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Review: The Picts in north east Scotland


Scotland, United Kingdom

In search of the Picts and their standing stones

  • By SilverTraveller ESW

    2310 reviews

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  • Sep 2013
  • Husband

83 people found this review helpful

Everyone has heard of the Picts but we know little about them. They left no written language and the only records are their carved stones. They were a warrior people led by powerful kings and lords. They became Christianised and disappeared around 900AD. The Vikings were responsible for wiping out many of the Pictish nobility in a battle in 839AD. The Picts came under the control of Cinead (Kenneth) MacAlpine, a Gaelic king from Dál Riata. He brought together the different tribes into a new kingdom of Alba which eventually became Scotland.

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 19thC. Now all that remains are a few grassy ramparts and a ditch – not a lot to see. It is however, a nice place to drop out with views across the Moray Firth and up the coast of Sutherland. The small Visitors Centre has examples of carved stones. The Pictish well is surrounded by 19thC housing but is currently closed because of health concerns about the water.

Carved Pictish stones are found all over northern Scotland. The earliest date from around 600AD and have simple symbols carved onto the unshaped surface of the stone. These include animals, mirror and comb as well as the enigmatic double discs and Z or V-rods. 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.  

Later stones dating from 700AD are described as cross slab stones. One side has a Christian cross which may be embellished with interlaced patterns. 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. These are the most commonly found stones. A good example is found in the Manse garden at Glamis.

The purpose of the stones is unknown and they may have been set up a prayer stones along tracks or boundaries. Others like those found at Meigle and St Vigeans were close to early church sites. These were important religious centres associated with the ruling Pictish aristocracy and large numbers of carved stones have been found. The stones have been collected and are now displayed in a small museums.

Meigle Museum of Sculptured Stones contains several large and very elaborate cross slabs as well as smaller grave marker stones. There are some beautifully carved stones and there is a lot of information about the stones and the Picts. Lighting is good and photography is allowed. This makes a well worthwhile visit.

St Vigean's Sculptured Stone Museum is only open by appointment. Lighting isn’t good and no photographs are allowed. It contains the dramatic Drosden stone with carved animals on either side of the cross and Pictish carvings on the back 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.

Groom House Museum in Rosemarkie has a small display of carved stones including the beautiful Rosemarkie cross slab. Photography is allowed and they also have folders of photographs of other Pictish Stones in Scotland.

Some like the Picardy Stone still stand in their original location. The now very eroded Maiden Stone at Chapel of Garioch stands a few paces from its original site. Others like Rodney's Stone were moved to the grounds of Brodie House when the estate was redesigned in the 19thC.

Erosion is a problem and some stones like those at Eassie, Shandwick and Sueno's Stone in Forres are protected by perspex cases. Sueno's stone stands nearly 20' tall and is one of the most impressive stones with heavily interlaced Celtic cross on the front and a detailed battle scene with over one hundred carved figures on the reverse. Opinions are divided as to the battle and vary from the defeat of the Picts by Kenneth MacAlpine to encounters between Norse and Picts.

Nigg Sculptured Stone has been moved from the graveyard into the church. The stone is unusual as it has a triangular top with a carving of St Anthony and St Paul with the raven that brought them bread while they were in the desert.

There are two stones in the small church at Fowlis Wester which are well worth searching out. Don’t be deceived by the large stone surrounded by railings in the square. This is a replica of that in the church. Even more impressive is the smaller cross slab with its interlaced cross with carving of animals 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 uncarved. 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.

Perhaps the most impressive collection of stones is found at Aberlemno, a tiny settlement of a few houses, church and village hall on the B9134 between Forfar and Brechin. On a ridge of land between the South Esk and Lunan valleys it could have acted as a territorial boundary, with the stones acting as markers. One of the roadside stones is a very early Pictish stone dating from 6/7thC with simple Pictish symbols. A few yards away is a typical cross slab stone. The best and most exciting stone is the cross slab by the church with a battle scene on the reverse. This is thought to represent the Battle of Nechtansmere when the Picts defeated Northumbrian Angles who had settled in the area.

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