Picts at Dunnicaer

Pictish symbol stone Dunnicaer

Fish symbol and triangle on a stone from Dunnicaer.

Archaeologists from the University of Aberdeen have recently discovered a Pictish fort on the summit of Dunnicaer, a ‘sea stack’ near Dunnottar Castle. Dunnicaer lies approximately 1 mile south of the town of Stonehaven but is isolated from the mainland at high tide. A number of stone fragments inscribed with Pictish symbols were found there in the nineteenth century, suggesting that it was a significant place in early medieval times. However, with steep slopes and rugged cliffs, it is hardly the most accessible archaeological site in Scotland – which is probably why it had never been excavated before. The Aberdeen team needed the guidance of a professional climber to help them get to the top.

Dunnottar Castle, situated a quarter of a mile further south, stands on a prominent headland jutting into the North Sea. Built in the twelfth century, it served as a stronghold for Clan Keith from the 1300s to the 1700s and was an important strategic site. References in medieval texts show its frequent involvement in warfare and dynastic politics. Older sources relating to the Dark Ages refer to a fortress called Dun Foither (the Gaelic name for Dunnottar). Contemporary annals state that this was besieged twice in the seventh century – in 681 and 694 – probably during wars between rival Pictish kings. It has long been assumed that the fortress in question stood on the headland now occupied by the castle. However, excavations conducted thirty years ago failed to reveal any evidence of Pictish settlement, prompting a suggestion that the original Dun Foither might instead be Dunnicaer.

Dunnottar Castle
[Above and below: two nineteenth-century views of Dunnottar Castle]

Dunnottar Castle

The recent excavation at Dunnicaer has now confirmed that this remote sea-stack was indeed the site of a small Pictish fortress. It was built sometime between c.400-600 and comprised a timber house or hall defended by an outer rampart of stone. Upon this defensive wall the symbol-inscribed stones discovered in the nineteenth century were probably displayed. It is also likely that the occupants devised a more convenient method of access than a scramble up the steep sides. They may, for example, have built a wooden bridge as a link to the mainland.

Archaeological finds – including charcoal from a hearth in the house – are now being anlaysed by experts. These may give clues about how, when and by whom the site was used. Was it perhaps the residence of an important local family, or some kind of military lookout post?

Pictish stone Dunnicaer

An ornate double-disc & Z-rod symbol on a stone from Dunnicaer.

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These are a mixture of news items and database entries:

‘Significant’ Pictish fort found off Aberdeenshire coast (BBC News) [includes a video showing how the archaeologists scaled the steep sides of Dunnicaer]
Pictish fort discovered on remote sea stack (Daily Mail)
Aberdeenshire Council – Sites & Monuments Record for the settlement at Dunnicaer
Aberdeenshire Council – Sites & Monuments Record for the Dunnicaer symbol stones
Dunnicaer promontary fort (The Modern Antiquarian)
RCAHMS Canmore database entries for Dunnicaer and Dunnottar Castle

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Thomson, A (1860) ‘Notice of sculptured stones found at “Dinnacair”, a rock in the sea, near Stonehaven’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, vol. 3, pp. 69-75.

Alcock, Leslie & Alcock, Elizabeth (1992) ‘Reconnaissance excavations on Early Historic fortifications and other royal sites in Scotland, 1974-84; 5: A, Excavations & other fieldwork at Forteviot, Perthshire, 1981; B, Excavations at Urquhart Castle, Inverness-shire, 1983; C, Excavations at Dunnottar, Kincardineshire, 1984’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, vol. 122, pp. 215–287.

[Both articles can be accessed via the PSAS online archive]


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Note: The two symbol-stone illustrations shown in this blogpost are from John Stuart’s Sculptured Stones of Scotland (1856).

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11 comments on “Picts at Dunnicaer

  1. Helen McKay says:

    Hi Tim, thanks for putting this up. The weird thing about Dunnicaer/Dunottar is that none of the carvings are ‘real’, that is standard, symbols. I’d like to think they are graffiti, but even the symbol graffiti in the caves are more recognisably real than these. Its never made sense to me. The other thing is that there is a general ‘black spot’ for symbols between St Vigeans-Aberlemno and right up to the Dee river, which includes Dunnicaer. Its seems something odd has happened in this region – perhaps it was under Northumbrian control during the mid 600s? Which would then be why Brude had to fight to get it back under Pictish control? … it is a mystery …

    • Tim says:

      Thank you, Helen, for these interesting thoughts. A gap in the distribution of symbols does seem to require an explanation. I wonder if anyone has done some research on this?

  2. Alice W. Ross says:

    Hi Tim,
    Interestingly I have also been following Dr. Gordon Noble’s archeological dig on the Dunnicaer sea stack. I am also looking into some of the earlier finds off the east coast of Scotland. I recently contacted archeologist Mary MacLeod about the possibility of Pictish finds in the many sea stacks around Lewis Island. I know Ian MacHardy did a dig in the area a few years ago. Although there are very few Pictish artifacts found in the Outer Hebrides there is always the possibility that is only because they haven’t been found yet. It is also fascinating to read what Helen McKay just wrote. The Picts are certainly a mystery! Perhaps the truth is stranger than the fiction, but I truly enjoy writing about them in my books.

    • Tim says:

      Hello Alice. Like you, I’m curious about the Picts of Lewis and other islands in the Outer Hebrides. I’ve tended to neglect this whole region as far as blogging is concerned, so maybe I’ll try and remedy that in the near future.

  3. Jo Woolf says:

    Fascinating, Tim. And those new carvings – fresh pieces of the same puzzle, or a new puzzle altogether?! 🙂

    • Tim says:

      Thanks Jo. The stones have their own curious history, having been victims of vandalism in 1832 when some local lads from Stonehaven climbed to the summit of Dunnicaer and then amused themselves by plucking stones from the wall and throwing them down into the sea. Sadly, some of the symbol-carved stones were never recovered, but maybe it’s a wonder that any of them have survived.

  4. Helen McKay says:

    Hi Tim, I’m sure you’ve seen this wonderful piece of archaeology at Dunnicaer: http://www.abdn.ac.uk/news/8016/ Once again Gordon Noble (fast becoming my hero 🙂 has punched a big hole in the dating of the Pictish stones, first with Rhynie, and now with Dunnicaer coming in with a tight time period of 3rd or 4th century. This answers a few questions like your one above, it would seem that by the time Dunnottar appears in records it really is the same place as today’s castle. But about the Pictish symbols, its fantastic news (and we can feed this info into your blog about whether the tattoes of the early Picts were symbols too, answer is – more likely every day).
    But about the symbols, GN is quoted : “We’ve always thought these symbol stones either strange or very early as the carvings are ‘rough and ready’ compared to other known Pictish symbol stones…” In my comment above, I asked whether they should be considered graffiti, but as with the caves in Fife and Moray, this fort is a site of great significance, so graffiti is unlikely. And there is another problem, while most of the single and different ‘symbols’ here are badly formed, there is one in particular that is perfectly formed and ‘modern’, and you can this one on the CANMORE site, its a double-discZrod. This tells us that the formal symbols were already evolved and in place, and suggests that the others at Dunnicaer and the caves are just informal drawings, and an odd collection of them not seen elsewhere on bits of stone in a group, because this Dunnicaer fort seems to have lasted a very small time, and it is illogical to assume that the symbols became a standard set all over Pictland within such a short space of time.
    I am quite thrilled to find the symbols pushed back like this, I’d sort of given up hope of firm evidence. My feeling is that they come from at least a few centuries BC, but that is another story.
    But the presence of a group of informal symbols at Dunnicaer, which then is more like the caves than any other site, really does seem to ask the question as to just what the function of this ‘fort’ really was. If it is functioning as a sacred site in a way similar to the caves, then it may never have been the main ‘fort’ in the area, but perhaps a sacred place associated with another early ‘warrior’ fort at Dunotter?

    • Tim says:

      Thanks for this, Helen. I think the idea of Dunnicaer having some kind of ceremonial/ritual function is a good fit with the evidence. It might not therefore be a fort in the conventional military sense, or this role may have been transferred to the larger site at Dunnottar. The date of the carvings puts the use of Dunnicaer in pre-Christian times, so any rites performed on the summit would be pagan ones, perhaps venerating a sea-deity.

      Btw, I’m toying with an idea for a related blogpost on the 19th-century vandalism mentioned in my reply to Jo Woolf.

      • Helen McKay says:

        >Btw, I’m toying with an idea for a related blogpost on the 19th-century vandalism mentioned in my reply to Jo Woolf.
        You know there are so many heart-breaking moments like this, that thinking about them and what we’ve lost is really depressing. So I thought you might like a few snippets about how extraordinarily tolerant and welcoming highlanders are who have symbol stones on their properties. I’ve never yet been denied or turned away. But there have been close moments which remembering them does make me smile. Like the farmer who first said No no I don’t want you traipsing over the field (to the stone in the middle), I’ve got seedlings just coming up… 5 seconds of silence …. Oochwell off you go then have a look …. and I’ve never felt so guilty as in that field trying my best to reach the stone without standing on precious crop !
        Another day I turned up to a property and to my dismay the front gate was shut and plastered with Keep Out! signs and the like. I’d never seen anything like it before, but as I stood there wondering what to do, who should come driving around on his ride-around, spraying stuff out of a hose, but the owner. He saw me standing there, an old forlorn hag, and yelled out to me, What do you want? But at this point I was so mystified by the whole scene that I yelled back What on earth are you doing? at which point he stopped his machine and I got a sudden in-depth education on the control of voles – being an Ozzie I had no idea what he was talking about of course. But he finally stopped educating me, and said, So what do you really want? and I said, Oh I really want to see your Pictish stone…. to which he replied, Come in, down the driveway, turn left … and went back to his devoling.
        Another time, I wanted to see a Pictish stone associated with a stone circle, but I couldnt figure out which house to ask at, so I stopped at one. The neighbour told me the owner didn’t like that lots of people walked through his fields to the circle and that he had put barbed wire all around the fence, and, that for extra measure he kept his bull in the paddock. But said the neighbour with a grin, the secret is that the bull is a sweetheart and wont hurt you so off you go, up to the circle. So we started walking up the fenceline of the hill, only to realise that the said farmer was in his mower cutting the hay in the next paddock, so we waved gaily at him, hoping that if he really objected to us that he would put his head out the window and tell us so, but he didn’t, so on we went. The barbed wire fence was nothing to two Ozzies, so we reached the circle no problems, only to find that a herd of cows on the other side of the hill had now seen us and were heading up to us at a slow roll. They stopped in a long line just outside the circle, looking at us, expecting food no doubt. But the bull had ambled up behind them and was now presented with a line of cow bottoms, and thought the opportunity far too good to pass up. This would have been funny, except that my friend had been brought up in a land of terrifying buffalos, and couldn’t tell a cow apart, so she went completely rigid in terror, and I had one of those moments where all the stories of people turning to stone in a stone circle came back to haunt me. Somehow I got her out of the paddock and back across the barbed wire, but that was the last time she would go into a paddock with me. Which was a pity as cows tend to rather like symbol stones.

        • Tim says:

          These tales of your Pictish forays are very entertaining! I don’t think I’ve got anything similar in my own stock of stone-hunting experiences (probably because I’ve only visited a tiny percentage of the stones).

          The afore-mentioned blogpost on vandals at Dunnicaer is nearly finished and will appear next week.

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