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 location of Rheged

Pictish symbols Trustys Hill

Pictish symbols carved on a rock at Trusty’s Hill (from John Stuart’s Sculptured Stones of Scotland, 1857)


Back in May, in a blogpost about the hillfort on Trusty’s Hill in Galloway, I wrote the following:

‘Many historians think Galloway was part of a kingdom called Rheged which seems to have been a major political power in the late sixth century. The little we know about Rheged comes from a handful of texts preserved in the literature of medieval Wales. These suggest that the kingdom rose to prominence under Urien, a famous warlord whose deeds were celebrated by his court-bard Taliesin.’

Galloway is not the only area proposed as the heartland of Urien’s kingdom. The English county of Cumbria is another popular candidate, frequently appearing alongside Dumfries & Galloway as part of ‘Rheged’. This idea that Urien’s rule encompassed lands on both sides of the Solway Firth has recently received a boost from two different quarters. Cumbria’s claim is strongly endorsed by Professor Andrew Breeze in the published version of a 2011 lecture on place-names, while archaeological data from the Galloway Picts Project has prompted a suggestion that Trusty’s Hill may have been a key centre of power for Urien’s family.

I continue to regard Rheged as an elusive territory whose precise location is unknown. I’m not convinced we can even call it a ‘kingdom’. All we can say with confidence is that the poetry attributed to Taliesin associates a place called Rheged with a North British king called Urien. We have no evidence that Rheged was a large territory of greater extent than, say, a river valley of sufficient size to support one or more aristocratic estates. It may have been Urien’s core domain, to which he added other territories (such as the equally mysterious Goddeu and Llwyfenydd) as his power expanded.

Modern maps of sixth-century Britain often show Rheged as a huge realm straddling the Solway and parts of the Pennines. Sometimes it stretches down into Lancashire, prompting some mapmakers to divide it into sub-kingdoms called ‘North Rheged’ and ‘South Rheged’. This goes way beyond the information provided by Taliesin, and is as far away from serious historical scholarship as the maps in The Lord Of The Rings (which are at least consistent with textual evidence relating to the kingdoms of Middle Earth).

It’s actually quite rare to see the lack of certainty about Rheged’s location being acknowledged. One writer who has taken a cautious approach is Carla Nayland, whose blog includes many useful thoughts on historical subjects. Carla examines the geography of Rheged in a couple of recent posts, both of which I recommend to anyone who has an interest in this controversial topic. While voicing her own preference for a Solway location, Carla points out that nobody really knows for sure. This is an important point which can’t be brushed aside, regardless of how many people preface their theories with ‘Historians now accept that Rheged lay in the Eden Valley….’ [or in the Lake District or Galloway or wherever]. Carla summarises, in a few words, what we actually do know: ‘Rheged could have been anywhere on the western side of Britain from Strathclyde to Lancashire’.

Until we can be certain where Urien’s kingdom was situated in relation to other kingdoms (and we’re unlikely to ever know) a reconstruction of sixth-century political geography based on where we think he ruled won’t get us very far. We also need to keep in mind the sobering fact that many specialists in medieval Welsh literature have now moved away from the older view – held by Sir Ifor Williams and other Celtic scholars of his generation – that the Taliesin poems can be used as valid sources of North British history.

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Carla Nayland’s blogposts:
Rheged: location
Location of Rheged: the poetry

Galloway Picts Project – New exhibition on the Trusty’s Hill excavation (an information board on ‘Rheged: the lost kingdom’ can be glimpsed in one of the photos)

Andrew Breeze: ‘The Names of Rheged’, Transactions of the Dumfriesshire & Galloway Natural History & Antiquarian Society, vol.86 (2012), pp.51-62. A summary of the lecture upon which the article is based can be found at the DGNHAS website.

P.S. As I’ve said in a comment at Carla’s blog, I’d be more than happy to locate Urien in the Solway area, mainly because he’d conveniently fill a gap in a part of Northern Britain where plenty of elite activity was going on in the sixth century. But other areas can’t be ruled out, and I believe a no-less-plausible case can be made for the upper valley of the River Tweed around Peebles (on which I hope to say more in a future blogpost). This won’t mean I think Rheged was centred on Peebles. It will merely demonstrate that the conventional theory is not the only one we can explore.

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Discover Dark Age Galloway

‘In Galloway, on the fringes of what had been Roman Britain’s northern frontier, the kingdom of Rheged emerged in the fifth and sixth century AD.’

So says Discover Dark Age Galloway, a new leaflet produced by GUARD Archaeology for the Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society. This attractive little publication is available free of charge from a number of tourist venues in the area.

It’s well-written and informative, and also nicely illustrated. The colourful reconstruction drawings of the hillforts of Tynron Doon, Mote of Mark and Trusty’s Hill, and of the monastic site at Whithorn, are certainly worth a look. As previously reported here at Senchus, last year’s excavations at Trusty’s Hill yielded a wealth of data relating to what was happening there in the sixth to eighth centuries AD. People of high status lived on the summit, in a settlement associated with a rock on which Pictish symbols were carved.

This was indeed the era of Rheged, a place identified by the authors of the new leaflet as a kingdom centred on Galloway. They believe that the archaeological evidence from the fort on Trusty’s Hill supports the view that it was an important site within the kingdom. They may be right. If they are, I’ll stop musing on the possibility that the core of Rheged lay further north in the valley of the River Tweed.

Click the link below to see an announcement about the leaflet (and a reduced online version) at the Galloway Picts Project website. Those of you with your own theories on the location of Rheged may be interested in this part:
‘Rheged, for so long a lost kingdom, thought to be somewhere in South-west Scotland or North-west England, can now perhaps for the first time be fixed to the ground, not in Cumbria or Lancashire or Dumfriesshire, but in Galloway.’

The Galloway Picts Project – Discover Dark Age Galloway

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Nigg Pictish stone

Nigg Pictish stone

Nigg cross-slab. Illustration from The Early Christian Monuments Of Scotland, 1903.


The old parish church at Nigg in Easter Ross probably stands on the site of an important Pictish monastery. The present building dates from the 1600s and is home to one of the most famous examples of Pictish sculpture: a magnificent cross-slab, 7 feet high, carved in the late eighth century. The slab’s decoration is very intricate. On the front face, above the cross, is a cameo showing Saint Paul and Saint Anthony receiving bread from a raven sent by God. The cross itself is surrounded by delicate interlace, swirling snakes and circular bosses. The back of the stone shows figures of humans and animals, with a Biblical scene (King David of Israel slaying a lion) and, at the top, an eagle above a mysterious ‘Pictish beast’.
Nigg Pictish stone

Nigg cross-slab: Paul & Anthony. Drawing by C. Petley, from The Early Christian Monuments Of Scotland, 1903.


The slab has suffered considerable damage over the past 1200 years. It once stood near the entrance to the churchyard, until it was toppled by a storm in 1727. It was then re-positioned beside the church but, during a later move, it broke into three pieces. One piece – a narrow middle section containing part of the Pictish beast – was thrown away when the upper and lower pieces were joined together with metal staples. The discarded piece disappeared and was thought to be lost for ever.
Nigg Pictish stone

Top section of slab: eagle & ‘Pictish beast’. Drawing by C. Petley, from The Early Christian Monuments Of Scotland, 1903.


A major project to conserve the slab was undertaken by Nigg Old Trust, the guardians of the church, who obtained funding for detailed restoration work by a stone conservator. The work was painstaking and time-consuming, because the monument had sustained so much damage in the past. The project also included a new display-area inside the church to enhance the experience for the many visitors who come to admire this masterpiece of Pictish art. This year, at the beginning of April, the restored slab was unveiled to the people of Nigg.

Nigg Pictish stone

Nigg cross-slab. Drawing by C. Petley, from The Early Christian Monuments Of Scotland, 1903.


An interesting footnote to the project is the fate of the middle section which vanished when the slab shattered in the 18th century. In 1998, a fragment of this missing piece was discovered in a nearby stream by Niall Robertson (former editor of the Pictish Arts Society Journal). It has now been reunited with the rest of the monument.

Nigg Pictish stone

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Useful links

The website of Nigg Old Trust has information on the Pictish stone and the restoration project.

Site record for Nigg at the RCAHMS Canmore database

BBC news report from 10 April 2013 on the completed restoration

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The Galloway Picts Project: update

Latest news from this fascinating archaeological project at Trusty’s Hill near Gatehouse-of-Fleet.

The ‘Data Structure Report’ from last year’s excavation is now available as a PDF file on the project website. It’s an interim publication in which the results are presented in a way that allows specialists to understand the archaeological context of each ‘find’ unearthed during fieldwork.

For the non-specialist, the report gives an excellent overview of what was discovered. Trusty’s Hill has long been known for the Pictish symbols incised on a rock near the summit, but nobody really knew who carved them, or when, or why. Some people even doubted that the carvings were ancient, and wondered if later graffiti offered a better explanation. Likewise, not much was known about the hillfort itself, although there were several theories about Pictish raiders using it or attacking it.

Thanks to the 2012 excavation we now know that the hilltop was a fortified settlement of major importance in the 6th-7th centuries AD. The people who lived there were wealthy and powerful. They imported the kinds of luxury goods associated with sites of very high status, such as Dunadd in Argyll. On the summit of Dunadd is a group of features associated with royal inauguration rituals – not only the famous footprint but also a rock-cut basin and a carved Pictish boar. At Trusty’s Hill the 2012 excavation found a similar rock-cut basin near the Pictish symbols, so it seems likely that important ceremonies were performed there too.

Anyone with an interest in early medieval Galloway will find this report useful and thought-provoking. It brings a little more clarity to our understanding of what was happening on the northern side of the Solway Firth in the time of shadowy figures such as Saint Ninian and Urien Rheged (both of whom are traditionally linked to the region). Evidence of high-status activity at other Galloway sites such as Whithorn and Mote of Mark has been the bedrock of scholarship for many years, but the information now emerging from Trusty’s Hill is a game-changer. It really does seem as if something ‘Pictish’ was going on there after all.

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Ronan Toolis & Christopher Bowles, The Galloway Picts Project: Excavation and Survey of Trusty’s Hill, Gatehouse of Fleet. Data Structure Report (March 2013).

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I am grateful to Ronan Toolis for letting me know about the report when it went online yesterday.

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