The origin of the Pictish symbols

Logie Elphinstone Pictish symbol stone

Pictish symbols on a stone at Logie Elphinstone in Aberdeenshire (from J. Stuart: Sculptured Stones of Scotland)


Nothing epitomises the mysteriousness of the Picts so much as their symbols. I’ve written about these strange designs in a number of blogposts, as well as in my book The Picts: a History. Like many people I have a particular view on their possible ‘meaning’, while acknowledging that it might not be the correct one. It’s a topic that has always attracted competing theories, as can be seen in the comment threads here at Senchus and in a plethora of other places online. The symbols have been seen as representations of various kinds of objects or ideas – religious, agricultural, astronomical, and so on – or as a form of writing like Egyptian hieroglyphs. My own belief is that they represent the names of individual Picts in a pictorial way that to some extent imitates the Latin alphabet. The latter was adopted by the southern neighbours of the Picts, i.e. the Britons whose lands had been conquered by the Romans. I’ve long tended to assume that this imitation coincided with the appearance of Christian memorial stones among the Britons in the period c. 450 onwards, after the Roman withdrawal. The British memorials I had in mind were those typically inscribed in Latin with ‘X son of Y’ in commemoration of the deceased. It seemed to me that the pairs of symbols on many Pictish stones might be an attempt to replicate this kind of inscription, with the most frequent symbols representing the most common Pictish names. Where three symbols occurred together on a Pictish stone, I interpreted them as commemorating ‘X son of Y son of Z’. I always felt on fairly solid ground with this theory, mainly because I wasn’t alone in supporting it, but I continued to keep an open mind and listened to other explanations. A variant idea, for instance, saw the symbols as name-elements or components that could be combined in different ways to represent complete names.

Last month, the journal Antiquity published an article presenting new research on the chronology and purpose of the Pictish symbols. As one of the most significant contributions to the debate in recent years it has rightly received a lot of media exposure. To anyone with an interest in the symbols I strongly recommend reading this article (see the link below). Briefly, its authors propose that the symbols comprise a system of writing comparable to Irish Ogam and Scandinavian runes. It sees all three systems as responses by non-Romanised ‘barbarian’ cultures to the Latin literacy that had taken root among their neighbours inside the Roman Empire. As far as the Picts are concerned, the key point is that their symbols seem to have originated in the third and fourth centuries AD, contemporary with Ogam and perhaps slightly later than runes. This is a couple of hundred years earlier than the conventional chronology which has tended to place the origin of Pictish symbols in the sixth century, long after the end of Roman rule in northern Europe, rather than in a period when the Empire still flourished.

Assigning precise dates to abstract carvings isn’t an easy task but the new chronology is based on scientific dating of archaeological material from recent excavations at a number of Pictish sites. In Aberdeenshire, at the high-status sites of Dunnicaer and Rhynie, the symbol-carved stones appear to be contemporary with material that can be dated to the third and fourth centuries AD. This is the very period when the Picts were first identified as a distinct group by Roman writers. One crucial piece of data from the excavations at Rhynie is that the main occupation phase lay in this early period. If, as seems likely, the symbol carvings are associated with this phase, we can infer that the symbol system was devised when the notion of Pictishness itself was taking shape, both developments being part of a cultural response to the Romanising, Latinising influences to the south. Like Ogam and runes, the Pictish symbols did not replicate the Latin alphabet but instead offered a home-grown alternative to it that was overtly (and probably deliberately) non-Roman in form. On the purpose of the symbols, the article notes their proximity to carved human figures on a number of later stones (from the eighth century) and suggests that they were ‘labels’ representing personal names in a non-alphabetic way. This fits with my own preferred interpretation as outlined above. Others will find that the article challenges rather than validates their ideas. On the chronology, however, there seems little reason to doubt that the new, earlier origin-date for the Pictish symbols is correct.

Reference and link:
Gordon Noble, Martin Goldberg and Derek Hamilton: The development of the Pictish symbol system: inscribing identity beyond the edges of Empire Antiquity vol. 92, no. 365 (October 2018), pp. 1329-1348

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Pictish symbol stone discovered at Dyce

Pictish symbols

Pictish symbols: mirror (top), triple disc and notched rectangle.

A Pictish symbol stone has been discovered on the banks of the River Don at Dyce near Aberdeen. This exciting find was publicised today and is understandably attracting a lot of attention on social media. New discoveries of early medieval sculpture are as rare in Scotland as anywhere else, so the unearthing of a previously unknown Pictish stone is a significant event.

Photographs of the new stone published online show the carved symbols to be well preserved and easily identifiable. Archaeologists have recognised a triple disc, a notched rectangle and a mirror. The stone itself is an unshaped boulder with no overtly Christian carvings, so it falls into the category known as ‘Class I’. It was probably carved between the sixth and eighth centuries AD, before the influence of the Church led to Pictish sculpture becoming more sophisticated. Stones from the later classes tend to have regular shapes and Christian iconography. A common form of Class II, for example, is an upright slab with an ornate cross carved on one face and Pictish symbols on the other.

The new stone came to light because water levels in the Don had fallen after weeks of warm, dry weather. A fisherman spotted the stone and informed the University of Aberdeen, where the archaeology department is a renowned centre of research on the Picts. Historic Environment Scotland, the national archaeological body, subsequently became involved, together with the local authority and AOC Archaeology. A specialist team retrieved the stone from the river so that it can be conserved, studied and eventually put on display.

By the time my blogpost appears, the discovery of this stone will no doubt be well known in Scotland and beyond. I look forward to following the story in the weeks and months ahead. More information is sure to appear, with social media a good place to look for updates. With this in mind, I’ve included a useful and relevant Twitter account in the links below.

Finally, it’s worth noting that Dyce is already a familiar place on the Pictish sculpture map. At the ruined church of St Fergus are several stones, two of which stand out as fine examples of Class I and Class II respectively. The former is carved with two symbols while the latter has four. Common to both is the enigmatic ‘crescent and V-rod’ and I wonder if it might be significant that the Class II stone also shares the equally mysterious ‘triple disc’ with the new stone from the river.

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LINKS

The Scotsman newspaper: Stunning Pictish stone discovered in river by fisherman

Twitter: Bruce Mann (archaeologist for several local authorities including Aberdeen & Aberdeenshire) I regularly retweet news from Bruce Mann at my own account Early Scotland

Pictish stones at Dyce, St Fergus’ Church (Canmore database)

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Early Christianity in Glen Lyon

Next week, on Thursday 30 August at 1.00pm, Dr Anouk Busset of the University of Glasgow’s archaeology department will be giving a talk at Govan Old Parish Church. This is an event I would very much like to get to but unfortunately can’t make it. Those lucky enough to attend will hear Anouk speak on the following topic:

The Early Christian landscape of Glen Lyon: investigating sacred movement in the Early Middle Ages

Glen Lyon is a place I’ve visited a few times. It’s a scenic gem – a long valley in the Highlands with picturesque views of the surrounding hills. It’s also an area rich in history and archaeology. Cairns, stone circles and standing stones bear witness to the glen-dwellers of prehistory. Those same folk probably held sacred the majestic old yew of Fortingall at the eastern end of the glen, a tree that is still alive thousands of years later.

Fortingall Yew

The Fortingall Yew in the early 1800s.

Christianity eventually supplanted the local pagan religion, bringing a new package of beliefs and rituals. At Fortingall, the village church has long been assumed to occupy the site of an ancient predecessor, perhaps a monastery founded by missionaries from Iona. Fragments of finely carved Pictish cross-slabs are displayed in the present building while other, simpler Early Christian monuments can be seen outside. In September 2017, to widespread dismay, a Celtic hand-bell dating from the seventh or eighth century was stolen from a niche inside the church.

Further along Glen Lyon, a standing stone known as St Adamnan’s Cross bears the name of the famous abbot of Iona who died in 704. According to local tradition, Adamnan (Adomnán) undertook missionary work among the glen’s pagan inhabitants and performed a miracle that the monolith supposedly commemorates.

Anouk Busset gained her PhD from the University of Glasgow in 2017 and is one of the new generation of up-and-coming archaeologists whose work is making a difference to our understanding of Scotland’s early medieval past. This year she was part of a team undertaking a project in Glen Lyon, hence the theme of next week’s event at Govan Old. Her talk is sure to be enthralling, and I recommend it to any Senchus readers who want to know more about the Early Christian archaeology of the Highlands. It’s free to all, with no need to book a seat in advance (and with free refreshments too).

Anouk Busset's talk at Govan Old

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LINKS

Anouk Busset on Twitter

Jo Woolf’s articles on St Adamnan’s Cross and the Fortingall Yew.

Website of the Govan Stones at Govan Old Parish Church

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The Merlin Trail

Merlin & Kentigern

Saint Mungo (Kentigern) and Merlin (Myrddin) depicted in a window at Stobo Kirk in Upper Tweeddale [© Freyja Appleyard-Keeling]

Many visitors to this blog will no doubt be familiar with a theory that the legend of Merlin originated in Scotland rather than somewhere further south, such as in Wales or Cornwall. The theory is fairly well known, having been around since medieval times. In the twelfth century, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini (‘Life of Merlin’) located a large part of the legend in Scotland. Medieval Scottish tradition later equated Geoffrey’s Merlin with a ‘Wild Man’ called Lailoken who featured in stories about Kentigern (aka Mungo), the patron saint of Glasgow. It was easy to make this connection, not least because Lailoken, Kentigern and Geoffrey’s Merlin were all believed to have been active in the late sixth century. All three were depicted as contemporaries of Rhydderch Hael, a king of the Northern Britons whose chief citadel lay at Dumbarton Rock. We know that King Rhydderch actually existed. Kentigern’s historicity is somewhat less certain but is generally accepted nonetheless. What, then, of Lailoken and Merlin? Were they real or fictional, and were they one and the same?

These and other questions were addressed in my book Scotland’s Merlin, published in 2016. The book appeared around the time that a project called The Merlin Trail was taking shape in the Scottish Borders. This project is the brainchild of Robin Crichton whose tireless efforts have recently come to fruition. In March 2018, the Trail and its accompanying website were officially launched. The website describes the routes of the trail and the places visited along the way. On the ground, the trail is marked by information boards at key historic sites across a broad swathe of southern Scotland, reaching westward as far as the Rhinns of Galloway. Robin Crichton discusses the Scottish Merlin in his book On the Trail of Merlin in a Dark Age which can be purchased via the trail website (see the links at the end of this blogpost).

CrichtonBookCover

One page at the website contains the following text:
Merlin is known the world over as the wizard of Arthurian legend. But behind the fiction was a real man who lived in Southern Scotland in the late 6th century….. He was of royal blood, a man of learning, one of the last of the great druids living in comfort and luxury until the genocide of his clan brought his way of life to a cataclysmic end. Suffering post-traumatic stress disorder from the horrors of the mass slaughter, he fled into the forest. For over a decade, he survived the elements, hiding in a mountain cave and living off what the forest could provide.

Similar words could be employed as a summary of my own book on Merlin, the main difference being that I muse on the possibility that the real figure behind the legendary one might have been a Christian rather than a pagan. I realise that in taking this stance I’m swimming against a heavy tide of popular opinion. Merlin’s paganism is, for many people, a big part of their fascination with the legend. It is strongly emphasised in Nikolai Tolstoy’s The Quest for Merlin, first published in 1985, a book that kickstarted my own interest in the legend’s historical roots. Indeed, many of the key locations in Count Tolstoy’s book (such as Hart Fell near Moffat in Dumfriesshire) are included on the itinerary of the Merlin Trail. A pagan Merlin living in southern Scotland is likewise envisaged by Adam Ardrey in Finding Merlin, a book that puts the main action in the Glasgow area. For myself, the key location is neither Dumfriesshire nor Glasgow but rather the upper valley of the River Tweed, around the village of Drumelzier. Needless to say, all of these areas are covered by the Trail and are mentioned in Robin Crichton’s book.

QFM_FM

Eventually I hope to visit every site along the Trail, although it may be a while before I get around to them all. Some sites are already familiar from previous journeys around southern Scotland (or northern England, in the case of the ones connected with the sixth-century Battle of Arthuret). At each site I will look forward to reading the new information boards and seeing how everything fits together in the overall narrative. What the Trail will hopefully achieve in the longer term is a boost in visitor numbers for parts of Scotland that have tended to be overlooked by the main stream of tourists heading north to Edinburgh and the Highlands. Many of the Merlin sites have not been highlighted as places of interest before, so it is heartening to see their heritage value being acknowledged in this way. Robin Crichton and his team should congratulate themselves on what is undoubtedly a substantial achievement.

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LINKS

Merlin Trail

Robin Crichton’s book On the Trail of Merlin in a Dark Age: the history behind the legend at Traquair.co.uk

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ScotlandsMerlincover

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Æthelflæd arrives

aethelflaed_TCcopy3

Last week I received from my publisher (Birlinn Books of Edinburgh) the first of six ‘author copies’ of my newly published biography of Æthelflæd. I am very pleased with how it looks and took this quick photo. The other five will hopefully be coming down the M74 in the next few days. They won’t be around for long and will be heading off in different directions soon after I receive them. But this one, being the first to arrive, I will definitely be keeping for myself.

A more detailed announcement of the book can be found over at my other blog Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age.

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Cobwebs

I’ve been away from blogging for more than a year and a half, my longest period of absence since the launch of Senchus ten years ago. Distractions of various kinds have caused me to drift off the radar, but now I’m gradually making my way back. All three of my blogs have lain dormant since the autumn of 2016. Returning after such a long break means oiling their wheels, kick-starting their rusty engines and clearing the cobwebs off my WordPress dashboard.

Although absent from the ‘Blogosphere’ I’ve still kept in touch with history and archaeology. In April 2017, the Stove Network invited me to their headquarters in Dumfries to give a talk about Dark Age Galloway. The event was part of a cultural heritage project called Our Norwegian Story which looked at links between Scandinavia and South-West Scotland, so the Vikings featured prominently in my presentation. On a similar note, I was honoured to give the 2018 Oddveig Røsegg Memorial Lecture to the Scottish Norwegian Society a couple of months ago. My topic was ‘Strathclyde and the Vikings’, with an emphasis on the Norse aspect. A nice souvenir of the evening was a Society badge incorporating the Scottish and Norwegian flags (see below).

SNSbadge300high

Also in 2017 I wrote a book, my seventh on early medieval history and the first without a Scottish focus. It’s a biography of Æthelflæd, the eldest daughter of King Alfred the Great of Wessex. Æthelflæd ruled the neighbouring kingdom of Mercia in the early tenth century and led her armies against the Vikings. Her death in June 918 is being commemorated 1100 years later at a number of places in what was once her domain. My book is scheduled to appear around the time of the anniversary and is being published by Birlinn of Edinburgh. The front cover shows a sculptured portrait of Æthelflæd from a public artwork at Runcorn in Cheshire, the site of one of her fortresses.

Aethelflaedcover_500high

I’ll be posting about Æthelflæd at my other blog Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age, which seems the most relevant venue, but occasional updates on the book will also appear here at Senchus.

Those of you who keep an eye on news about Dark Age Scotland will know that there have been some interesting developments in the last year or so. I hope to report on these as I slowly get back to blogging.

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Saving the Wemyss Caves: thirty years of SWACS

Pictish boat carving

Carving of a boat in Jonathan’s Cave.


With considerable regret I’ve had to turn down an invitation to speak about the Picts at an important event happening in Fife next month. Personal circumstances mean I am unable to travel to Scotland on the weekend in question. The event is the 30th anniversary of SWACS, the group behind the campaign to preserve the famous caves on the shoreline at East Wemyss. Many of you will know that the walls of these caves are inscribed with Pictish carvings, one of which shows a boat propelled by oars.

I’ll be sorry to miss what will surely be an exciting afternoon of Pict-related info and discussion. The range of topics can be seen on the leaflet below:

Save Wemyss Ancient Caves Society

Attendance is free and is open to all. To reserve a place, use the online booking form at Eventbrite via this link.

If you haven’t already visited the Wemyss Caves it’s not too late to have a guided tour. The final tours of 2016 are taking place this Sunday (25th September) as part of Scottish Archaeology Month. Tours start from the SWACS Environmental Centre in the basement of East Wemyss Primary School. The Centre will be open on that day from 2.00pm-4.30pm, but you’ll need to arrive before 3.00pm if you want to join a tour.

SWACS (Save Wemyss Ancient Caves Society) also has a website and a Facebook page.

Photographs of two of the caves, together with illustrations of some of the Pictish carvings, can be found in a blogpost I wrote last year: Pictish carvings at the Wemyss Caves.

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