Drawing a Pictish symbol

John Romilly Allen

John Romilly Allen (1847-1907)

Whenever someone adds a comment here at Senchus, a small picture or ‘avatar’ shows beside their name. These images are generated automatically, unless the person already has a WordPress account of their own with an avatar attached to it. My own avatar is a representation of the ‘Crescent & V-rod’, a Pictish symbol, which I also use on my Twitter profile. I’ve been using this for about 7 years. It’s my own variant on the symbol and was created on a computer using Photoshop.


If I was more artistic I could quite happily spend time designing variants of other symbols, perhaps even building up a stock of avatars that I could then rotate around my social media profiles. In the absence of such a talent, I simply resort to admiring the artwork of others, most notably John Romilly Allen. Today, no new book on the Pictish symbols is complete without a selection of Allen’s fine drawings. The originals were published more than a century ago in ECMS (The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland), a comprehensive survey of Scotland’s Dark Age sculpture compiled by Allen himself and Joseph Anderson.

I’ve always liked Allen’s distinctive style which is characterised by bold shapes in black ink on a plain white background. It really makes the Pictish symbols stand out. In this blogpost I’ve reproduced a few examples of his drawings from ECMS. These show four Pictish stones from north-east Scotland and one from Orkney, the common link between them being the Crescent & V-rod symbol.

Pictish Stone Dingwall

Dingwall, Easter Ross (front and rear of stone).

Pictish Stone Inverurie

Inverurie, Aberdeenshire.

Pictish Stone Rosemarkie

Rosemarkie, Easter Ross (rear of cross-slab).

Pictish Stone Craigton

Craigton, Sutherland.

Pictish Stone Paplay

Paplay, South Ronaldsay, Orkney (front and rear of stone).

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J.R. Allen & J. Anderson (1903) The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland (Edinburgh)
[Available as a 2-volume reprint from the Pinkfoot Press, Brechin]

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The real Macbeth


Macbeth in a painting by George Cattermole (1800-68).

With a new movie version of Shakespeare’s play due for UK release next month, it’s worthwhile to dust off the medieval history behind all the drama and tragedy.

The real Macbeth (Macbethad mac Findlaích) was a lord of Moray who became a prominent figure in Scottish politics in the middle decades of the eleventh century. His ambition gained him the kingship of the Scots in 1040, a position he held until his death in 1057 – except for a brief hiatus when he was deposed by a rival. His life ended in a battle against Malcolm Canmore (Máel Coluim mac Donnchadha) who went on to depose Macbeth’s stepson Lulach in the following year. Malcolm then ruled the Scots until his own death at the battle of Alnwick in 1093.

A useful list of historical information relating to Macbeth has recently been placed online at Buzzfeed, courtesy of Marian Toledo Candelaria. Marian is a PhD student at the University of Guelph in Canada and an assistant editor at the International Review of Scottish Studies. The subject of her doctoral thesis is Malcolm Canmore, so she is very well-placed to give us the lowdown on one of his greatest foes.

Click the link below…

Marian Toledo Candelaria: Top 10 historical misconceptions about Macbeth

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For more insights into this turbulent period in Scottish history, take a look at Marian’s blog. Marian can also be followed on Twitter at @malcolmcanmore

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Macbeth and his wife Gruoch (Lady Macbeth) are discussed in an older blogpost here at Senchus.

My interest in Macbeth stems mainly from his involvement in the last phase of the kingdom of Strathclyde. I’ve written about this at my other blog Heart of the Kingdom under the title ‘A Govanite on the Scottish throne’. The same topic formed the subject of an article in the magazine History Scotland and is also covered in Chapter 9 of my book Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age.

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Free Pictish stuff

Groam House Pictish Lecture
The good folk of Groam House Museum have made available as free downloads seven out-of-print titles from their Annual Academic Lecture series.

Groam House, as many of you will know, holds a superb collection of Pictish sculpture. The museum is located in the picturesque village of Rosemarkie in Easter Ross, on the shore of the Black Isle. Many of the museum’s carved stones come from a nearby ecclesiastical site known in early medieval times as Ros Maircnidh. This was a major monastery of the Northern Picts. At the end of the seventh century, the abbot of Ros Maircnidh (Rosemarkie) was Saint Curadán or Curetán, a signatory to the famous ‘Law of Innocents’ promulgated by Adomnán of Iona in 697.

Groam House Pictish Lecture

The hardcopy versions of the Groam House booklets are very nicely produced. I’ve purchased a few over the years and keep them within easy reach on my bookshelf. I really ought to obtain more titles in the series – ideally all of them. Most of the ones I do possess are from the 1990s so I need to catch up and fill the gaps. The booklets are a handy size for quick reference and I frequently consult them on specific points – or simply browse them at leisure.

Groam House Pictish Lecture

I have all but one of the seven out-of-print lectures, the exception being Isabel Henderson’s The Art and Function of Rosemarkie’s Pictish Monuments. So far, I only possess two lectures from the current century: Fraser Hunter’s Beyond the Edge of the Empire and Sally Foster’s Place, Space and Odyssey. These aren’t free but both are well worth buying.

Groam House Pictish Lecture

This year’s Annual Academic Lecture was presented in May by Victoria Whitworth under the title Bodystones and Guardian Beasts: The Pictish Recumbent Grave-Markers in Their Wider Context. I would have liked to attend but was unable to make the trip, so I will definitely buy the published version when it appears.

Click the link below to go to the download page.

Free publications from Groam House Museum

Groam House Pictish Lecture

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Rhynie Man

Rhynie Man
This month, a team of archaeologists is hoping to shed light on an ancient carving known as Rhynie Man. This mysterious figure, carrying an axe over his shoulder, appears on a slab of stone more than six feet high. The slab was found in 1978, on a field in the Aberdeenshire village of Rhynie, near the site of a major Pictish fortress.

The archaeologists are currently excavating in the area, to see if anything can be learned of Rhynie Man’s original location and purpose. One possibility is that his stone was placed near the entrance of the fort – an entirely plausible setting for such an imposing image. The shape of his axe suggests a connection with sacrificial rites, so perhaps he represents a pagan priest of the sort who no doubt performed important ceremonies for the fort’s high-status occupants. This would fit with the pre-Christian context of the carving, which has been dated to c.500 AD, a hundred years before Pictish paganism began to retreat in the face of missionary activity from Iona and elsewhere.

I’m starting to wonder if Rhynie Man might even be a ‘Pictish druid’ like the ones encountered by St Columba near Inverness in the late sixth century.

The links below give further information about the archaeological excavation.

Rhynie Man’s blog at WordPress

Rhynie Man on Twitter

Rhynie Environs Archaeological Project

Celebrate ScotlandArchaeologists aim to uncover mystery of Rhynie Man

Press & Journal (newspaper) – New excavation seeks to unearth mystery of the Rhynie Man

The Herald (newspaper) – Dig may unlock secrets of ancient Pictish carving

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A Roman reference to Pictish tattoos


Flavius Stilicho, with his wife and son, portrayed on an ivory carving of c.395 AD, now in Monza Cathedral, Italy. (photograph from L’art Byzantin, 1932)

At the end of the fourth century AD, the western half of the Roman Empire was in serious decline. Barbarian invasions by Vandals, Goths and other Germanic peoples were a constant drain on imperial resources. Internal revolts likewise removed any hope of stability or recovery. The emperor Honorius, whose reign spanned the years 384 to 423, was barely able to cling onto power. He relied heavily on the support of his father-in-law and former guardian, Flavius Stilicho, a highly respected general who was himself of Vandal ancestry.

A prominent figure at the imperial court was the poet Claudian (Claudius Claudianus) who was close to both Honorius and Stilicho. He composed panegyric poetry in praise of both men, boosting their reputations while denigrating those of their political opponents. In modern parlance we would probably call him a spin doctor. In one poem, composed in May or June of 402, Claudian refers to a great gathering of Roman troops by Stilicho, who was preparing for a battle against Gothic invaders in Italy. Among the assembled forces was a unit that had seen service in Britain:

‘there came the legion, shield of the frontier Britons,
check of the grim Scot,
whose men had watched the life leave the tattoos on the dying Pict.’

Contemporary sources imply that there were many clashes between Romans and Picts, from the late third century to the beginning of the fifth. Several legions were part of the permanent garrison of Britain during this period and would have seen action on the northern frontier. Also, other legions came and went, usually to bolster the garrison in times of crisis or to participate in one-off campaigns. The identity of the legion mentioned by Claudian is therefore unknown.

But what makes these lines of verse especially fascinating is the reference to Pictish tattoos.

The precise meaning of the name ‘Picts’ (Latin: Picti) is uncertain. It seems to be connected with pictures of some kind and is usually translated by modern historians as ‘The Painted Ones’. The likeliest explanation is that it refers to a particular custom practiced by certain groups of people in northern Britain. Tattooing is probably the custom in question.

Pricking an inked design on the skin, as opposed to daubing or painting, had evidently been common practice in pre-Roman Britain, before the stamp of Mediterranean culture made it unfashionable. It may have been maintained thereafter among native communities living outside the Empire, in the untamed northern lands beyond the Forth-Clyde isthmus. Further south, in the Romanised part of Britain, tattoos probably came to be regarded as old-fashioned and uncouth, a form of body ornamentation favoured by hairy savages who lurked beyond the reach of civilisation.

Pictish warrior

A Pictish warrior, from Cassell’s Illustrated History of England.

At some point, probably in the third century, soldiers in the frontier forts along Hadrian’s Wall coined the term Picti. This may have originated as a derogatory term for any group of suspicious-looking natives prowling on the far side of the Wall, whether they had tattoos or not. The name caught on, finding its way from army slang into highbrow literature. It eventually narrowed to describe the inhabitants of what are now northern and eastern Scotland. By c.600 AD, and for reasons unknown, these people were using Picti as a collective name for themselves. Despite its origins in the vocabulary of their ancient enemies, they presumably regarded it as a convenient label in their quest to establish a new ‘national’ identity. Whether any seventh-century Picts still tattooed their bodies is, however, a matter of debate. I’m inclined to think some of them probably did.

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Notes and references

Here is the original Latin text from Claudian’s poem:

venit et extremis legio praetenta Britannis,
quae Scotto dat frena truci ferroque notatas
perlegit exanimes Picto moriente figuras

*ferroque notatas….figuras —> literally ‘iron-marked figures’

In another poem, Claudian seems to credit Stilicho with a victory over the Picts. There is no mention of such a campaign in other sources, so it might be an example of political ‘spin’. It is unlikely that Stilicho ever visited Britain. He was mainly concerned with Italy and the eastern Mediterranean.

I discussed Stilicho’s alleged Pictish campaign in an article published 20 years ago:
Tim Clarkson, ‘Stilicho, Claudian and the Picts’ Pictish Arts Society Journal, 6 (Autumn 1994), 27-30

My views were largely based on an earlier study:
Molly Miller, ‘Stilicho’s Pictish War’ Britannia, 6 (1975), 141-5
(Miller is probably better known to readers of this blog for her articles on the North British kingdoms of the sixth century)

The Scots mentioned by Claudian were as likely to have hailed from Ireland as from the ancestral Scottish homelands in Argyll. The Latin word Scotti seems to have been another ethnic term from the repertoire of Roman army slang. It was probably applied to any group of raiders who spoke Gaelic. I touched on this topic in an older blogpost on Scottish origins.

For a detailed analysis of Claudian’s poetry, see Alan Cameron’s Claudian: Poetry and Propaganda at the Court of Honorius (Oxford, 1970).

Chapter 3 of my book The Picts: a History includes a short discussion of Pictish tattooing. There I note that the seventh-century writer Isidore of Seville specifically states that the Picts were so named because they used needles to imprint designs on their skin.

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Early settlements in Orkney and Caithness

Map of Orkney & Caithness

Original topographic map by Equestenebrarum via Wikimedia Commons.

Two fascinating archaeological projects have been going on in the far north of Scotland. Information can be found at their respective blogs via the links below.

In Orkney, this year’s summer excavation at The Cairns on South Ronaldsay ended a couple of weeks ago. The Cairns is the site of a substantial Iron Age settlement near Windwick Bay on the eastern side of the island. At its heart are the remains of a broch – a huge stone tower – which may have been built as early as the fourth century BC. The broch’s walls are 5 metres thick, making it one of the largest examples of its type. In recent years, archaeologists have been unearthing new pieces of evidence and joining them together to build up a history not just of the broch itself but of the entire site around it. What has emerged is a remarkable insight into how this place was used by successive generations of inhabitants over a period of several thousand years, from Neolithic times to the Iron Age, and from the era of the Picts and Vikings to c.1150 AD.

Link The Cairns Project


In Caithness, a project to locate and investigate the remains of prehistoric settlements is shedding light on a previously little-known period in the area’s archaeology. Laser-scanning with LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) has enabled archaeologists to identify previously unrecorded features that traditional aerial photography might otherwise fail to pick up. This new technology is revealing a rich Bronze Age landscape of hut circles, mounds and other sites which can be surveyed on the ground. The sites will now be studied alongside the chambered cairns – long regarded as the primary prehistoric evidence from Caithness – to build up a more detailed picture of how local people interacted with the land 3000 years ago.

Link Bronze Age Caithness

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The River Add from the summit of Dunadd (Photo © T Clarkson)

Many readers of this blog will be familiar with the hillfort of Dunadd. Some of you will have walked up the stony path to the famous carved footprint on the summit. It’s an enthralling place, with great views from the top and a rich aura of history all around. I’ve been there a couple of times, though my last visit was at least ten years ago.

Today I’m writing about Dunadd because I’ve recently been reminded of why it’s one of my favourite Dark Age sites. The reminder came in an article by Jo Woolf, over at her website The Hazel Tree. Jo’s reports on her visits to historic places always capture the essence and atmosphere, and her article on Dunadd is no exception. It’s worth checking out for the photographs too, which give a virtual tour of the hill and the surrounding landscape.

Jo refers to Dunadd’s importance as a place of ritual where early Scottish kings were inaugurated. She writes about the footprint, which would have played a central role in the royal ceremonies, noting that the original carving lies protected beneath a modern replica. She also mentions the carved image of a boar, which is often identified as Pictish. In AD 736, as Jo observes, an army of Picts attacked Dunadd during a major war with the Scots. At that time, the main territory of the Scots was Dál Riata, a region comprising much of Argyll and the Isles. The later kingdom of Scotland lay a couple of hundred years in the future.


The Pictish army in 736 was led by Óengus, the mightiest warlord in northern Britain. His main enemies in Dál Riata belonged to a royal family known as Cenél Loairn (‘Descendants of Loarn’) whose name still survives in the district of Lorn around the town of Oban. This family was at the height of its power in the early eighth century and probably used Dunadd as a major stronghold. The fortress was no doubt a key target for Óengus, whose attack upon it was noted by contemporary annalists. The record in question, written in Latin, is preserved in the Annals of Ulster:

Oengus m. Fergusso, rex Pictorum, vastavit regiones Dail Riatai & obtenuit Dun At & combussit Creic & duos filios Selbaich catenis alligauit, .i. Donngal & Feradach; & paulo post Brudeus m. Oengusa filii Fergusso obiit.
[‘Óengus son of Fergus, king of the Picts, laid waste the territory of Dál Riata and seized Dunadd and burned Creic and bound in chains two sons of Selbach, i.e. Dungal and Feradach; and shortly afterwards Brude son of Óengus son of Fergus died.’]

Not only was the fall of Dunadd a massive setback for Cenél Loairn, the capture of Selbach’s sons deprived the family of two prominent military leaders. Óengus pressed home his advantage and, within a few years, had imposed his authority throughout Dál Riata, establishing a Pictish overlordship in the heartland of the Scots. This was not the end of the story: archaeological evidence suggests that Dunadd remained in use, at least into the early 800s. By then, however, the presence of Viking raiders in the western seaways was already putting pressure on the Scots, prompting some of their leading families to migrate eastward into Pictish territory. In such circumstances, Dunadd is unlikely to have retained its status as a crowning-place of kings.

Click the link below to go to Jo Woolf’s blogpost.

Dunadd: behold the king!

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