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).

* * * * *

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.

* * * * * * *

Columba – Pilgrim, Priest & Patron Saint

Columba - Pilgrim, Priest & Patron Saint

My biography of St Columba, first published in 2012, now has a re-designed cover. I received half a dozen free copies of the new version last week and am very pleased with how it looks.

The publishers – Birlinn of Edinburgh – have moved the book from their academic imprint ‘John Donald’ to their main stable. Two of my other books – The Picts: A History and The Makers Of Scotland – made the same migration some years ago. It means a slightly reduced size (the John Donald format tends to be larger) but otherwise the book is unchanged.

Columba by Tim Clarkson

Five of my six free copies, posing for a photo after their journey south from Scotland.

The new cover incorporates an image of Columba that I think is one of the most evocative. For me, it captures the saint in a moment of serious reflection, perhaps when his mind was lingering on a matter of sorrow or regret. The image was created in stained glass by Karl Parsons (1884-1934) for a window in St Michael’s Church at Sulhamstead, Berkshire.

Credit for the re-designed cover goes to James Hutcheson of Birlinn whose creative skills are responsible for the covers of all my books.

Columba by Tim Clarkson

The back cover ‘blurb’ and design credits.

Here’s a link to the book’s page at the Birlinn website:
Columba: Pilgrim, Priest & Patron Saint

* * * * * * *

A visit to Meigle

I’ve visited Meigle Museum several times (three times, if I recall correctly) but as with so many heritage sites in Scotland three visits isn’t enough and I’m long overdue a return trip.

Many of you reading this blogpost will need no introduction to this excellent Perthshire museum and its fabulous collection of early medieval sculpture. Even if you haven’t had a face-to-face encounter with the 26 Pictish stones you may have seen drawings or photographs of them in books or online.

Below are some photos from my last visit, which was probably a dozen years ago. I offer them here as a gallery of images without descriptive text. For those of you who are planning a first trip to Meigle in 2019 these images are just a ‘taster’ of the treasures that await.

At the end I’ve added a link to the Historic Scotland webpage for the museum, which gives useful information such as opening times.

Meigle Pictish Stones

Meigle 1

Meigle Pictish stones

Meigle 2 (‘Vanora’s Stone’)

Meigle Pictish Stones

Meigle 3

Meigle Pictish stones

Meigle 4

Meigle Pictish Stones

Meigle 5 (front)

Meigle Pictish stones

Meigle 5 (side, showing Pictish symbols)

* * * * *

Link: Webpage for Meigle Museum

The images in this blogpost are copyright © B. Keeling

* * * * * * *

The origin of the Pictish symbols

Logie Elphinstone Pictish symbol stone

Pictish symbols on a stone at Logie Elphinstone in Aberdeenshire (from J. Stuart: Sculptured Stones of Scotland)


Nothing epitomises the mysteriousness of the Picts so much as their symbols. I’ve written about these strange designs in a number of blogposts, as well as in my book The Picts: a History. Like many people I have a particular view on their possible ‘meaning’, while acknowledging that it might not be the correct one. It’s a topic that has always attracted competing theories, as can be seen in the comment threads here at Senchus and in a plethora of other places online. The symbols have been seen as representations of various kinds of objects or ideas – religious, agricultural, astronomical, and so on – or as a form of writing like Egyptian hieroglyphs. My own belief is that they represent the names of individual Picts in a pictorial way that to some extent imitates the Latin alphabet. The latter was adopted by the southern neighbours of the Picts, i.e. the Britons whose lands had been conquered by the Romans. I’ve long tended to assume that this imitation coincided with the appearance of Christian memorial stones among the Britons in the period c. 450 onwards, after the Roman withdrawal. The British memorials I had in mind were those typically inscribed in Latin with ‘X son of Y’ in commemoration of the deceased. It seemed to me that the pairs of symbols on many Pictish stones might be an attempt to replicate this kind of inscription, with the most frequent symbols representing the most common Pictish names. Where three symbols occurred together on a Pictish stone, I interpreted them as commemorating ‘X son of Y son of Z’. I always felt on fairly solid ground with this theory, mainly because I wasn’t alone in supporting it, but I continued to keep an open mind and listened to other explanations. A variant idea, for instance, saw the symbols as name-elements or components that could be combined in different ways to represent complete names.

Last month, the journal Antiquity published an article presenting new research on the chronology and purpose of the Pictish symbols. As one of the most significant contributions to the debate in recent years it has rightly received a lot of media exposure. To anyone with an interest in the symbols I strongly recommend reading this article (see the link below). Briefly, its authors propose that the symbols comprise a system of writing comparable to Irish Ogam and Scandinavian runes. It sees all three systems as responses by non-Romanised ‘barbarian’ cultures to the Latin literacy that had taken root among their neighbours inside the Roman Empire. As far as the Picts are concerned, the key point is that their symbols seem to have originated in the third and fourth centuries AD, contemporary with Ogam and perhaps slightly later than runes. This is a couple of hundred years earlier than the conventional chronology which has tended to place the origin of Pictish symbols in the sixth century, long after the end of Roman rule in northern Europe, rather than in a period when the Empire still flourished.

Assigning precise dates to abstract carvings isn’t an easy task but the new chronology is based on scientific dating of archaeological material from recent excavations at a number of Pictish sites. In Aberdeenshire, at the high-status sites of Dunnicaer and Rhynie, the symbol-carved stones appear to be contemporary with material that can be dated to the third and fourth centuries AD. This is the very period when the Picts were first identified as a distinct group by Roman writers. One crucial piece of data from the excavations at Rhynie is that the main occupation phase lay in this early period. If, as seems likely, the symbol carvings are associated with this phase, we can infer that the symbol system was devised when the notion of Pictishness itself was taking shape, both developments being part of a cultural response to the Romanising, Latinising influences to the south. Like Ogam and runes, the Pictish symbols did not replicate the Latin alphabet but instead offered a home-grown alternative to it that was overtly (and probably deliberately) non-Roman in form. On the purpose of the symbols, the article notes their proximity to carved human figures on a number of later stones (from the eighth century) and suggests that they were ‘labels’ representing personal names in a non-alphabetic way. This fits with my own preferred interpretation as outlined above. Others will find that the article challenges rather than validates their ideas. On the chronology, however, there seems little reason to doubt that the new, earlier origin-date for the Pictish symbols is correct.

Reference and link:
Gordon Noble, Martin Goldberg and Derek Hamilton: The development of the Pictish symbol system: inscribing identity beyond the edges of Empire Antiquity vol. 92, no. 365 (October 2018), pp. 1329-1348

* * * * * * *

Pictish symbol stone discovered at Dyce

Pictish symbols

Pictish symbols: mirror (top), triple disc and notched rectangle.

A Pictish symbol stone has been discovered on the banks of the River Don at Dyce near Aberdeen. This exciting find was publicised today and is understandably attracting a lot of attention on social media. New discoveries of early medieval sculpture are as rare in Scotland as anywhere else, so the unearthing of a previously unknown Pictish stone is a significant event.

Photographs of the new stone published online show the carved symbols to be well preserved and easily identifiable. Archaeologists have recognised a triple disc, a notched rectangle and a mirror. The stone itself is an unshaped boulder with no overtly Christian carvings, so it falls into the category known as ‘Class I’. It was probably carved between the sixth and eighth centuries AD, before the influence of the Church led to Pictish sculpture becoming more sophisticated. Stones from the later classes tend to have regular shapes and Christian iconography. A common form of Class II, for example, is an upright slab with an ornate cross carved on one face and Pictish symbols on the other.

The new stone came to light because water levels in the Don had fallen after weeks of warm, dry weather. A fisherman spotted the stone and informed the University of Aberdeen, where the archaeology department is a renowned centre of research on the Picts. Historic Environment Scotland, the national archaeological body, subsequently became involved, together with the local authority and AOC Archaeology. A specialist team retrieved the stone from the river so that it can be conserved, studied and eventually put on display.

By the time my blogpost appears, the discovery of this stone will no doubt be well known in Scotland and beyond. I look forward to following the story in the weeks and months ahead. More information is sure to appear, with social media a good place to look for updates. With this in mind, I’ve included a useful and relevant Twitter account in the links below.

Finally, it’s worth noting that Dyce is already a familiar place on the Pictish sculpture map. At the ruined church of St Fergus are several stones, two of which stand out as fine examples of Class I and Class II respectively. The former is carved with two symbols while the latter has four. Common to both is the enigmatic ‘crescent and V-rod’ and I wonder if it might be significant that the Class II stone also shares the equally mysterious ‘triple disc’ with the new stone from the river.

* * * * *

LINKS

The Scotsman newspaper: Stunning Pictish stone discovered in river by fisherman

Twitter: Bruce Mann (archaeologist for several local authorities including Aberdeen & Aberdeenshire) I regularly retweet news from Bruce Mann at my own account Early Scotland

Pictish stones at Dyce, St Fergus’ Church (Canmore database)

* * * * * * *

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

* * * *

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

* * * * * * *

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.

* * * * * * *