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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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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Kelpies

Kelpies Falkirk Helix
Old Scottish legends speak of malevolent spirits lurking in streams and pools, waiting to catch and devour unwary travellers. These dangerous beings are often shape-shifters who adopt various human or animal forms. Perhaps the most feared of all are those that appear as beautiful horses: the each uisge (Gaelic ‘water horse’) of the sea-loch and the kelpie of the riverbank. Woe betide anyone who dares to approach a sleek, dark mare grazing peacefully at the waterside. In the blink of an eye, the victim is dragged beneath the surface to be drowned and eaten.

The origin of these mythical creatures is shrouded in mystery. One theory sees them as later versions of gods and goddesses who in ancient times were associated with particular lochs and rivers. Another sees them as symbols of the real danger posed by deep or fast-flowing water. ‘Don’t go too near the loch, or the kelpie will get you!’ was no doubt a warning issued to countless generations of inquisitive children in the Highlands.

It has been suggested that the enigmatic Pictish symbol known as the ‘swimming elephant’ or ‘Pictish beast’ might represent a kelpie or each uisge. Other explanations have been put forward but, on a personal note, I quite like this one. I’m sure the Picts had their own dark tales of deadly water-spirits in equine form, and maybe these were in some way ancestral to the creatures of later folklore. The strange ‘beastie’ carved with remarkable consistency on more than fifty Pictish stones does indeed resemble a horse.

Pictish Largo stone

Pictish beast carved on a stone at Largo in Fife.

On the Pictish cross-slab in the kirkyard at Aberlemno in Angus, a pair of creatures with horse heads and fish tails intertwine in the lower right-hand corner. Although usually identified as seahorses they bear a striking resemblance to how kelpies are sometimes portrayed in later art. Many present-day artists, for example, depict the kelpie as an aquatic creature with the tail of a dolphin.

Pictish Aberlemno stone

Seahorses on the Pictish cross-slab in Aberlemno kirkyard.

In 2014, no discussion of the mythical kelpie can ignore the two magnificent examples of the species that now reside near Falkirk. These enormous steel sculptures soar into the sky, completely dominating the local landscape and dwarfing the human visitors who teem like tiny ants on the ground below. The giant Kelpies stand beside the Forth and Clyde Canal in the new Helix Park – an extensive recreation area with playgrounds, walking paths and a lagoon. Andy Scott, the sculptor who designed the Kelpies, drew inspiration not only from the water-spirits of legend but also from the powerful horses who once served heavy industry in the area. The two gigantic heads are 30 metres high and certainly exude an aura of strength and vigour, just like the Clydesdale horses on which they are modelled.

Kelpies Falkirk Helix

I’d been keen to visit the Kelpies since April, when they were officially unveiled to the public. I eventually managed to see them at the end of August. Needless to say, the experience far exceeded all my expectations. To say I was lost for words would be an understatement. Descriptions such as impressive, imposing and awesome fail to reflect the majesty and energy of these sculptures when you’re walking beneath them. Like the ancient water-spirits that inspired their making, they exude a magical aura which – judging from the faces I saw during my visit – leaves most human visitors utterly spellbound.

Kelpies Falkirk Helix

Kelpies Falkirk Helix

Kelpies Falkirk Helix

Kelpies Falkirk Helix

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Notes & links

Archaeologist Sally Foster suggested that the mysterious ‘Pictish beast’ of the symbol stones is ‘apparently a dolphin or perhaps the fantastic kelpie or water-horse of later Scottish folklore.’ (Picts, Gaels and Scots, p.74 of the 1996 edition)

One of the most famous kelpie legends tells of the snaring of one of these creatures by the lord of Morphie (near Montrose) who forced it to drag stones for the construction of his new castle. After toiling hard with ‘sore back and sore bones’, the kelpie managed to escape, laying a curse on its cruel captor as it fled back to its pool:
‘Sair back and sair banes,
drivin’ the Laird o’Morphie’s stanes.
The Laird o’Morphie’ll never thrive
sae lang as the Kelpie is alive!’

[Link] The Kelpies sculpture website
[Link] Sculptor Andy Scott’s website

Photographs in this blogpost are copyright © B Keeling.

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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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Galloway’s lost kingdom?

TDGNHAS2013
Some weeks ago I received my copy of the latest TDGNHAS through the post. This year’s volume contains the customary banquet of history and archaeology, with Senchus-related topics featuring in three articles and a book review. One of the articles, written by Warren Bailie of GUARD Archaeology Limited, gives an interesting summary of an investigation at Carzield Roman Fort near Dumfries. It is preceded by an article from Ronan Toolis (also of GUARD) and Chris Bowles (Scottish Borders Council) on the excavations undertaken at Trusty’s Hill by the Galloway Picts Project in 2012. I’ve given occasional updates on this project, usually with links to relevant posts at the Galloway Picts website, but the article in TDGNHAS is the first lengthy printed report.

As many of you will know, Trusty’s Hill is famous for the Pictish symbols carved on a stone near the summit. What makes them special is their presence at a site so far away from the Pictish heartlands further north. On the summit of the hill are the remains of an ancient fort long assumed to have been a major Dark Age stronghold. The Galloway Picts Project set out to place both the fort and the symbols in a clearer historical context. In particular, it was hoped that the question of whether or not the symbols were fakes could be settled once and for all.

Trusty's Hill Pictish Symbols

The Pictish symbols at Trusty’s Hill. Illustration by J.R. Allen (1903).


The TDGNHAS article contains far too much good stuff to summarise in this brief blogpost, but I’ll mention three of the most significant findings. First, there is now no doubt that the fort was occupied by people of high status in the fifth to seventh centuries; second, the fort was destroyed by fire – presumably at the hands of enemies – in the early seventh century; and third, the two Pictish symbols are indeed ancient and were almost certainly carved in the time of the historical Picts (the horned head turns out to be of nineteenth-century origin).

A fuller, more detailed report on the excavations is in the pipeline. It will appear under the intriguing title The Lost Kingdom of Rheged: the Dark Age Royal Stronghold of Trusty’s Hill, Dumfries & Galloway and will be published by Oxbow Books of Oxford. Rheged appears in medieval Welsh tradition as one of several places ruled by a sixth-century king called Urien and his son Owain. Our main source of information on these figures is a group of poems attributed to Taliesin who sems to have been Urien’s principal court-poet or personal bard .

While eagerly awaiting the publication of the full report, I do wonder about the title, which links the archaeological data from the excavations to the rather less solid evidence for Rheged. In the TDGNHAS article, Ronan and Chris describe Trusty’s Hill as ‘a strong contender as a royal centre from which Urien and Owain struck out.’ This is probably true, but I’m not sure the point can be pressed any further. Fixing the location of Rheged on a modern map has always been a guessing game, like the one where a blindfolded person tries to pin a paper tail on a drawing of a donkey. None of the old Welsh texts actually tells us where Rheged was, or even what it was. The idea that it was a kingdom (rather than a smaller territorial unit) emerged in the nineteenth century and is not a necessary inference from the Taliesin poems. I’ve said all this before, in print and online, and I’ll continue to repeat it, even though it puts me at odds with the popular belief that Rheged was a very large realm straddling the Solway Firth. The theory put forward by Ronan and Chris in their article conforms to the conventional view. So does the statement by Andrew Breeze in his review of Beyond The Gododdin 150 pages later. Professor Breeze, an expert on Celtic place-names, asserts that ‘the territories of Urien Rheged stretched from the Ayr to the Yorkshire Ouse’, thus encompassing the Solway lands (present-day Cumbria with Dumfries & Galloway) and of course Trusty’s Hill itself. I’m not convinced. ‘The simple truth is that we cannot deduce the location of Urien’s kingdom from the data currently available’. I wrote these words on page 75 of The Men of the North and I still stand by them four years later. Perhaps the full report of the Trusty’s Hill excavations will go some way towards thawing my scepticism? I shall wait and see.

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TDGNHAS = Transactions of the Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society. The contents of Volume 87 (2013) include the following:

Ronan Toolis and Christopher Bowles ‘Excavations at Trusty’s Hill, 2012′ [pp.27-50]

Warren R. Bailie ‘Recent Investigations at Carzield Roman Fort, Kirkton, Dumfries and Galloway’ [pp.51-80]

D.C. McWhannell ‘Gaill, Gáidheil, Gall-Gháidheil and the Cenéla of Greater Galloway’ [pp.81-116]

Andrew Breeze: Review of Alex Woolf (ed.) Beyond the Gododdin: Dark Age Scotland in Medieval Wales (St Andrews, 2013) [pp.197-9]

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Here’s a link to the website of the Galloway Picts Project

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I discuss the location of Rheged on pp.68-75 of The Men of the North: the Britons of Southern Scotland (Edinburgh: John Donald, 2010)

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The Imaginary Hadrian’s Wall

Hadrian's Wall
One aspect of the current debate on Scottish independence is the depiction of Hadrian’s Wall as a symbolic boundary between England and Scotland. Newspaper journalists and other media folk, especially those based in London, seem to like the idea of an Anglo-Scottish border defined by a massive stone rampart. The fact that the Wall has never marked the actual Border is evidently less important than its value as a symbolic frontier between North and South, between ‘Us and Them’. This is nothing new, of course. Back in the sixth century, a writer called Gildas used the Wall for a similar rhetorical purpose. Gildas presented it as a barrier between the Romanised Britons and the barbarous Picts whom he regarded as pagan savages lurking in the untamed, unchristianised northern lands. As far as he was concerned, Hadrian’s Wall was designed to keep the Picts at a safe distance. Not strictly correct, but it made a good tale for his readers. In common with some present-day journalists, Gildas didn’t really know much about the history of the Wall, but its solid permanence helped him to make a point about the difference between Us and Them.

Hadrian's Wall
In a recent article at the Almost Archaeology blog, Adrián Maldonado looks at the various ways in which Hadrian’s Wall has been perceived since Roman times. He considers the monument’s use as a symbol – not only in modern political writing but also in fictional narratives such as movies. Along the way he examines how people living north of the Wall have often been portrayed according to a stereotype – the ‘blue-painted ginger maniac’ – which is still a familiar caricature. Variations on the theme turn up in movies such as Braveheart, King Arthur and Centurion (see image below).

Centurion movie

Adrián’s article is well worth reading – a fine blend of ancient history, modern politics and movie criticism. Take a look and share it around.

Adrián Maldonado: The Imaginary Hadrian’s Wall: Archaeology and the Matter of Britain

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Picts at Moncrieffe Hill

Moncrieffe Hill Pictish fort
A new project to promote the history and archaeology of the Carse of Gowrie is set to run for the next four years, with funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund and other sources. One of the key sites involved in the project is Moncrieffe Hill which has a large Iron Age fort on the summit. The fort has never been excavated before, but the new project will see the first ever ‘dig’. This is likely to shed light on how the hill was used by the ancient inhabitants of Perthshire, not only in the Iron Age but in the Pictish period that followed.

The name Moncrieffe is an Anglicised form of Monadh Craoibh (Gaelic: ‘Hill of Trees’). A glance at the Latin text of the Annals of Ulster turns up an interesting item from the year 728:

Bellum Mónidchroibh inter Pictores inuicem, ubi Oenghus uictor fuit & multi ex parte Eilpini regis perempti sunt. Bellum lacrimabile inter eosdem gestum est iuxta Castellum Credi, ubi Elpinus efugit.

‘The battle of Monadh Craoibh between the Picts themselves, in which Óengus was victor, and many were slain on the side of king Alpín. A woeful battle was fought between the same parties near Castle Credi, where Alpín was put to flight.’

Castle Credi is unidentifed, but Monadh Craoibh is undoubtedly Moncrieffe Hill. The context of the battle was a power-struggle between rival claimants for kingship in southern Pictland. Four ambitious men – Óengus, Alpín, Nechtan and Drust – fought a bitter war that lasted through the 720s. By the summer of 729, a victor finally emerged in the shape of Óengus, who defeated Nechtan, his last remaining rival, on 12 August. In the previous year, Óengus had trounced Alpín’s forces at Moncrieffe Hill and Castle Credi.

Moncrieffe Hill Pictish fort
Óengus (pronounced ‘Oyn-yus’) went on to become one of the greatest of all Pictish kings. In the 730s he conquered Dál Riata, the land of the Scots, which thereafter seems to have lain under permanent Pictish overkingship. One result of the long period of Pictish supremacy was the gradual merging together of the Scots and Picts as a single, Gaelic-speaking people inhabiting a new kingdom called Alba. If we credit Óengus as one of the main architects of this process, his victory at Moncrieffe Hill should perhaps be seen as an important milestone in the birth of the Scottish nation.

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I deal with the Pictish dynastic war of the 720s in my book The Picts: a History (at pp.150-3).

The image below shows the Israelite king David, as depicted on the eighth-century St Andrews Sarcophagus. It is possible that the stone-carver tried to capture the likeness of Óengus, king of the Picts, who may be the person commemorated by this famous monument.

St Andrews Sarcophagus

The new heritage project for the Carse of Gowrie is described in an article in The Courier. The project also has its own website.

Check out these photos of Moncrieffe Hill in a blogpost by Keith Savage.

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