Pictish carvings at the Wemyss Caves

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East Wemyss is a former coal-mining village on the south coast of Fife. It is famous for a group of sandstone caves along the shoreline, these having been delved in some far-off time when the waters of the Firth of Firth were higher than today. The cave walls are adorned with ancient carvings, many of which are now hard to discern. A number of these have been dated to the early medieval period and were carved by local Picts in the sixth to ninth centuries AD.

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Damage to the caves by erosion, neglect and vandalism led to the formation of a group dedicated to preserving and conserving them. Save Wemyss Ancient Caves Society (SWACS) was founded in 1986, after one of the sites – Jonathan’s Cave – was damaged by fire when a stolen car was driven inside and set alight. Since then, SWACS has been at the forefront of efforts to protect the caves and their unique carvings, co-operating with other organisations in projects aimed at increasing knowledge and raising awareness.

One of the latest projects is using high-tech scanning methods to produce 3D digital images and models of the caves. This began with Jonathan’s Cave and is now being extended to the others. One exciting result of the project is Wemyss Caves 4D, a virtual tour of Jonathan’s Cave with an interactive aspect giving detailed information. It allows the user to feel like an explorer, even giving an option to shine a torch for a better view of the carvings. This is great for those of us who have yet to experience an official tour with a guide from SWACS. See the link at the end of this blogpost if you want to try it for yourselves.

Although I’ve had a few holidays in Fife, it wasn’t until a couple of weeks ago that I visited the Wemyss caves for the first time. Even then, I only managed to get a brief look. In the fading light of early evening I followed the public path along the shoreline, passing the Court Cave and Doo Cave and having a quick peep inside. Unfortunately I was short of time so didn’t venture further along the shore to see the other caves, nor did I catch a glimpse of any ancient designs.

Back home, I consulted my copy of Allen & Anderson’s Early Christian Monuments of Scotland (1903) where the Pictish carvings in the Wemyss caves are described. Here’s an image from ECMS showing some of the Pictish symbols in Doo Cave, drawn by John Romilly Allen:

Wemyss Caves Pictish Symbols

I’ve selected the above symbols from Allen’s original sketch because they’re familiar and recognisable – unlike others which are more abstract or esoteric. My selection shows the double-disc & Z-rod (attached to an animal’s head), the Pictish beast or ‘swimming elephant’, the arch, the rectangle, the bird and four double-discs. All of these can be seen in variant forms on Pictish symbol stones, usually in combinations of two or more, and often with other symbols not shown here. Sadly, the double-disc & Z-rod was on a section of wall that collapsed when a gun emplacement was placed on top of the cliff during World War One.

The cave I’m most keen to visit is Jonathan’s Cave, mainly because I’ve done a bit of research on it from afar. It popped onto my radar in the mid-1990s, when I was gathering information on early medieval naval warfare for a PhD thesis. I was looking for images of Pictish ships and came across an article describing an oared vessel carved on the east wall of Jonathan’s Cave. Back then, I made a note to see this important carving for myself, little knowing that the visit would still be sitting on my ‘to do’ list twenty years later. It’s something I really should tick off before another decade slips by. A brief stroll along the shoreline at East Wemyss on a March evening, with little more than a hasty peek at two of the caves, has merely whetted my appetite.

Wemyss Caves

Looking west along the shore from Court Cave (© B Keeling).

Wemyss Caves

Tree, sandstone cliff and warning sign outside Court Cave (© B Keeling).

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The entrance to Court Cave (© B Keeling).

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The entrance to Doo Cave (© B Keeling).

Wemyss Caves

Doo Cave (© B Keeling).

Wemyss Caves

Doo Cave (© B Keeling).

Wemyss Caves

Looking out across the Firth of Firth (© B Keeling).

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Notes & links

The place-name Wemyss (pronounced ‘Weems’) comes from the Gaelic word uamh meaning ‘cave’.

Jonathan’s Cave is named from a poor man who lived inside with his family in the late 1700s.
Court Cave was the site of the local baronial court in the Middle Ages. The nearby Macduff’s Castle was the seat of the earls of Fife.
Doo Cave, originally Doocot (‘Dovecot’) Cave, was once a place where pigeons were kept.
The other caves at East Wemyss are Well Cave, Sloping Cave and Gas Works Cave. Several more have collapsed.

Notices at the cave entrances warn visitors of the danger of entering. SWACS recommends booking a tour with one of their guides (see website below).

SWACS website (Save Wemyss Ancient Caves Society)

Wemyss caves 4D [use the Explore option for a virtual tour of Jonathan’s Cave]

A blogpost from SCHARP (Scotland’s Coastal Heritage at Risk Project) on the scanning project: ‘Wemyss Caves 4D continues…’

Information on Jonathan’s Cave at the RCAHMS Canmore database

From the Courier newspaper, an article on the threat of erosion: ‘Do they want to see them lost forever? — council told it needs to do more to protect Wemyss Caves.’

Lastly, the article that first drew my attention to the Wemyss Caves: Elizabeth le Bon, ‘The Jonathan’s Cave boat carving: a question of authenticity?’ International Journal of Nautical Archaeology vol.21 (1992), 337-42

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14 comments on “Pictish carvings at the Wemyss Caves

  1. scharpblog says:

    there’s an Open Sunday coming up this weekend – Cave tours from 12:15

  2. Susan Abernethy says:

    Very cool Tim! Hope you can get back there soon and report to us what you find.

  3. Jo Woolf says:

    Fantastic, Tim! I had heard of these caves before, possibly through a TV programme which I will have to try and remember now. I wonder if they are the only examples of Pictish carving on a natural feature rather than a deliberately placed rock? Another thing I keep meaning to ask – is there any evidence to suggest that Pictish symbols were ever painted? I am always mesmerised by the ‘double disc’ – I wonder if it is the same concept as yin and yang.

    • Tim says:

      Interesting questions, Jo. The most well-known Pictish carvings on natural rock are probably the symbols at Trusty’s Hill in Galloway. Some might also include the boar at Dunadd which shows Pictish influence, if not an actual Pictish presence, at a major stronghold of the Scots. Regarding the painting of symbols, I wouldn’t be surprised if some stones were painted in bright colours to make them even more eye-catching. Free-standing crosses like the ones from Anglo-Saxon Northumbria were almost certainly painted in this way, so it may have been quite common. I wonder if the TV programme you saw was the Time Team episode on the Wemyss Caves (which I’ve not watched yet).

  4. Helen McKay says:

    Hi Tim, the caves are an opportunity for us to see the symbols as informal carvings, which may give us some ideas of what individuals saw as important, and maybe even what they might mean. For instance, its interesting that the ogee occurs in the middle of birds – does this imply an association? But it also shows us that people knew the full set of symbols, as the nearest ogee on a symbol stone is up in Aberdeenshire. A lot further than most locals would have been able to travel. And there are other similar instances.
    But the date again. The symbol stones probably start around 300AD, but the symbols were fully formed before that, possibly even thousands of years before that. In the Sculptors Cave in Moray there are two periods of activity, the second is 2nd to 4th centuries, which is when we can assume the symbols there were carved.
    Its been fascinating to watch the Rhynie archaeology group, I was rereading some of their papers, and over time, they keep dropping the potential dating of the CI symbols there, until the dating comes in even earlier than they’d allowed. Again they would have been carved possibly 450-500. And one of them perhaps around 200AD.

    • Tim says:

      Thanks for this, Helen. You’re right about the informal aspect of the Wemyss carvings, which sets them apart from the formal/elite contexts in which Pictish symbols are usually encountered. It’s also useful to hear about the Rhynie group’s early dates for Class I symbol stones. I didn’t know that a date of c.200 AD was being proposed. Seems quite early, but consistent with the likelihood that the symbols in their fully-developed forms were already being incised on stone in Roman times.

      • Helen McKay says:

        the Rhynie dates I believe have been shown as 450-550 in general. The spearman (with symbols) however is from the 2nd/3rd century and is likely carved in response to seeing the same naked deity with spear and small rectangular shield in the north of Roman territory around the wall. (That’s my idea, not theirs, but Alistair Mack points out that this warrior comes from this period in his field guide – but then gets caught up in the dating factoid and uses the symbols on these spearman stones to say they ‘must’ have been carved much later, but there is no evidence for that, and the symbols seem to be the same style and level of erosion as the warrior himself.) Sorry to keep saying this, but I’m hoping that eventually the dating will get clearer as people face down the dating factoid and become aware that it isn’t a fact and is probably wrong. Only when people become conscious of a factoid is it possible to start to inspect it. Which isn’t just a matter of symbol stones dating, so many times in the past decade now I’ve come across people using the factoid of Pictish symbol dating to set the date of their own historical work, so its seriously impacting the whole of Scottish history. Hopefully a wordsmith like yourself will one day help to set things in a better context? Anyway, perhaps the first thing to do is not to keep repeating the same factoid, it just keeps digging it in to people’s subconscious as a given. I’m not picking on you btw, I’m trying to put a case to plead for your help … 🙂

        • Tim says:

          You’re absolutely right about factoids getting in the way. I have issues with a number of factoids in early medieval studies (and have been known to moan about them at this blog). On the other hand, I am probably hooked up to others that I haven’t yet recognised for what they are, believing them to be solid truths. If the conventional dating of Pictish symbols turns out to be one such fallacy, I will be more than happy to unhitch myself from it.

  5. Gavin Fyffe says:

    Having took a trip to the caves today, ( 4 /7/16), totally fascinated by the history steeped in these caves, and the castle. Spent some 4 hours here, and only done 4!! Such was the times spent in each !!
    The others I’m keeping for another day….( soon!)

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