Saving the Wemyss Caves: thirty years of SWACS

Pictish boat carving

Carving of a boat in Jonathan’s Cave.

With considerable regret I’ve had to turn down an invitation to speak about the Picts at an important event happening in Fife next month. Personal circumstances mean I am unable to travel to Scotland on the weekend in question. The event is the 30th anniversary of SWACS, the group behind the campaign to preserve the famous caves on the shoreline at East Wemyss. Many of you will know that the walls of these caves are inscribed with Pictish carvings, one of which shows a boat propelled by oars.

I’ll be sorry to miss what will surely be an exciting afternoon of Pict-related info and discussion. The range of topics can be seen on the leaflet below:

Save Wemyss Ancient Caves Society

Attendance is free and is open to all. To reserve a place, use the online booking form at Eventbrite via this link.

If you haven’t already visited the Wemyss Caves it’s not too late to have a guided tour. The final tours of 2016 are taking place this Sunday (25th September) as part of Scottish Archaeology Month. Tours start from the SWACS Environmental Centre in the basement of East Wemyss Primary School. The Centre will be open on that day from 2.00pm-4.30pm, but you’ll need to arrive before 3.00pm if you want to join a tour.

SWACS (Save Wemyss Ancient Caves Society) also has a website and a Facebook page.

Photographs of two of the caves, together with illustrations of some of the Pictish carvings, can be found in a blogpost I wrote last year: Pictish carvings at the Wemyss Caves.

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Dandaleith Pictish Stone

Dandaleith Pictish Stone
This fabulous monument is a fairly recent addition to Scotland’s corpus of Dark Age sculpture, having been discovered only three years ago. It was unearthed in a field at Dandaleith Farm near Craigellachie in Moray and, after conservation work, is now on display in Elgin Museum.

It stands 1.7 metres tall and is a typical example of a “Class I” stone, being adorned with Pictish symbols but lacking any overtly Christian motifs. The date of carving is probably within the range 550 to 650 AD. Unusually, it has symbols on adjacent faces (or sides) instead of on one face only.

The symbols comprise two pairs: a notched rectangle & Z-rod below a mirror (or mirror-case); and a crescent & V-rod below an eagle. All four symbols are known from other stones elsewhere across the former territory of the Picts. The meaning of Pictish symbols remains a mystery and continues to spark lively debate in various quarters (including several threads at this blog). I’m inclined to interpret these enigmatic designs as names, seeing those in pairs as patronyms or matronyms, i.e. “X, the son (or daughter) of Y”. If this is the correct interpretation, the pairings could represent a Pictish equivalent of the Christian memorial inscriptions (written in Latin) on contemporary stones outside the Pictish lands, examples of which are found in southern Scotland, Wales and England.

I’m sure we’ll hear a lot more about the Dandaleith Stone in the near future. Its discovery raises many interesting questions that archaeologists will want to answer. For whom was it carved and what purpose did it serve? Was it a memorial to the dead or did it mark a boundary? Was there a Pictish settlement nearby or did the stone stand alone in its immediate landscape?

We shall have to wait and see. In the meantime, here are some links to further information:

Elgin Museum archaeological collections [look out for the Dandaleith Stone in one of the photographs]
Aberdeenshire Council: Sites & Monuments Record
National treasure: Museum to unveil rare Pictish Dandaleith Stone
Archaeologist try to unlock secrets of Pictish find

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A note on the illustration

Having not yet visited the Dandaleith Stone I don’t have any photographs to put at the top of this blogpost. I merely offer a very rough sketch, using a simple outline technique (I cannot claim any artistic talent whatsoever). My points of reference were photographs and drawings found online, none of which are in the public domain so I couldn’t reproduce them here. I should add that my intention was to evoke the style of John Romilly Allen (1847-1907) who produced so many fine illustrations of Pictish stones for his and Joseph Anderson’s magisterial ECMS (The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland, published in 1903). The result of my efforts is little more than a homage to Allen’s brilliantly effective artwork. On a personal level it helps me to imagine how the Dandaleith Stone might have appeared in ECMS if it had been discovered in 1813 rather than 200 years later.

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Set in Stone: the Birth of Alba

Invermay Pictish Cross

Fragment of the Invermay Cross (illustration from The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland, 1903)

Few places are more closely connected with the Picts than the village of Forteviot in Perthshire. Nestling in the fertile valley of Strathearn, it was formerly a royal palace of Pictish kings, the most famous of whom was Cináed mac Ailpín (“Kenneth MacAlpine”) who is said to have died there in AD 858.

The lands around the village have yielded some of the finest examples of Pictish sculpture, most notably the Forteviot Arch and fragments of several crosses. One very large cross formerly stood south of the village near Invermay House until it was broken up in the 1700s. Its surviving pieces are, however, providing inspiration for a new monument. This will celebrate ancient Alba, the Gaelic-speaking kingdom ruled by Cináed and his successors, in which Picts and Scots were united as one people. The project will be managed by the Tay Landscape Partnership who have commissioned stonecarver David McGovern of Monikie Rock Art in Angus.

Modern representations of large Pictish monuments are often breathtaking (the replica of the Hilton of Cadboll cross-slab being a prime example) so I’m looking forward to seeing the new Forteviot stone. It will eventually reside in the village as an enduring symbol of the rich archaeological heritage of Strathearn.

More on this story can be found at the website of The Courier newspaper: Perthshire village’s role in the birth of Scotland carved in stone

Other links:
Monikie Rock Art
Tay Landscape Partnership – Forteviot: the Birth of Alba
Canmore database record for the Invermay Cross

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King Ecgfrith of Northumbria

Ecgfrith, king of the Northumbrians
This blogpost is about a book published last year – a biography of the Northumbrian king Ecgfrith who ruled from 670 to 685. Ecgfrith was an ambitious warlord whose army campaigned far beyond the frontiers of his kingdom. During his reign, Northumbrian forces clashed with those of Mercia – the main English power in the midlands and a frequent adversary of Ecgfrith’s forebears – as well as with various Celtic peoples. In 684, Ecgfrith sent one of his henchmen across the Irish Sea at the head of a raiding army. The ensuing assault on the territory of the Southern Uí Néill also targeted churches and monasteries, much to the dismay of clergyfolk back home in Northumbria. Ecgfrith’s belligerence finally came to an end on 20th May 685 at the battle of Nechtanesmere in the land of the Picts. There he perished with nearly all of his warriors.

Ecgfrith’s new biography is written by Professor Nick Higham, well-known as author or editor of a number of books on the Anglo-Saxon period. Nick supervised my PhD in the 1990s and helped me to navigate a path through the intricate maze of early medieval history. Many readers of this blog will, I am sure, be familiar with his published works, such as The Kingdom of Northumbria, AD 350-1100 (1993), King Arthur: Myth-making and History (2002) and The Anglo-Saxon World (2013, co-authored with Martin Ryan).

Much of what we know about Ecgfrith comes from the Venerable Bede, whose Ecclesiastical History of the English People (published in 731) documented the rise of Northumbria as a major political power. Bede was himself a Northumbrian, so a lot of his information on the kingdom came from local sources. Some of his contemporaries had known Ecgfrith personally. In 685, when news of the disaster at Nechtanesmere reached English ears, Bede was a young monk of twelve or thirteen, living at the monastery of Jarrow beside the River Tyne. In later life, when writing his Ecclesiastical History, he interpreted the Pictish victory as divine retribution for the callous destruction unleashed by Ecgfrith’s soldiers on Irish religious sites in the previous year

Nick Higham’s book is more than just a study of Ecgfrith’s reign. The first two chapters set the scene by introducing the reader to seventh-century Northern Britain and to the various (often enigmatic) literary sources that purport to describe what was going on. Here we also obtain useful information on ethnic/cultural identities, on the nature and practice of early medieval kingship, and on the beginnings of Anglo-Saxon settlement in the North. In the third chapter, we get to know King Oswiu, Ecgfrith’s father, who ruled the Northumbrians until his death in 670. This brings us to the mid-point of the book and to the start of Ecgfrith’s reign. Those of us with a keen interest in Northumbrian relations with the Picts may find the fifth chapter especially useful, in particular a 15-page narrative under the sub-headings ‘Ecgfrith and the North’ and ‘685’. The same chapter ends with what is, for me, a major highlight of the book: a detailed discussion of how Ecgfrith’s death was reported and interpreted by contemporary observers in Northumbria and elsewhere.

This is a book I heartily recommend (and would do so even if the author had not influenced my own approach to the early medieval North). Writing a biography of a seventh-century Northumbrian king is a challenging project for any historian, even for one who understands the scale of the task better than most. I believe Nick Higham has done a great job here.

N.J. Higham, Ecgfrith: King of the Northumbrians, High-King of Britain (Donington: Sean Tyas, 2015)

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Check out Nick Higham’s article on Ecgfrith at the History Extra website: The Anglo-Saxon who (almost) united Britain

I’ve blogged previously about the battle of Nechtanesmere where Ecgfrith was slain by the Picts – Against iron swords: Dun Nechtáin, AD 685

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Searching for Pictish gold


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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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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St Andrews Pictish stones

To mark St Andrew’s Day, here is a small selection of images from the Pictish sculpture collection at St Andrews Cathedral.

St Andrews Pictish stones

Two of the monuments, the one on the left showing three carved panels.

St Andrews Pictish stones

A closer view of two of the panels…

St Andrews Pictish stones

…one of which shows a human head between two beasts, with two birds perched above.

St Andrews Pictish stones

Upper part of a cross-slab. The ring of the cross contains a key-pattern, as do the two rectangles at the top.

St Andrews Pictish stones

The famous Sarcophagus, described in an earlier blogpost.

St Andrews Pictish stones

And, to finish, St Rule’s Tower.

Happy St Andrew’s Day to all!

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More information can be found on the Canmore record for the Cathedral Museum.

Photographs in this blogpost are copyright © B Keeling.

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Drawing a Pictish symbol

John Romilly Allen

John Romilly Allen (1847-1907)

Whenever someone adds a comment here at Senchus, a small picture or ‘avatar’ shows beside their name. These images are generated automatically, unless the person already has a WordPress account of their own with an avatar attached to it. My own avatar is a representation of the ‘Crescent & V-rod’, a Pictish symbol, which I also use on my Twitter profile. I’ve been using this for about 7 years. It’s my own variant on the symbol and was created on a computer using Photoshop.


If I was more artistic I could quite happily spend time designing variants of other symbols, perhaps even building up a stock of avatars that I could then rotate around my social media profiles. In the absence of such a talent, I simply resort to admiring the artwork of others, most notably John Romilly Allen. Today, no new book on the Pictish symbols is complete without a selection of Allen’s fine drawings. The originals were published more than a century ago in ECMS (The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland), a comprehensive survey of Scotland’s Dark Age sculpture compiled by Allen himself and Joseph Anderson.

I’ve always liked Allen’s distinctive style which is characterised by bold shapes in black ink on a plain white background. It really makes the Pictish symbols stand out. In this blogpost I’ve reproduced a few examples of his drawings from ECMS. These show four Pictish stones from north-east Scotland and one from Orkney, the common link between them being the Crescent & V-rod symbol.

Pictish Stone Dingwall

Dingwall, Easter Ross (front and rear of stone).

Pictish Stone Inverurie

Inverurie, Aberdeenshire.

Pictish Stone Rosemarkie

Rosemarkie, Easter Ross (rear of cross-slab).

Pictish Stone Craigton

Craigton, Sutherland.

Pictish Stone Paplay

Paplay, South Ronaldsay, Orkney (front and rear of stone).

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J.R. Allen & J. Anderson (1903) The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland (Edinburgh)
[Available as a 2-volume reprint from the Pinkfoot Press, Brechin]

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