The Aberlemno battle scene

The famous Pictish symbol stone in Aberlemno churchyard depicts a sculptured cross on the front and a battle scene on the reverse. The battle has often been assumed to be the one fought at Dunnichen Hill in 685, when the Pictish king Brude mac Bili defeated the Northumbrian English.

There has always been some uncertainty about the identification, chiefly because the stone was carved at least two generations after the Battle of Dunnichen. This has led to other military campaigns being proposed as more likely candidates. One campaign that seems to fit the stone’s mid-8th century date is the subjugation of Dal Riada by Oengus mac Fergus in the 730s. Another is a victory by Oengus over the Clyde Britons in 744. If either of these suggestions is correct then the Aberlemno battle-scene commemorates the military successes of Oengus rather than the earlier triumph of Brude.

Two Pictish symbols are carved above the battle-scene. The larger of these is a notched rectangle & Z-rod; the smaller a triple disc. Together they could represent the names Oengus and Fergus in the way that other Early Christian memorials elsewhere in Britain display the Latin inscription “X, son of Y”. This credible solution to the mystery of the Aberlemno churchyard stone was suggested by W.A. Cummins on page 103 of his book The Picts & their symbols (1999). I think he may be right.

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5 comments on “The Aberlemno battle scene

  1. Michelle says:

    It could be that it doesn’t represent any one battle, but a general commemoration of relatively recent Pictish victories. To contemporary viewers, it might recall Pictish victories over both the Northumbrians and Dalriadans.

  2. Tim says:

    Good point, Michelle. If the three “registers” on the stone (the so-called “comic strip” of warriors in combat) are not in fact a single narrative they might commemorate separate battles or could merely be a general representation of Pictish military prowess.

  3. Michelle says:

    I do wonder though about the Dunnichen reference in ‘Y Gododdin’ to ravens picking on Ecgfrith, as shown in the last figure. But then again, that could be a common way to depict a fallen leader (as it is the most disgraceful end for a king).

  4. Michelle says:

    Obviously I should have said on the Aberlemno stone rather than in Y Gododdin, though I think it also has a raven picking on the head of a king, Domnall Brecc. The fact that the Aberlemno stone and Y Gododdin both use of motif of ravens pecking at the head of a king shows how common of a motif it was. It also may suggest that fallen kings may have been left among the dead on the battlefield. We often assume that they would have honored their opponent enough for a good burial, but this motif suggests not.

  5. Tim says:

    The fate of a dead king at the hands of a victorious foe seems to have varied quite a bit. Irish tradition suggests Ecgfrith’s body was retrieved from the battlefield of Dunnichen by the Picts and interred on Iona among the kings and abbots of the Celtic North. The slain figure on the Aberlemno Stone (whom I don’t believe is Ecgfrith) probably represents a king or warlord whose corpse was disregarded by the enemy and left for the ravens to devour. Disregard or disinterest (i.e. being left to rot) was maybe the “middle ground” between being given an honourable burial and being treated with deliberate dishonour (e.g. Penda’s ritualistic mutilation of Oswald’s body after the Battle of Maserfelth).

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