Dunino Den: a Pictish ritual site?

Dunino Den Pictish ritual site

Dunino Den

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.

Dunino, Fife, Scotland
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.

Dunino Den Pictish ritual site

Carved footprint (after a rain shower!)

Dunino Den Pictish ritual site

Rock-cut steps leading down to Dunino Den.

Dunino Den Pictish ritual site

Dunino Den, looking towards the steps.

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.

Dunino Den Pictish ritual site

Cross carved on a rock face at Dunino Den.

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.

Dunino Den Pictish stone

The badly weathered Pictish stone in Dunino churchyard (note the coins on top).

Dunino Churchyard Pictish stone

The other side of the Dunino churchyard stone, showing an incised cross.

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.
Dunino Church Pictish stone

Fragment of Pictish cross-slab from Dunino churchyard. Illustration from Allen & Anderson (1903).

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.

Dunino Den Pictish ritual site

Coloured ribbons and other offerings on a tree-stump at Dunino Den.

* * * *


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.

For bibliographical references, see the site entries on the Canmore database for Dunino Church and its Pictish stones, the incised cross at the Den and the prehistoric stone circle.

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.

* * * * * * *

41 comments on “Dunino Den: a Pictish ritual site?

  1. Susan Abernethy says:

    Wow Tim! This looks like a really fantastical place. You’re so lucky you could visit. Nice post.

  2. Ancient footprints, what better markers of the ‘anthropocene’ (geologic era of human influenced geology). I got a special feeling in Durham cathedral too. I guess some people get that feeling at Stonehenge but I was underwhelmed.

    • Tim says:

      Yes, I know what you mean about Stonehenge. I felt the same when I went there many years ago. It wasn’t what I expected at all.

      Btw, ‘anthropocene’ is new to me. A useful word to add to my vocab.

  3. […] Dunino Den: a Pictish ritual site? « Senchus […]

  4. […] Some places associated with the ancient past have a special aura, a hint of the Otherworld. In Scotland, two places that really stand out are Doon Hill near Aberfoyle and the famous Callanish stones on the Isle of Lewis.Now Senchus ( the writer of the website on Early medieval Europe) adds Dunino Den in Fife. Elizabeth Sutherland in A Guide to the Pictish Stones described it as ‘a magical place’, so they were curious to see what she meant by that. The visit left them in agreement with her description.  […]

  5. Jo Woolf says:

    What a wonderful place, and thank you for this post. I am fascinated by the magical aura that you felt. I shall have to seek out Dunino Den one of these days!

  6. Mick says:

    I notice from the map Tim, that there are several streams converging in the locality. Maybe this in some way influenced the choice of site ?

  7. ritaroberts says:

    Love this post Tim. Dunino Den looks quite magical and I would love walking through it. The carvings on the pictish stones are quite clear on some. Quite a Medieval feeling I think. Many thanks for sharing .

  8. Valerie Brewster Willis says:

    I am curious about the cross carved on the rock face. The four circles that seem the armpits of a “Celtic cross” appear to dominate this example. Are these the four airts? As in the ritual sword dance, could this be the continuation of an ancient ritual involving water performed in this place? I have seen examples of early incised crosses that consist simply of a circle containing an equal armed cross with a circle or dot in each of the quadrants. It seems to me that those circles eventually migrate to become the armpits of what we now call the Celtic cross. Have always wondered about this and would love to know if anyone else has noticed those four circles.

    • Tim says:

      An interesting thought, Valerie. I must confess to a lack of knowledge about the symbolism of the four circles. On some free-standing crosses they are certainly very prominent – I think there are a couple of examples from Galloway, but the one I’m seeing in my mind right now is the cross-head from Lesmahagow. Someone has probably written about this topic in a book about the art and symbolism of Celtic crosses, but unfortunately I don’t have a precise reference to give you.

      • Valerie Brewster Willis says:

        Louise Henderson (Henderson & Henderson – The Art of the Picts) provides many examples without commenting on the circles. Two from Dyce, Aberdeenshire, one a square divided by a cross each quarter containing a dot, the other a circle containing a small cross with four extra large circles overlaying the first circle to form a square. There is an incised cross from Walls, Hoy with the armpits defined as circles like that at Dunino, though it has no nimbus and is a Greek cross rather than a Latin cross. It is as if those armpit circles are the most important element of the overall design of the cross.
        Of course, in modern thought these four circles might be interpreted as the four wounds of Christ, but the earliest examples especially in Ireland don’t look much like Latin or Greek crosses.
        Analyzed, ancient cross design has three elements, a circle or square – divided into quarters – each quarter containing a point. It is the geometry of the design rather than the “symbolism” that is interesting.
        I thought that the distinctive armpits and nimbus of the Celtic cross might be evidence of older spiritual ideas – not necessarily “Celtic” or confined to Scotland.

        • Tim says:

          Sounds like a topic worthy of further exploration, Valerie. The nimbus and armpits of the Celtic cross type must originate somewhere, perhaps from further afield as you surmise.

        • Valerie says:

          I am very sorry, should not write without checking facts first, especially must never again quote authors and get their name wrong. The researchers and writers of “The Art of the Picts” are of course George Henderson and Isabel Henderson.

    • cassegrain says:

      Hi Valerie, I have been working on deciphering Pictish symbols. My findings suggest that the four circles you see represent the four stars known as the Square of Pegasus. The interesting thing about this is that these four stars were aligned due South at Dusk on the 25th December in pre-Christian times and may suggest that the constellation of Pegasus, the White Horse, was associated with an older messianic son of god. ( there is even mention in the bible of a messiah arriving on a white horse).The use of the so called “Celtic Cross” as a Christian symbol may therefore be a reinterpretation of its much older original significance or perhaps a means of converting the pagan Scots and Picts to the new religion by associating Jesus with one of their Old Stellar deities though it should be noted that very ancient carvings of simple crosses complete with the four holes of “the Square of Pegasus” exist from ” Pictland ” that may date to before 1000BC suggesting that the Church rebranded the ancient symbol.

  9. Ed Watson says:

    Looks a very atmospheric place.
    Intrigued by that inscribed cross, I wonder how old it is – do we know when it was first recorded?

    • Tim says:

      Good question. I’m not sure when the cross was first mentioned in print. A trawl through the antiquarian literature for this part of Fife might show if it was reported in the 18th century or earlier. The Canmore entry cites an archaeological note that may shed some light: A Parker and E Proudfoot ‘Bell Craig (Dunino), cross’, Discovery & Excavation in Scotland (1979), no.54 p.10, but I’ve not seen this yet.

  10. This is fascinating, Tim, I’d not heard of the place, thankyou for writing. I’m surprised the local tourist board hasn’t made more of it as part of the whole ‘Kingdom of Fife’ bit. There’s hardly another known unit whose kings it could have inaugurated, after all, however anachronistic that would be!

    • Tim says:

      Thanks, Jonathan. The Fife tourism authorities certainly seem to be missing an opportunity at Dunino. The day after our visit we went a few miles down the road to the arts festival at Pittenweem, There I got talking to a local resident and mentioned the Den, thinking she’d say something like ‘Yeah, it’s an amazing place’ but instead she just looked puzzled – she didn’t know of its existence (and was as surprised as I was that she didn’t know). She said it sounded pretty cool and would check it out.

  11. Ceitidh says:

    I’ve been to Dunino Den a few times. My dad lived and was brought up in nearby Kingsbarns and my grandfather was a gamekeeper on the Cambo estate.

    I find it interesting that you mention the Den having a noticeable ‘aura’ about it. This is something my dad, brother and myself have often talked about. We all felt it to be very ‘other’; I’ve always found it to be quite a dark, forbidding place, very watchful and still. We all of us agreed we wouldn’t like to find ourselves there alone after dark! Also, my grandfather who was a very no-nonsense outdoorsman told my dad that he found it to be a ‘queer sort of place’ and he never much cared to spend any time there when he was out shooting.

    Makes you wonder does it not?

  12. Gary says:

    Passed through here on a road trip recently, did not actually know the den and stones were situated here. I would have made a stop if I had known. I will stop next time though. Thanks for the nod Tim.

  13. George says:

    I live here, well just across the road. It’s a pity people keep littering the place with their modern day trinkets, ribbons, coins, plastic angels, even golf balls! None of this stuff is biodegradable. It’s going to clutter the place up for hundreds of years.

  14. Mikey says:

    I live in dundee and have yet to venture to dunino den, but my great uncle is quite clued up about all this sort of thing and believes dunino to be a place of female worship from ancient times and possibly still even used today on a certain day of the year perhaps a winter soltice or something

    • Tim says:

      Interesting. I reckon it’s quite feasible that the stream could have been sacred to a water goddess in pre-Christian times. Also, I’m now wondering if some of the ribbons on the tree were indeed put there on special days like the solstice – as is certainly the case at other mystical places.

  15. My partner and our kids love visiting this place, we live in Anstruther and visit Dunino quite a lot.
    No matter what the weather, the “Den” has a special kind of vibe going on, all around the den are trees decorated with trinkets, as if people were making silent prayers or wishes to the spirit. The little burn that runs through it also has a kind of energy of it’s own, you can spend a fair amount of time taking in the energies here, and I for one get some benefit from visiting here – and will do so over and over again. It is a great place, and is “charged” for want of a better word.

    PS you may at times feel an emotional tie, that of course depends on the individuals. There is something here, although what I don’t know. Perhaps a historical energy, which is lovely in itself.


    • Tim says:

      Thanks for sharing your experience here, Bryen. I quite envy you that you live near enough to make frequent visits to the Den. I’m 270 miles away, so my next visit must wait until I have another holiday in the East Neuk. You’re absolutely right to use the word “charged” to describe the Den’s special vibe. Exactly what I felt when I was there.

  16. Robbie says:

    My wife and I where hand fasted there by a Druid on Beltane . After the ceremony there was a dry thunder above our heads which made us all JUMP!

  17. Tim says:

    It’s good to hear of this kind of ritual continuity at the Den. I imagine the thunder added to the strange aura of the place, especially at such a sacred time of the year.

  18. I had visit several weeks back and there is something about the area, I felt like there was a presence or aura in the area and my camera failed to fire twice (which it has never done before), loosing focus for no apparent reason!

    Some of my shots from the visit:

    • Tim says:

      Great photos, Malcolm. Nice to see the offerings placed by visitors. Even in our techno age it’s good to know people are still affected by the strange magic of the Den.

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