern infill. It is an C8th cross slab stone and is unusual as it has a triangular top piece. This has a carving of St Anthony and St Paul with the raven that brought them bread while they were in the desert. Below is a cross with elaborate knot work infill and surrounded by panels with bosses and swirls.


The reverse is surrounded by panels with swirls or geometric designs. It is more difficult to make out the carving in the centre panel. At the top is an eagle. At the bottom is a hunting scene. Reading the reference books, the centre panel is supposed to be David slaying a lion, with a sheep and a harp, representing the three sides of David, as a hunter, shepherd and musician.


Rodney’s Stone is C8th and was erected on the side of the drive to Brodie Castle in the C19th when the estate was redesigned. On the side facing the road are two carvings of sea monsters or sea horses facing each other. Beneath is a beautifully carved beast with a long snout and tail and body covered with interlaced carving. At the base are two double discs with interlaced carving and a Z-rod across them. On the other side is a cross with interlaced panels. On the sides are remains of Pictish animals.



The Shandwick Pictish Stone dates from 780AD and later served as a beacon to fishermen until it blew down and broke in half. It is now restored and protected in glass box. On the seaward side is a cross with raised bosses. Along the shaft are winged angels, animals and two circles with interlaced designs that could be snakes or serpents.


The reverse is more impressive and has eight panels, including a hunting scene with mounted horseman. At bottom panels are elaborately carved spirals.


Sueno's Stone originally stood next to the main road. Forres is now bypassed and the stone sits forgotten on a grassy area at the end of a track. It is also enclosed in a large protective case which makes photography difficult.

It is possibly one of the most impressive of the Pictish stones, standing nearly 20’ high. It is one of the later stones, dating from the C9/10th. On the front is a heavily interlaced Celtic cross with carved figures at the base.


On the reverse is a detailed battle scene with over one hundred carved figures. The picture below is scanned from a slide we took of the stone in 1970.

sueno's stone.jpg

At the top is a line of standing warriors holding swords with three rows of mounted horsemen below them. The second panel has more foot soldiers with swords and spears. The third panel depicts the battle scene with rows of headless bodies. At the bottom, the warriors are leaving the battlefield. It obviously reflects a major event, but opinions are divided as to what and vary from the defeat of the Picts by Kenneth MacAlpine to encounters between Norse and Picts. The name seems to be a C19th invention with no historical basis..

The Dupplin Cross in St Serf’s Church in Dunning, is very different to the other Pictish stones. It is a free standing Pictish Cross dating from the early C9th, and is more like the Celtic crosses found in the west of Scotland and Ireland. It is also unusual as it records in Latin the name of a Pictish king, Constantine mac Fergus, who died in AD 820.

The cross is covered with typical Celtic swirl patterns . On one side is a carved figure on horseback , thought possibly to be Constantine. Below him are armed warriors with hunting dogs.





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Museums of Pictish Stones

Meigle Sculptured Stone Museum in the old school house in the centre of the village, contains stones found in the adjacent churchyard.

Meigle was an important religious centre associated with the ruling aristocracy with a Pictish site.The stones in the museum date from the late C8th to late C10th and were carved from the local sandstone. There is a wonderful selection of large and very elaborate cross slabs as well as smaller grave marker stones. Each of the stones is catalogued and numbered and there are information boards about the stones and the Picts.


Meigle 1 is late C8th and has an elaborate cross on one side with carved animals down the side. The reverse side has a fish, serpent, comb and mirror as well as figures on horseback.



Meigle 2 is perhaps even more impressive with a wheel cross with raised studs but with Pictish symbols and animals carved on the cross shaft. On the reverse are mounted horsemen with dogs. In the centre is a human surrounded by vicious animals. There is a suggestion this could depiction of Daniel in the lion’s den. However, others have suggested it could be King Arthur's queen Guinevere who was abducted by Mordred and then condemned by Arthur to be torn apart by wild animals.



Meigle 3 is a fragment of a cross slab with a wonderful carving of a Pictish warrior on the reverse.


Meigle 4 has been broken and part of the cross is missing. The carving on the cross is still remarkable and in its detail. , and especially the animals of either side of the head. The reverse side is less well preserved with a horseman, interlaced serpents, different animals and a crescent with V-rod.



The carving of cross on on Meigle 5 is equally as impressive, particularly the two animal heads on the base of the cross and a cat like figure.


Only the shaft of Meigle 6 survives, with the splendid Pictish carvings on the reverse.


There are examples of recumbent grave markers, designed to be laid flat over a grave, with a socket at one end to hold a wooden cross. Meigle 12 had a simple geometric design on the top, but the side has a lovely carving of two bulls charging each other and a dog biting the leg of a deer.


The design on the top of Meigle 26 is more elaborate with coiled snakes and ‘sea horses’


On the sides are more carved animals or figures on horseback.



St Vigean’s Sculptured Stone Museum

St Vigeans is now a sleepy small village on the side of the Brothock Burn on northern edge of Arbroath. Not only was it a Pictish royal estate, between 700-1000AD, it was a thriving Christian settlement after Irish monks settled in the area and began converting the Picts to Christianity. It is thought that bones of St Féchín, an Irish saint, may have been buried in a monastery here. Fragments of Pictish stones were found in the walls and around the site when the church was restored in the C19th. These have been carefully preserved and displayed in St Vigean’s Sculptured Stone Museum, in two cottages in the village.

Unfortunately photography wasn’t allowed when we visited. It contains the dramatic Drosten stone with carved animals on either side of the cross and Pictish carvings on the reverse including a dog chasing a stag, an osprey catching a salmon and a bear and a goat.

The rest of the stones are less impressive than those at Meigle.

Groam House Museum

Rosemarkie, on the Black Isle, was an important Pictish settlement and a number of Pictish stones have been found in the area. A selection of these are displayed in Groam House Museum in the centre of the village.

Pride of place is the Rosemarkie cross slab, standing 10’ high and dating from the end of the C8th and is thought to have stood at the entrance to an early Christian monastery. This is unusual as the cross is tiny and is made of four squares carved into the surface to form an equal armed cross. It is surrounded by much eroded interlaced carving.


On the reverse side is a crescent. Below is a double disc with a Z-rod. The top of the Z has decorative carving. Below is another crescent with an interlaced design and what could be two mirrors below. The panel below this has another cross with decorative ends set in a geometric frame.


The rest of the stones are fragments, mainly of crosses. One is unusual as the cross is carved on one surface of a boulder. The reverse is uncarved. This is roughly dated as C9th to early Medieval. It has been suggested this might have come from a church, possibly as part of an altar frontal where only one side was visible.


Another fragment is a cast of the original in the Museum of Scotland, depicts a bearded man surrounded by wild animals. It could be Daniel in the lion’s den, or a Pictish hero...


For those wanting to find out more about the stones, the Pictish Trail travels through Easter Ross looking at its Pictish Heritage.

The Highland Pictish Trail includes several sites in the far north and west of Scotland, not covered here.
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