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Friends of Grampian Stones

Friends of Grampian Stones

Pictish Iconography

Friends of Grampian Stones

Aberdeenshire is famed for its Pictish symbol stones thought to date from at least the 5th century, the earliest found in profusion on fertile farmland of a busy agricultural society, saved from destruction by gunpowder or the plough by deep-seated superstition. Within an oral culture handed down from ancestral times, it didn't do to harm the stones. They were, after all, one of few remnants of the country ('pagan') tradition which predated Christianity, of which the ancestors spoke. Parishes of Northeast Scotland in the farflung reaches of Aberdeenshire, Banffshire and Morayshire followed the instruction of the Reformed Church to the letter while at the same time managing to guard handed-down veneration of ancestral places. This apparent anomaly has resulted in the survival of around 600 Neolithic recumbent stone circle sites in the northeast corner, and though separated by 3500 years, roughly 100 Pictish symbol stones (Class I, inscribed; Class II, relief-carved cross-slabs) found in association with the earlier sacred sites.

Throughout the early years of Christianity in this far-northern corner the sacred sites were in no immediate danger. Pope Gregory I in 596 AD sent through Augustine the instruction: "By no means destroy the temples of the idols belonging to the British, but only the idols which are found in them; inasmuch as they are well-constructed, it is necessary that they should be converted from the dowership of demons to the true God."

But a century after Augustine, more extreme measures were called for: in Theodore's
Penitential, 690 AD, "idolatry, worship of demons, cult of the dead, worship of nature, Pagan calendar customs and festivals, witchcraft and sorcery, augury and divination and astrology" were banned. Yet the old ways persisted.

Megalithic structures such as the recumbent circles survived ("superstition spares them though stones are so scarce", wrote one 18th-century Aberdeenshire clergyman), but the Pictish stones did not fare so well. Ultimately their portability became their downfall. While superstition had spared them until the onslaught of Victorian gentlemanly antiquarianism, from that point on they were coveted, uprooted, "taken in" and "protected" all over the place. The Church, of course, had first priority because by "taking them in" (installing in graveyards, building into the fabric of hallowed structures, or reusing as family tombs) they were being de-paganised and therefore gently being nudged under the Christian umbrella. Class I stones carved with animal and geometric symbols stand within kirk precincts today at the Banffshire churches of Mortlach, Marnoch and Ruthven, in Morayshire kirks at Advie, Birnie, Inverallan, Inveravon, and Knockando, and in Aberdeenshire at
Clatt, Rhynie, Tyrie, Fetterangus, Dyce, Deer, Fyvie, Kinellar, Kintore, Bourtie and Inverurie.

Class II stones, usually a cross-shaft sharing space with familiar animal 'spirits', are found in
St. Mary's Monymusk, Migvie, Logie-Coldstone, Tullich-Deeside, Fordoun-Auchenblae (the Mearns), Elgin cathedral.

The lairds also had their fair share of the spoils. In the rush to comply with post-Reformation instruction to build new churches, often on pagan sites, stones were broken up for building, reused in threshing or milling, or taken off to form a feature at the laird's house. National Trust for Scotland's Leith Hall and Brodie Castle are custodians of three, open to the public. Others, at Newton House, Arndilly, Keith Hall, Castle Forbes, Park House, Logie House, Mounie Castle, Craigmyle House, Tillypronie Lodge, Knockespock House, Blackhills House, Whitestones House and Whitehills are private. Five known Class I stones in Aberdeenshire still stand in their original sites: at Ardlair, Nether Corskie, the Insch Picardy Stone,
Brandsbutt Inverurie (re-constituted after blasting) and the Rhynie Craw Stane. Moray Class I stones thought to be in situ stand at Congash (2) and Upper Manbeen. The rest, totalling an unknown figure (32 recorded) abound in museums round the Northeast, are in Edinburgh or are "lost".

Upwards of 30 carved sacred water bull stones were thought to guard the Pictish port-stronghold of Burghead (L.
Tarvedunum, dun, fort of the bulls) which juts out from the mainland into the Moray Firth. All but six bulls were destroyed or thrown into the harbour in early 19th-century reconstruction of the town. Ironically Burghead is the most ardent in keeping Pictish tradition, celebrating the sun's return after winter solstice by "Burning the Clavie" - a man-size torch carried sun-wise round the town on the shoulders of the clavie king and his crew on January 11th each year.

Sueno' Stone, Forres (Class III with cross but no Pictish symbols - instead panels depicting the saga of the Scots victory over the Picts) was re-erected, possibly the wrong way around after being found buried deep in sandy Moray soil.

Clusters of Pictish symbol stones found embedded in mediaeval mounds at Kintore, Tyrie and Drumblade, buried face-down at river confluences (Donaldstonehaugh, River Isla) or close to Pictish villages (Aikey Brae and Rhynie Barflat) have disappeared. A Class I stone carved with horseshoe on an earlier stone circle stone was rescued from oblivion in the 19th-century erection of a memorial to the Duke of Lennox and returned to Huntly market square to share honour with the Marquis. Another, carved on a circle stone near Dunecht, was only discovered after a horse with "mange" rubbed himself on the stone and the farmer, fearing spread of the affliction, wiped the stone with lime, revealing long-lost symbols.

As late as 1978 and 1983 symbol stones from Barflat (Rhynie "Man") and Insch (Wantonwells) were removed from their original location as archaeological prizes: Wantonwells went to Aberdeen's Marischal Museum where it is climate-controlled, but Rhynie Man stands in the vestibule of Woodhill House, local government office headquarters and a prize possession as blatant as any claimed by19th century "gentleman-archaeologists".

Into this climate of haphazard care, the
Maiden Stone interjects herself. One of only four Class II stones in Aberdeenshire, she might have been carried off as a prize, but, perhaps because of her legendary character, she has survived. Earliest remnant of a pre-Christian myth is a wonderfully-confused tale that she was the maid of Drumdurno, turned to stone by the spirit of the mountain (Jock of Bennachie, Sc.Gael.diadhachd pron.Jahck = a god) when she prayed to be rescued from pursuit by the 'devil' who had bargained with her that he could build a causeway up Bennachie (Maiden causeway, prehistoric) before she could finish baking her "firlot" of bannocks. Another, more likely to be based on fact, is that she was the daughter of the laird of Balquhain who was killed by accident after eloping with the son of a rival laird. Third, that she was one of several maiden conquests of a Leslie laird who dragged his prey to the "fort" on top of Bennachie where he had his way with them! Fate saw to it that he died at the battle of Harlaw, 1411.

All four surfaces, broad E & W faces and narrow sides, are decorated. The pagan side, facing east, depicts four panels each featuring symbols used in earlier Class I stones, but typically late carving in relief. In coarse-grained granite this was no mean feat but the technique allows animal and geometric forms to stand out clearly in low raking sunlight, even after 1100 years. The west face is dominated by an interlaced wheel cross, underpinned by a circular spiral-filled design with key pattern and knotwork, while overhead are mounted two
ketos or fish gently cradling a clerical figure. This "Christian" face is badly weathered.

The Maiden stone has a virtually unique combination allowing sacred Pictish symbols to cover one whole side, while also dominating part of the invading Christian side. If its dating is correct to post-843, after the Scots finally obliterated the kingdom of the Picts in this Northeast corner, the inner sanctum of the vanquished race, it was perhaps politic to share religions.

Sueno' Stone at Forres, closer to the last Pictish stronghold at Burghead, is more warlike in proclaiming its Christian message of Right is Might, but it, too, shows a central figure supported by two curving shapes on the Christian side, below the cross. In fact on all other known Class II cross-slabs in Northeast Scotland where sacred symbols of the two faiths share space (Monymusk, Fordoun, Migvie, Mortlach, Dyce) the cross occurs on the same face as Pictish animal and geometric symbols.

The invading Scots perhaps had the presence of mind never to carve here free-standing crosses such as the High Crosses of Iona and West Scotland. The closest to a western motif is the Loch Kinord cross-slab at Cromar, but even its curly-terminal cross is trapped within the oval of the stone. Farther south within Angus/Forfar and Perthshire/Fife a clear dominance by warlike Scots results in a multitude of "Class III" stones, sometimes so-called because they feature crosses and horsemen, but few Pictish symbols. It is an historic fact that central Scotland succumbed to Scots rule long before the Men of Moray who held out culturally until Macbeth (d. 1057).

So it may be that the Scots who influenced the carving of the late Pictish Maiden Stone had to bow to the strength of a prevailing worship of nature spirits in order to get their message across. It is now accepted that the Picts had their own water cult and that the salmon, dolphin and other great fish (Gk.
ketos) were central to that worship. Roman historians were aghast when discovering that Picts ate no salmon, though the rivers were teeming with them. Flesh of the goose, too, (Roseisle Class I stone in Edinburgh) was never eaten, though they roamed wild in profusion. The dolphin (or Pictish "beast" carved on 24 Class I stones in east Scotland) was believed to be sacred because it could live both in air and water and shared knowledge of the world beyond the sunset. The salmon was sacred; it also lived in two media - saltwater and fresh - sharing its knowledge of the seven springs of wisdom. References to sacred salmon kept in wells occur as late as the 16th century, usually by the priest or the minister, who by then was supposed to be as learned as they.
'A well . . . at which are the hazels of inspiration and wisdom, the hazels of the science of poetry and, in the same hour their fruit and their blossom and their foliage break forth, and these fall on the well in the same shower, which raises on the water a royal surge of purple. Then the sacred salmon chew the fruit and the juice of the nuts shows on their red bellies. And seven streams of wisdom spring forth.' Stokes trans. 1887 Old Celtic Legend.

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