One of the impulses for my last trip to Scotland was to investigate the country’s mysterious Pictish past. The Picts play an important role in the novel I’m writing; they are a foundational element to the world and backstory that I’m twisting into historical fiction. We know a lot about the Scots who came over from Ireland and their Gaelic kingdom of Dál Riata, but the narrative of the Picts and their cultural arc have remained elusive to historians and archaeologists for hundreds of years. We know shockingly little about the Picts, a name that derives from the Latin Picti, meaning ‘painted or tattooed people,’ beyond a handful of kings’ names and a scattering of oblique references to the people and places of Pictland from monks with little better to do than record the events of the days through the editorial lens of Christian fanaticism.
In the context of humanity’s knowledge of history, we know next to nothing about the Picts. I find that to be a wonderful and almost impossible to believe circumstance, and it tells me we’re in that twilit zone just before an artifact or breakthrough is found and everything becomes much clearer.
We do know some things. We know the Picts were a people that formed in Late Antiquity and disappeared by the end of the first millennium AD, possibly in response to the dawn of the Viking Age. We know the Picts were master craftsmen, especially stoneworkers, as they’ve left hundreds of perplexing symbol stones around northern Scotland. These stones make for an excellent and interesting starting point for any investigations into Pictish culture, especially in Easter Ross where there’s a dedicated Pictish Trail (there’s also one in Angus/Perthshire).
From my headquarters at Wemyss House in the heart of the trail, I wrapped in several visits to these ancient markers of Pictish civilization.
The Eagle Stone
The old spa village of Strathpeffer just west of Dingwall is a pretty town in elevated surroundings that hides an ancient stone in a field between residences. The Eagle Stone, as it is called for the stylized eagle standing beneath a horseshoe, is a Class 1 Pictish stone. Class 1 stones are unworked stones with only incised symbols that date from the 6th, 7th, and 8th centuries. Incredibly, the site is designed for visitors to walk inside the enclosure, and, if you’re feeling daring, you can touch this ancient stone. Just don’t knock it over. The Brahan Seer prophesied that if the stone fell three times the surrounding valley would be flooded. It has already fallen twice…
The Nigg Stone
Just down the road from my B&B, in the basement of the Nigg Old Church, stands the magnificent Nigg Stone. This Class 2 beauty, stones that are carved in relief with Christian motifs dating from the 8th and 9th centuries, illustrates the Picts’ expert craftsmanship and depicts a complicated scene made more difficult to understand by the defaced, missing section. This stone is 1,300-1,400 years old – can you imagine what it looked like when it was new? Are the whorls and interlocking patterns merely decoration, or are they full of meaning? The backside of the stone is carved with similar quality.
The Shandwick Stone
The Fearn Peninsula is rife with amazing Pictish stones, and the Shandwick Stone is no exception. In days of yore, this Class 2 stone was used as a landmark by local boats. These days it’s in a glass shelter to protect it from the elements, which is pretty unique among these ancient stones (though you’d think it would be more common). There is a gorgeous hunting scene in the lower half of the stone above an incredible interlocking knotwork of triskelions.
Portmahomack’s Tarbat Discovery Centre
At the northern tip of the Fearn Peninsula lies the small town of Portmahomack with its Tarbat Discovery Centre housed in the old parish church. The Discovery Centre contains a treasure trove of Pictish stones and fragments unearthed by ongoing excavations here, which was the site of an ancient monastery founded in the 8th century by Christian missionaries like St. Columba who worked to convert the pagan Picts. The Tarbat Discovery Centre provides the most in-depth look at Pictish sculpture along the trail with loads of interactive and informational displays that will leave you so puzzled about the past you’ll have to head into town and have a pint or two to fog your mind with something more concrete. Like ale.
On my way back from the excellent Balblair distillery in Edderton, I happened across this sharp standing stone in a field just off the road. In fact, it’s name, Clach Biorach, translates to “sharp stone.” This Class 1 stone dates to the Bronze Age, and, clearly by the look of it, the stone has seen lots of days (many of them better). As with many stones of such antiquity, it has been reused over the ages. It is said to mark the grave of a Danish prince who died in battle here.
Driving north along the eastern coast of Sutherland I stopped at the imposing Dunrobin Castle just outside Golspie. The Dunrobin Castle Museum houses a private collection of more than 20 Class 1 and Class 2 Pictish stones from around Sutherland. The stones are varied in their carvings, and they stand out where you can feel the same stone worked by these mysterious people so long ago. More stones are found every year in the area.
The mystery of the Picts only deepened for me after visiting the symbol stones around Easter Ross. There is certainly a shared symbology among the stones, with specific beasts, designs, and unknown images appearing over and over on the stones. Could these be a kind of symbol language? Tribe or clan symbols? Something else entirely? It’s this last question that makes the Picts so interesting. The prevailing academic belief is that the invading Vikings forced the Gaelic Scots and the Picts to form an alliance that brought many of the Scots into Pictish lands. Over time, it is believed that the Picts were assimilated into Gaelic culture, their own culture forever lost.
These were truly the dark ages. There are no written records from Pictish sources during this era. All we have are notes of monks from around the periphery of pagan Pictland. What momentous battles took place? What wondrous works were created? What tales wait to be told?
Perhaps one day they will be unearthed or deciphered. In the meantime, we can only imagine.