Three Picts, three symbols … three names?

St Madoes Pictish Symbol Stone

Reverse of the Pictish cross-slab at St Madoes

Seems I just can’t let go of the idea that Pictish symbols represent personal names. I’m not even sure why I prefer this theory over the alternatives, some of which are far more popular, or at least far more creative. I can’t even say I’m 100% swayed by this one myself. But it remains alive and kicking until someone finds a Pictish Rosetta Stone to solve the mystery of the symbols once and for all. I’m aware of the other theories – astronomical, agricultural, mythological, territorial or whatever – but this is the one I choose to run with at the moment.

As usual with blogposts on this topic I’ll be referring to a book called The Picts and their symbols by W.A. Cummins which supports the symbols=names theory. I begin however with a short article by the archaeologist Craig Cessford. This was published in the Pictish Arts Society Journal in 1997, under the title Re-reading St Madoes 1. Its focus was a cross-slab that used to stand near the parish church in St Madoes, Perthshire, before being moved to the main museum at Perth. As the older of two Pictish stones from the village it is usually known as St Madoes 1. It was carved in the 8th century and has a large cross on the front face. The above photograph, which unfortunately isn’t very clear, shows the back of the stone, which is divided into six panels. The three upper panels each contain a hooded horseman, while the lower three contain symbols. In diagrammatic form the carvings can be represented thus:

horseman A
horseman B
horseman C
crescent & V-rod, double-disc & Z-rod
‘Pictish beast’

Horseman C carries what looks like a book in a leather satchel. This and the hoods suggest that all three figures are monks. But what is their relationship to one another, and to the symbols beneath them?

Craig Cessford questioned the popular notion that each horseman is represented by one of the three symbols. As Craig pointed out, symbols usually occur in pairs and seem intended to be viewed as a twosome rather than individually. He proposed instead that we should see this trio of symbols as an inverted triangle designed to be read clockwise as three conjoined symbol-pairs, like so:

crescent & V-rod, double-disc & Z-rod
double-disc & Z-rod, Pictish beast
Pictish beast, crescent & V-rod

I think this works quite well. But if it is indeed the correct ‘reading’, what do these symbol-pairs mean? Craig wondered if they might denote names, ranks or titles, or something else.

We come now to W.A. Cummins whose belief that Pictish symbols represent personal names led him to see the symbols on St Madoes 1 as the names of the three horsemen. His reading of the stone can be illustrated in the following way:

Horseman A’s name is crescent & V-rod
Horseman B’s name is double-disc & Z-rod
Horseman C’s name is Pictish beast

Elsewhere in his book, Cummins proposed that some of the more common symbols can be matched to certain Pictish names that appear frequently in old chronicles and king-lists. By applying these matches to St Madoes 1 he saw the figures and symbols as a genealogical statement which looks something like this:

Horseman A = Brude
Horseman B = Drust
Horseman C = their father Edern

But if we then blend the Cummins symbol/name matches with Cessford’s triangle of conjoined symbol-pairs we get three men with different patronyms:

Brude, son of Drust
Drust, son of Edern
Edern, son of Brude

Taking this a step further, we could possibly read St Madoes 1 as a memorial to three monks who, although not related by kinship, were commemorated together because they lived in the same monastery and died at roughly the same time. Or maybe they were three abbots who succeeded each other in the same abbacy? I’ll leave the final words of this blogpost to Craig Cessford. Although not committing himself to a particular theory about Pictish symbols, he ended his brief study of the stone with this thought: ‘Are we looking at three members of a monastic community with similar names?’



Craig Cessford, ‘Re-reading St Madoes 1’ Pictish Arts Society Journal no.11 (Summer 1997), p.32

W.A. Cummins, The Picts and their symbols (Stroud, 1999), p.112


42 comments on “Three Picts, three symbols … three names?

  1. Valerie Brewster Willis says:

    Thanks for for getting stuck in. For years I have been longing to see a robust discussion of Pictish symbols. Have you given any thought to that long curl sported by “the Pictish beast”? A certain hair style? A priestly sort of person or a warrior perhaps?

    • Tim says:

      Thanks for dropping by, Valerie. The strange curl sprouting from the head of the ‘Pictish beast’ (or ‘swimming elephant’) is indeed a puzzling thing. Some people think the creature is a dolphin, in which case the curl is difficult to explain. To me it looks more like a mane, in which case the beastie might be a fantastical representation of something a bit more exotic, like a seahorse, or perhaps some other creature (real or imagined) from ancient Pictish folklore.

  2. It is more likely that the hooded horsemen were ‘saints’, more widely revered as having evangelised the area than local bishops or monks, such as the eponymous Madoe.

  3. I mean the hooded horsemen were more likely to be saints such as the eponymous Madoe

    • Tim says:

      Sounds plausible to me, Elizabeth. Pursuing your train of thought I’ve just taken a quick look at A guide to the Pictish stones (1997) by Elizabeth Sutherland to see what she says. In a section on carved human figures she has this:

      Monks: church and possibly founding saints

      Perhaps, then, as you suggest, the three hooded riders are Madoe – presumably the founder here – and two other locally famous saints? Maybe Madoe is the figure at the top, in a position appropriate to his status, the other two being disciples who continued his work. If so, the three symbols might not represent the names of the horsemen after all.

      Madoe is one of those obscure saints whose names turn up here and there in Scottish place-names. According to Watson in CPNS an old name for St Madoes was ‘ecclesia S. Medoci’ (1517). Watson wondered if this ‘Medoc’ might be the saint commemorated at Kilmadock near Doune. Having a particular fascination with the old church at Kilmadock (and its association with Clan Doig of Menteith) I find this idea very interesting. But Watson then gives another 16th century form of St Madoes as ‘ecclesia de Sanct Madois’ which seems to point to a founder called Madoe[s] rather than Medoc/Madoc.

  4. If the Pictish beasts are dolphins, my guess is the ‘plume’ is a representation of their breath from a blowhole.

    • Tim says:

      That would certainly fit, Nicola. If the original idea was a water-plume, it may have changed over a long period into various designs of crest or mane. Sculptors in inland areas who had never seen a dolphin wouldn’t know what the ‘curl’ was meant to represent.

      • I like the plume idea too. Dolphins and whales are often shown with plumes. My biggest problem with it being a dolphin though is the other end of the beast. They would have known that dolphins had fish-like tails from the dead ones that wash up on the beach.

        • Tim says:

          Yes, it’s really only the head that gives it the dolphin look. Every version of the beast seems to have two legs rather than a fishtail. If the original artists wanted it to be recognised as a dolphin it’s hard to imagine them putting legs on it. Maybe it’s a hybrid creature, part-dolphin and part-??

  5. […] Clarkson of Senchus discusses Pictish symbol stones as representing […]

  6. The symbols: crescent=moon; double disk=sun z-rod= lightning? All symbols connected with pre-Christian deities in other cultures, and possible co-opted to this Christian monument. Many early churches were built on sites of former pagan worship, just as pagan festivals were co-opted to Christian ones. An off the wall thought: are the three horsemen the three magi bringing three (symbolic) gifts of frankincense, gold and myrrh; or the Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Ghost) – all intrinsic to the Christian story?As for the ‘Pictish beast’ – pass.

    • Tim says:

      I often think most Pictish symbols originated in pagan religion. They must have been around a long time before someone started carving them on stones c.450 AD. The crescent and double disc with their possible moon/sun connotations have always looked particularly ancient to me, like strange images from a long way back in prehistory.

      On your other point, Elizabeth, I wouldn’t be surprised if St Madoes and many other Pictish churches were built on former pagan ritual sites. One obvious place that springs to mind is Fortingall in Perthshire, where an old church sits alongside a very ancient yew tree which is supposedly 5000 years old (sceptics say 2-3K).

      I hadn’t thought of the Magi being the three riders on the St Madoes stone but it’s certainly the kind of Biblical imagery those Pictish stonecarvers liked to use.

  7. Another thought: St Mark is traditionally associated with a book and a lion. Animals such as lions or elephants were less likely to have been seen by the maker of a Pictish monument than a dolphin and therefore more likely to be ‘wrong’ anatomically?

    • Tim says:

      I think this is why some people call the beastie a ‘Pictish elephant’ (or ‘swimming elephant’). Maybe it originated as an attempt to portray a real elephant from a garbled verbal description, or from a stylised image in a Roman(?) bestiary – or simply from old Pictish legends about fabulous creatures in exotic lands away south. I’m starting to imagine a Roman auxiliary from North Africa, on guard duty at a crossing-point on the Antonine Wall, telling a Caledonian trader about some of the wonders of his homeland.

  8. Valerie Brewster Willis says:

    Ok – but, what about the the Beast’s tail?

  9. Valerie Brewster Willis says:

    Sorry, should explain my interest in the beast’s tail; have always thought of this image as a pig, some do have long noses. I went to find some Celtic images from the continent but found that they had ridge hair rather than a curl or plait, so that didn’t help. Had always thought of the “beast” as standing for an individual with intellectual authority, depictions of the beast usually manage to make him look quite benign. Somewhere I picked up the idea that the lone boar stood for the druid; in my mind, the local conservator/practitioner of intellectual knowledge.

    To support the local leader idea, In Louise Henderson’s “Art of the Picts” illustration 182 is a relief panel labeled “Murthly Perthshire” which includes two human figures apparently in combat. One with a long axe, a narrow head and a long proboscis and the other with targe and short sword and the snout and long curl of the “Pictish Beast.” They are so clearly defined that it seems certain they are meant to represent individuals.

    • Tim says:

      Your mention of the two animal-headed figures on the Murthly stone got a bell ringing in my head. It led me to dig out another article from the same issue of the Pictish Arts Society Journal cited in the blogpost above. This is Stuart Kermack’s An attempt on the meaning of the Pictish symbols – Part 1 which cites a lecture given to the Society by Stuart McHardy in 1996. The lecture is unpublished but, according to Stuart K, it included a theory by Stuart M that the disembodied animal heads carved on some stones might be costume masks worn by Pictish prophetesses. Perhaps the Murthly figures are wearing some kind of animal mask or headgear?

      You’re right about the tail of the ‘Pictish beast’, Valerie. It doesn’t look aquatic and certainly isn’t very dolphin-like. So maybe it’s an abstract representation after all, of a person with some kind of special status such as your idea about intellectual authority.

      • Valerie says:

        I looked at some other images of the Murthly stone panel and saw that the first figure actually wears a bird-like mask and appears to be carrying a cross bow; a reminder to myself to do more homework before rushing into print. It was your suggestion of a conversation with a Roman about his travels and descriptions of elephants etc that reminded me of the Murthly stone; the mask of the second Murthly individual does appear more dog-like than the “Pictish Beast” though the long head curl is the same. It is the stance of that figure that is interesting, crouched low, holding his shield high and sword low as if about to make a thrust at his opponent from below his shield exactly as warriors might do at that time, particularly if fighting in a shield wall. The artist has witnessed combat, or at least men practicing combat moves. The first “bird masked” individual on the Murthly stone does not wear a head curl, the second figure does though a curl isn’t one of the natural features one would associate with the mask being worn. This seems to indicate that a long curl was a separate distinguishing feature with meaning for the viewer.

        • Tim says:

          I’ve looked again at the Murthly combat scene. I believe you’re right about the long curl, which I had previously interpreted as the figure’s pigtail or ponytail protruding beneath the mask or headgear, or even as a trailing part of the gear itself. But it does look similar to the head-curl on the Pictish beast. As you say, this feature may have conveyed a special meaning that was widely understood.

  10. Valerie says:

    There are two very similar carvings of Pictish men who appear to have long hair. Both carvings seem to record a ceremonial event; both men carry a long handled axe in the right hand and both have long hair. The figure from Rhynie has a tonsure with hair worn halfway down the back; the figure from Cunningsburgh wears the “wolf mask” and appears to have long, flowing hair. Both figures have a beard. I just mention these in support of the idea that the “Pictish Beast” represents an individual.
    The features and hands of the Rhynie man are so carefully drawn that they must represent someone known to the artist. Now, if you can see some resemblance between that chap’s nose and that of the “Pictish Beast” we might really have some fun!!!

    • Tim says:

      The long axe held by both figures does seem significant. You’re probably right about the ceremonial aspect, Valerie. Looking at the Cunningsburgh figure, in the light of your idea about the Pictish Beast, the similarity with the latter begins to look striking. As an alternative, non-ceremonial role for the Rhynie Man I wonder if he might be a specific character from Pictish folklore, perhaps an ogre or giant. His savage snarl makes me think of a stereotypical ‘baddie’ in some well-known tale told around the fireside at night. He could be a legendary bogeyman of the district. If not, and if he was a real person, he still looks bad, maybe a local brigand who terrified everyone, a sort of reversed Robin Hood.

  11. Valerie says:

    There are two stones that could take this discussion full circle. Another one at Rhynie where the only decoration is a “Beast” beautifully drawn below an equally nicely drawn salmon, and one very similar stone from Strathmartine Castle showing a more decorative “Beast” below a half circle with the “broken arrow”. Somebody has observed that all but one of the salmon carved stones are close to good fishing rivers. More often than not, the apex of the broken arrow indicates the centre of a circle, perhaps suggesting some philosophical place in which one stands with the horizon spread in front; these are people who valued the principles that compass art could demonstrate.
    Could the images be signifiers? If not an individual, does the “Beast” represent a position of authority – temporal or spiritual? I enjoy those books by Bernard Cornwell in which the hero turns his back on a dry, demanding Christianity, preferring the capriciousness of the Norse gods. It is hard to think with a Pictish mind, but the research you publish shows a world we can understand. People living on the land, people who love and fight for control as people have always done. I don’t think the “Beast” is a kelpie, he is a more universally important figure. Kelpies live in stories told to keep children safe near water.

    • Tim says:

      The idea of salmon representing fishing rights is something I support in some instances, such as the Roberton stone in the Borders which is hard to associate with the Picts. I do however take it to be an abstract symbol in most examples from Pictland, perhaps representing a personal name (my preferred theory at the moment) or a kindred or territory. I see the salmon as the most realistic representation of a ‘real’ creature in the symbol repertoire. Some of these carved images look strikingly sleek and graceful.

      Thinking of the Pictish Beast again, I’m putting the seahorse idea on the back-burner, having remembered that the creature on the stones at Tankerness (Orkney), Skinnet (Caithness) and Ulbster (Caithness) is almost certainly a seahorse with features quite distinct from the Beast.

      Stuart Kermack in the Pictish Arts Society Journal (no.12, Spring 1998) suggests that the Beast might be the water-god[dess] of the River Ness, shown as an actual monster in Adomnan’s Life of St Columba and transferred by later folklore to the Loch. I don’t agree, but it’s another interesting theory to muse upon.

  12. Valerie says:

    But then again, perhaps they are boundary markers after all.

    • Buannan says:

      Thats my take on the Rhynie man. A snarling boundary protector.

      • Tim says:

        The boundary idea could be supported by the stone’s original position in the landscape. Although the exact spot is unknown (as far as I can tell) it apparently stood below the summit of a low hill overlooking a stream, the Water of Bogie, which I suspect might possibly have been a boundary. Another Pictish relic, the Craw Stone, stood nearby, perhaps on a cairn. A survey of the hill in 2006, using hi-tech equipment, revealed a pattern of sub-surface features. Some of these looked like earthworks but others, of more linear shape, might be associated with field-boundaries.

        • Buannan says:

          Interesting thoughts Tim.

          The bared teeth and axe give a real sense of menace, which imply a warning of some kind. Likely a possible Pictish personification of some mythical character (of the Arthur-Fionn-Cuchullin type) or renowned ancestor, concerned with the protection of boundaries.

          • Tim says:

            Goliath has been suggested as a possible candidate. The image certainly fits, but if the stone has been correctly assigned to ‘Class I’ (?6th C) then it’s hard to see pagan Picts choosing a biblical character. I like your idea about Rhynie Man being an ancestor. This would fit with current thinking on some of the (Christian) memorial stones from southern Scotland where the graves of dead ancestors may have been used to define the family lands. A bit like a modern sign saying ‘Property of Clan MacNasty- Keep Out’.

  13. mark williams says:

    I have yet to see any theory equating the z-rod with ygdrissill. Taking the silver pendant of the Norri’s Law horde as an example, one can clearly see the root and shoot stylizations of the Z as well as the beast Nidhog at the bottom of the “tree”. The two lozenges representing the world of life and world of death extend toward shoot and root. Interaction between Pict and Norse must be ancient. As the megalithic theatrics of N Briton most likely drew pilgrims from outside Briton, it is not hard to imagine Norse cosmology being influenced by Pictish themes.

  14. Tim says:

    Thanks for adding this idea to the mix, Mark. The possibility of an Yggdrasil connection is interesting. I recall a 7th-century date being suggested for the deposition of the Norrie’s Law Hoard (ref: James Graham-Campbell in PSAS 1991) which, at first glance, would seem to rule out a link to the Viking Age. But, as you rightly point out, Pictish-Norse interaction must be ancient. I tend to envisage much communication along the seaways between Scandinavia and Orkney/Shetland long before the raids of the 790s, so I’m happy to keep an open mind on the date when cultural influences began to be exchanged.

  15. dave kent says:

    the pictish v rod is equal to a herculaneum ham dial. question is did it travel to there firstly

    • Tim says:

      Interesting idea, Dave. If I could find a good picture of the ‘ham-shaped’ sundial from Herculaneum I would post a link here.

  16. Helen McKay says:

    Hi Tim, a followup note. I think to begin with, the stone is somewhat vertical challenged 🙂 with the three monk riders squashed vertically. Below them even then, the space for multiple symbols, if more than two is required, is not big. While most stones do have a pair of symbols, there are a number of stones with two pairs – four symbols total – on them, but these are then arranged vertically, or spatially separated off into distinct pairs, and there’s not enough room here at the bottom of the stones to do that. So I think what has happened is that the carver has made use of the facts a) that the crescent/V is common to both pairs he needs, and b) that it also is the first, or top, symbol of each pair that he needs. He/she therefore has separated off the crescent/V into a defined box for emphasis, and we can then read the two symbol pairs using this crescent/V twice – crescent/V left of doubledisc/Z, and, crescent/V over beast. Doing this we now have not just the usual double pair of symbols, but we also have the two most common symbol pairs, and they are in the correct order between symbols, and correct position of each pair on the stone. Spacewise, the carver could possibly have repeated the crescent/V a second time for the second symbol pair, under the first crescent/V, but this is never done elsewhere as it is then ambiguous as to which symbol is paired with which – the one to its left, or the one below it.
    btw, thanks for writing your books, well done.
    Oh, and sorry, yes it does negate the idea of names on this stone, as do other things, but that’s another story.

    • Tim says:

      Thank you Helen for this interesting interpretation of the carvings. It does sound quite feasible and logical. Maybe the same theory works on other stones too?

      Thanks also for commenting on my books. I hope you’ve found them useful.

      • Helen McKay says:

        I haven’t come up with any other symbols on symbol stones that seem to act in this way – so far. It did occur to me though that there may be something similar on one of the Meigle stones where there are 5 horsemen, but three of the horsemen are carved as one full horsemen with two shadowing behind him. There is also a hogback at Meigle with the same setup of the 5 horsemen. It could again be just a space-saving device, but I do wonder if it isn’t also about numbers, which we know from mythology are significant, even if we’re never quite sure of their full significance. By taking 5 horsemen and making a triplet out of three, it effectively turns 5 into two triplets, which is sort of cool.
        The Hilton of Cadboll stone also uses this shadowing device to place a male rider behind Epona, again effectively making a triplet out of 4.
        This reminds me of the Children of Lir, where again there are 4, but two of the four are joined as twins, effectively making a triplet out of 4.

      • Helen McKay says:

        Oh, there is one, except its not on a symbol stone, its on the lost lunula from Monifieth. On one side there is a crescent/V which forms the most common symbol pair with the doubledisc/Z on the reverse. But, this doubledisc/Z is then also paired on the same side with a smaller otter head, again the same pairing as with other otter heads.

        • Tim says:

          Thanks again for your input, Helen. I like this idea of number-symbolism in Pictish equestrian carvings, with two ‘shadow riders’ turning a lone horseman into a sort of triad. Hadn’t occurred to me before, even though I’m certainly interested in how the number 3 was used to convey powerful symbolic messages in early medieval times. I also like the suggestion of two triads being formed by the 5 horsemen on Meigle 2.

          • Helen McKay says:

            well, to be honest, I hadn’t thought much about it either – until you asked the question! I’ve watched the symbols for years, but every day they amaze and delight me with something new… do you have another nice question perchance?

            • Tim says:

              More questions than answers will no doubt appear when I upload a new blogpost on Pictish symbols. Not sure which stone or symbol will be next on the list, but a post on this topic is probably overdue.

  17. Lhota says:

    The concept of representing names/kings/fathers/elites can be broadened to argument that the symbols represent houses/clans/tribes, no? Or is this already assumed and trivially obvious? I’m not an historian.

    Also, on the topic of pictish symbology in an older post “Double disc & Z-rod” (comment section of the post is closed), I don’t see why the “clashing of cymbals” to create thunder (and the name tristan) can’t be exchanged for something perhaps fitting of the time, say, the “clashing of gods/suns/worlds” (and the name drostan).

    Throwing further support towards the idea that the z-rod is lightening, perhaps it’s worth keeping in mind the Norse god of the sky, Thor. And perhaps it makes tremendous sense that a King Drust, son of Erp would want a name associated with a possibly similar god of the sky.

  18. Lhota says:

    To leave a second comment, maybe the stone in this post commemorates an alliance? A triple entente.

    • Tim says:

      Thanks for your input to this thread. The idea of the symbols referring to clans/tribes has indeed been suggested and is regarded as highly plausible. Re: a Pictish god of sky/thunder, this certainly seems feasible to me and would be a neat explanation of the Z-rod if we see it as a lightning symbol. I also like the ‘triple entente’ idea – again, an interesting and plausible scenario.

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