Aberlemno Pictish Stones

Aberlemno Pictish cross slab

Battles, crosses and combs.

The first question I always want to ask about Pictish stones is “why?”, closely followed by “who?”.  What is the purpose of the carvings?  Were they done purely for art’s sake, to commemorate events for future generations, to boost a chieftain’s standing in the world, or for some other reason I haven’t yet fathomed?

It’s nice to know I’m not the only one who doesn’t have the answers – it seems no-one does, really.  Not much is known about the Picts at all, in fact, not even how they got their name.  One theory is that it comes from the Latin “picti” meaning painted, because they dyed their skin blue with woad; another camp reckons the name is derived from Old English.

The Picts were a Celtic people who lived in northern Scotland from ancient times until about the 10th Century “when they are thought to have merged with the Gaels”, according to Wikipedia.  Quite how that’s achieved, it doesn’t say.  People aren’t like rivers.

Early Pictish stones

The earliest Pictish sculptures are of animals, suggesting that they may have been carved because they were familiar to the artist or possibly as an invocation to some deity to improve the hunting.  Those early carvings often also include random shapes which could mean anything or nothing.  There’s a stone of this type in a field by Westerton crossroads (see map; it’s on the road between Aberlemno and Letham).Map showing location of Pictish stones in Aberlemno, Letham and area

Outside Letham (at the point marked with an X on the map) is another typical early stone, with a cup design.  This stone doesn’t appear on any of the gazetteers but it’s sitting right by the road, in a lay-by, so it’s easy to visit.  Outside the chusrch at Dunnichen, west of Letham, there’s another fine stone, but this one’s a replica; the original is in the Meffan Museum, in Forfar, which is worth a visit.

Aberlemno’s kirkyard stone

It’s thought that Dunnichen Hill may be the site of the Battle of Nechtansmere (AD 685), where the Picts defeated the Northumbrians.  That battle is commemorated on the most important stone in Aberlemno, the one in the church-yard.  (Some people say, because the stone dates from well after that date, that the fight may have been between Picts and Vikings, not Northumbrians.  We’ll probably never know; the locals prefer the Northumbrian story.)  Aberlemno battle scene stone

Whoever they are, the stone shows both cavalry and infantry, one side wearing helmets and the other bare-headed, all engaged in a very spirited fight.  In the bottom corner, crows are dealing with the dead.  On the other side is a fine Celtic cross with masses of interlaced tracery and some anatomically-suspect animals that may be deer.Pictish stone cross in Aberlemno churchyard

The Aberlemno roadside stones

The other three Aberlemno Pictish stones are up the road, opposite the village hall.  In the hall car park there’s a modern copy of the battle scene, which remains uncovered all year round (the originals are boxed up over winter to protect them but there’s a picture of the stone on each cover, so you can still visit them in winter).  Another stone was found in a nearby field and can now be seen in the Meffan in Forfar, alongside the Dunnichen stone.

Aberlemno village hall also houses some of the artefacts from the defunct Pictavia museum, which can be seen by arrangement.  Through the summer, the loos at the hall are left open for public use.

Of the three roadside stones, one is not in very good condition but the other two are extraordinarily well-preserved and remarkably clear, considering they’ve withstood more than 1000 years of weather at the top of an Angus hill.

The Serpent stone has, as you might expect, a snake at the top. The other images on it are common Pictish symbols, though no-one is quite sure what they represent.  The middle one is of two circles with concentric rings, one at each end of a bar.  A zigzag broken arrow is laid across the bar.  Unsurprisingly, this  common symbol is known as a double disc with Z-rod.Aberlemno serpent stone

The bottom image shows an elegant hand mirror that wouldn’t look out of place on a modern dressing-table and a comb consisting of a central bar with teeth either side of it.  Again, this is a common symbol, probably representing a high-ranking woman; the stone was possibly carved as a memorial.

On the back there are cup markings, like the ones on the Letham stone, which pre-date the front carvings by several centuries, so the stone seems to have been re-used.  The stone itself is not dressed; it has rough, unshaped edges, and the whole thing leans at a jaunty angle.

The latest stone

The Cross stone is neatly dressed and even the edges are decorated (see photo at the top of this post).  It dates from somewhat later than the other Aberlemno Pictish stones, probably as late as the mid-9th century. It’s full of Christian symbolism – a Celtic cross with drooping (sorry, worshipping) angels either side and sheep at the bottom – and the decoration is of extremely high quality. Aberlemno Pictish cross slab reverse showing Pictish symbols

The reverse side has another double disc with Z-rod, a slightly different pattern from the one on the Serpent stone, and a very finely-carved crescent with V-rod, the crescent filled with three panels of delicate Celtic knot-work.  Below the symbols there’s a hunting scene.  Whoever carved this stone was a master of his craft.

Other stones

If you catch the Pictish stones bug, you can see other examples at the Meffan in Forfar; St Vigeans, just outside Arbroath, where the museum boasts no fewer than 34 examples; and Meigle Museum, between Forfar and Coupar Angus, which has another 30-plus.  Outdoors you can find stones at Brechin Cathedral (near the Brechin Mechanics Institute), Eassie Church, St. Orland’s Chapel at Cossans (near Glamis), and in the grounds of the old Manse at Glamis (now private property).

The stones cover a period of several centuries and it’s interesting to see the change from the purely symbolic early stones, via the hunting and fighting scenes to the complex Celtic patterns and crosses of the period after the Irish brought Christianity to Scotland.  We may not know much about the people who commissioned (if that’s the right word) the Pictish stones, but we can still marvel at the craftsmanship of those who carved them.

Find out more:

You can download the Angus Pictish Trail leaflet from http://aberlemno.org/the-stones.php.  It has a map and some historical background written by renowned Pictish scholar Norman Atkinson.  Be warned, though: it was published before Pictavia closed, and some of the owners of the properties where there are stones have changed and may not welcome you walking around in their gardens!

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Brechin Mechanics Institute

Brechin Mechanics institute

Home of learning and entertainment

Brechin (* see below for pronunciation) is a fascinating place.  The size of a large village, it is in fact one of Britain’s smallest cities.  It has a 13th century cathedral that’s now a parish church of the Church of Scotland.  Since it therefore has no Bishop, it isn’t technically a Cathedral any more.  (The Episcopalian Diocese of Brechin uses St Paul’s Church in Dundee as its Cathedral).  Because of this discrepancy, some people would say Brechin can no longer call itself a city.  Locals would not agree!

Brechin also boasts an 11th century Round Tower in the Irish style, one of only two in Scotland to survive.  It nearly didn’t make it through the 1960s, as local councillors considered it irrelevant and planned to demolish it.

The closure of the nearby US Air Force base some 20 years ago hit the city badly, but it’s finally getting back on its feet.  Many buildings date back to the 17th and 18th centuries, and some have recently been restored to their full glory.  Others are still very run-down and just crying out to be tidied up and put back to use…

Brechin Mechanics Institute

And it has the Brechin Mechanics Institute, a fine building that faces you as you approach the town from the Forfar road.  Historic Environment Scotland describes it as “Tudor gothic”, a designation I hadn’t come across before.   As it dates from 1838, the year of Queen Victoria’s coronation, I’d have though “Victorian gothic” would be more apt.  But I’m not an architectural historian.

John Henderson of Edinburgh designed the Mechanics Institute building.  He was the son of a gardener at Brechin Castle, just along the road.  The Earl of Dalhousie, owner of the Castle and, presumably, Henderson’s patron, gave it to the city.  Faced in fine ashlar stone, the building soars elegantly heavenwards, suggesting perhaps that the source of learning lies above.

The Mechanics Institutes movement dates from the Age of Enlightenment, that period in the early 19th century when philosophy, physics, chemistry and natural history, as we now know them, were born.  The first Mechanics Institute was founded in Edinburgh in 1823.  However, the idea goes back to George Birkbeck (for whom Birkbeck College is named) who started a group in Glasgow in the 1790s.  Another Mechanics Institute of the period is now better known as UMIST.

The Brechin Mechanics Institute occupies the site of an earlier school building.  It provided a night-school for “mechanics” (workers), and anyone else who wanted to improve their employability, on the upper floor.  The lower floor housed the High, Parochial and Burgh schools for youngsters.  It must have been a busy place in its heyday.

What happened next

The Institute didn’t just provide education: all sorts of groups met there.  The Guildry of Brechin used the building for meetings and still makes an annual donation towards its upkeep.  A Guildry was a group of Guilds of various trades;  Brechin’s dates from 1629.  Although it’s lost its original purpose, it’s still active in the civic and social life of the city.  Many of those civic and social events take place in the Mechanics Institute.

When the Managers and Patrons of the building felt unable to maintain it by themselves in 1950, ownership of the building was “vested in the City Council for the Common Good of the Burgh”.  It subsequently passed to the District Council who, in the 1970s, had the same difficulties and closed the building as an act of economy.

Events and artworks

Finally, after many years of negotiations, Brechin Mechanics Trust was founded to manage and maintain the building, though Angus Council still own it.  The Trust has refurbished and  updated the facilities.  There’s now provision for disabled access, for example, so the whole community can use the building.  The Institute once again hosts events of all kinds, from formal dinners, art shows and musical events to pop-up oriental rug and knitwear shops.

As a place of education, the Institute displayed paintings such as Phillip’s “Robert the Bruce on the Eve of Bannockburn”, to bring history to life.  There are several portraits of local citizens, to give students models to follow, including a QC, a Doctor of Divinity and the poet Alexander Laing.  There’s also the rather unpleasant-looking local landowner Lord Erskine, ancestor of the writer Violet Jacob.  They both lived at House of Dun, between Brechin and Montrose which is now a National Trust for Scotland property.  You can see the pictures, in the upper hall, whenever the Institute is open.

What else to see

When you’ve finished at the Brechin Mechanics Institute, there’s an excellent Town House Museum on the cobbled, steeply-sloping High Street.  The Cathedral and Round Tower should also definitely be on your itinerary.  Brechin still has lots of interesting shops, too, including one of the very few greengrocers to survive the onslaught of the supermarkets.  While you wander, keep your eyes open for the many architectural joys in this tiny gem of a city.  You never know what you might spot.

Find out more

* In case you’re wondering how to pronounce it, Brechin has a “ch” as in “loch” or the German “ach”, not as in “church”, and the “e” is long: “Breechhin” is the nearest I can get to writing it!

Brechin Mechanics Institute listing at Historic Environment Scotland: http://portal.historicenvironment.scot/designation/LB22459

Round Tower: https://www.historicenvironment.scot/visit-a-place/places/brechin-cathedral-round-tower/

Brechin Cathedral: https://brechincathedral.org.uk/about/

 

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Montrose sculptures

Montrose sculptures, James Graham, 1st Marquis of Montrose

Great men – and others

The town and port of Montrose, on Scotland’s north-east coast, has a fine collection of sculptures waiting to be discovered by the open-eyed visitor.  (The seagulls, inevitably, have already found them). Some are of local figures, others made by locals, and still others haven’t even a tenuous connection to the town.

Two of the Montrose sculptures stand very close together either side of the junction at Peel Place (the southern end of the High Street).  The first is the famous – some would say infamous – local man James Graham, 1st Marquis* of Montrose, who lived from 1612-1650.

James Graham, Marquis of Montrose

Born in the town in 1612, Montrose went on to become one of the greatest soldiers of the time of King Charles 1st.  Charles 1st wanted to impose the English brand of Protestantism on the Presbyterian Scots.  They weren’t keen on either the Bishops or the rites that Charles proposed.  The Presbyterians signed a Covenant upholding their right to worship in their own way and took arms in defence of their chosen religion.

At first Montrose supported the Covenanters but later he supported the King.  Many people therefore see him as a turncoat who followed whichever course would be most advantageous to him.  Others say that he turned against the 1st Marquis of Argyll, leader of the Covenanters, thinking he was trying to usurp the King’s power in Scotland.

Soldier-poet

No-one, however, disputes Montrose’s skill as a General; this complex man won many battles for whichever side he was supporting.  He was also a fine poet, probably best remembered for the poem he wrote to his wife.  The most famous lines from it are inscribed around the statue’s plinth:

“He either fears his fate too much,

Or his deserts are small,

That puts it not unto the touch

To win or lose it all.”

Montrose did both win and lose it all.

His loyalty to the monarchy was his downfall.  After Cromwell had King Charles 1st beheaded during the British Civil War, Montrose pledged his support to the exiled Charles 2nd and tried to raise an army to restore the monarchy.

Montrose was defeated in 1650, and executed as a traitor in Edinburgh by being hanged and quartered.  Charles betrayed him, denying all knowledge of the plot.  A tragic end for a gallant man who fought for what he saw as right.

The statue marked the 350th anniversary of Montrose’s execution.  It’s perhaps unfortunate that it’s stuck outside the Job Centre on a bend in a busy road.

Sir Robert Peel

The man on the plinth opposite him was very different, though also a doughty fighter in his way.  Some might see him, too, as a turncoat.  Montrose sculptures, Sir Robert Peel

Sir Robert Peel was not local.  He came from Lancashire and had nothing at all to do with the town.  So what did he do to earn this fine statue?

Peel has two main claims to fame – three if you’re a Catholic.  The first is that, as Home Secretary,  he founded the Metropolitan Police force in 1829.   (That’s why policemen are still called “bobbies”, Bob being short for Robert; they were also originally known as “peelers”.)

Police forces weren’t an entirely new idea.  Glasgow had had one since 1800 and the Royal Irish Constabulary was founded in 1822 (partly also thanks to Peel).  But this time the concept spread right across the country, which hadn’t happened with the earlier forces.

Women and children first

Peel was also responsible for passing the Mines Act, which banned the employment of women and children underground, and the Factory Act, which limited the number of hours they could work.

He also got the Railway Regulation Act through Parliament.  This required railway companies to provide regular affordable trains, every day, with seats and roofed carriages even for third-class passengers.  At 1d a mile they still weren’t cheap but they did help people move around to find work.

Although originally so anti-Catholic that he was nicknamed “Orange Peel”, Peel came to see that the danger posed by riots against Catholics was worse than the danger of religious freedom.   His change of heart helped to win repeal of the Test Act and pass the Roman Catholic Relief Act.

But that’s not how he earned a statue in a staunchly Presbyterian town!

His greatest legacy was forced on him by the Irish potato famine.  Peel was not in favour of free trade and most of the landowners in his Tory party strongly opposed imports of cheap corn.  But, faced with a spreading famine, Peel did something almost unprecedented in British political history.

He got the Opposition to support him against his own party to repeal the protectionist Corn Laws and relieve the hunger of millions of people.  It took five months of bitter struggle to get the repeal through Parliament.  The day it became law in 1846, Peel was defeated on another Bill and resigned.  He died in 1850 after a fall from a horse.

Erected in 1855 to mark Peel’s political achievements, his statue now sports a plaque which, ironically, misrepresents them.  It mentions only the police force, the Corn Laws and the first of his two terms as Prime Minister, ignoring the rest of his surprising career.

Montrose sculptures trail

Two men separated by two centuries and very different ideals stand within yards of each other at a busy road junction, where few passers-by give them a thought.  But they are by no means the only statues Montrose boasts.

A couple of hundred yards further up the High Street, for example, stands a Montrose man who knew Peel in Parliament and fought for many of the same things.  He’s Joseph Hume (apparently one of the worst speakers in Parliamentary history: the sight of him standing to speak could clear the Chamber within minutes).

Beyond these three, there’s a whole trail of Montrose sculptures; there’s a link below to download the guide.

They include a bust in the Library of Dr. Robert Brown, another Montrose native.  He’s the man who discovered Brownian Motion (you know, the thermal movement of molecules in liquid) and plant cell nuclei.

There are also several works by local sculptors David Annand and William Lamb.  You can visit Lamb’s studio in July and August on Tuesday-to-Saturday afternoons, or at other times by arrangement with the Curator of the Montrose Museum.

As well as statues of people, there are sculpted drinking fountains, swans and geese (Montrose’s tidal Basin is famous for its water fowl) and even a famous naval dog.

But I won’t spoil the surprises.  Download the guide, slip on your comfy shoes and go and find them for yourself.  They should keep you entertained for several hours.  You’ll also discover the lovely old town of Montrose, with its hugely wide High Street and tiny hidden wynds.  It’s worth a visit.

When you’re done, please let everyone know what you thought by leaving a comment!

Find out more:

You can download a map of the Montrose sculptures trail at www.montrosesociety.co.uk/Sculpture%20Trail%2005.pdf

For details of William Lamb’s studio: http://www.angus.gov.uk/directory_record/177/william_lamb_studio_montrose

* ‘Marquess’ or ‘Marquis’?  Either form is correct but ‘Marquess’ is the currently accepted spelling.  According to Chambers Dictionary ‘Marquis’ is “a variant spelling used esp. by holders of pre-Union titles”.  As James Graham lived between the Union of the Crowns (1603) and the Act of Union (1701), I’ve used the old spelling, as does the statue plinth.

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