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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Montreathmont Moor

Montreathmont moor forest

Historic moor and forest

I went for a bike ride the other day along the tracks through the forest behind my house, returning on the roads that encircle it.  Variously pronounced “Monrummond” (which is what appears on the oldest maps), “Montrimont” and “Montreathmont”, this lovely stretch of mixed woodland lies in the triangle between Brechin, Letham and Friockheim in central Angus.

It’s been woodland for a long time.  It’s mainly Forestry Commission spruce nowadays, what’s known as a PAWS (that’s a Plantation on an Ancient Woodland Site, I think).  But there are large areas of Scots pines, birches, oaks, beeches and other broadleaves to lighten the gloom.  Tracks through the wood are popular with walkers and, apparently, husky trainers – though I’ve never met any, and most of the tracks don’t connect to each other, making round trips tricky.

Two years ago, foresters were thinning the Scots pine along one section of track.  I was talking about it to one of my neighbours, who was at school back in the mid ‘30s in what’s now my house.  It turns out he’d helped plant those trees about 70 years earlier, just after World War II.  It must be very satisfying to watch them grow and see them harvested; not many people live that long.

Wildlife and other residents

All sorts of birds and other wildlife live in Montreathmont forest, from wood wasps to (according to Walk Scotland) red deer and even capercaillie.  Hmm.  It’s not exactly the Highlands…  I’ve seen plenty of roe deer but never their larger cousins, and I seriously doubt caper would survive the numbers of people and dogs that roam the woods.  I have seen red squirrels, though.  There are buzzards a-plenty, some owls and all the other woodland birds you’d expect to find, bats and, apparently, goshawks in one patch.  Even the spruce isn’t quite silent.

Montreathmont forest was a royal hunting ground centuries ago and probably saw hunting parties from the several castles that surround it (Guthrie, Gardyne, Melgund, Kinnaird and the now-demolished Aldbar and Balgavies).  I’m sure the wildlife feels safer now, though in a clearing a while back I did come across a fallen tree with a cleft stick stuck in the ground in front of it, looking very much as though someone had sat there quietly waiting to shoot deer.

Montreathmont History

Montreathmont Moor has remains of what may be Pictish cairn-burials or stone houses (they’re in too poor a state, and surrounded by too many trees, to be certain).  Several kist burials have been discovered in the woods down the years, including one practically outside my back door that contained a jet necklace.  The booty can be seen in the Meffan Museum in Forfar.  It’s thought some of the cairns may commemorate a Pictish battle on the Moor.  In fact, the whole area is riddled with Canmore sites.

More recently, the forest was used to tether and hide airships during the First World War.  During the Second World War and Cold War it concealed a listening station.  The white main building is still visible, though I don’t know what it’s used for now (if anything).  Some of the Nissen huts that housed personnel are still occupied, but are now privately owned; you can see them from the Forfar-Montrose road.

Who knew that a patch of dark, regimented forestry could hide so many secrets?  It’s amazing what you can stumble across on a bike ride …

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Cromarty’s Good Samaritan

James Thomson plaque, Cromarty
James Thomson’s blue plaque, Cromarty

James Thomson MD, hero of the Crimea

Embedded in the weathered sandstone wall of the antique shop at the corner of High Street and Church Street in Cromarty is a blue plaque.  It says “Birthplace of James Thomson MD, 1823-1854.  A Good Samaritan to wounded enemy Russians at the Battle of Alma in the Crimean War”.  Who was this medic who died, aged just 31, saving wounded soldiers on a battlefield?

James Thomson was born and brought up in the house now occupied by the antique shop.  He must have been a bright child and either came from a well-off family or was supported by one, because he trained as a doctor and joined the Army Medical Department.

Malta

He must have joined up almost as soon as he qualified, as by February 1848 he was Assistant Surgeon to the 7th Dragoons.  In 1850 he moved to the 44th (East Essex) Regiment of Foot and was posted to Malta, where a cholera epidemic was raging.

Cholera, a vicious diarrheal killer, was common in places where people were crowded together with poor sanitation.  Military hospitals were no exception.  The epidemic wiped out all the other medics working there but Thomson survived.

The website Regimental Surgeons of the Malta Garrison quotes the Roll of Commissioned Officers in the Medical Service of the British Army.  “The skill, fortitude, and humanity, displayed by him in arresting the progress of that disease, gained for him the praises of the Commander-in-Chief”.

From Malta he went to Gibraltar for three years, then in April 1854 he left for Turkey on the way to the Crimea.

Crimea

The Crimean War arose because Britain and France were trying to prevent Russia gaining territory and influence in Turkey as the Ottoman Empire crumbled.  The allies wanted control of the Russian Black Sea port of Sebastopol, in the Crimean region of the Ukraine.  Crimea has recently in the news again, of course: it’s still strategically important to Russia.

The Battle of Alma, the first major battle of the Crimean War, was a British and French victory.  When the allied armies left the battlefield, Thomson volunteered to stay behind.  With just his batman to help, he looked after 700 desperately wounded Russians.  Despite the dangers of marauding Cossack soldiers nearby and lack of food , within days he’d managed to save some 400 of them and ensure they embarked for Odessa and home.

He moved on to the military hospital at Balaclava, where Florence Nightingale also worked.  Either because of a lack of available doctors or becauseThomson was considered immune after his experiences in Malta, he was assigned to work on the cholera ward.

Sadly, he wasn’t immune.  After just 34 hours on the ward he caught the infection and nine hours later he died, 15 days after the Battle of Alma.  His batman buried him on the shores of the Black Sea.

Thomson was acclaimed in Parliament for his bravery and his work was celebrated by William Russell, The Times’ war correspondent, who also made Florence Nightingale’s reputation.

And back to Cromarty

The blue plaque is not Thomson’s only memorial.  In true philanthropic Victorian style, a bursary was set up in his name to help children educated and living in Cromarty.

And Thomson’s friend Sir James MacGrigor, Director General of the Army Medical Department, erected an obelisk to him at Forres.  He had wanted to erect it in Thomson’s birthplace but the local landowner didn’t approve the chosen site.  So he built it across the Moray Firth instead, where people can see it from Cromarty.

The obelisk makes no mention of the cholera, stating that Thomson died “from the effects of excessive hardship and privation” – which may indeed have contributed by lowering his resistance to infection.

It describes him as an officer “whose life was useful and whose death was glorious”.  That’s a good epitaph for a young man – or, indeed, anyone.

Find out more:

https://www.maltaramc.com/regsurg/t/thomsonj.html

http://www.forres-gazette.co.uk/News/Letters/Forres-fascinating-Crimea-connection-25032014.htm

http://www.cromartyhistory.scot/index.asp?pageid=511913

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