Pictish patronyms

Dunfallandy Pictish Stone

Dunfallandy Pictish Stone

The Pictish stone at Dunfallandy, near Pitlochry, shows two seated figures facing one another above a cloaked rider. The trio are accompanied by the following symbols:

Seated figure (left) – ‘Pictish elephant’ possibly above another, badly-eroded symbol
Seated figure (right) – double-disc above crescent & v-rod
Rider – crescent & v-rod above ‘Pictish elephant’

Nobody knows for certain why the Picts used symbols but various theories offer more-or-less plausible explanations. It’s a case of ‘take your pick’, unless you fancy devising your own theory. For myself, the one that gets my vote (at the moment) explains the symbols as personal names and sees the many ‘symbol pairs’ as patronyms meaning ‘X, son of Y’ (or ‘Z, daughter of Y’). Pictish symbols mostly appear in pairs, with only a few instances of a lone symbol. Three or sometimes four symbols occasionally appear together, but the paired combinations account for more than half of the total. Elsewhere in Britain we find another type of symbol pair on Early Christian memorial stones where a Latin inscription tells us that ‘X, son (or daughter) of Y’ is buried or commemorated nearby. The carved Latin names are symbols, like the Pictish designs, but unlike the Pictish designs their meaning has not been forgotten.

The Dunfallandy stone is a good way to illustrate the patronymic theory. It was used as an example by W.A. Cummins in his book The Picts and their symbols (1999). Cummins suggested that the crescent & v-rod might represent the Pictish male name Bridei (Gaelic Brude), the most common name in the Pictish king-lists . The strange ‘Pictish elephant’, which could be a stylised image of a dolphin, was regarded by Cummins as possibly representing the Welsh name Edern (related to Latin Aeternus). He made this suggestion on the grounds that the name Eddarrnonn, perhaps a Pictish equivalent of Edern, was inscribed in the ancient Ogham alphabet on two stones bearing the ‘elephant’ symbol. As he pointed out, the Irish annals note the presence in Pictland of someone called Itarnan who died in 669. Could Itarnan be the same name as Eddarrnonn, and could both represent a Pictish form of Edern? No name has so far, to my knowledge, been proposed as a possible match for the double disc symbol.

On the Dunfallandy stone, then, we seem to have two figures associated with symbol pairs and one figure associated with just one symbol (unless, as Cummins suggests, this is all that remains of a badly-weathered pair). If the symbols represent names, and the pairs represent patronyms, I think we can interpret the stone as a genealogical statement:

‘Figure A (the rider) is the son of Figure B (seated left) and Figure C (seated right)’

Adding the names proposed by Cummins puts flesh on the bones:

‘Brude, son of Edern, is the son of Edern (the son of ?) and ? (the daughter of Brude)’

In the picture below, I’ve attempted to show how a Pict might have ‘read’ the Dunfallandy stone as a statement of parentage for Brude, son of Edern.

Dunfallandy Pictish Stone: interpretation

Dunfallandy symbol-pairs interpreted as patronyms


13 comments on “Pictish patronyms

  1. Perhaps this is a father and maternal grandfather, or father and uncle pointing toward a sister’s son.

    Can you tell if both seated figures are male?

    • Tim says:

      Yes, the figure on the right could be a male of the maternal line. This works for me because I still support the idea of Pictish matriliny, in spite of all the recent arguments against it.

      Some people interpret both seated figures as male priests but these carvings are fairly androgynous, unlike the bearded warriors or side-saddle riding ladies seen on other stones.

  2. Phil says:

    A few years ago when attending an Edinburgh Uni course run by Stuart McHardy, we had a discussion on Pictish symbols – especially what Stuart referred to as the ‘beastie'(what you call the ‘Pictish Elephant’). Out of interest, I arranged for my younger daughter’s school class of 7 year olds to look at a picture of the beastie and say what they thought it was. Most said it looked like a horse or a ‘dolphin with legs’. So perhaps it is (as I think I’ve read elsewhere) a representation of the mythical ‘water horse’. Out of the mouths of babes…

    • Tim says:

      I’d forgotten about the water horse of Scottish legend, Phil. It’s probably a better candidate than the dolphin. I now recall seeing a picture of one of these ‘kelpies’ somewhere. It had two webbed forelegs, a fishtail and the head of a horse – quite a few features in common with the Pictish Beastie.

      Interesting that the children perceived it as a horse or dolphin. They’re clearly a bright bunch!

      • Another anecdote to make data: that is exactly what my mother said when I first showed her a picture of the Beast, too.

        I quite like the idea of the symbols as kind of nametags, which could explain all kinds of usages as well as geneaological claims (`Bridei [was in this battle]’, `Ethern [buried here]’) except that there are so few of them. Even in the incredibly scanty records we have there are more names of Picts than there are known symbols, aren’t there? and this is not like Glagolithic where more turn up on each new inscription unearthed, the symbol set really is quite small. So if this hypothesis is to stand, why did some names apparently not earn an epigraphic label?

        • Tim says:

          Good question, Jon. It prompted me to look again at the Cummins book, to see if he offers an explanation. He identifies 56 different symbols. Estimates by other people range from 50 down to around 35. Cummins seems to acknowledge your point about the number of Pictish names outweighing the number of recorded symbols. He seeks to explain the non-correlation by suggesting that some names were used far more frequently than others, especially within elite families, and that’s why we don’t see a larger ‘alphabet’ of symbols represented on the stones. By way of an analogy, he refers to a Harleian Society publication, The Knights of Edward I, which lists a couple of thousand individuals. It indicates that Edward’s knights were named from a pool of c.70 names, but 80 percent of them were named from only 14 names, and one third of the total were called John or William. If this was replicated in Pictland, it could explain why names such as Brude and Drust and Gartnait appear so frequently in the king-list, and why some symbols (i.e. those representing these ‘popular’ names) appear more frequently on the stones than others, and maybe why some (less popular?) names aren’t inscribed on any of the surviving stones.

          This is just one explanation. As so often with the Picts, the field is wide open to all kinds of theories. I quite like your idea about the symbols being name-tags with a wider variety of applications beyond the genealogical.

  3. […] Tim Clarkson of Senchus brings us a biography of Queen Alchflaed (fl. 650s), and a post on interpreting Pictish pictographs. […]

  4. Buannan says:

    Water horses are often described as “bulls” in highland folklore despite the horse association, haunting pools and lochs, luring children to their deaths. Interesting to note the beasties above have long horns.

    • Tim says:

      I was unaware of the connection with bulls, but those things on their heads do look like horns rather than manes or crests or ears or whatever else might be suggested.

  5. The term: “broken ‘v’ ” is reminiscent of the broken items swords etc found in water associated with Celtic ritual

    • I think it may in fact have been recollection of such practices that led to that name being adopted, if I understand correctly.

      Tim, a good point about the common names, but even if we could largely do the Prosopography of the Anglo-Norman realm or similar with the names Robert and Roger, there still ought to be the odd Ainaud or something. What I mean is, for that Cummins thing to be completely plausible, there ought to be some symbols that hardly ever turn up, almost unique ones. But actually the distribution is relatively fair, I believe; some things certainly do show more than others (V-rod, mirror) but there aren’t the outliers that that kind of naming practice should provide.

      • Tim says:

        Like Liz Roberts I wonder if the V-rods and Z-rods in Pictish symbols relate in some way to ritual deposits of broken spears, etc.

        Jon, your point about the lack of extremely rare or unique symbols does put an obstacle in front of the patronyms theory. The symbols you call ‘outliers’, the rare ones corresponding to unpopular names, should be identifiable among the surviving stones – but they don’t seem to be there at all. The only defence I can conjure at the moment is that genuine outliers might have been mis-identified as mere variants of other symbols. Example: carvings of the ‘fish’ might represent different species, each corresponding to a different personal name, rather than variants of one symbol.

      • Well, don’t give up hope, there was only a very restricted set of Roman prænomina too! Though, against that is the problem that they had other names that they used to identify each other in large contexts… All the same, if we’re supposed as a notional Pictish audience to be able to interpret the rest of the inscription, maybe we’re also supposed to know who it is!

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