The Story So Far ...

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Pictish Standing Stones - Malcolm Archibald Casts Light ...


Today's guest post is from author Malcolm Archibald: ~


"Even as I write this, busy women and men are scraping away the soil from another new-discovered Pictish site in Scotland. The presence of the Picts at Rhynie in Aberdeenshire has long been known, with the fabulous carving of ‘Rhynie Man’, featuring a bearded, long nosed man with an axe over his shoulder very well known, yet the Picts are still often depicted as mysterious painted people who emerge briefly from history and vanish again into the Caledonian mist.


Detail from 'Rhynie Man' - public domain image

It was the Romans who coined the term ‘Picti’ for the inhabitants of what is now the northern two-thirds of Scotland, and the Romans who built massive walls to keep them out, or possibly to prevent the indigenous Celtic Britons from heading north to join them. When the Romans withdrew, the Picts remained, consolidating into various kingdoms connected by a shared culture.

It has been said that it was the Picts that gave Scotland her unique identity and that may well be correct. The Celtic British of what is now southern Scotland were of similar culture to those in Wales and England; the Scottish Gaels were related to the Irish while the Anglo-Saxons of the south-east originated from a Northumbrian invasion, possibly augmented by Saxon slaves from later raids. Only the Picts may have been different, although there is a possibility there were people of similar blood in Ulster.

With a dearth of written evidence, one way of decoding the culture of the Cruithin – as the Picts seemed to have termed themselves – is by the symbol stones they left behind. That is an ongoing project as the symbols are unique, varied and possess an amazing vitality that is presumed to record the identity of either individuals or family groups.

These symbol stones are concentrated in the eastern half of Scotland, the areas of fine agricultural land, sweet water and easier communications where the Pictish kingdoms seem to have been concentrated. Some of the finest are in Moray, about half way between Aberdeen in the east and the Highland buckle-town of Inverness. On the northern coast, jutting into the Moray Firth in a broad-fingered gesture of defiance to the Arctic winds, the Pictish fort at Burghead was once one of the largest fortified sites in the country. Cruelly mutilated in the nineteenth century when the planned town of Burghead was built, enough of the fort remains to remind an imaginative visitor of the power and majesty of the Picts. With its triple timber-laced ramparts and prominent position, the fort would have presented a formidable obstacle to any invader, but to the archaeologist or historian one of the most fascinating remaining artefacts are the Burghead Bulls.



Around thirty of these pieces of sculpture were unearthed but in the casual manner in which nineteenth century workers treated priceless relics, most vanished. Six are now known to survive; two are in Burghead library, two in Elgin Museum and one each in Edinburgh and London. These objects are incised sculptures of bulls and cows and have created much debate about their meaning. Some think they formed part of a frieze that ran around the fort’s main gateway, while others believe they were fertility symbols tossed into the sea to ensure the local herds were prolific. It is also possible that they represented the totem animal for the local tribe.

On the western side of Moray, Brodie Castle has been the seat of the Brodie family for centuries. Despite the undoubted glories of the castle, for many people the single most important treasure is the Rodney Stone. This beautifully carved Pictish stone was unearthed in the nearby church yard of Dyke in 1781 and erected as part of a stone pillar in the grounds of Brodie. The name comes either from the man who wielded the spade – Rotteny – or more likely from Admiral Rodney, who was winning naval battles in the 1780s, a time that Britain was on the wrong side of the American War of Independence.

The Rodney Stone - carvings
The stone is a shade under two metres high and is crisply carved on two faces, with an elaborate Christian cross on one side and a selection of typical Pictish carvings on the other, with a pair of fish monsters, what is termed an elephant and what is known as a double disc and Z-rod underneath. Now all these mysterious symbols are fascinating, but best of all is the longest Ogham inscription so far found on any Pictish stone. Although many centuries of Scottish weather have damaged the writing, it is thought to say Eddarrnonn, which may possibly be the name of some local king to whom this stone was set up. If so these symbols may represent his clan or tribe.

The Rodney Stone - Cross

Finally there is the largest and perhaps best known of all.


Sueno’s Stone is the most elaborately carved of all Moray’s standing stones. At over six and a half metres of intricately carved sandstone it is impressive by anybody’s standards, and it stands on the eastern fringe of the town of Forres, neatly encased in protective glass. At one time there were two stones standing here but the second has long gone, so it is doubtful if many Forres folk know it ever existed. Sueno’s Stone does not have carvings of abstract symbols or animals, but carries a Christian cross on the western side, while the eastern boasts a pictographic recreation of a decisive battle fought sometime between 850 and 950 AD, presumably in this area. The weathered images show two armies of infantry and cavalry, a pile of decapitated bodies, the clash of heroes and the defeat and flight of one of the armies. Unfortunately, even historians are unsure who the combatants might be. Theories abound: the stone may have been carved to celebrate King Malcolm II’s defeat of the Norse, or Kenneth MacAlpin’s victory over the Picts. As Kenneth became the first king of the united Scots and Picts around 843, the date ich would fit in nicely with the supposed date: perhaps too nicely. Another theory claims the stone was raised to commemorate King Duff of Alba’s victory over the men of Moray around 966 AD. To add to the confusion, the Orkneyinga Saga mentions a victory by Sigurd the Powerful over the Pictish Mormaer Maelbrigte in this area, but it is unlikely that the locals would celebrate defeat with such precision.


There is also the intriguing possibility that the original two stones were part of an entrance gateway to some significant building. That invites the theory that the second stone is still here, buried and waiting to be unearthed, and the possibility of remains of an archaeological site on the scale of Burghead or Rhynie to be explored. Whatever the truth, there is no doubt that the Picts remain elusive, despite the enthusiastic efforts of busy diggers and scrapers. We wait the next discovery even as we marvel at the stone-working skills of the past."

Thanks Malcolm - not only for the interesting insights but for the wonderful photos too (all illustrations are the property of Malcolm unless otherwise attributed). To find out about Malcolm's astonishingly varied body of work, visit: 

Malcolm's Website



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