Portmahomack Pictish monastery: free e-book

Portmahomack Pictish monastery
Described by one reviewer as “a major landmark in Pictish studies” and by another as “a stunning achievement”, this detailed report on the archaeological excavations at Portmahomack is a must-read for anyone who wants to know more about the Picts. It is particularly useful for what it reveals of Pictish Christianity, giving insights into the daily lives of monks who inhabited this site in Easter Ross more than a thousand years ago. Published in 2016 by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, the report has been made available as a free full-text download. It is one of two scholarly monographs on the Society’s Open Access Digital Books platform, the other being The Scottish Antiquarian Tradition , a collection of essays edited by A.S. Bell.

Portmahomack, situated on the Tarbat Peninsula overlooking the Dornoch Firth, was the location of a major Pictish monastery that reached its high point during the eighth century AD. The monastery was burned in the ninth century, possibly by Viking raiders, and ceased to function around the same time, although the site was re-developed as a trading settlement. This, too, eventually fell out of use. In the early 1100s, long after the end of the Pictish period, the site’s former religious character was revived with the founding of St Colman’s parish church.

A programme of archaeological excavation began in the mid-1990s and continued for more than ten years, unearthing clear evidence of the monastery’s importance as a centre of writing, stone-carving and metalworking. Some of the finds, including fragments of Pictish sculpture, are now displayed at the Tarbat Discovery Centre housed in St Colman’s Church. The Centre is well worth visiting and can also be followed on social media (see links below).

Portmahomack Pictish stone

Fragments of a Pictish cross-slab from Portmahomack (from The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland, 1903).

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Links

Martin Carver, Justin Garner-Lahire & Cecily Spall (2016) Portmahomack on Tarbat Ness: changing ideologies in North-East Scotland, sixth to sixteenth century AD (Edinburgh: Society of Antiquaries of Scotland) [e-book free download]

Tarbat Discovery Centre is open from April to October. It can be followed on Facebook and Twitter

Joining the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland is an excellent way to keep up-to-date with all the exciting news from Scottish archaeology. Members of the Society are known as Fellows and are entitled to use the post-nominal letters FSA Scot. Fellowship is open to anyone who has a keen interest in Scotland’s past. More information on how to apply can be found at the Society’s website.

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Early Christianity in Glen Lyon

Next week, on Thursday 30 August at 1.00pm, Dr Anouk Busset of the University of Glasgow’s archaeology department will be giving a talk at Govan Old Parish Church. This is an event I would very much like to get to but unfortunately can’t make it. Those lucky enough to attend will hear Anouk speak on the following topic:

The Early Christian landscape of Glen Lyon: investigating sacred movement in the Early Middle Ages

Glen Lyon is a place I’ve visited a few times. It’s a scenic gem – a long valley in the Highlands with picturesque views of the surrounding hills. It’s also an area rich in history and archaeology. Cairns, stone circles and standing stones bear witness to the glen-dwellers of prehistory. Those same folk probably held sacred the majestic old yew of Fortingall at the eastern end of the glen, a tree that is still alive thousands of years later.

Fortingall Yew

The Fortingall Yew in the early 1800s.

Christianity eventually supplanted the local pagan religion, bringing a new package of beliefs and rituals. At Fortingall, the village church has long been assumed to occupy the site of an ancient predecessor, perhaps a monastery founded by missionaries from Iona. Fragments of finely carved Pictish cross-slabs are displayed in the present building while other, simpler Early Christian monuments can be seen outside. In September 2017, to widespread dismay, a Celtic hand-bell dating from the seventh or eighth century was stolen from a niche inside the church.

Further along Glen Lyon, a standing stone known as St Adamnan’s Cross bears the name of the famous abbot of Iona who died in 704. According to local tradition, Adamnan (Adomnán) undertook missionary work among the glen’s pagan inhabitants and performed a miracle that the monolith supposedly commemorates.

Anouk Busset gained her PhD from the University of Glasgow in 2017 and is one of the new generation of up-and-coming archaeologists whose work is making a difference to our understanding of Scotland’s early medieval past. This year she was part of a team undertaking a project in Glen Lyon, hence the theme of next week’s event at Govan Old. Her talk is sure to be enthralling, and I recommend it to any Senchus readers who want to know more about the Early Christian archaeology of the Highlands. It’s free to all, with no need to book a seat in advance (and with free refreshments too).

Anouk Busset's talk at Govan Old

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LINKS

Anouk Busset on Twitter

Jo Woolf’s articles on St Adamnan’s Cross and the Fortingall Yew.

Website of the Govan Stones at Govan Old Parish Church

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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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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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St Andrews Pictish stones

standrews0
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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