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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Glenmorangie Research Project

Early Medieval Scotland
I have long held the view that an interest in Scottish history and a fondness for single malt whisky go well together. Those of you who are nodding in agreement will be pleased to know that the famous Glenmorangie Company is playing an important role in increasing our knowledge of Scotland’s ancient past. Since 2008, the company has been partnering the National Museums of Scotland in a major research project on the archaeology of the early medieval period (c.300-900 AD). The inspiration for the venture came from the Hilton of Cadboll sculptured stone, a magnificent Pictish cross-slab that formerly stood on the coast of the Tarbat Peninsula in Easter Ross, a few miles south-east of the Glenmorangie Distillery at Tain. The stone is now in the National Museums at Edinburgh but a stunning replica has been erected near the original setting. A pattern of spirals on one of the carved panels is used in the whisky company’s branding.

Hilton Of Cadboll Pictish Stone

The Pictish stone from Hilton of Cadboll (illustration in John Stuart’s The Sculptured Stones of Scotland).

Partnership with Glenmorangie has provided the project with sufficient funding to pursue several avenues of study. At the heart of the research is the material culture of the Picts and their neighbours: sculpture, metalwork, jewellery and other objects. Conservation and analysis of original artefacts is obviously a cornerstone of the project, but the work has also included the creation of modern replicas by craftspeople using traditional techniques. These reconstructions were displayed in an exhibition called Creative Spirit: Revealing Early Medieval Scotland which ran from October 2013 to February 2014. Among the items were drinking horns, hand-bells and a very striking ‘Pictish throne’.

Norries Law Pictish Silver

Silver plaque from the Pictish hoard found at Norrie’s Law, Fife (illustration in Allen & Anderson, The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland).

Last year, the project received a further three years of sponsorship from the Glenmorangie Company. This new phase will enable specialists to conserve and study Scotland’s earliest silver objects, including those from two major Pictish hoards (respectively from Norrie’s Law in Fife and Gaulcross in Aberdeenshire). The Aberdeenshire hoard, unearthed on farmland in 2013, is one of the most important archaeological discoveries of recent times. It may tell us a great deal about the role of silver as a currency of gift and exchange in Pictish society. I wrote about this hoard in a blogpost two months ago and have been keeping an eye on new developments ever since, mainly by checking Alice Blackwell’s posts at the NMS blog. Alice is the Glenmorangie Research Fellow and is leading the project through its latest phase.

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Notes & links

The image at the top of this blogpost shows the front cover of Early Medieval Scotland: Individuals, Communities and Ideas, a monograph arising from the work of the Glenmorangie Research Project. An insight into the book’s contents can be seen at the NMS blog.

The Glenmorangie Research Project has a page at the NMS website.

“Glenmorangie toasts new research project after silver hoard discovery” (article in the Ross-shire Journal).

Blogpost by Alice Blackwell describing the project’s study of Scotland’s earliest silver.

Follow Alice Blackwell on Twitter: @earlymedieval.

Webpage on the replica objects produced for the Creative Spirit exhibition.

My blogpost on the Pictish hoard from Aberdeenshire.

Those of you who have seen the movie Highlander will know that the correct pronunciation of Glenmorangie stresses the second syllable (the name rhymes with orangey, as in the fruit flavour).

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NOSAS Archaeology Blog

Pictish Symbol Stone Rhynie

Pictish symbol stone from Rhynie Kirk, Aberdeenshire (drawing by John Romilly Allen in ECMS, 1903)

An excellent online resource for Scottish archaeology appeared this year. The blog of the North of Scotland Archaeological Society (NOSAS) is the place to go for updates on current excavations and other projects in the Highlands. It started in July and is already a treasure trove of fascinating information.

Unsurprisingly, the Picts turn up in several blogposts, of which the ones listed below are just three examples I’ve picked out as ‘recommended reading’.

Pictish burial practices
Excavations at Rhynie
Highland hillforts

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Other useful links:
NOSAS website
NOSAS on Facebook
NOSAS Blog on Twitter

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Dunblane’s ‘Late Pictish’ cross-slab

Dunblane Pictish Stone

Early medieval cross-slab in Dunblane Cathedral (© B Keeling)

Two early medieval carved stones were discovered at Dunblane Cathedral during restoration work in the late nineteenth century. One is a broken rectangular slab with carved patterns along one edge only, the rest being unadorned. The other is a fully ornamented cross-slab, with carvings on front and back. Both stones were found under a staircase in the Lady Chapel or Chapter House but can now be seen at the west end of the North Aisle. They were probably carved in the tenth century and are usually regarded as late examples of Pictish sculpture. This may mean that they are not really Pictish at all, for the Picts appear to have developed new ideas about cultural and political identity at the end of the ninth century. Close contact between the Picts and their Scottish neighbours in the Gaelic West eventually led to the complete disappearance of ‘Pictishness’ and its replacement by ‘Scottishness’. It might be more accurate, then, to associate the Dunblane stones with the new, Gaelic-speaking kingdom of Alba which emerged around AD 900 in what had formerly been the Pictish heartlands.

Dunblane Pictish Stone

The Dunblane Cathedral cross-slab stands a little over 6 feet high. Its carvings were described in detail by John Romilly Allen in an article published in Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in 1881. Allen’s own drawings of the front and rear faces appeared at the end of the article and were reproduced twenty-two years later in The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland, his great collaborative venture with Joseph Anderson. The text below, taken from the entry for Dunblane on pages 315 to 317 of ECMS, describes the carvings on the rear of the slab.

‘A single panel, containing (at the top, nearly in the middle) a pair of beasts sitting up on their hind quarters, facing each other and with their fore-legs crossed; (at the right hand upper corner) a single spiral; (below the beasts on the left) square key-pattern No. 886; (on the right of this) a square figure with five raised bosses like the spots on a die; (next in order going down the slab, on the left) a small cross of shape No. 102A; (to the right of this) a figure resembling a keyhole plate as much as anything; (then) a horseman armed with a spear and accompanied by a hound; (below on the right) a circular disc ornamented with a cruciform device, there being traces of a very rudely executed key-pattern on the background; (at the bottom of the slab on the left) a man holding a staff in his right hand; and (at the right-hand lower corner) a single spiral.’

[Note: To illustrate similarities between sculptural styles in different parts of Scotland, Allen and Anderson used a numerical classification for the most common types of carving, e.g. ‘key-pattern No.886’]

Dunblane Pictish Stone

Allen’s drawing of the Dunblane Cathedral cross-slab.

Assigning a precise historical context to the cross-slab is no easy task. Dunblane is in Strathallan, the valley of the Allan Water, in the former county of Perthshire. It lies on the southern edge of what is generally considered to have been ‘Pictland’ in earlier times. To what extent (if any) its tenth-century inhabitants still regarded themselves as Picts is a matter of debate. The rulers of Alba – descendants of the Pictish king Cináed mac Ailpín (died 858) – certainly identified as ‘Scots’ in the early 900s and many of their subjects no doubt followed suit.

The place-name Dunblane (Gaelic: Dún Blááin,’fort of Blane’) was originally Dol Blááin ‘Blane’s water-meadow’, both names being traditionally associated with the sixth-century saint Blane or Bláán whose main monastery lay at Kingarth on the Isle of Bute. One possible scenario is that monks from Kingarth, seeking a refuge from Viking raids in the ninth century, established a new community at Dunblane on a site later occupied by the cathedral. This early religious settlement may have been targeted by the Britons of Dumbarton, who are said to have burned Dunblane during the reign of Cináed mac Ailpín. The same monastery might also be the unidentified civitas Nrurim where, according to the Chronicle of the Kings of Alba, Cináed’s son Áed was killed in 878 (in this period, the Latin word civitas meant ‘major religious settlement’ as well as ‘city’ or ‘fortress’). Other sources place Áed’s death in Strathallan, so Nrurim might be an older name for the newly founded monastery of Dol Blááin, or perhaps a garbled version of it.

Unlike some other early medieval carved stones, the Dunblane cross-slab is easy to find. It is certainly worth seeing, not least because it shows how ‘Late Pictish’ stonecarving had declined from the high craftsmanship of earlier periods (compare, for instance, the Dupplin Cross of c.830). The cathedral is open all year round but it’s advisable to check beforehand if planning a special trip – see the link below.

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Links & references

Record for Dunblane Cathedral on the RCAHMS Canmore database

Dunblane Cathedral opening hours

John Romilly Allen, ‘Notice of Sculptured Stones at Kilbride, Kilmartin and Dunblane’ Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland vol.15 (1880-81), 254-61.

John Romilly Allen and Joseph Anderson, The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland (Edinburgh: Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 1903) [A facsimile reprint is available from the Pinkfoot Press in Brechin]

Chronicle of the Kings of Alba (extract from the entry for Cináed mac Ailpín) –
‘Septimo anno regni sui, reliquias Sancti Columbae transportavit ad ecclesiam quam construxit, et invasit sexies Saxoniam; et concremavit Dunbarre atque Marlos usurpata. Britanni autem concremaverunt Dubblain, atque Danari vastaverunt Pictaviam, ad Cluanan et Duncalden.’
[‘In the seventh year of his rule, he transferred the remains of Saint Columba to the church which he built (at Dunkeld), and he attacked England six times; and he burned Dunbar and captured Melrose. However, the Britons burned Dunblane, and the Danes laid waste to Pictland, as far as Clunie and Dunkeld.’]

The suggestion that the unidentified civitas Nrurim might be Dunblane was made by Alex Woolf on page 116 of his book From Pictland to Alba, 789-1070 (Edinburgh, 2007)

Photos of the two Dunblane stones (via the Canmore database)

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Pictish symbol stone gets the 3D treatment

Pictish Craw Stane

The Craw Stane. Photograph by R. Brown, published in The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland (1903).

One of the accounts I follow on Twitter is the ACCORD Project which seeks to involve local communities in 3D digital visualisations of their heritage. The project’s full name is Archaeology Community Co-Production of Research Data. It’s run by the Glasgow School of Art’s Digital Design Studio in partnership with RCAHMS and the university archaeology departments at Glasgow and Manchester. Three weeks ago, the project website showed an example of how 3D printing technology can be used to produce models of ancient objects from digital photographs. The object in question is the Craw Stane at Rhynie in Aberdeenshire, a rough-hewn monolith carved with two Pictish symbols – a salmon and the enigmatic ‘Pictish beast’. The Craw Stane stands in what was undoubtedly an important landscape of power and ritual in the first millennium AD.

Based on data from 130 separate photographs, the 3D model was produced by Rhynie Woman – a collective of local artists – working alongside ACCORD. Click the link below to see the result.

Craw Stane printed in 3D

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More links….

Short video of the Craw Stane model being printed (looks like not much happening at first, but wait for the impressive finish)

Photographs of the collaboration between Rhynie Woman and ACCORD.

ACCORD Project website and Twitter account.

Description of the Craw Stane at the RCAHMS Canmore database

Rhynie Woman has a webpage and a Facebook page (where I spotted their excellent T-shirt design based on the famous ‘Rhynie Man’ Pictish carving)

Rhynie Environs Archaeological Project

Another collaboration between ACCORD and a local community has created a 3D model of a standing stone carved with an early medieval cross at Camas nan Geall in Ardnamurchan.

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Two Crosses

Dupplin Cross and Barochan Cross
End of April already, which means Springtime is underway and Summer is on the horizon. This is a good time to think about visiting museums, historic sites and other heritage attractions.

If you’re planning a trip to Scotland this year, and hoping to see some fine examples of early medieval sculpture, the above illustration offers a couple of ideas. It incorporates two drawings by John Romilly Allen from an old book called The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland (published in 1903).

On the left, the Dupplin Cross, a magnificent Pictish stone from the early 9th century AD. It’s on display at St Serf’s Church in the village of Dunning in Perthshire.

On the right, the Barochan Cross, probably carved in the late 9th century. It’s Dark Age and Celtic, but not Pictish. This is a fine example of ‘Govan School’ sculpture and can be seen at Paisley Abbey.

Both crosses formerly stood outside on bare hillsides, exposed to the elements, but now they’re safely indoors. Both are impressive reminders of the artistry and craftsmanship of two of Scotland’s ancient peoples: the Picts and the Strathclyde Britons.

Either of these impressive crosses is well worth seeing, whether you’re heading north through Perthshire en route to the Highlands or traversing the southern edge of Glasgow.

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Nigg Pictish stone

Nigg Pictish stone

Nigg cross-slab. Illustration from The Early Christian Monuments Of Scotland, 1903.

The old parish church at Nigg in Easter Ross probably stands on the site of an important Pictish monastery. The present building dates from the 1600s and is home to one of the most famous examples of Pictish sculpture: a magnificent cross-slab, 7 feet high, carved in the late eighth century. The slab’s decoration is very intricate. On the front face, above the cross, is a cameo showing Saint Paul and Saint Anthony receiving bread from a raven sent by God. The cross itself is surrounded by delicate interlace, swirling snakes and circular bosses. The back of the stone shows figures of humans and animals, with a Biblical scene (King David of Israel slaying a lion) and, at the top, an eagle above a mysterious ‘Pictish beast’.
Nigg Pictish stone

Nigg cross-slab: Paul & Anthony. Drawing by C. Petley, from The Early Christian Monuments Of Scotland, 1903.

The slab has suffered considerable damage over the past 1200 years. It once stood near the entrance to the churchyard, until it was toppled by a storm in 1727. It was then re-positioned beside the church but, during a later move, it broke into three pieces. One piece – a narrow middle section containing part of the Pictish beast – was thrown away when the upper and lower pieces were joined together with metal staples. The discarded piece disappeared and was thought to be lost for ever.
Nigg Pictish stone

Top section of slab: eagle & ‘Pictish beast’. Drawing by C. Petley, from The Early Christian Monuments Of Scotland, 1903.

A major project to conserve the slab was undertaken by Nigg Old Trust, the guardians of the church, who obtained funding for detailed restoration work by a stone conservator. The work was painstaking and time-consuming, because the monument had sustained so much damage in the past. The project also included a new display-area inside the church to enhance the experience for the many visitors who come to admire this masterpiece of Pictish art. This year, at the beginning of April, the restored slab was unveiled to the people of Nigg.

Nigg Pictish stone

Nigg cross-slab. Drawing by C. Petley, from The Early Christian Monuments Of Scotland, 1903.

An interesting footnote to the project is the fate of the middle section which vanished when the slab shattered in the 18th century. In 1998, a fragment of this missing piece was discovered in a nearby stream by Niall Robertson (former editor of the Pictish Arts Society Journal). It has now been reunited with the rest of the monument.

Nigg Pictish stone

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Useful links

The website of Nigg Old Trust has information on the Pictish stone and the restoration project.

Site record for Nigg at the RCAHMS Canmore database

BBC news report from 10 April 2013 on the completed restoration

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Largo Pictish Stone

Largo Pictish Stone

J.R. Allen’s drawing of the Largo cross-slab (1903).

A recent conversation with Roger Frehen at my blogpost on the Pictish symbol known as the double disc & Z-rod prompted me to write about an interesting stone from the southern coast of Fife. This monument, formerly known as the ‘Largo Cross’, has a double disc & Z-rod carved on the reverse.

It is actually a cross-slab rather than a free-standing cross. Chronologically and stylistically it is a ‘Class 2’ Pictish stone, its sculpture incorporating both Christian and pre-Christian symbolism. It was discovered in 1839 by General James Durham, a veteran soldier whose family owned land at Largo. At that time the stone was in two pieces, both of which were found separately. One part was found covering a drain on the the General’s lands while the other turned up a mile away at Norrie’s Law, a tumulus from which a famous hoard of Pictish silver ornaments was unearthed in the early 19th century. The two sections were reunited and the mended slab was erected in the grounds of Largo House, General Durham’s residence. There it stood on a pedestal inscribed with the year of discovery. After the General died in the following year his widow moved to Polton House, south of Edinburgh, taking the stone as an ornament for her new garden. It was eventually returned to Largo where it was placed in the churchyard within a protective shelter.

Largo Pictish Stone

The cross-slab in its shelter (Photo © B Keeling)

The slab is six and a half feet tall and was carved from a block of red sandstone. It was probably erected in the 8th century, at a time when wealthy Pictish families were eager to display their allegiance to Christanity alongside the ancient symbols of their ancestors. On the front face is a huge, ringed cross adorned with interlace patterns that are now difficult to see.
Largo Pictish Stone

The weathered cross on the front of the slab (Photo © B Keeling)

In the space to the right of the cross-shaft are two intertwined creatures, possibly seahorses, but the space on the other side is too weathered to discern much detail. The rear face shows three horsemen hunting with a pair of hounds. To the left is a double disc & Z-rod, placed vertically to fit the narrow space, while below the lowest horseman is the mysterious ‘Pictish beast’ or ‘swimming elephant’. At the bottom of the stone two deer run from right to left, presumably fleeing the hounds.
Largo Pictish Stone

From John Stuart’s ‘Sculptured Stones of Scotland’ (1857).

My own tentative theory is that the Largo stone is a memorial to a high-status Pict whose name I believe is represented by the double disc & Z-rod. According to the symbol/name identifications suggested by W.A. Cummins in his book The Picts and their symbols this symbol represents the personal name Drust. Cummins further suggested that the enigmatic ‘Pictish beast’ might represent the name Edern. Applying these ideas to the Largo stone, and if the uppermost horseman is the person commemorated by it, the intended message to local Picts may have been ‘This is a memorial to Drust, the son of Edern’. Other people will no doubt wish to devise their own interpretations which they are welcome to add in the comments below this blogpost.
Largo Parish Church

Largo Parish Church (Photo © B Keeling)

It is a pity that the Largo slab is so weathered, and that so much of the carving is invisible. It is also a pity that the protective structure makes photography so difficult. The roof reduces the light and the iron railings constrict the available angles. Nonetheless, this is definitely one of the highlights of a visit to East Fife by anyone seeking the area’s Pictish heritage. It can easily be combined with a visit to the Crail cross-slab and the St Andrews Sarcophagus.


Notes & references

Location: The parish church at Upper Largo, off the A915 road in the East Neuk of Fife.

It is interesting to note that the illustration from John Stuart’s The Sculptured Stones of Scotland (1857) appears to show a human figure on the left of the cross-shaft and, on the back, a bird preening or biting itself. Romilly Allen’s drawing of 1903 leaves both areas blank.

John Romilly Allen and Joseph Anderson, The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland (Edinburgh: Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 1903) [pp.344-7 of Part III] Reprinted in facsimile by the Pinkfoot Press in 1993.

W.A. Cummins, The Picts and their Symbols (Stroud, 1999), p.25

John Stuart, The Sculptured Stones of Scotland, Volume 1, plate lxvi. (Aberdeen, 1857)

Information on the Largo stone can also be found on the RCAHMS Canmore database.

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Crail Pictish cross-slab

Crail Pictish Stone

(click to enlarge)

Crail is a picturesque village on the coast of Fife. It lies 9 miles south of St Andrews in an area called the East Neuk which forms part of the northern shore of the Firth of Forth. Near the centre of the village stands the parish church with its fine 13th century tower. Formerly known as St Mary’s, the church once had a much older dedication to St Maelrubha, an Irish missionary who reputedly preached among the Picts in the late 7th and early 8th centuries. Among many items of historical interest inside the church is a Pictish cross-slab of c.800, now standing against a wall near the main entrance.

Crail Pictish Stone

from Scotland in Early Christian Times (1881)

The slab was retrieved in 1815, having been used as a paving-stone in the floor for about fifty years. Its carvings are therefore quite worn and any detail is difficult to see. There are no Pictish symbols and the style of the cross is late, hence the slab’s usual designation as a ‘Class III’ stone carved at the end of the Pictish period when the symbols were probably obsolete. Because of the slab’s position against a wall the reverse is no longer visible but, given the date, it is most likely blank. Current thinking among archaeologists and art-historians identifies the following sculptural features on the front face:

* a large cross of a common ‘Celtic’ type surmounted by an arc containing key-pattern decoration. The arms of the cross and the upper and lower parts of the cross-head are decorated with interlace. A key-pattern adorns the shaft below the head.
* the legs and arms of a human figure who is holding or supporting the base of the cross.
* left panel: various unidentifiable beasts.
* right panel: a seated figure with another standing behind; a horseman; two beasts, one of which could be a cow with a bell around its neck.

Crail Pictish Stone

The seated figure

The seated figure seems to be holding a child in its lap and might represent the Virgin Mary, with Joseph standing behind the chair. Other interpretations are elusive because the badly-worn carvings are too indistinct. The horseman is clearly a secular figure and presumably represents a member of the local nobility, perhaps the individual commemorated by the stone.

Crail Pictish Stone

Horseman on the Crail cross-slab

In the absence of a modern archaeological excavation we cannot trace the early history of the church but the Maelrubha dedication and the cross-slab hint at an ecclesiastical presence in Pictish times. The churchyard contains an ancient well which may have been a focus for pagan rituals before the arrival of Christianity. Was a monastery founded here by Irish missionaries, disciples of Maelrubha, on land granted by a local Pictish family? It is interesting to consider the possible relationship between such a settlement and the ecclesiastical centre at St Andrews which lies only nine miles to the north. A monastery certainly existed at St Andrews before 747, when the death of its abbot was noted by the monks of Iona. At that time it was known as Cenrigmonaid, ‘the end of the royal grazing’, but had not yet achieved the importance it held in later times. If a religious community was indeed established at Crail in the 8th century was it independent of Cenrigmonaid or was it merely a satellite?

Crail Kirk

Crail Parish Church

The place name Crail, earlier Caraile, is often seen as being of Gaelic origin, comprising carr+ail where both elements mean ‘rock’. This kind of duplication using two synonyms from the same language doesn’t look right to me. I prefer Watson’s suggestion that the name is more likely to be a contraction of Cathair Aile, where Gaelic cathair represents a North Brittonic (Pictish) term related to Welsh caer, ‘fort’. A castle formerly stood near the harbour and might have occupied the site of an old Pictish coastal stronghold, perhaps the residence of the patrons of the church. This leaves us with the second element aile which Watson left unexplained. If it is indeed Gaelic ail, ‘rock’, this would make Caraile a Pictish-Gaelic hybrid meaning ‘Fort of the Rock’. Such a name is certainly consistent with the craggy landscape around the harbour and would not be the only hybrid place name in the East Neuk. A few miles along the coast, at Pittenweem, we find Pictish pett, ‘portion’, with Gaelic na h-uamha, ‘of the cave’. Another possibility is that Caraile is not a hybrid name at all and that aile has simply replaced a synonymous Pictish term related to Brittonic al (Welsh alt), as in Alt Clut, the Old Welsh name for Dumbarton (‘Rock of the Clyde’). I’ve not seen this explanation given for Crail but it’s the one I feel inclined to run with at the moment, although I also wonder if Aile could be the name of a person (e.g. ‘Aile’s Fort’) or of a nearby topographical feature (e.g. ‘the Fort beside the Aile’).

Map of Fife

Notes & references
* The photographs used in this post are all copyright © B Keeling
* My information on the place names comes from William Watson’s The History of the Celtic Place-names of Scotland (1926) and George Mackay’s Scottish Place Names (2002).
* A detailed history of Crail Church can be found in a booklet produced by the congregation entitled The Kirk of Crail. The latest edition was published in 2003. It has an interesting drawing of the Pictish cross-slab by Reverend William Macintyre who served as minister from 1956 to 1989.
* I’m hoping to delve deeper into Crail’s early history and will put any new findings on this blog. A separate post on Pittenweem is in the pipeline.

Crail harbour

Crail harbour

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Three Picts, three symbols … three names?

St Madoes Pictish Symbol Stone

Reverse of the Pictish cross-slab at St Madoes

Seems I just can’t let go of the idea that Pictish symbols represent personal names. I’m not even sure why I prefer this theory over the alternatives, some of which are far more popular, or at least far more creative. I can’t even say I’m 100% swayed by this one myself. But it remains alive and kicking until someone finds a Pictish Rosetta Stone to solve the mystery of the symbols once and for all. I’m aware of the other theories – astronomical, agricultural, mythological, territorial or whatever – but this is the one I choose to run with at the moment.

As usual with blogposts on this topic I’ll be referring to a book called The Picts and their symbols by W.A. Cummins which supports the symbols=names theory. I begin however with a short article by the archaeologist Craig Cessford. This was published in the Pictish Arts Society Journal in 1997, under the title Re-reading St Madoes 1. Its focus was a cross-slab that used to stand near the parish church in St Madoes, Perthshire, before being moved to the main museum at Perth. As the older of two Pictish stones from the village it is usually known as St Madoes 1. It was carved in the 8th century and has a large cross on the front face. The above photograph, which unfortunately isn’t very clear, shows the back of the stone, which is divided into six panels. The three upper panels each contain a hooded horseman, while the lower three contain symbols. In diagrammatic form the carvings can be represented thus:

horseman A
horseman B
horseman C
crescent & V-rod, double-disc & Z-rod
‘Pictish beast’

Horseman C carries what looks like a book in a leather satchel. This and the hoods suggest that all three figures are monks. But what is their relationship to one another, and to the symbols beneath them?

Craig Cessford questioned the popular notion that each horseman is represented by one of the three symbols. As Craig pointed out, symbols usually occur in pairs and seem intended to be viewed as a twosome rather than individually. He proposed instead that we should see this trio of symbols as an inverted triangle designed to be read clockwise as three conjoined symbol-pairs, like so:

crescent & V-rod, double-disc & Z-rod
double-disc & Z-rod, Pictish beast
Pictish beast, crescent & V-rod

I think this works quite well. But if it is indeed the correct ‘reading’, what do these symbol-pairs mean? Craig wondered if they might denote names, ranks or titles, or something else.

We come now to W.A. Cummins whose belief that Pictish symbols represent personal names led him to see the symbols on St Madoes 1 as the names of the three horsemen. His reading of the stone can be illustrated in the following way:

Horseman A’s name is crescent & V-rod
Horseman B’s name is double-disc & Z-rod
Horseman C’s name is Pictish beast

Elsewhere in his book, Cummins proposed that some of the more common symbols can be matched to certain Pictish names that appear frequently in old chronicles and king-lists. By applying these matches to St Madoes 1 he saw the figures and symbols as a genealogical statement which looks something like this:

Horseman A = Brude
Horseman B = Drust
Horseman C = their father Edern

But if we then blend the Cummins symbol/name matches with Cessford’s triangle of conjoined symbol-pairs we get three men with different patronyms:

Brude, son of Drust
Drust, son of Edern
Edern, son of Brude

Taking this a step further, we could possibly read St Madoes 1 as a memorial to three monks who, although not related by kinship, were commemorated together because they lived in the same monastery and died at roughly the same time. Or maybe they were three abbots who succeeded each other in the same abbacy? I’ll leave the final words of this blogpost to Craig Cessford. Although not committing himself to a particular theory about Pictish symbols, he ended his brief study of the stone with this thought: ‘Are we looking at three members of a monastic community with similar names?’



Craig Cessford, ‘Re-reading St Madoes 1’ Pictish Arts Society Journal no.11 (Summer 1997), p.32

W.A. Cummins, The Picts and their symbols (Stroud, 1999), p.112