Searching for Pictish gold

Stonehaven

Stonehaven, Aberdeenshire, on a postcard from c. 1900.


Dunnicaer, a stack of rock off the Aberdeenshire coast near Stonehaven, was in the news last year. On the summit, archaeologists found evidence of a very ancient fortification dating back to the third or fourth century AD. In May, I wrote about this significant discovery in a blogpost called Picts at Dunnicaer. Two months later, the Scotsman newspaper ran an article under the heading ‘Pictish fort near Stonehaven – oldest in Scotland’. The article included a quote from archaeologist Dr Gordon Noble of the University of Aberdeen:

“We knew that the site had potential as in 1832 a group of youths from Stonehaven scaled the sea stack, prompted by a local man who had recurring dreams gold was hidden there. Unfortunately for the youths they didn’t find the gold, but they did find a number of decorated Pictish symbol stones and, as they were throwing them into the sea, noticed some were also carved. Several years later, when knowledge of Pictish stones began to circulate, a number were recovered from the sea.”

I briefly mentioned this instance of nineteenth-century ‘heritage vandalism’ in the comments below my blogpost, in a reply to fellow-blogger Jo Woolf. Later, while replying to a comment by Helen McKay, I said that I was drafting a separate post on this topic. Unfortunately, the major distraction of a book-writing project meant the new post didn’t get finished. However, in the last week or so I’ve been able to return to it, and the result is the little story below….

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Searching for Pictish gold

The former fishing village of Cowie, once famed for its smoked haddock, lies on the north side of Stonehaven. Nearly 200 years ago, in the early 1830s, one of its inhabitants was an old man called Blair who worked as the local grave-digger. Every night – so he said – he experienced a recurring dream about Dunnicaer, the steep and rugged sea-stack south of Stonehaven. In the dream, he imagined that a secret cave lay beneath the summit, and that in the cave lay a great hoard of gold. Among the folk who heard his tale was a group of young men from Stonehaven. They listened eagerly when he described his vision of hidden treasure. He told them of his regret that he was too old to scale the perilous rock and retrieve the gold for himself. The Stonehaven lads, however, were up for the challenge, despite the risk of serious injury or death.

One day, in 1832, three or four of these intrepid treasure-seekers climbed to the top of Dunnicaer. On reaching the summit, they saw that it was partly enclosed by a low wall surmounted by roughly hewn stones. Some of the stones were engraved with strange symbols and patterns, but these were of little interest and were duly ignored. The lads began to dig down through the soil, expecting at any moment to catch a gleam of gold. To their dismay, they found nothing except bare rock. Disappointment turned quickly to boredom, so they decided to amuse themselves by pulling the carved stones off the top of the wall and hurling them down into the sea below. Many stones were quickly dispatched in this way.

Having discovered no treasure, the explorers climbed back down to the seashore and headed for home. One of the group was Donald Ross, who was then around 20 years of age. He went back to Dunnicaer the following day, though he did not make a second ascent of the rock. Near the base he spotted one of the engraved stones and took it home.

The years passed. Donald Ross became an engineer at the Stonehaven gasworks. By the early 1840s he was a husband and father and a respected figure in the community. It was probably around this time that he made another expedition to Dunnicaer, not to hunt for gold but to find more of the stones that he and his friends had thrown down from the top. He had recently become aware of a growing interest in ancient sculpture and realised that the carvings he had seen in 1832 were special. Searching the seashore, he didn’t seem to be having much luck until his eye was drawn to a stone completely covered with seaweed. Peeling the weed away, he saw the engraved shape of a fish – clearly a salmon – below a small triangle. He took it home, perhaps intending to sell it, but did nothing more than keep it safe. His retrieval and possession of this stone ultimately ensured its survival.

Dunnicaer Pictish stone

By 1857, Donald had risen to the position of manager at the gasworks. In that year, he was visited by Alexander Thomson – a resident of Banchory and an active member of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. Thomson had been reading John Stuart’s recently published book Sculptured Stones of Scotland and was intrigued by one of the plate illustrations depicting two symbol stones from the Stonehaven area. Stuart’s accompanying description said that “they are now in the possession of the Keeper of the Gas Work at Stonehaven, who found them at Dinnacare about sixteen years ago”.

Thomson bought both stones from Donald Ross for an undisclosed sum. During their conversation, Ross told him about the 1832 expedition and the stone-throwing but not, apparently, about the tale of hidden gold. Thomson didn’t learn the full story until February of the following year (1858) when he received a letter from James Christian, a writer who lived in Stonehaven. Christian had himself purchased another of the Dunnicaer stones from a certain Andrew Brown whose father, a fisherman, had taken it from the summit c.1819. The price paid by Christian was a half sovereign, for which he received the stone shown below.

Dunnicaer Pictish stone

Christian wanted to climb the rock-stack himself, in spite of the danger. He was curious to see what the summit looked like. Andrew Brown said that he, too, might make the attempt – presumably in the hope of finding more stones. He was, as Christian observed in his letter to Thomson, “tempted by the half sovereign”, though he reckoned his advancing years would make the climb more difficult. Brown’s wife, however, had no such anxiety about the ascent. Christian noted that she seemed “quite pleased” by the idea and added “I should not be surprised if she went up”.

In his letter, Christian also mentioned the old grave-digger whose dream of buried treasure had stirred the curiosity of young Donald Ross and his companions. Christian wondered if the dream might have been based on local legend. In any case, he didn’t think there was any substance to it:

“I suspect this idea of the old man’s must have arisen from some traditional habitation of the rock which he had heard of in his youth. But all these old people are now dead; and, after all, fisher traditions are not of much value.”

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Notes

Donald Ross died in 1863, three years after the publication of Alexander Thomson’s paper on Dunnicaer in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. The paper refers to him simply as ‘Mr Ross’ and calls him ‘the intelligent manager of the gas work’ but doesn’t say much more about him. However, his important role in the story of the stones prompted me to seek out some additional biographical information.

The two illustrations are from Thomson’s paper which I have as a download and a photocopy. In both formats the original drawings lose a bit of definition so I’ve enhanced them slightly for this blogpost. As in my previous post I’ll cite the full reference:

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.

Lastly, here’s a lnk to the Scotsman article mentioned above: Pictish fort near Stonehaven ‘oldest in Scotland’

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7 comments on “Searching for Pictish gold

  1. Buried ‘gold’ within early medieval sites and features was a very common motif in 19thC Irish folklore. A lot of souterrains, for example, when initially discovered through agricultural activity, were checked by locals for ‘gold’. Presumably, it a cross between lore and social memory of antiquarian finds from the likes of Bronze Age cists, Tumuli, etc…

    • Tim says:

      Thanks for this, Terry. Your mention of Irish souterrains reminds me of the folklore attached to some Scottish ones which were mistakenly believed to be ‘Pictish houses’ (Picts being thought of as pigmies who lived underground).

  2. Jo Woolf says:

    What a wonderful story, Tim! I really enjoyed this. Aagh, you wonder what was tipped over the edge and lost! But I guess, as with all archaeology, you have to be grateful for what has survived, and it’s remarkable that the fish carving survived at all. I don’t share James Christian’s contempt for the humble grave-digger who dreamed of the gold. History and legend combined – and where are the boundaries?! Fantastic.

    • Tim says:

      Thanks Jo. One reason I like reading these old articles by Victorian antiquarians like Christian, Thomson, etc is that they often contain fascinating nuggets of folklore and legend. Even when there’s no truth behind it, a good tale adds a bit of spice to the archaeology.

  3. Speaking of possible Pictish treasures lost forever, readers may like to consult my blog:
    http://angusfolklore.blogspot.co.uk/2015/12/the-brochs-of-angus-tales-told-and.html

  4. Tim says:

    Thanks for visiting, Keith. I followed the link and had a browse through your Pict-related posts. Interesting blog!

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