Some places associated with the ancient past have a special aura, a hint of the Otherworld. I say this as someone who is not renowned for being particularly receptive to mystical vibes. It has to be a pretty obvious aura to be picked up by my radar, and it doesn’t happen very often. In England, two memorable examples are Durham Cathedral and Avebury, both of which give me a buzz which seems to be more than dumbstruck awe. In Scotland, two places that really stand out are Doon Hill near Aberfoyle (an actual fairy stronghold!) and the famous Callanish stones on the Isle of Lewis. To these I can now add Dunino Den in Fife.
I visited the Den last year, because I’d seen it mentioned in a couple of books about the Picts. Elizabeth Sutherland in A Guide to the Pictish Stones described it as ‘a magical place’, so I was curious to see what she meant by that. My visit left me in agreement with her description.
Dunino is a small inland village in the East Neuk of Fife, nestling on a road between St Andrews and Anstruther. It’s a quiet little settlement, the kind of place easily missed by tourists following the usual guidebooks. I suspect it’s not even on the itinerary of those visitors (such as myself) who seek traces of the Picts. It’s very much ‘off the beaten track’ as far as heritage tourism is concerned, and there isn’t really anything to indicate the nearby presence of something ancient and strange.
A little signpost off the main highway points to the church, which is reached via a narrow lane. A path alongside the churchyard disappears into woodland, before descending towards a stream in a tree-lined gorge. The path eventually brings the visitor to a rocky outcrop at the edge of the gorge, high above the water. There, hollowed out of the stone, is a shallow pool, next to a carved footprint. Rough steps, hewn out of the living rock, descend from the outcrop to Dunino Den.
At the bottom of the steps we find ourselves on a strip of ground beside the stream (the Kinaldy Burn). Steep walls of mossy stone enclose this space on two sides, making it feel sheltered and secluded. Tall trees grow there, but the spaces between them allow sunlight to reach down through the high canopy of leaves. During my visit, the light was bright enough to dapple the clear water of the stream.
On one of the rock-faces is a ringed cross of Celtic type, 9 feet high, incised in the stone. Although weathered at the top, it can be clearly seen. So clearly, in fact, that many people assume it to be modern, an example of deliberate ‘Christianization’ at a site of ancient pagan ritual. There is actually no reason to assign it to the modern era. Its design suggests that it could be early medieval.
The rock-cut pool, carved footprint and incised cross all point to the Den being a place where sacred rites were conducted in ancient times. The footprint is reminiscent of others elsewhere in Scotland, such as the well-known example at Dunadd. Carved footprints were used in inauguration rituals, such as the anointing of kings and chieftains, and it seems plausible that the one at Dunino was used for similar purposes.
Above the Den, in the churchyard, stands the weathered remnant of a rectangular stone, a little over 2 feet high, incised with crosses on two sides. It is a Pictish monument of c.800 AD, perhaps the tombstone of a priest. People now leave coins on its flat top but it formerly supported a sundial erected in 1698. Another Pictish stone, a fragment of a cross-slab, was found in the churchyard by a grave-digger. It is now in the museum at St Andrews, but the slab from which it came still lies buried in the churchyard at Dunino.
The present-day Dunino church, built in the early 19th century, probably occupies the site of an important Pictish church or monastery whose patrons were local chiefs or kings. These rulers presumably used the carved footprint in their inauguration ceremonies. A small excavation at the church in the 1990s discovered old foundations that might be medieval, but further investigation would be required to place these in context. What does seem certain is that the church is just one feature in a ‘ritual landscape’ used by local people for more than a thousand years. According to folklore, a stone circle once stood in nearby farmland, before being broken up for wall-building. On the rocky outcrop above the Kinaldy Burn, the pool and footprint may be pre-Christian in origin, and both may have been used in pagan ceremonies long before the foundation of the first church. This long continuity of ritual is very much alive, as I saw when I visited the place last year. As I walked through the Den, I came across the stump of an old tree, its bare trunk festooned with ribbons and flowers. Many of these offerings looked fresh and new. They had been placed there only a day or two earlier, by people who clearly recognized – as I did – that this is still a sacred place.
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The photographs in this blogpost are copyright © B Keeling.
Elizabeth Sutherland’s description of Dunino Den is on page 35 of A Guide to the Pictish Stones, published in 1997 by Birlinn Books of Edinburgh.
The cross-slab fragment was described by Joseph Anderson and John Romilly Allen in The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland (Edinburgh: 1903) on page 365, with the drawing by Allen on page 366.
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