If you’re travelling along the country road that winds its way around farmland between the Scottish towns of Brechin and Forfar, you might be forgiven for missing three upright stones that are standing on the grassy verge just outside the village of Aberlemno.
But if you drive past them, it is worth turning around and coming back, because these stones are covered with intricate carvings that are over a thousand years old; and they represent some of the only relics that are left to us of the Picts, who were swallowed up into Scotland’s shadowy past for reasons which we still don’t understand.
In the late Iron Age, northern and eastern Scotland was inhabited by a group of people whom the historian Neil Oliver considers to be “the direct descendants of the first bands of hunter-gatherers to colonise these lands after the retreat of the ice 12,000 years ago.”
Almost everything that we know about the Picts is based on conjecture and assumption. Stemming from the Latin word meaning ‘to paint’, the use of the term ‘Pict’ by early writers to describe these inhabitants suggests that they had a fondness for painting or tattooing their bodies. We still don’t know what the Picts actually called themselves, or indeed what language they spoke, because we are still baffled by their inscriptions. They have given us our identity, however: in early Welsh and Irish tongues, ‘Pict’ led to the name ‘Pritani’, which the Romans translated as ‘Britanni’ – and so Britannia and Britain were born. More locally, place names containing a ‘pit’ element such as Pitlochry and Pittenweem indicate a Pictish presence, as do the words ‘aber’ (‘river mouth’, as in ‘Aberdeen’), ‘pert’ (‘woodland copse’, found in ‘Perth’) and ‘dol’ (‘meadow’, as in ‘Dallas’); interestingly, two of these words – ‘aber’ and ‘dol’ – have identical meanings in Welsh.
Wherever the Picts came from, they were present in the British Isles long before the Romans first set foot on our shores. Historians believe that a number of Pictish ‘kings’ may have ruled over independent regions within their territory. Their dwellings could have been timber-built, possibly on man-made islands in lochs, known as ‘crannogs’; and the Picts are also credited with building the impressive stone structures called ‘brochs’ which are dotted around the far north and west of Scotland.
From around 200 AD, the Pictish tribes merged and developed into a powerful nation. Their lands stretched from the Firths of Clyde and Forth right up to the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland. For their strongholds they favoured sites with natural defences such as Burghead near Elgin and Dunnottar, south of Stonehaven. Initially, they worshipped gods and goddesses that they believed dwelt in the landscape and natural features such as wells and streams, but through the efforts of early saints such as St Ninian and St Columba, they were gradually converted to Christianity.
While fending off the advances of Gaelic people, whose kingdom of Dal Riata was slowly but surely spreading eastwards, the Picts also had to contend with aggression from the south. Anglian tribes were encroaching from Northumbria, and in 685 AD the Pictish king Bridei won a significant victory for his people at the Battle of Dun Nechtain; the location of the conflict has still not been verified.
I am no expert on the Picts, but even from my first tentative research it is evident that this area of Scottish history is enveloped in a particularly dark shadow. It is, however, certain that the power of the Picts was not enough to protect them from being either erased or absorbed by other cultures, and the appearance of Viking longboats on the horizon probably heralded their ultimate downfall. Historians differ as to whether the Vikings settled peacefully among the Picts and married their womenfolk, or wiped them from the face of the landscape by butchering most of the men and carrying the survivors off as slaves; but from the 11th century onwards, the Pictish culture had all but disappeared beneath the surface of an emerging Scottish kingdom known as Alba.
There are four stones at Aberlemno: three along the roadside, and a fourth in the churchyard just down the road. They stand like ancient sentinels, bearing information – stories, names, maps, who knows? – that could give us a unique insight into a lost world, but we’ve long since forgotten whatever codes we needed to decipher them.
The gradual absorption of Christian teachings can be seen in the largest and most impressive of the carved roadside stones. This is inscribed on one side with an elaborate cross which is flanked by angels, while the other face is carved with a lively hunting scene. The stone in the churchyard also has a cross on one side, but a graphic depiction – there is even a ‘pict’ in that word – of a battlefield on the other. This may, in fact, be the battle of Dun Nechtain – but I’m not sure if we’ll ever know.
The Picts have left us nothing in the way of literature; and their symbols still tantalise researchers, as they tantalised me when I stood and gazed at them last month on a windy roadside. Recurring features include angled lines known as V-rods, which often appear in association with a crescent; Z-rods, which zig-zag between other symbols; double discs, and triple discs, often linked together; and a ‘mirror and comb’, which is self-evident when you see it. They seem almost like directions to another universe. Serpents and mythical creatures appear regularly, among them a ‘Pictish beast’ which has yet to be identified; but the Picts also loved to portray battle scenes and hunting scenes, linking real life with fantasy. It strikes me that their history – at least as they saw it – had much in common with the Celts, who had a talent for weaving legends around contemporary figures.
Whatever their meaning, there is a beauty and a symmetry in these images: I’m intrigued to find out more, and to visit other sites.
You can find more information about the Aberlemno stones and the Picts at:
The Aberlemno stones are in the care of Historic Scotland. All are readily visible and free to access. To protect them from the weather, wooden boxes are placed over them from the end of September until the beginning of April.
All photographs copyright © Colin & Jo Woolf
Does the carved slab in Aberlemno churchyard depict the battle of Dun Nechtain or Dunnichen? This question looks set to keep historians scratching their heads for a while yet. You can read more in this feature on The Hazel Tree.