Monday, 16 December 2013

A Pictish Medley

September found me in Inverurie, just a little North West of Aberdeen. Apart from the stone circles mentioned a few blogs ago, there are also a number of Pictish stones in the area. 

The Picts are one of Scotland's more mysterious people. They inhabited the North East of Scotland from before the time of the Romans in Britain. It's not known what they called themselves at that time, but their practice of painting or tattooing themselves caused the Romans to call them Picti and we've been calling them something similar ever since. They make their last appearance in history sometime round about the 10th century and their language is thought to have died out in the 11th century.

From the 6th to the 9th century the Picts left a number of large carved stones many of which have symbols which nobody these days knows what they mean. They are classified into 3 different categories. The first is called Class 1 which contains only Pictish imagery. Class 2 contain a mixture of Pictish symbols and Christian imagery and start around the 8th century. Class 3 contain only Christian imagery.

It has been suggested that the stones started to appear as a reaction to the introduction of Christianity or as grave markers but who knows. I found this example of a Class 1 stone in a housing estate, actually in Inverurie itself. It's known as the Brandsbutt Stone. It was found broken up and built into a dyke sometime before 1866.

Apart from the Pictish symbols, this stone also has a line of Ogam on it. The Ogham is an ancient language originating in Ireland and can be translated. The stone reads Irataddoarens - knowing what it says of course doesn't mean we know what it means but it's thought to be a name. Undiscovered Scotland website suggest that this could be a reference to Eddarrnon, a variant on the name of local saint, St Ethernanus (a bit of an unlikely fish around in the dark if you ask me but you can decide for yourself).

 Just in front of the Brandsbutt stone there is a circle marked out in the grass where a stone circle of 12 or 13 stones used to be. It's though that the stones from this may have been Incorporated into the same wall as the Pictish stone. I know that in times past, historical sites weren't held in the regard that they are now but surely to snaffle both circle and carved stone for your dyke would have seemed obvious vandalism even then.

A few miles outside Inverurie on a small country road, I found the Picardy Stone by complete accident. This Class 1 stone is thought to be from the 7th century and is on top of a small burial cairn from the centuries just before the stone. An empty grave shaped pit was found under one side of it. This may have been a grave marker but there is no great evidence to suggest that other stones were.

Only the top symbol on the stone is very clear. It is the double disc with a broken spear through it, which appears on a lot of Pictish stones.

You can make out that there are other symbols but it's really rather difficult to see them. This diagram makes them a lot clearer. Below the discs is a snake with a broken arrow and a mirror symbol, both of which are quite common.

Here's a close up of the bit with the bottom two symbols. I can just about make out the one with the snake (there's a good clear one of these on the Brandsbutt stone) but I can't really see the mirror at all.

It's worth just taking a small break from the big Pictish stones to have a wee look at some items that are to be found in the museum in Edinburgh. This small disc was found with the  double disc and broken spear symbol that is on the Picardy stone.

Occasionally silver items are found which show that back in the dark ages of Scotland, there were some high quality goods being made. This 6th or 7th century Pictish silver chain was found in Lanarkshire. The engraved symbols on the joining link were originally enamelled in red.

Two small silver plaques from the 7th century, found near Largo in Fife.

Back out in the countyside near Inverurie, is the Maiden Stone. It's an impressive 3 meters high lump of pink granite. It is said that in the dim and distant past, the daughter of the Laird of Balquhain bet a stranger that she could bake a bannock quicker than he could build a road to the top of the hill, Bennachie. She lost, mainly because the stranger was the devil. As she was running away from the Devil, she prayed to be saved. God turned her into the Maiden stone to save her. The notch that is missing from the stone is where the Devil caught her by the shoulder.

It's a class 2 stone having both Pictish symbols on one side and a cross on the other side. Below is a curious beast the appears on many Pictish stones.

An easier to see this mirror than the one on the Picardy stone (also a comb). You can see how they've worked the pattern round about a missing corner of the stone.

Most of these stones have signs near by with illustration where it's easier to see what's on the stone than it is by looking at the stone itself.

It's very difficult to see anything of the cross side at all.

Though there is a tantalising amount of this very intricate disc still visible at the bottom.

The day before I saw the stones above, I was in St Serf's church in Dunning, some miles south of Dundee. There I saw the Class 3 Pictish cross called the Dupplin Cross. Made around 800 AD it contains mainly Christian imagery. A panel of Latin on the other side has had the words Custantin Filius Fircus deciphered from it. We are quite confidently told that this refers to Constantine, son of Fergus (in it's most anglicised form), who was a king of the Picts from around 789 to 820.

This figure is probably King Constantine himself. The large head and moustache indicates a position of power.

Below him, these people, with their more normal sized heads and no moustaches, would have been some of his warriors. Just round the side of the stone from these are some warrior with normal sized heads but with moustaches, these would have been higher ranked warriors.

Some hunting dogs. Hunting scenes (and battle scenes) are quite popular on Pictish stones.

Some intricate knotwork on the sides of the cross.

Just because it's Christian, isn't a reason not to have a dragon eating it's tail.

This is the biblical King David playing his harp.

I had been to Forfar a few months ago to try and visit the Meffan Museum and found it closed (I did find a cafe open which made me the worst cup of tea I've ever tasted). I returned while passing in October and gained entry with reasonable ease. They have a large collection of old carved stones, many of which are definitely Pictish. This class 2 stone, below, was found in Kirriemuir. This side has a couple of angels sitting on the cross but I think the mason was more concerned with hunting as this side also features the figure of a hunter on one side of the cross and his dogs and a red deer on the other.

The other side of this stone has another deer hunting scene on it. You can see the old Pictish symbol of the double disc and broken spear makes an appearance again.

According to the museum, this half a stone dates from the 9th century and was also found in Kirriemuir. The cross side appears to be mainly knotwork.

The other side shows a figure with a shield on a horse. Like Constantine he has a bigger than average head, so I would imagine that this is somebody quite important. You can see he's got a small dog with him.

I'll finish off this blog back at a class 1 stone. This is the Dunnichen Stone, discovered in 1811 near the village of Dunnichen. It features the double disc and the mirror and comb which are fairly common on Pictish stones. The symbol at the top is normally referred to as a flower and isn't nearly as commonly found. The straight vertical lines on the stone are probably where a later mason started to dress the stone for some other purpose but stopped for some reason. These carvings had spent most of their lives face down in a field, the other side of the stone bears marks where the plough has ran over it during the intervening centuries.


Reifyn said...

If I'd known of these amazing things in Inverurie I would have actually stopped there. I've been through that town countless times. Those pictish stones are wonderful: I love the drawings on them and the Ogham. I think those scholars are along the wrong path. I think that one inscriptions message has a more interesting interpretation. Looked at thus: I / Rat / add / oar / e[?] / NS[abbreviation for Nova Scotia]. Clearly this is a note left by a rat who joined a rowing party on their way to Nova Scotia. There's a sort of compass rose on the stone too, which suggests a sea voyage. The 'e' is the only mystery here: it'll come to me. Those scholars are always walking over tenners looking for tuppence. It does make me wonder if Kenneth Grahame the Scottish writer of 'The Wind in the Willows' had seen this. In his famous novel the character Ratty loves nothing better than to row about in boats. Another fine post that makes me long to return to Scotland and see the things I missed.

John @ Sinbad and I on the Loose said...

Very interesting. I am particularly impressed with the quality of work with the silver pieces.

John "By Stargoose And Hanglands" said...

Considering the way that more modern gravestones weather and become indecipherable in a couple of hundred years these stones have survived remarkably well, presumably because of the very hard rock used. Despite the many modern interpretations of knotwork I realise that I've never seen the real thing before. And the other symbols are completely new to me. Very interesting post.

The Glebe Blog said...

I know I've been over the pond, but you can't be far behind on the milage stakes Sandy, deepest Wiltshire to Aberdeen is more than a stones throw away.
Snap with the gravestones, though mine are much more modern. I wonder how many ancient treasures have been built into dykes or used as hardcore through ignorance ?
Next time I'm over in Glenrothes I must head for Lundin Links and Largo, I never knew there was treasure there.
Talking of seeing impressions on stones, there's an effect on Picasa photo editor called HDR-ish, that will often bring out more detail.
I like the unlikely story of the 'Maiden' stone.
Some amazing carvings on this post.

Shundo said...

I always think that the 'dark ages' really does a disservice to those centuries where, as you show, there was a lot of fascinating stuff happening. Of course I love stones, but the silver-work is exquisite too.
The moral of these old stories seems to be that the stranger always turns out to be the devil in the end - it happens a lot in the old Cornish tales as well.

Sandy's witterings said...

Reifyn, Your theory of Ogham translation is as likely as any other - such foresight the rats had living in Nova Scotia in a time even before Old Scotland. Did I mention there was a big long tale about badgers on the other side of the rock.

John, indeed the quality of the silver is very fine - you see worse in the shops these days (I'm not sure that's saying much)

John. As a general rule if you can read a lump of sandstone in a graveyard from the 1700s you lucky. So it is quite surprising you can read some of these. Many have been carved in granite though which doesn't weather nearly so badly and others have spent most of the years buried but some, you'd definately expect to be more eroded. The Dupplin Cross is only made of sandstone and probably spent centuries standing out in the weather before the reformation decided that is was against the rules! Just because some of the outside ones which are very clear have survived for centuries, that is no reason not to look after them now, and I believe many are boxed up (in situ) during the winter to protect them from the worst of the weather.

To be quite hinest Jim, the trip to Wiltshire was several months ago, though I continue to tootle up and down the road to Aberdeen with gay abandon.

Many of the dykes around the country probably have a bit of history buried in them (Great lumps of Kirkcudbright are built out of the old Kirkcudbright castle which predates the one at the end of the street by centuries).

I can't unthink Largo as Robinson Crusoe - I think the museum have most of the Pictish Goodies from there anyway.

I wonder if the scholars have used high tech to find out whats on these stones, of it's just been hours of careful study with wax crayon and paper and eye. I doubt the HDR online is good enough to bring out something you can't see when you're there.

Indeed Shundo, how often beautiful craftsmanship appears from the dark ages - they must have spent a little time of killing each other to be able to do that. As a term "Dark Ages" does seem to conjure up images of uncivilised savages roaming the country, which seems to be far from the truth.

The devil does seem to get about - he's a busy lad.