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).
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!