Searching for Pictish gold

Stonehaven

Stonehaven, Aberdeenshire, on a postcard from c. 1900.


Dunnicaer, a stack of rock off the Aberdeenshire coast near Stonehaven, was in the news last year. On the summit, archaeologists found evidence of a very ancient fortification dating back to the third or fourth century AD. In May, I wrote about this significant discovery in a blogpost called Picts at Dunnicaer. Two months later, the Scotsman newspaper ran an article under the heading ‘Pictish fort near Stonehaven – oldest in Scotland’. The article included a quote from archaeologist Dr Gordon Noble of the University of Aberdeen:

“We knew that the site had potential as in 1832 a group of youths from Stonehaven scaled the sea stack, prompted by a local man who had recurring dreams gold was hidden there. Unfortunately for the youths they didn’t find the gold, but they did find a number of decorated Pictish symbol stones and, as they were throwing them into the sea, noticed some were also carved. Several years later, when knowledge of Pictish stones began to circulate, a number were recovered from the sea.”

I briefly mentioned this instance of nineteenth-century ‘heritage vandalism’ in the comments below my blogpost, in a reply to fellow-blogger Jo Woolf. Later, while replying to a comment by Helen McKay, I said that I was drafting a separate post on this topic. Unfortunately, the major distraction of a book-writing project meant the new post didn’t get finished. However, in the last week or so I’ve been able to return to it, and the result is the little story below….

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Searching for Pictish gold

The former fishing village of Cowie, once famed for its smoked haddock, lies on the north side of Stonehaven. Nearly 200 years ago, in the early 1830s, one of its inhabitants was an old man called Blair who worked as the local grave-digger. Every night – so he said – he experienced a recurring dream about Dunnicaer, the steep and rugged sea-stack south of Stonehaven. In the dream, he imagined that a secret cave lay beneath the summit, and that in the cave lay a great hoard of gold. Among the folk who heard his tale was a group of young men from Stonehaven. They listened eagerly when he described his vision of hidden treasure. He told them of his regret that he was too old to scale the perilous rock and retrieve the gold for himself. The Stonehaven lads, however, were up for the challenge, despite the risk of serious injury or death.

One day, in 1832, three or four of these intrepid treasure-seekers climbed to the top of Dunnicaer. On reaching the summit, they saw that it was partly enclosed by a low wall surmounted by roughly hewn stones. Some of the stones were engraved with strange symbols and patterns, but these were of little interest and were duly ignored. The lads began to dig down through the soil, expecting at any moment to catch a gleam of gold. To their dismay, they found nothing except bare rock. Disappointment turned quickly to boredom, so they decided to amuse themselves by pulling the carved stones off the top of the wall and hurling them down into the sea below. Many stones were quickly dispatched in this way.

Having discovered no treasure, the explorers climbed back down to the seashore and headed for home. One of the group was Donald Ross, who was then around 20 years of age. He went back to Dunnicaer the following day, though he did not make a second ascent of the rock. Near the base he spotted one of the engraved stones and took it home.

The years passed. Donald Ross became an engineer at the Stonehaven gasworks. By the early 1840s he was a husband and father and a respected figure in the community. It was probably around this time that he made another expedition to Dunnicaer, not to hunt for gold but to find more of the stones that he and his friends had thrown down from the top. He had recently become aware of a growing interest in ancient sculpture and realised that the carvings he had seen in 1832 were special. Searching the seashore, he didn’t seem to be having much luck until his eye was drawn to a stone completely covered with seaweed. Peeling the weed away, he saw the engraved shape of a fish – clearly a salmon – below a small triangle. He took it home, perhaps intending to sell it, but did nothing more than keep it safe. His retrieval and possession of this stone ultimately ensured its survival.

Dunnicaer Pictish stone

By 1857, Donald had risen to the position of manager at the gasworks. In that year, he was visited by Alexander Thomson – a resident of Banchory and an active member of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. Thomson had been reading John Stuart’s recently published book Sculptured Stones of Scotland and was intrigued by one of the plate illustrations depicting two symbol stones from the Stonehaven area. Stuart’s accompanying description said that “they are now in the possession of the Keeper of the Gas Work at Stonehaven, who found them at Dinnacare about sixteen years ago”.

Thomson bought both stones from Donald Ross for an undisclosed sum. During their conversation, Ross told him about the 1832 expedition and the stone-throwing but not, apparently, about the tale of hidden gold. Thomson didn’t learn the full story until February of the following year (1858) when he received a letter from James Christian, a writer who lived in Stonehaven. Christian had himself purchased another of the Dunnicaer stones from a certain Andrew Brown whose father, a fisherman, had taken it from the summit c.1819. The price paid by Christian was a half sovereign, for which he received the stone shown below.

Dunnicaer Pictish stone

Christian wanted to climb the rock-stack himself, in spite of the danger. He was curious to see what the summit looked like. Andrew Brown said that he, too, might make the attempt – presumably in the hope of finding more stones. He was, as Christian observed in his letter to Thomson, “tempted by the half sovereign”, though he reckoned his advancing years would make the climb more difficult. Brown’s wife, however, had no such anxiety about the ascent. Christian noted that she seemed “quite pleased” by the idea and added “I should not be surprised if she went up”.

In his letter, Christian also mentioned the old grave-digger whose dream of buried treasure had stirred the curiosity of young Donald Ross and his companions. Christian wondered if the dream might have been based on local legend. In any case, he didn’t think there was any substance to it:

“I suspect this idea of the old man’s must have arisen from some traditional habitation of the rock which he had heard of in his youth. But all these old people are now dead; and, after all, fisher traditions are not of much value.”

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Notes

Donald Ross died in 1863, three years after the publication of Alexander Thomson’s paper on Dunnicaer in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. The paper refers to him simply as ‘Mr Ross’ and calls him ‘the intelligent manager of the gas work’ but doesn’t say much more about him. However, his important role in the story of the stones prompted me to seek out some additional biographical information.

The two illustrations are from Thomson’s paper which I have as a download and a photocopy. In both formats the original drawings lose a bit of definition so I’ve enhanced them slightly for this blogpost. As in my previous post I’ll cite the full reference:

Thomson, A (1860) ‘Notice of sculptured stones found at “Dinnacair”, a rock in the sea, near Stonehaven’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, vol. 3, pp. 69-75.

Lastly, here’s a lnk to the Scotsman article mentioned above: Pictish fort near Stonehaven ‘oldest in Scotland’

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On the trail of Scotland’s Merlin

New posts here at Senchus have been rather infrequent in recent months. This kind of slowdown has happened before and is usually due to my attention being distracted by a book-writing project. Last year’s distraction was Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age, published in October 2014. This year it was Scotland’s Merlin: a Medieval Legend and its Dark Age Origins, currently scheduled for publication in April 2016.

Some of you may recall an older blogpost (‘Did Merlin really exist?’) in which I stated my firm belief that a historical figure lies at the root of the Merlin legend. In my new book, I explore this topic in more detail and reach the same conclusion. For me, the Merlin legend is a tapestry of medieval invention woven around a Dark Age fact. At its core I see a real person who lived in Northern Britain in the sixth century AD: a warrior of noble ancestry who later became a ‘wild man of the woods’. I believe that his name was Lailoken (or Llallogan) and that he fought at the Battle of Arfderydd, a famous clash between rival groups of Britons in the year 573.

The early Welsh version of the Merlin legend calls its central character Myrddin and associates him with the town of Carmarthen in Dyfed as well as with the Arfderydd campaign and the Old North. It is in a poem belonging to this tradition that we encounter the name Llallogan. In the medieval Scottish version of the legend, the main character is called Lailoken but is clearly identified as Merlin in notes added to the surviving texts. Lailoken is said to have been buried at Drumelzier, a village in the upper valley of the River Tweed, in the territory of a king called Meldred. Drumelzier lies within the bounds of the ancient forest of Calidon or Celyddon in which – according to Welsh tradition – Myrddin/Merlin lived as a solitary wild madman. The Scottish legend tells how Lailoken was given holy communion by Saint Kentigern of Glasgow (also known as Mungo) but local folklore in Tweeddale asserts that this was actually a ceremony of Christian conversion and that Lailoken was originally a pagan. The ceremony is commemorated in a stained glass window at Stobo Kirk, a few miles downstream from Drumelzier. It shows the wild man, here called by his Welsh name ‘Myrddin’, kneeling before the saint. Local tradition points to a large boulder – the Altar Stane – as the venue where this scene occurred.

I was keen to visit all these places to get a sense of the landscape and to obtain photographs for the book. So, in August this year, a forecast of fairly decent weather prompted a journey to Tweeddale. The expedition’s photographer-in-chief was art student Freyja, who happens to be a devotee of the Merlin legend. In the following sequence of images, Freyja’s camera takes us on a visual tour of the Tweeddale traditions, starting with a search for Merlin’s Grave.

Medieval lore says that the grave lies near the confluence of the River Tweed and a stream once known as Powsail. The latter is marked on modern maps as the Drumelzier Burn, running beneath a bridge near the village church….

Drumelzier Bridge

Drumelzier: the bridge over the burn.

From the bridge, an old track heads towards the Tweed.

From the bridge, an old track heads towards the Tweed.

Drumelzier Burn

For a while, the burn runs alongside the track.

Drumelzier Burn

Track and burn once shared the same alignment all the way down to the river, but the burn’s course has been changed and it now bends away sharply, running in a new channel.

Merlin's Grave at Drumelzier

According to tradition, Merlin’s Grave was marked by a thorn tree.

Merlin's Grave at Drumelzier

The modern visitor usually makes for this particular tree, which stands alone in a wooden enclosure near the meeting of the waters.

Tweed and Powsail at Drumelzier

There is an aura of tranquility at the water-meeting, where the little burn merges with the river.

Drumelzier - Merlin's Grave

Below the confluence, twisted tree-shapes overhang a stony beach.

The pebbles on the beach form a mosaic of pastel shades.

The pebbles on the beach form a mosaic of pastel shades.

Merlin's Grave at Drumelzier

Some of the riverside trees look as if they’ve stood here for hundreds of years.

This tranquil spot certainly has its own special aura. However, are we really looking in the right place? The present-day merging of river and burn lies a short distance upstream of the original confluence. Prior to the 1800s, the burn followed a more ancient course, joining the Tweed lower down. The true site of Merlin’s Grave must therefore lie near the original water-meeting, not far from the end of the green track leading down from the bridge.

Sir of Merlin's original grave at Drumelzier

Old maps suggest that Merlin’s Grave originally lay at the edge of this field, to the right of the fence. Folklore speaks of a cairn or stone-lined burial, but no trace can be seen today.

Merlin's grave at Drumelzier

With the site of the original grave seemingly lost, our curiosity is inevitably stirred by any odd-looking arrangement of stones.

Merlin's Grave at Drumelzier

Old thorn-trees, such as this one, overlook the Tweed near the original confluence. Might they be descended from the tree that once marked Merlin’s grave?

Returning to Drumelzier village, a short walk along the road brings us under the watchful gaze of Tinnis Castle, a ruined medieval fortress perched on a distinctive conical height. The castle lies on top of a Celtic hillfort, presumed by some to be the stronghold of King Meldred who is said to have ruled this district in the sixth century. According to Scottish legend, Meldred arranged for the wild madman Lailoken (i.e. Merlin) to be buried at Drumelzier. An older form of the name ‘Drumelzier’ is Dunmeller which may mean ‘Meldred’s Fort’ – this was possibly an ancient name for the structure that preceded Tinnis Castle.

Tinnis Castle at Drumelzier

Tinnis Castle – was this the dun of King Meldred 1500 years ago?

And so we continue our journey, onwards and northwards through Upper Tweeddale, following the river as it flows down towards Peebles. A couple of miles out from Drumelzier, on a minor road to Dreva, we come to Altarstone Farm. Nestling amid a deep undergrowth of trailing plants sits the Altar Stane itself, its pale hue making it easy to identify.

Altar Stane of Kentigern and Merlin

The Altar Stane, where St Kentigern supposedly converted Lailoken/Merlin to Christianity.

And then onto Stobo Kirk, an old church standing on the site of an even older one dating back to the twelfth century. The beginnings of Christian worship at Stobo might lie a long way back indeed, perhaps even to the time of Lailoken and Kentigern in the sixth century.

Stobo Kirk

Stobo Kirk

Kentigern and Myrddin at Stobo Kirk

Stained-glass window at Stobo Kirk: the wild man ‘Myrddin’ kneels before St Kentigern.

Here ends this brief tour of places associated with the Scottish Merlin tradition. More could be said, of course, and my new book deals with the history and folklore in much greater detail. Any attempt to identify the real or original Merlin involves wading into a controversial topic and not everyone is going to agree with my view, which is essentially that the Merlin legend originated in Scotland as the true story of a sixth-century warrior who lost his mind during a battle. The actual site of the battle is on the English side of the Border, but the tales that eventually developed into the Merlin legend began on the Scottish side. This, at least, is how I see it. I’m usually wary about the idea of real historical figures lurking behind legendary ones – see elsewhere on this blog for my scepticism about King Arthur – but in Merlin’s case I’m happy to make an exception.

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The following maps give the geographical context of the places mentioned in this blogpost:

Scottish Merlin legend

Southern Scotland: the highlighted area in Upper Tweeddale is where I believe the legend of Merlin originated in the Dark Ages.

Scottish Merlin legend

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My thanks to Freyja for taking the photographs. Please note that they are under her copyright and are not in the public domain.

Freyja at Drumelzier

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St Andrews Pictish stones

standrews0
To mark St Andrew’s Day, here is a small selection of images from the Pictish sculpture collection at St Andrews Cathedral.

St Andrews Pictish stones

Two of the monuments, the one on the left showing three carved panels.

St Andrews Pictish stones

A closer view of two of the panels…

St Andrews Pictish stones

…one of which shows a human head between two beasts, with two birds perched above.

St Andrews Pictish stones

Upper part of a cross-slab. The ring of the cross contains a key-pattern, as do the two rectangles at the top.

St Andrews Pictish stones

The famous Sarcophagus, described in an earlier blogpost.

St Andrews Pictish stones

And, to finish, St Rule’s Tower.

Happy St Andrew’s Day to all!

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More information can be found on the Canmore record for the Cathedral Museum.

Photographs in this blogpost are copyright © B Keeling.

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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.

avatar

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

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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