NOSAS Archaeology Blog

Pictish Symbol Stone Rhynie

Pictish symbol stone from Rhynie Kirk, Aberdeenshire (drawing by John Romilly Allen in ECMS, 1903)


An excellent online resource for Scottish archaeology appeared this year. The blog of the North of Scotland Archaeological Society (NOSAS) is the place to go for updates on current excavations and other projects in the Highlands. It started in July and is already a treasure trove of fascinating information.

Unsurprisingly, the Picts turn up in several blogposts, of which the ones listed below are just three examples I’ve picked out as ‘recommended reading’.

Pictish burial practices
Excavations at Rhynie
Highland hillforts

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Other useful links:
NOSAS website
NOSAS on Facebook
NOSAS Blog on Twitter

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Brunanburh in 937: Bromborough or Lanchester?

King Athelstan

Athelstan, king of the English (924-39), in a manuscript of Bede’s Life of St Cuthbert.


Last Thursday evening (4th December) the eminent philologist Andrew Breeze gave a lecture to the Fellows of the Society of Antiquaries at their headquarters in London. His main topic was the battle of Brunanburh, fought in 937, one of the most famous events of the Viking Age. The victor was the English king Athelstan who thwarted an alliance of Norsemen, Scots and Strathclyde Britons. Frustratingly, the site of this mighty clash of arms is unknown. Some historians think it took place on the Wirral Peninsula in Cheshire, near the present-day village of Bromborough. Others think Cheshire is too far south and instead suggest alternative locations, one of these being the River Browney in County Durham. Professor Breeze believes that the Roman fort of Lanchester, slightly north of the Browney, may be the lost ‘fort of Bruna’ implied by the Old English place-name Brunanburh.

The lecture is now available on YouTube. Although I’m not convinced by the Lanchester theory, I like to keep up with the Brunanburh debate so I enjoyed watching the video. At the heart of Professor Breeze’s argument is his belief that the Norsemen sailed in via the Humber estuary – as indeed the twelfth-century chronicler John of Worcester said they did – before mooring their ships and marching to the battlefield. Not everyone is happy to accept the chronicler’s words on this important logistical point. Some sceptical folk (myself included) think it more likely that the Norse commander Anlaf Guthfrithsson brought his army across the Irish Sea to a landfall on the western coast of Britain. The earliest source for the battle of Brunanburh is a tenth-century poem which says that Anlaf fled across the sea to Dublin after his defeat. I support the theory that he probably arrived at the battlefield via the same western route rather than by sailing all the way around Scotland to come down to the Humber.

The link below will take you to the video of the lecture. Look out for a glimpse of my latest book Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age. Needless to say, Professor Breeze isn’t convinced by what I’ve written in the book’s fifth chapter, which mostly deals with the Brunanburh debate. There I suggest that the great battle may have been fought in North Lancashire, although I conclude that the true location is likely to remain elusive for the foreseeable future.

Society of Antiquaries [YouTube] – Brunanburh in 937: Bromborough or Lanchester?

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Notes

I am grateful to Andrew Breeze for telling me about the lecture and video.

A brief summary of the lecture can be seen at the Society of Antiquaries events pages.

I mentioned both Lanchester and Bromborough in a blogpost published here last October.

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Dunblane’s ‘Late Pictish’ cross-slab

Dunblane Pictish Stone

Early medieval cross-slab in Dunblane Cathedral (© B Keeling)


Two early medieval carved stones were discovered at Dunblane Cathedral during restoration work in the late nineteenth century. One is a broken rectangular slab with carved patterns along one edge only, the rest being unadorned. The other is a fully ornamented cross-slab, with carvings on front and back. Both stones were found under a staircase in the Lady Chapel or Chapter House but can now be seen at the west end of the North Aisle. They were probably carved in the tenth century and are usually regarded as late examples of Pictish sculpture. This may mean that they are not really Pictish at all, for the Picts appear to have developed new ideas about cultural and political identity at the end of the ninth century. Close contact between the Picts and their Scottish neighbours in the Gaelic West eventually led to the complete disappearance of ‘Pictishness’ and its replacement by ‘Scottishness’. It might be more accurate, then, to associate the Dunblane stones with the new, Gaelic-speaking kingdom of Alba which emerged around AD 900 in what had formerly been the Pictish heartlands.

Dunblane Pictish Stone

The Dunblane Cathedral cross-slab stands a little over 6 feet high. Its carvings were described in detail by John Romilly Allen in an article published in Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in 1881. Allen’s own drawings of the front and rear faces appeared at the end of the article and were reproduced twenty-two years later in The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland, his great collaborative venture with Joseph Anderson. The text below, taken from the entry for Dunblane on pages 315 to 317 of ECMS, describes the carvings on the rear of the slab.

‘A single panel, containing (at the top, nearly in the middle) a pair of beasts sitting up on their hind quarters, facing each other and with their fore-legs crossed; (at the right hand upper corner) a single spiral; (below the beasts on the left) square key-pattern No. 886; (on the right of this) a square figure with five raised bosses like the spots on a die; (next in order going down the slab, on the left) a small cross of shape No. 102A; (to the right of this) a figure resembling a keyhole plate as much as anything; (then) a horseman armed with a spear and accompanied by a hound; (below on the right) a circular disc ornamented with a cruciform device, there being traces of a very rudely executed key-pattern on the background; (at the bottom of the slab on the left) a man holding a staff in his right hand; and (at the right-hand lower corner) a single spiral.’

[Note: To illustrate similarities between sculptural styles in different parts of Scotland, Allen and Anderson used a numerical classification for the most common types of carving, e.g. ‘key-pattern No.886′]

Dunblane Pictish Stone

Allen’s drawing of the Dunblane Cathedral cross-slab.


Assigning a precise historical context to the cross-slab is no easy task. Dunblane is in Strathallan, the valley of the Allan Water, in the former county of Perthshire. It lies on the southern edge of what is generally considered to have been ‘Pictland’ in earlier times. To what extent (if any) its tenth-century inhabitants still regarded themselves as Picts is a matter of debate. The rulers of Alba – descendants of the Pictish king Cináed mac Ailpín (died 858) – certainly identified as ‘Scots’ in the early 900s and many of their subjects no doubt followed suit.

The place-name Dunblane (Gaelic: Dún Blááin,’fort of Blane’) was originally Dol Blááin ‘Blane’s water-meadow’, both names being traditionally associated with the sixth-century saint Blane or Bláán whose main monastery lay at Kingarth on the Isle of Bute. One possible scenario is that monks from Kingarth, seeking a refuge from Viking raids in the ninth century, established a new community at Dunblane on a site later occupied by the cathedral. This early religious settlement may have been targeted by the Britons of Dumbarton, who are said to have burned Dunblane during the reign of Cináed mac Ailpín. The same monastery might also be the unidentified civitas Nrurim where, according to the Chronicle of the Kings of Alba, Cináed’s son Áed was killed in 878 (in this period, the Latin word civitas meant ‘major religious settlement’ as well as ‘city’ or ‘fortress’). Other sources place Áed’s death in Strathallan, so Nrurim might be an older name for the newly founded monastery of Dol Blááin, or perhaps a garbled version of it.

Unlike some other early medieval carved stones, the Dunblane cross-slab is easy to find. It is certainly worth seeing, not least because it shows how ‘Late Pictish’ stonecarving had declined from the high craftsmanship of earlier periods (compare, for instance, the Dupplin Cross of c.830). The cathedral is open all year round but it’s advisable to check beforehand if planning a special trip – see the link below.

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Links & references

Record for Dunblane Cathedral on the RCAHMS Canmore database

Dunblane Cathedral opening hours

John Romilly Allen, ‘Notice of Sculptured Stones at Kilbride, Kilmartin and Dunblane’ Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland vol.15 (1880-81), 254-61.

John Romilly Allen and Joseph Anderson, The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland (Edinburgh: Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 1903) [A facsimile reprint is available from the Pinkfoot Press in Brechin]

Chronicle of the Kings of Alba (extract from the entry for Cináed mac Ailpín) -
‘Septimo anno regni sui, reliquias Sancti Columbae transportavit ad ecclesiam quam construxit, et invasit sexies Saxoniam; et concremavit Dunbarre atque Marlos usurpata. Britanni autem concremaverunt Dubblain, atque Danari vastaverunt Pictaviam, ad Cluanan et Duncalden.’
[‘In the seventh year of his rule, he transferred the remains of Saint Columba to the church which he built (at Dunkeld), and he attacked England six times; and he burned Dunbar and captured Melrose. However, the Britons burned Dunblane, and the Danes laid waste to Pictland, as far as Clunie and Dunkeld.’]

The suggestion that the unidentified civitas Nrurim might be Dunblane was made by Alex Woolf on page 116 of his book From Pictland to Alba, 789-1070 (Edinburgh, 2007)

Photos of the two Dunblane stones (via the Canmore database)

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Antonine Wall website

Antonine Wall Rough Castle

The Antonine Wall at Rough Castle near Bonnybridge (© B Keeling)


A new website for the Antonine Wall was launched last month, giving this famous Roman monument some well-deserved publicity by promoting it as a major heritage attraction. With fewer surviving traces than Hadrian’s Wall – most of which was constructed in stone – the turf-built Antonine frontier is a less visible feature of the landscape. In some places the remains of its ancient, grass-covered earthworks blend with the surrounding terrain. Nevertheless, it has much to offer the visitor, as the new website makes clear.

I recommend having a look around the website, which is nicely designed and easy to navigate. It’s worth bookmarking for content updates and for news of heritage events. In one section the site is described as ‘a host of resources and information for anyone planning a trip to the Antonine Wall or researching its history’. I’d say this is a pretty accurate description.

Highlights include ‘Top Ten Things To Do’ which is a good summary of the best-preserved locations, such as the still-impressive ramparts at Rough Castle and the bath-house at Bearsden. For anyone planning a visit there’s an interactive map with all the main locations marked. Another section lays out the historical background with pages on ‘The Romans in Scotland’, ‘Living on the Wall’ and other key topics.

Here’s the link…

The Antonine Wall: Frontiers of the Roman Empire

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Pictish symbol stone gets the 3D treatment

Pictish Craw Stane

The Craw Stane. Photograph by R. Brown, published in The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland (1903).

One of the accounts I follow on Twitter is the ACCORD Project which seeks to involve local communities in 3D digital visualisations of their heritage. The project’s full name is Archaeology Community Co-Production of Research Data. It’s run by the Glasgow School of Art’s Digital Design Studio in partnership with RCAHMS and the university archaeology departments at Glasgow and Manchester. Three weeks ago, the project website showed an example of how 3D printing technology can be used to produce models of ancient objects from digital photographs. The object in question is the Craw Stane at Rhynie in Aberdeenshire, a rough-hewn monolith carved with two Pictish symbols – a salmon and the enigmatic ‘Pictish beast’. The Craw Stane stands in what was undoubtedly an important landscape of power and ritual in the first millennium AD.

Based on data from 130 separate photographs, the 3D model was produced by Rhynie Woman – a collective of local artists – working alongside ACCORD. Click the link below to see the result.

Craw Stane printed in 3D

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More links….

Short video of the Craw Stane model being printed (looks like not much happening at first, but wait for the impressive finish)

Photographs of the collaboration between Rhynie Woman and ACCORD.

ACCORD Project website and Twitter account.

Description of the Craw Stane at the RCAHMS Canmore database

Rhynie Woman has a webpage and a Facebook page (where I spotted their excellent T-shirt design based on the famous ‘Rhynie Man’ Pictish carving)

Rhynie Environs Archaeological Project

Another collaboration between ACCORD and a local community has created a 3D model of a standing stone carved with an early medieval cross at Camas nan Geall in Ardnamurchan.

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Bannockburn (and other battles)

Battle of Bannockburn
I recently visited the heritage centre at Bannockburn which commemorates Robert Bruce’s famous victory over the English. The centre and the nearby monuments have been given a makeover to commemorate the battle’s 700th anniversary.

Because this is a fourteenth-century battle (fought in 1314, just in case anyone needs reminding) it lies beyond the usual horizons of Senchus and is well-documented elsewhere. I don’t tend to blog about the period of Bruce and Wallace unless the topic has direct relevance to something from before c.1150. However, I wanted to show some pictures of the Bannockburn monuments, partly because I think their recent makeover has turned out pretty well. Also, they remind me that commemorations of major Scottish battles from earlier periods are rare, with only a few receiving any kind of acknowledgment in the modern landscape. In many cases, this must be because the site cannot be pinpointed, not even approximately. In others, it may be because the historical significance of the event has yet to be recognised/promoted by the heritage tourism sector. I’m thinking here of important ‘Dark Age’ battles whose outcomes affected the wider balance of power, such as Strathcarron (642/643 – location uncertain), Dun Nechtáin (685 – location disputed) and Carham (1018 – location known but barely publicised). Two others in which Scottish forces were involved – Degsastan (603) and Brunanburh (937) – were undoubtedly very significant but, as well as being impossible to locate, their sites may lie south of the Border.

I remember visiting Mugdock Castle (near Milngavie) some years ago and wondering why local tourism authorities hadn’t tapped into the Pictish heritage market by putting up an information board saying ‘Historians believe that the famous battle of Mocetauc was fought near here in AD 750′, maybe with a bit of text and some coloured drawings of Picts fighting Britons. Mocetauc was a major defeat endured by the powerful Pictish king Onuist (Óengus) at the hands of an army of Britons led by the king of Dumbarton. It was famous enough to be mentioned in contemporary chronicles on both sides of the Irish Sea. Modern historians think it very likely that the battlefield lay in the vicinity of Mugdock in the valley of Strathblane, a few miles north of Glasgow. People in the Mugdock area have long been aware of this battle and have linked it – via their own folklore – to places in the local landscape. It may even be the historical event behind vague traditions of a victory won by ‘King Arthur’ at nearby Loch Ardinning, where there is apparently a sign dating the Arthurian battle to 570. With such stories already circulating in the area, and with plenty of academic support for the identification of Mocetauc as Mugdock, a project to commemorate the historical eighth-century battle with some kind of permanent marker wouldn’t come out of the blue. I imagine this is the type of project that could apply for resources from one of the community-based strands of the Heritage Lottery Fund. As I said, it’s a while since I visited the area, so if anyone knows of something already in place, or in the pipeline, please let me know.

At Dunnichen in Angus the Pictish victory over the English at Dun Nechtáin in May 685 is commemorated by a cairn with a small plaque giving a bit of historical info. Unfortunately, opinion is divided on whether Angus is the correct setting for this battle, so a more substantial memorial is hard to justify. Personally, I’m with the Dunnichen folk as far as the location is concerned, but the counter-argument (for Dunachton in Badenoch) has been well-argued by Alex Woolf and cannot be lightly set aside.

Meanwhile, at Carham on the River Tweed, we hear that the defeat of the English earl of Bamburgh in 1018 (at the hands of the Scots and Strathclyde Britons) is to be commemorated in the millennial year 2018. Perhaps a battlefield memorial is already planned? There are no doubts about the identification of Carham as the place called Carrum in a Northumbrian account written in the following century, so some kind of marker or monument would be justifiable. I discuss this battle at some length in my new book Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age.

After these musings on Dark Age battles we return to Bannockburn and to the monuments behind the new visitor centre. The following images show how Scotland’s iconic national victory continues to be commemorated on a suitably grand scale.

Battle of Bannockburn

Sculptured timeline at the rear of the visitor centre.


Battle of Bannockburn
Battle of Bannockburn
Battle of Bannockburn
Battle of Bannockburn
Battle of Bannockburn

The refurbished Rotunda (built in the 1960s) and its Victorian flagpole.


Battle of Bannockburn

Plaque on the memorial cairn within the Rotunda.


Battle of Bannockburn

The new ring beam encircling the Rotunda carries a poem by Kathleen Jamie.


Battle of Bannockburn

The Bruce Monument.

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Here’s a link to the Battle of Bannockburn visitor centre.

All photographs in this blogpost are copyright © B Keeling.

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Dunbar Castle

Dunbar Castle
The image above is from the early nineteenth century. It’s an engraving by John Greig (from a drawing by Luke Clennell) and was published as a plate illustration in Sir Walter Scott’s The Border Antiquities of England and Scotland. A number of prints were made from the original and some of these were hand-coloured by later artists. I recently found one of the coloured versions, neatly mounted on white card, in a car boot sale at Falkirk Football Club.

The picture gives a clear impression of the great mass of rock upon which the Scottish earls of Dunbar built their castle, a structure now so ruinous as to be deemed too dangerous for the public. To the left of the castle – but not shown in the engraving – is the headland known as Castle Park where archaeological excavations in the late 1980s and early 1990s revealed traces of an ancient promontory fort. This older stronghold was occupied as far back as the Iron Age and continued to be used in early medieval times as an important centre of power. Originally a fortress of the native Britons, it was taken over by the Anglo-Saxons in the seventh century when its name was recorded as Dynbaer (from Brittonic din+bar, ‘summit fort’). In the ninth century it was attacked by the Pictish king Cináed mac Ailpín (Kenneth MacAlpine) and eventually became part of the kingdom of Alba in the time of Cináed’s descendants. The site of the fortress is now occupied by a leisure centre.

Much of the history of Dunbar’s medieval castle falls outside the remit of this blog but is well worth a look, especially by anyone with an interest in the Anglo-Scottish wars. The castle’s most famous resident was the formidable Black Agnes, wife of the 9th earl, who successfully resisted an English siege in the fourteenth century.

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Further reading:

David Perry and Mark Blackburn, Castle Park, Dunbar: two thousand years on a fortified headland (Edinburgh: Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 2000)

The Canmore record for Castle Park can be found at the RCAHMS website.

Elsa Hamilton, Mighty subjects: the Dunbar earls in Scotland, c.1072-1289 (Edinburgh: John Donald, 2010)

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