Largo Pictish Stone

Largo Pictish Stone

J.R. Allen’s drawing of the Largo cross-slab (1903).


A recent conversation with Roger Frehen at my blogpost on the Pictish symbol known as the double disc & Z-rod prompted me to write about an interesting stone from the southern coast of Fife. This monument, formerly known as the ‘Largo Cross’, has a double disc & Z-rod carved on the reverse.

It is actually a cross-slab rather than a free-standing cross. Chronologically and stylistically it is a ‘Class 2′ Pictish stone, its sculpture incorporating both Christian and pre-Christian symbolism. It was discovered in 1839 by General James Durham, a veteran soldier whose family owned land at Largo. At that time the stone was in two pieces, both of which were found separately. One part was found covering a drain on the the General’s lands while the other turned up a mile away at Norrie’s Law, a tumulus from which a famous hoard of Pictish silver ornaments was unearthed in the early 19th century. The two sections were reunited and the mended slab was erected in the grounds of Largo House, General Durham’s residence. There it stood on a pedestal inscribed with the year of discovery. After the General died in the following year his widow moved to Polton House, south of Edinburgh, taking the stone as an ornament for her new garden. It was eventually returned to Largo where it was placed in the churchyard within a protective shelter.

Largo Pictish Stone

The cross-slab in its shelter (Photo © B Keeling)


The slab is six and a half feet tall and was carved from a block of red sandstone. It was probably erected in the 8th century, at a time when wealthy Pictish families were eager to display their allegiance to Christanity alongside the ancient symbols of their ancestors. On the front face is a huge, ringed cross adorned with interlace patterns that are now difficult to see.
Largo Pictish Stone

The weathered cross on the front of the slab (Photo © B Keeling)


In the space to the right of the cross-shaft are two intertwined creatures, possibly seahorses, but the space on the other side is too weathered to discern much detail. The rear face shows three horsemen hunting with a pair of hounds. To the left is a double disc & Z-rod, placed vertically to fit the narrow space, while below the lowest horseman is the mysterious ‘Pictish beast’ or ‘swimming elephant’. At the bottom of the stone two deer run from right to left, presumably fleeing the hounds.
Largo Pictish Stone

From John Stuart’s ‘Sculptured Stones of Scotland’ (1857).


My own tentative theory is that the Largo stone is a memorial to a high-status Pict whose name I believe is represented by the double disc & Z-rod. According to the symbol/name identifications suggested by W.A. Cummins in his book The Picts and their symbols this symbol represents the personal name Drust. Cummins further suggested that the enigmatic ‘Pictish beast’ might represent the name Edern. Applying these ideas to the Largo stone, and if the uppermost horseman is the person commemorated by it, the intended message to local Picts may have been ‘This is a memorial to Drust, the son of Edern’. Other people will no doubt wish to devise their own interpretations which they are welcome to add in the comments below this blogpost.
Largo Parish Church

Largo Parish Church (Photo © B Keeling)

It is a pity that the Largo slab is so weathered, and that so much of the carving is invisible. It is also a pity that the protective structure makes photography so difficult. The roof reduces the light and the iron railings constrict the available angles. Nonetheless, this is definitely one of the highlights of a visit to East Fife by anyone seeking the area’s Pictish heritage. It can easily be combined with a visit to the Crail cross-slab and the St Andrews Sarcophagus.

Fife

Notes & references

Location: The parish church at Upper Largo, off the A915 road in the East Neuk of Fife.

It is interesting to note that the illustration from John Stuart’s The Sculptured Stones of Scotland (1857) appears to show a human figure on the left of the cross-shaft and, on the back, a bird preening or biting itself. Romilly Allen’s drawing of 1903 leaves both areas blank.

John Romilly Allen and Joseph Anderson, The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland (Edinburgh: Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 1903) [pp.344-7 of Part III] Reprinted in facsimile by the Pinkfoot Press in 1993.

W.A. Cummins, The Picts and their Symbols (Stroud, 1999), p.25

John Stuart, The Sculptured Stones of Scotland, Volume 1, plate lxvi. (Aberdeen, 1857)

Information on the Largo stone can also be found on the RCAHMS Canmore database.

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9 comments on “Largo Pictish Stone

  1. The picture of the church is beautiful. Very interesting stones. I always enjoy your illustrations and comments about them.

  2. Susan Abernethy says:

    What a great stone! I agree the church is beautiful. Nice post.

  3. Guto Rhys says:

    I would suggest great caution with the work of Cummins. There is nothing new in the suggestion that the symbols may represent personal names. What Cummins has done in this imaginative, speculative, under-researched publication is to count personal names in the Pictish King Lists and leap uncautiously to the conclusion that the most represented name corresponds to the most represented symbol, basically. The truth of the matter is that of all the hundreds of thousands of male Picts that existed say between the seventh and the tenth century we have about twenty or so names. The limited dataset does not permit such confident conclusions, especially when we have but one or two attestations of rarer names such as ‘Taran’ or reflexes of Aeternus. Additionally kinglists are problematic sources in that certain names can be over-represented due to reuse in dynasties. I have little objection to the old notion that a symbol represents a name (or dynasty?) but it does exceed the evidence to suggest that the Pictish beast could represent ‘Edern’. It could equally well represent Unwst or Bridei or Ciniod, or a range of other lost names. We have no Pictish Rosetta stone at present which would help us come to a conclusion. My opinion, for what it is worth, is that there is validity in noting the possibility but that to assign names to symbols is highly speculative.

    • Tim says:

      Many thanks for dropping by, Guto. Given your area of expertise, your opinion on this topic carries a lot of weight. I am happy to heed your words of caution on Cummins (as also last year, when we discussed Oxenham’s theories). In any case, I’ve been starting to run a bit fast with this stuff so it’s time to rein it in a little. Although I’ll probably stick with the basic symbols=names idea – this being the one I find most persuasive at the moment – I’ll ease off the pedal as far as specific matches are concerned.

    • I would concur with that. It’s a lovely theory but it’s beyond any kind of testing and involves quite a lot of arbitrary filling of the gaps. The first premise, that the symbols represent names, is, as I’m sure you know Tim, quite heavily contested by a number of other theories.

      All that said… I’d not seen this stone before and it seems an odd one to me. Pictish beasts on Class II is itself at least untypical, isn’t it? And a beast in an otherwise naturalistic scene is surely unparalleled. One is being asked by that hunting scene to imagine that the beast was along for the gallop too, or was even the prey. This is hard for those of us who want to believe it’s Nessie :-) The Cummins reading, that it’s part of almost a caption for the hunter, would at least keep that possible. But if not: what does this show? A hunting of a beast from the Otherworld? a metaphorical hunt of the spirit? If I were more into shamanistic interpretations of early medieval paganism I’d doubtless say this showed that the beast is a ‘spirit animal’… but I’m not and I think that usefully marks out exactly where `too far’ is with speculation on this question!

      • Tim says:

        The presence of the Pictish beast in the hunting scene does indeed seem odd. It might fit with the symbols=names theory but, as you point out, there are plenty more alternative explanations with equal (or greater) plausibility. Maybe the stonecarver inserted this symbol to make a specific point about the prowess (or some other characteristic) of one of the three hunters?

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