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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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.

avatar

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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Free Pictish stuff

Groam House Pictish Lecture
The good folk of Groam House Museum have made available as free downloads seven out-of-print titles from their Annual Academic Lecture series.

Groam House, as many of you will know, holds a superb collection of Pictish sculpture. The museum is located in the picturesque village of Rosemarkie in Easter Ross, on the shore of the Black Isle. Many of the museum’s carved stones come from a nearby ecclesiastical site known in early medieval times as Ros Maircnidh. This was a major monastery of the Northern Picts. At the end of the seventh century, the abbot of Ros Maircnidh (Rosemarkie) was Saint Curadán or Curetán, a signatory to the famous ‘Law of Innocents’ promulgated by Adomnán of Iona in 697.

Groam House Pictish Lecture

The hardcopy versions of the Groam House booklets are very nicely produced. I’ve purchased a few over the years and keep them within easy reach on my bookshelf. I really ought to obtain more titles in the series – ideally all of them. Most of the ones I do possess are from the 1990s so I need to catch up and fill the gaps. The booklets are a handy size for quick reference and I frequently consult them on specific points – or simply browse them at leisure.

Groam House Pictish Lecture

I have all but one of the seven out-of-print lectures, the exception being Isabel Henderson’s The Art and Function of Rosemarkie’s Pictish Monuments. So far, I only possess two lectures from the current century: Fraser Hunter’s Beyond the Edge of the Empire and Sally Foster’s Place, Space and Odyssey. These aren’t free but both are well worth buying.

Groam House Pictish Lecture

This year’s Annual Academic Lecture was presented in May by Victoria Whitworth under the title Bodystones and Guardian Beasts: The Pictish Recumbent Grave-Markers in Their Wider Context. I would have liked to attend but was unable to make the trip, so I will definitely buy the published version when it appears.

Click the link below to go to the download page.

Free publications from Groam House Museum

Groam House Pictish Lecture

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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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Links

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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References

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]

dunnicaer_map

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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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Pictish carvings at the Wemyss Caves

wemyssheader
East Wemyss is a former coal-mining village on the south coast of Fife. It is famous for a group of sandstone caves along the shoreline, these having been delved in some far-off time when the waters of the Firth of Firth were higher than today. The cave walls are adorned with ancient carvings, many of which are now hard to discern. A number of these have been dated to the early medieval period and were carved by local Picts in the sixth to ninth centuries AD.

map_fife2c

Damage to the caves by erosion, neglect and vandalism led to the formation of a group dedicated to preserving and conserving them. Save Wemyss Ancient Caves Society (SWACS) was founded in 1986, after one of the sites – Jonathan’s Cave – was damaged by fire when a stolen car was driven inside and set alight. Since then, SWACS has been at the forefront of efforts to protect the caves and their unique carvings, co-operating with other organisations in projects aimed at increasing knowledge and raising awareness.

One of the latest projects is using high-tech scanning methods to produce 3D digital images and models of the caves. This began with Jonathan’s Cave and is now being extended to the others. One exciting result of the project is Wemyss Caves 4D, a virtual tour of Jonathan’s Cave with an interactive aspect giving detailed information. It allows the user to feel like an explorer, even giving an option to shine a torch for a better view of the carvings. This is great for those of us who have yet to experience an official tour with a guide from SWACS. See the link at the end of this blogpost if you want to try it for yourselves.

Although I’ve had a few holidays in Fife, it wasn’t until a couple of weeks ago that I visited the Wemyss caves for the first time. Even then, I only managed to get a brief look. In the fading light of early evening I followed the public path along the shoreline, passing the Court Cave and Doo Cave and having a quick peep inside. Unfortunately I was short of time so didn’t venture further along the shore to see the other caves, nor did I catch a glimpse of any ancient designs.

Back home, I consulted my copy of Allen & Anderson’s Early Christian Monuments of Scotland (1903) where the Pictish carvings in the Wemyss caves are described. Here’s an image from ECMS showing some of the Pictish symbols in Doo Cave, drawn by John Romilly Allen:

Wemyss Caves Pictish Symbols

I’ve selected the above symbols from Allen’s original sketch because they’re familiar and recognisable – unlike others which are more abstract or esoteric. My selection shows the double-disc & Z-rod (attached to an animal’s head), the Pictish beast or ‘swimming elephant’, the arch, the rectangle, the bird and four double-discs. All of these can be seen in variant forms on Pictish symbol stones, usually in combinations of two or more, and often with other symbols not shown here. Sadly, the double-disc & Z-rod was on a section of wall that collapsed when a gun emplacement was placed on top of the cliff during World War One.

The cave I’m most keen to visit is Jonathan’s Cave, mainly because I’ve done a bit of research on it from afar. It popped onto my radar in the mid-1990s, when I was gathering information on early medieval naval warfare for a PhD thesis. I was looking for images of Pictish ships and came across an article describing an oared vessel carved on the east wall of Jonathan’s Cave. Back then, I made a note to see this important carving for myself, little knowing that the visit would still be sitting on my ‘to do’ list twenty years later. It’s something I really should tick off before another decade slips by. A brief stroll along the shoreline at East Wemyss on a March evening, with little more than a hasty peek at two of the caves, has merely whetted my appetite.

Wemyss Caves

Looking west along the shore from Court Cave (© B Keeling).

Wemyss Caves

Tree, sandstone cliff and warning sign outside Court Cave (© B Keeling).

Wemyss Caves

The entrance to Court Cave (© B Keeling).

Wemyss Caves

The entrance to Doo Cave (© B Keeling).

Wemyss Caves

Doo Cave (© B Keeling).

Wemyss Caves

Doo Cave (© B Keeling).

Wemyss Caves

Looking out across the Firth of Firth (© B Keeling).

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Notes & links

The place-name Wemyss (pronounced ‘Weems’) comes from the Gaelic word uamh meaning ‘cave’.

Jonathan’s Cave is named from a poor man who lived inside with his family in the late 1700s.
Court Cave was the site of the local baronial court in the Middle Ages. The nearby Macduff’s Castle was the seat of the earls of Fife.
Doo Cave, originally Doocot (‘Dovecot’) Cave, was once a place where pigeons were kept.
The other caves at East Wemyss are Well Cave, Sloping Cave and Gas Works Cave. Several more have collapsed.

Notices at the cave entrances warn visitors of the danger of entering. SWACS recommends booking a tour with one of their guides (see website below).

SWACS website (Save Wemyss Ancient Caves Society)

Wemyss caves 4D [use the Explore option for a virtual tour of Jonathan’s Cave]

A blogpost from SCHARP (Scotland’s Coastal Heritage at Risk Project) on the scanning project: ‘Wemyss Caves 4D continues…’

Information on Jonathan’s Cave at the RCAHMS Canmore database

From the Courier newspaper, an article on the threat of erosion: ‘Do they want to see them lost forever? — council told it needs to do more to protect Wemyss Caves.’

Lastly, the article that first drew my attention to the Wemyss Caves: Elizabeth le Bon, ‘The Jonathan’s Cave boat carving: a question of authenticity?’ International Journal of Nautical Archaeology vol.21 (1992), 337-42

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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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