Boudicca: Great Queen of the Iceni

Pictland virtually ignored after Agricolan campaign

Caledonian art in the north flourished during Roman neglect

Why were Roman legions so interested in subduing some tribes and not others? Why build the great edifices of Antonine and Hadrian‘s occupations to shut out the northern territories and patrol the borders with encampments, but essentialaly ignore them, when others, like Queen Boudicca of the Iceni, merited wholesale plunder, murder and annihilation?

It was not merely a matter of geography. The Northern Tribes of the Caledonians, in what eventually became Pictland, were hostile but they were no immediate threat to Rome. They were warlike and they were rich in land, but their territories were only worthy of one campaign: that of Julius Agricola in AD77. During that campaign, while he was Consul of Rome and Governor of Britannia, he conquered much of Wales and northern England and made his historic venture into lowland and eastern Scotland to conclude his enterprise at the legendary battle of Mons Graupius, in the Grampian mountains of Aberdeenshire.

Traprain Law, great hilltop stronghold of the Votadini

His marching camps still dot the Aberdeenshire landscape, his successors occupied them in a desultory way, but Agricola ended his campaign in the winter after he began and retired to York. Rome congratulated him for his efforts, but never again ventured farther north than Edinburgh, and Roman armies from that time on until their withdrawal in AD420, mostly remained south of a line drawn from the Tyne in Northumberland towards Dumfries in the west known as Hadrian’s Wall.

So, why were earlier campaigns by Roman generals, consuls and even emperors so concerned with the north of England, North Wales and, in particular, the sacred Brittonic island of Mona?

It is known that Roman emperors, their generals and subalterns were well-versed in local traditions. By the end of Roman occupation, in c. AD420, Britain had become a civilized nation, almost the jewel of the empire, before military collapse and return to Rome. While villas and whole towns were built according to Roman design and the country used as a kind of ‘summer vacation’ retreat for some, for others it was a necessary part of living in a conquered nation that they learn the local language and lore.

Part of that education – a largely undocumented source – was learning the ways of Britons in the early years of occupation, when Brittonic tribes were fully in control of their lands and had a hugely successful system of barter and trade among neighboring and interrelated peoples.

On the other hand, Roman learning also included the works of Claudius Ptolomeaius, a Romanized Greek scholar who visited Britain between the campaigns of Hadrian and Antonine in the AD 2nd century; He was historian, geographer, astronomer, physicist, astrologer and a prolific author. His works are the source of much of what has been handed down to modern scholarship.

Ptolemy's map of North Britain

He devised maps of the whole island of Britannia, not altogether unrealistic; wrote histories and in his spare time discovered and recorded the positions of 1022 fixed stars in the cosmos. While unrelated to the conquest of Britannia, this part of his knowledge indicates his intense interest in a multitude of diverse subjects, including local wisdom. In some of his works he refers to a segment of the British culture which was of enormous interest to him, because of their own knowledge of the heavens, the movement of sun, moon and stars, and their methods of teaching this knowledge to their pupils.

This body of knowledge was the exclusive realm of the cognoscenti, the magicians and wise men of the Britons: the Druidic class.

Within the Druidic tradition, it took an apprentice 30 years before he was allowed to perform any of the feats which he had been taught by his elders. His education included specific learning of astronomy, the calendar, seasonal festivities and rites, traditions associated with appeasing the sky spirits with fire festivals and propitiation ceremonies; herbalism and magic, the raising and stilling of storms, divination, the calling up of wind and the healing of humans and animals from sickness and disease. In this respect the druid or priest-class was as important as king or queen in any tribe.

Because of the Britonnic tradition of tribal rule by warrior-queens, in some cases the king or prince may himself have served as druid-priest, in order to understand and act as intermediary between his kingdom and their gods. This is the case of the so-called ‘Peat’ or Lindow Man, the princely royal body found in 1984 in a marsh near Liverpool and featured in Anne Ross and Don Robins’ novel: ‘The Life and Death of a Druid Prince‘ published in 1991. His own self-sacrifice by a three-fold death by sword, strangulation, and drowning is thought by the authors to have been the last desperate attempt by the male-consort of his nation to appease the gods who had sent Roman legions to wipe out his Queen. In his stomach were found the remains of a burned portion of barley cake, used in sacrifice to denote the portion of one chosen to die. No signs of struggle or binding on his wrists indicated that he died voluntarily.

I have speculated elsewhere that this particular Druid Prince may have actually been Boudicca’s son.

John Opie's imagined Romanized version of Iceni Queen Boudicca

The story of one Brittonic Queen has been handed down through legend, oral tradition and in the Roman annals themselves. It is one which indicates in part how important was this anointed royal connection to the earth through the monarch’s personal and devoted servant, the druid-priest.

Ynys Mons: island of the mount of Druids, the druidic stronghold of Boudicca's kingdom

It is known that the Roman campaigns of North Britain were particularly interested in finding gold and treasure hoards of which these important men were designated keepers for the community. Caesar, Septimius Severus and Agricola were not totally honest in describing their campaigns in the North as a means of civilizing the barbarian hordes. In the case of subjugating Boudicca, at least, the Queen of the eastern kingdoms was famed for her armies, her powerful druids and her riches beyond compare. These riches, the total wealth of her nation, were held in the Druidic stronghold of Mona, or Ynys Mons, modern Anglesey on the west. A ‘Royal Road’ traversed Britain from the east Anglian nation of her Iceni people to meet the coast in North Wales for the sacred sea-crossing to Mona, where only druidic initiates, their mentors and the monarch might set foot.

Crafted in Gaul, this beautiful cauldron is typical of early Brittonic hoards

Gundestrup cauldron, 17ins x 10ins of solid silver found in a Danish bog

These ‘ druidic riches’ can only be imagined, but if the Gundestrup Cauldron of Gaulish craftmen is an example of such treasures, Boudicca’s wealth was an enormous incentive to armies and mercenaries to storm Anglesey and demolish the treasure-house of her kingdom. ‘To the victor the spoils’ is not a mere epithet. Roman legions and most Gaulish and Brittonic armies were paid out of treasure they could loot in their campaigns.

Gundestrup Cauldron, which was crafted in Gaul around 100 BC was discovered in a peat bog in Denmark in 1891, where scholars suggest it had been placed as an offering to the deities of Nature in a druidic ritual. The cauldron’s 13 panels recount a Celtic Foundation Myth similar in importance to the Hebrew Genesis cycle, the Egyptian legends of creation of Ra and Nut, the Greek Illiad, and Roman Aeneid. It is only one example of treasures found in the hoards of ancient Britons. Traprain Law near Edinburgh held a similar priceless vault of treasures belonging to the Votadini people of southern Pictland or Roman Caledonia.

Part of treasure hoard found inside Traprain Law, East Lothian

Almost a century after Caesar’s invasion of Britain (55-54 BC), Roman legions again entered Britain under Emperor Claudius in AD43. Roman generals spared Boudicca’s husband Prasutagus, on condition that he should rule her Iceni people. As the Brittonic and Pictish tribes of Britain were faithful to the matrilinear tradition of a female monarch, but with men leading armies of both male and female soldiers, this was an insult. However Prasutagus was true to his word and ruled, if only in name, for the next 17 years.

Then in AD60 and 61, when Roman governor Gaius Suetonius Paulinus led a campaign to North Wales, on the pretext of subduing barbarian tribes, but in quest of treasure, the Iceni rebelled. Other tribes joined them. Roman armies were threatening the stronghold of their most revered wise men. Next to threatening their Queen, this was an outrage.

History records how Boudicca’s warriors successfully defeated the Roman Ninth Legion and destroyed their capital of Roman Britain, Camulodunum, the modern Colchester. It is from this victorious siege that great myths have seaped through the British imagination and into oral culture, including the famed Camelot, the so-called capital of the Great Briton, Arthur. However, in the first century AD, this tale is told not of a hero, but a heroine.

Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni who died c. AD61

Boudicca, the great Anglian Queen of the Iceni

Boudicca’s armies marched as one body and in the process were described as ‘destroying’ London – Londinium and Verulamium – St Albans, killing hundreds of Roman foot soldiers and mercenaries. The present Roman walls of Colchester were a rebuild by the defeated governor, Suetonius Paulinus, as part of his need to save face after his own retaliation. His armies finally went on to massacre thousands of Britons and his treatment of Boudicca’s family is retold in appalling detail in many histories, including the Annals of Tacitus, written about 50 years later (AD110-120). Her husband Prasutagus was tortured and killed, her daughters raped and her stronghold burned. She herself escaped, but died shortly afterwards, probably from self-administered poison. Her body was never found.

It is interesting to note that the drowned peatbog body of the Druid Prince of Lindow who gave his life willingly for his people was found to date roughly to AD60. He might romantically be thought of as one of Boudicca’s princes, or even her own son.

“She was huge of frame, terrifying of aspect, and with a harsh voice. A great mass of bright red hair fell to her knees: She wore a great twisted golden necklace, and a tunic of many colors, over which was a thick mantle, fastened by a brooch. Now she grasped a spear, to strike fear into all who watched her……”
-Dio Cassius

In subsequent legend her image became stylized into the formative version of our ‘Winged Victory’, Britannia, the female deity of British coin. Boudicca was her Roman name. Her Iceni people called her Boudiga.*

By the end of Suetonius Paulinus’s campaign, Boudicca and her armies were no more, a Roman road stretched between her capital, Venta Icenorum in East Anglia and Anglesey, and Mona’s treasures and emblems of her druidic hierarchy were either looted, destroyed or buried where no Roman eyes might see.

Druidic wise men themselves went into hiding, taking their knowledge with them.

Calendar fragment: part of a Druidic calculation found at Coligny, France dating from Romano-Brittonic time of joint empire

Their calendars, astronomical calculations and science disappeared too. With that body of science went the legacy, perpetuated in the thirty-year cycle of medicinal, herbal-spiritual divination and crystalline power, known only to initiates. It is claimed by several esoteric communities today that the knowledge is still alive and becoming reactivated in mankind’s present time of need.

In these times of instantly-accessible information of the written word, it would be a most wonderful and valuable resource to be able to tap into.

Novice British saints, travelling the highways and country tracks of early-historic Britain were challenged by the people to prove their ability in such feats as raising and stilling storms and making ills and tumours disappear by the healing touch. Ninian cultivated the habit of his British antecedents and was able to manifest some miracles. Columba, an Irish saint, was confronted in the palace of Bridei (c.585) at Inverness by the Pictish king’s druid, criticizing him for being unable to command the wind. It is said Columba thought long and hard on this and went away to learn.

Within the almanac of the present pagan community (‘paganus’, Latin, country person) perhaps it is possible to find a long-lost ability of Druidic heritage which has lain dormant since Boudicca’s untimely death and the desecration of her Druidic compendium of knowledge.

If she were to look down from her regal chariot in the cosmos, she might see a race diminished by the commonplace, belittled by its own intense machinations and obsessed with cultivation of the gods of power and gold. She might say that Man is sadly lacking in versatility if he cannot call upon his gods, his ‘unseen’ powers at will: to make amends.

*Boudiga, after the Celtic deity of Victory, who is always depicted winged.

©2010 Marian Youngblood

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Maiden Stone of Bennachie

Maiden stone on Bennachie:  Christian face

Pictish Maiden Stone on Bennachie: its Christian side faces west

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’ from Latin paganus, countryman) tradition which predated Christianity, of which the ancestors spoke.

Parishes of Northeast Scotland in the farflung reaches of Aberdeenshire, Banffshire and Moray 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 circles in the northeast triangle, and though separated by 3500 years, roughly 100 Pictish symbol stones.

In academia Pictish stones are divided into Class I, inscribed; Class II, relief-carved cross-slabs; Class III relief with horsemen, kings, hierarchical designs; and Class IV, cross-stones with no other ornamentation. The earliest Class I and Class II stones are invariably found in association with pre-Christian sacred sites.

Throughout the early years of Christianity in this far-northern corner of the former Pictish kingdom, sacred sites were in no immediate danger. Pope Gregory I in AD596 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.”

A century after Augustine, however, more extreme measures were called for: in Theodore’s Penitential, AD690,

“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 Aberdeenshire recumbent circles survived. In the words of one 18th-century Northeast clergyman:

“superstition spares them though stones are so scarce”

Imagery on Pictish carved stones from pre-Christian culture AD5thC

Pictish symbols on Carved 'Class I' stones date from AD5thC


Pictish stones did not fare so well.

Ultimately their portability became their downfall. While superstition had spared them until the onslaught of a Victorian gentlemanly pursuit – 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 simultaneously being de-paganized and infinitely gently being nudged under the Christian umbrella.

Class I stones
Beautiful examples of these Pictish pre-Christian sacred markers – carved with animal and geometric symbols in a style standardized throughout the Kingdom (image, top) – stand within kirk precincts today at Banffshire churches of Mortlach, Marnoch and Ruthven, in Moray at Advie, Birnie, Inverallan, Inveravon, and Knockando, and in Aberdeenshire at Clatt, Rhynie, Tyrie, Fetterangus, Dyce, Deer, Fyvie, Kinellar, Kintore, Bourtie and Inverurie. They are usually rough-hewn, from boulders or glacial outcrops.

Class II stones,

Class II Pictish cross stone in Migvie kirkyard, Tarland, Aberdeenshire

Migvie Pictish cross stone with curling terminals in kirkyard at Migvie, Tarland, Aberdeenshire

Sculpted into ‘dressed’ blocks, and dating from after King Nechtan’s (706-729) campaign of Chrstianizing his Kingdom: usually a cross-shaft sharing space with animal ‘spirits’, familiar to the pre-Christian population: these can be found in St. Mary’s Monymusk, Migvie, Logie-Coldstone, Tullich-Deeside, Fordoun-Auchenblae (the Mearns), Elgin cathedral.

Local 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 floors or as millstones, or taken to form a decorative 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 in private ownership and are not accessible to visit, except by appointment.

Nether Corskie, Dunecht Pictish symbols carved on stone circle stone

Five known Class I stones in Aberdeenshire still stand in their original sites:

Ardlair, Kennethmont; Nether Corskie, Dunecht; the Insch Picardy Stone at Whitemyres Farm; Brandsbutt in a housing estate in Inverurie (re-constituted after 19thC 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 considered “lost”.

Upwards of 30 carved sacred water-bull stones were, in oral tradition, said to form a ‘spirit’-guarded wall or protective precinct round the Pictish port-stronghold of Burghead (Latin. Tarvedunum, dun, fort of the bulls) which juts out from the mainland into the Moray Firth between Forres and Elgin.

All but six of these sacred bulls were destroyed or thrown into the harbour in early 19th-century reconstruction of the town.

Ironically Burghead is one of the most ardent communities 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’s Stone, Forres (Class III with cross but no Pictish symbols – instead panels depicting a 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. It now stands in a glass-covered protective shield.

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.

Rhynie Man from Barflat, Rhynie in Woodhill House Aberdeen

Dessicated & desecrated: Rhynie Man in vestibule of government offices Aberdeen

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 (prehistoric Maiden causeway) before she could finish baking her firlot of bannocks (scones).

Another story, 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” (Iron Age enclosure on Mither Tap) 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 East and West faces and narrow sides, are decorated. The pagan side, facing east, depicts four panels each featuring symbols used in earlier Class I stones, but with typically late carving in relief. Gouged out of coarse-grained pink Bennachie 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 is virtually unique: it has a combination of sacred Pictish symbols covering one whole side, while also dominating part of the invading Christian side. If its dating is correct to post-AD843, after the Scots finally obliterated the kingdom of the Picts in this Northeast corner, the inner sanctum of a vanquished race, it was perhaps politic to share religions.

Sueno’s Stone at Forres, closer to Burghead, the last Pictish stronghold to hold out against the enemy, is more warlike in proclaiming its Christian message of ‘Right is Might’, and it, too, shows a central figure supported by two curving (fish?)shapes on the Christian side, below the cross.

On all other known Class II cross-slabs in Northeast Scotland, In fact, 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.

Invading Scots perhaps had the presence of mind never to carve in the Northeast free-standing crosses such as those other blatant examples of their dominion: the High Crosses of Iona and western Scotland.

Class II cross stone at Loch Kinord The closest to a western motif found in the East is the Loch Kinord cross-slab at Cromar, but even its curly-terminal cross is trapped within the oval of the stone, in the northern Pictish tradition. 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 (died 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.

Pictish Class I salmon carved stone at Kintore, Aberdeenshire

Salmon and Pictish 'cauldron' on Class I stone at Kintore

It is now generally 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 their 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 translation 1887, Old Celtic Legend.

All Pictish Class I stones in Northeast Scotland whose original location is known were placed within a mile of water.

Would it not then be wise to enlist the support of this great spirit of the water when proclaiming a new faith to a Pictish audience?

The fish on top of the cross on the Maiden stone may not only be supporting the little cleric, new at his job, but whispering their knowledge in his ear. On the eastern (‘pagan’) side, it is probably significant that the four panels depict the highest order of Pictish symbolism, even if adapted in late relief form: at the top a panel shows animals of the forest, but one has the ability to shape-shift to part-human.

shapeshifting forest centaur, Maiden Stone

Shapeshifting Centaur? on Maiden stone's east face

Shape-shifting was legendary among the Picts and incoming clerics made use of this belief to convert, even using shape-shifting themselves (according to tradition) to show the potency of the new faith. Columba was known to encourage belief in his ability to shape-shift, raise and still storms and produce wine from water in order to convince his new flock.

Maiden stone Fir Altar and Z-rod, possibly signifying lightning

Fire Altar and Lightning rod on Maiden Stone's east face

Panel two shows the great Z-rod and fire altar used in the four annual fire festivals at the doorway to the seasons – Samhain, Oimelc, Beltane and Lughnasadh. Interestingly, Burghead’s fire-altar the “Doorie”, into which the flaming mass of burning creosote, tar and oak staves is thrust as a final gesture in Burning the Clavie, is similar in shape. The Z-rod, thought to symbolise the magic of lightning or a celestial wand, occurs in tandem with fire-altars, serpents, double-sun symbols in a majority of Northeast symbol stones.

Dolphin carved in relief on Maiden stone

Relief-carved sacred Dolphin on Maiden Stone's east face

Panel three holds the sacred dolphin, carved without companions or embellishment – alone in his supreme position as carrier of great knowledge.

Pictish Maiden stone Mirror and Comb

Maiden Stone Order of the Feminine: matrilineal symbols mirror and comb

Panel four bears the female symbols of mirror and comb, probably the oldest symbolism of all, of the goddess, the earth herself, but by early Scots times diminished into a lower order. The Picts had a matrilineal system of succession, but this and all it signified was forceably suppressed in the Scots order of male rule. Though Macbeth claimed the throne by tanistry (the Pictish right by blood through the female line which enabled brothers to succeed brothers or uncles, but not sons to succeed fathers) he was last to lose to the Scots system which prevailed.

Etymology plays a part in the jigsaw of piecing together the Maiden’s meaning. Gael. Maoid-hean means prayer, entreaty, supplication. If it was used as a place of prayer, as records show many Pictish stones were, it was a habit capitalised on by early clerics in their conversions. Stones around Aberdeenshire named for saints include Marnan’s chair, a megalith in St Marnoch’s churchyard, and Brandan Stanes recumbent circle, both Banffshire; three symbol stones ogham-inscribed to indicate “Eddernan” or St. Ethernan preached at each; and Clochmaloo or the stone of Moluag, patron saint of inland Aberdeenshire, a glacial erratic perched on a slope of Tap o’ Noth topped by a huge five-acre vitrified fort. Also Mâg (plain, pron. mai)-dun means a fort commanding an open plain.

The astronomers may have the last word: Scots-Gaelic Madiunn means morning; the morning sun rises to shine on on the pagan eastern face of the stone until precisely midday, when it casts no shadow on either face.

Meadhon means mid or centre, either denoting the centre of a powerful area, which the fertile Garioch plain most certainly was, its nickname ‘Girnal” (grainstore) of Aberdeenshire handed down for generations; or it could mean mid in a time sense. As noon approaches on any clear day, but spring and autumn give better angular light, the sun which has shone directly at the symbols all morning begins to pick out the gentle curves and cast the tiniest of shadows along the bodies of pagan beast and mystic wand. Shadows lengthen until at noon they completely fill the space of the recessed background from which the symbols spring in relief – almost as if filling a pool.

At noon, the sun casts no shadow either on pagan or Christian side – just a brief gnomon-like shade in the short grass. Then as the minutes tick by after noon, shadows appear to fill the spaces on the Christian side and form pools in the four sockets of the wheel cross gradually shortening over the bodies of the giant fish, until around 12:10 p.m. when shadows are once again imperceptible. As a noon sundial, the Maiden is unbeatable.

Local support for leaving the Maiden Stone untouched was strong, though if the decision had gone the other way, few would have stood up and caused a revolution. It is because the decision has been made in favour of her native setting, hovering over the Water of Crowmallie, that future generations may be able to share the Maiden’s knowledge which was originally shouted in a loud voice from the slopes of Bennachie. Only we, her children, have forgotten the meaning of the words. It is up to us now to remember the ways of the natural world, and to take into ourselves the messages left by a culture which may have much to teach us.

©1996-2009 Marian Youngblood

Warlord centres of Pictland:glimpses into a lost history

Pictish horse and stronghold mound, Bass, Inverurie, Aberdeenshire

Pictish stronghold mound and carved horse stone at the Bass, Inverurie, Aberdeenshire

The bard was asked who of the kings of Prydein
is most generous of all
‘And I declared boldly
That it was Owain’
The Gorhoffedd, 12thC heroic poem

 

The subject of royal lineage brings out the romantic in the scholar and the scholar in the romantic.

Lordship and kingship in a Pictish context has been given both treatments over centuries of scholarship, each with its version of history. Lately tolerance between disciplines allows students of literature, language and art history to communicate with archaeologists and pre-historians in a renewed attempt to investigate the rôle of royal centres in the Pictish kingdom.

Pictish kings and sub-kings ruled a nation which grew from a loose confederation of tribal groups in the third century to become a major political and land-owning force at the time of their takeover by the Scots in the ninth.

To describe them as a lost society is to ignore the evidence.

Derilea tries here to demonstrate that the ethos of those early-Historic royal centres, far from being lost, has become incorporated within our culture and has meaning for us today.

As much as it is assisted by modern techniques, our perspective can be clouded by modern thinking.

Fealty, faith, heroism and violence are not fashionable concepts.

Yet these were an integral part of a power centre, as important as glitter of armies or riches in landholdings. Early Celtic neighbours held mutual respect for oral recitation of lineage, bravery, protection of one’s people and, in particular, generosity and hospitality.

Anyone reading the 6thC Welsh heroic poem of Aneurin, the Gododdin, which glorifies the last battle of high king and nobles of the huge fortress on Traprain, outside modern Edinburgh, cannot but marvel at the imagery of that aristocracy whose lineage hailed from 5thC Christian Votadini of treasure-hoard fame. The Welsh name Gododdin is linguistic translation for Roman Votadini.

It is difficult from our modern perspective to gain an understanding of hierarchy in the Pictish kingdoms North of the Mounth – that long barrier of mountain chain which shuts off Aberdeenshire – Pictish – from all Pictish landholdings to the south, including its immediate neighbour, Kincardineshire (the Mearns) – or Picitish Cirig. Cirig and its ancient capital, coastal St Cyrus, both take their names from one of the last High Kings of both Picts and Scots Giric/Grig who was deposed in AD889. The family name Greig (including the musician) is a direct descendant of this great name.

Aberdeenshire remained elusive because historical documentation was hindered by its remoteness from both geographical and clerical centres. Physical and literary evidence is still slight; but recent scholarship accepts a correlation between Irish sources such as the Annals of Ulster (AU), Annals of Tighernach and fragments carefully compiled by Aberdeenshire historian Skene (1867), as more accurate than previously supposed, although his sources have an understandably Irish slant.

In the time of church historian Bede, (AD673-735), the Pictish nation was geographically divided by the Mounth into those southern Picts living on ‘this side of the steep and desolate mountains which separate them from the provinces of the northern Picts’ (HE Ecclesiastical History III, 4).

While early land divisions may never become crystal clear, it is known that later 9thC Pictish rule was considerably sophisticated and a distinct advance on the system of leadership of those early ‘confederations’ mentioned by Roman historians and the mythology of the Pictish creation legend (‘Irish and Pictish Additions to the “Historia Britonum”’, Skene, 1867).

Later Pictish kingship (AD500-800) invariably held power greater than that of the Scots.

Early 7th century kings of Fortriu (Forteviot) controlled the huge nation from a warlord centre near the river Earn. They had nobles spread across the nation commanding allegiance, agriculture and armies with impressive force. They also had access to skilled labour – artists, masons, carpenters, architects and military engineers.

In military terms they were no different from their Dalriatan neighbours across Druimalban, the spine of Britain as described by Adomnan, Abbot of Iona beforehe died in 703 (Vita Columbae II 46), except in ‘the exploitation of fertile land’.

No Scots king, however, ever commandeered the Columban Church in quite the same way as Nechtan, son of Derilei (706-729), controlled the Church in Pictland.

After gleaning all he needed from Anglian Jarrow on ecclesiastic propriety, ritual and usage, and borrowing skilled architects to help him build stone churches (HE V, 21), Nechtan expelled the resident familia of Iona from Court in 717. Royal control persisted for the next 170 years until the time of northern king Giric son of Donald son of Alpin (878-889) who, according to Chronikil of Kings,

‘first gave freedom to the Scots Church which was under servitude until that time after the custom and manner of the Picts’.

From mid-6thC until final assimilation by Scots, circa 843, Pictish aristocrats administered land tenure, exacting tithes and allegiance through kinship in exchange for protection, while fostering a thriving industry in decorative and domestic materials from the centre of an all-powerful local lord (or laird).

This laird in turn was subservient to the next in rank, sub-king or High King, whose central fortress would have been impressively rich in trappings of authority, and controlling vast acres of fertile agricultural ground. He too would have highly-skilled masons, metalworkers and woodcarvers at his disposal.

One of the early High kings, Bridei son of Maelchon (died 585), ‘powerful king of the Picts north of the Mounth’ lived in such a fortress, Brudei munitio near Inverness, as described by Adomnan (V.C II 35). Its obvious wealth, its size, impenetrable position, its great wooden doors barred against Columba when visiting on his first mission, all impressed the simple monk; Adomnan describes Bridei’s other powerful asset: his personal Druid, Broichan, wise-man-in
chief, consulted on augury, keeper of knowledge and laws, magician-in-residence who could ‘raise and still storms’ (V.C II 34).

Not only was Bridei’s stronghold large enough for royal family, retinue, advisors and slaves, but it housed hostages taken as a means of insuring the loyalty of an Orcadian sub-king
(V.C II 42).

remains of Pictish citadel on Aberdeenshire's North Coast

Dundarg gateway is all that remains of this Pictish citadel on Aberdeenshire's North Coast

In later times, when the Scots became powerful enemies, such northern fortresses, like Burghead (Moray), Dundarg (Aberdeenshire) and Dunnottar (Kincardineshire), each sited within reach of a fertile plain, were prime targets for siege-and-burn raids because of wealth, real or imagined, which could be carried off as booty. As neither side paid its army, the promise of treasure hoards in exchange for military allegiance was an important factor in maintaining a functioning force.

Burghead well entrance to the chamber

Burghead Pictish stronghold had its own chambered well, useful during siege

Warlord centres had to have quick access to surplus food supplies in order to feed workers temporarily removed from agricultural production in peacetime or soldiers during siege; this implies rich landholdings immediately adjacent, land in a wider radius, or, in time-honoured fashion, plundering one’s neighbours.

 

Terraces on the slopes of Dundurn two miles inland from coastal Sandend, Banffshire, indicate immediate access to a food supply, regulated planting and harvest, immediately outside the walls.

fortified Dunnottar on the Kincardine coast

Supremely fortified Pictish warlord centre, Dunnottar was protected on three sides by sheer cliffs rising out of the North Sea

Records indicate coastal Dunnottar, on the Mounth’s eastern extremity, was besieged more than once (AU, 681, 694?). Its fortified position, set on towering cliffs, bounded on three sides by the North Sea and defended on the remaining narrow strip to mainland fields by bank and ditch enclosures, is perhaps the most dramatic of northern warlord centres. It may have been a much-prized potential conquest for Bridei son of Bile, southern Pictish ‘King of Fortrenn’ (genitive of Fortriu) in his siege of Fothair in 681. Under him great armies fought the battle of Nechtansmere near Dunnichen in 685, resulting in Pictish independence from Northumbria. Northern warrior aristocrats may have had just as powerful armies at their disposal marshalled from equally impressive royal seats. Dubhtalorc, 8thC ‘rex Pictorum citra Monoth’ (died 782, AU) probably ruled from just such a fortress ‘on this side of’ the Mounth.

Status and wealth were directly related.

Pictish Burghead was ringed by 30 ritual bull carved stones

Pictish Burghead was a supreme fortress overlooking the Moray Firth

The larger the citadel, the more land it controlled; but it had the burden of producing more to feed its dependents. Food had to be grown in abundance to stock a royal town (urbs or civitas, Bede, (HE I1). For a small dun crops could be grown locally. Whereas in a larger province, centred on a major fortress, a higher proportion would be tithed and collected as tribute from widespread tenantry.

 

30 carved bull stones ringed the fortress of Burghead on the Moray coast

One of 30 carved bull stones from Burghead, Moray

The chief seat of a district while heavily fortified, ritually protected in the 5/6thC (multivallate Burghead was ringed on the landward side with around 30 carved bull stones), by the 9thC it may not have needed such fortification. It would still, however, have administered all surrounding landholdings, including that of the church, not ‘given liberty’ until the reign of Giric (878-889), above.

 

Jewellers and metal artisans working full-time produced rich adornment for aristocratic overlords at local level and, through gift-giving and hospitality, in distant kingdoms.

Generosity was a mark of status. Hospitality was a key feature of tribute given and received among princely equals. But feasting was appreciated by all: the best way in which a warlord could thank his warriors in advance for services to be rendered in battle was to ‘feast them all for a year’ (Song of Taliesin).

After all, they might not return.

As law-giving and government increased in sophistication, so negotiation between noble confederacies changed from violent bloody encounters to political and matrimonial alliances, sealed over the feasting table with Mediterranean wine.

Forteviot, an elite capital of later kings of Fortriu, seems to have centred on a glorious palace – palisaded, but not as formidable as neighbouring Dundurn, (AU 683) with feasting hall, royal church of decorated stone and Christian burial ground. Strategically set in lush Strathearn on the Water of May, its landscaping is more relaxed than iron-nailed ramparted Dundurn: suggesting perhaps fewer raids in more enlightened times.

It is possible, however, that Fortriu could afford to show affluence, as protection came from a line of fortresses, Dundurn among them, similar to the line of promontory forts as coastal guardians of Banffshire. It was spiritually guarded from above by 8/9thC Class II (Christian) carved stones, of which Dupplin and Invermay crosses are only two.

Custatin filius Forcus on the Dupplin Cross overlooking Forteviot, now in a museum

Custatin filius Forcus cast a kingly eye over Forteviot from the hillside

From the reign of Bridei son of Bile, d.693, kings of Fortriu seem to have enjoyed overkingship, as the term Fortrenn is used in annals with dual meaning denoting kingship as well as head of a dynasty.

 

The Dupplin cross, in particular, may demonstrate the importance of Fortriu as supreme kingdom. Its inscription celebrates Constantine, among the last of the Pictish kings.

’Custatin filius Forcus’ (Urgust, Fergus)

who ruled Pictland from Fortriu in 789, assumed kingship of DalRiata by 811, and retired to the monastic life in St. Andrews (Cillrighmont) where he died in 820.

Forteviot had prestige and precedent. Pictish capital at the height of its power, it ministered to an orderly nation accustomed to hierarchy based on allegiance developed over a millennium. No wonder for the Scots who subsequently ruled there – at least for a time – it was the ultimate prize.

‘He held his household . . .
Sometyme at Edinburgh, sometyme at Striveline,
In Scotlande, at Perthe and Dunbrytain,
At Dunbar, Dunfrise, and St. John’s Toune,
All worthy knights more than a legion,
At Donydoure also in Murith region
Jhon Hardyng, 1465

©1998-2009 Marian Youngblood
Bibliography

Gaels progress through Pictland via the Church

Promontory with Pictish stronghold before Scots takeover

Promontory with Pictish stronghold before Scots takeover

In recent years an increasing flow of evidence supports a gradual spread of Gaelic through Pictish territory, rather than a sudden loss of culture after a takeover of Picts by Scots.

 

Here we trace how this progressive Gaelicisation may be attributed to the contemporary work of the Church. Rather than cover all of Pictland from the Orkneys to the Forth, evidence is directly drawn from Northeast Scotland as a ‘control’ area and used comparatively with Fortriu,

centred on Forteviot.   Further work in a wider spectrum, based on this evidence, might prove interesting.

 

First it is helpful to draw a larger picture connecting the Church with royal foundations.

 

At the beginning of the period marked by the Columban mission to the Northern Picts, one such as the fortress of Bridei at Ness (munitio Brudei, d.585), is unlikely to have had any developed form of Christian building. Northern Picts at that time were still carving pre-Christian stones.

 

However around 100 years later there is evidence supporting the foundation of churches in association with Pictish royal centres.

 

As early as 678 Trumwine was ‘bishop to those Picts . . . subject to English rule’ at Abercorn, south of the Forth (Bede, HE IV, 12).

In 685 King Ecgfrith led an army into Pictish country (HE IV, 26) and his defeat and death at the battle of Nechtansmere near Dunnichen, Forfarshire accelerated Pictish independence from Northumbria. Although a break from Anglian domination in church matters resulted from the battle, it was not until 717 that there appears the first recorded instance of a Pictish king taking the Church under royal patronage.

 

At the request of King Nechtan, son of Derilei (706-726, d.732), architects were sent from Wearmonth to

 

‘build a stone church . . in the Roman style’ (Bede HE V, 21).

Arch from stone building in Pictish capital Fortriu/Forteviot

Arch from stone building in Pictish capital Fortriu/Forteviot

Certainly by the mid-9th century Forteviot in Strathearn was the chief royal centre of the Pictish kingdom, featuring a richly carved stone arch with central short cross, which suggests the presence of a royal chapel and a royal hall or palace where Kenneth son of Alpin, first king of combined kingdoms of Picts and Scots died ‘in palacio, 858’ (in the palace, Pictish Chronicles).

During Kenneth’s rule of both kingdoms, particularly after the translation of the relics of Columba to his royal foundation at Dunkeld, 848/9, Gaelic would become the language of Alba (the Scots’ name for the kingdom of Picts which they took over). It had already become one of two

languages of learning and writing, albeit bilingual, in Pictland before his reign.

 

Four elements mark bilingual literacy via the Church during the 7th and 8th centuries.

  • Class II stones in a Christian tradition, using pre-Christian symbols;
  • ogham inscriptions; 
  • plain incised crosses alongside ogham or alone and 
  • ‘kil’ (cill-) placenames.

 All provide unquestionable links with a Pictish Church.

Ecclesiastical and agricultural placenames continued to evolve as Gaelic adaptations were added up to the 13th century.

 

Most potent evidence of a thriving Church in 8th century Pictland is firstly the large number of sculptured stones whose art derives from monastic culture, erected following Nechtan’s Romanization of the Pictish Church.

East face of the Dupplin Cross as it stood in a field above Forteviot; now in a museum

East face of the Dupplin Cross as it stood in a field above Forteviot; now in a museum

Class II stones bear elaborate crosses on one side while maintaining relief-form Pictish symbols, perhaps as an attempt at legitimization or to be better understood by an uneducated populace. Yet by the reign of Constantin (c789-820), at Forteviot not only is that king’s name inscribed on the free-standing Dupplin cross, but any attempt at placating a pagan minority with Pictish symbolism has been abandoned.  

There appears to have been a concerted effort to use the royal connection to spread the Christian word.

 

 

The Elgin Class II cross slab shows Christ alongside falconry symbolism, a regal pursuit as meaningful to the population as a griffin motif in royal funerary art would have been on the St Andrews sarcophagus.

 

 

Massive Sueno's Stone at Forres, wrongly named for a Viking

Massive Sueno's Stone at Forres, wrongly named for a Viking

By the late 9th century via Sueno’s Stone, on the Class III monolith at Forres displaying a Christian message, ranked horsemen, but no pagan symbols, Kenneth follows in the footsteps of Constantin’s Dupplin proclaiming victory in battle and thanksgiving to God (and doubtless Columba), in what is seen as a royal inauguration ceremony below a giant cross on Sueno’s west face.

In areas where Class II cross-slabs are notably more numerous than Class I, such as in Angus, Forfar, Perth and Fife, the presence of a fully Christian Pictish establishment is clear.

 

However, beyond the Mounth in Aberdeenshire, where Class I (pagan) stones vastly outnumber Class II (early Christian), the separate practice of cross-incision may have substituted for fully-developed Class II stones during the sixth and seventh centuries. These are called by Dr Henderson’s (1987) classification Class IV: cross-incised stones ‘with no other ornament’. They may even have sufficed for a ‘conservative’ populace.

 

Only at Monymusk were cross-incised stones followed by a so-called Class II cross-slab, itself not fully progressed from Class I incision.

 

In Moray, where classes I, II and III all exist, alongside one known free-standing cross – unusual for North Pictland – there is new evidence for a long-standing ecclesiastical foundation at Kinneddar on a par with Forteviot or Kilrymonth/St. Andrews.  This foundation is thought to be perhaps as early as the mid-eighth century.

 

Then there is a strong case for early dissemination of ideas by the Pictish Church through the use of ogham as an Irish influence, rather than one of Iona.  With its 3rd-5th century origins in locations where Irish was spoken, ogham in Pictland appears in sixth to eighth century contexts. This compares with the use of Irish-Roman script on Pictish stones such as Fordoun [inscription: P Idarnoin trans. Pax, peace of St.Eddarnon] of 7th century date and the ‘Drosten Stone’ at St Vigeans [inscription reads: ‘drosten ipe uoret ett forcus’, trans. son/descendant of Fergus and Uurad].  This one has been dated to AD 839×842, the dates of the reign of Uurad son of Bargoit.  

 

A variant peculiar to the Pictish Church, borrowed ogham seldom uses Irish unless one allows marginal use of ‘mac’, son of, but exploits an Irish alphabet.  Thus it succeeded in portraying Pictish names often within a Latin context. Latin was since Nechtan’s time the preferred language of his ‘Roman’ church.

 

 

Ogham and unknown script reside side by side on the Pitmachie stone at Newton

Ogham and unknown script reside side by side on the Pitmachie stone at Newton

This multi-cultural incongruity is seen at its most ‘Pictish’ where V is substituted for the Irish C sound in recently-discovered Pictish ‘vvrohht’ (Doric ‘vracht’, Eng. wrought, Lat. me fecit) on at least one Class II stone, at Dyce and possibly in the interchangeable use of the ogham X instead of crroscc, Ir.Gael. cross written out in full, as on stones at Aboyne, Afforsk, Bressay and Newton.

The rather under-catalogued remnants of cross-incised stones in Northern Pictland can be seen as an indication of widespread Christian teaching by Gaelic-speaking missionaries in 6th/7th centuries.

 

In Aberdeenshire occurrences of early church dedications linked to a controversial ‘pre-Columban’ Brittonic mission are also widespread.

 

Debate is warm in Pictish academia on activity in Northeast Scotland of saints such as Brandan (Banff, Ruthven), Comgan (Turriff), Drostan (Deer, Aberdour), Marnan (Marnoch, Aberchirder, Leochel), Moluag (Clatt, Clova, Lumsden, Mortlach, Rhynie), Serf (Culsalmond), Maelrubha (Applecross, Loch Maree), Nachlan (Tullich, Oldmeldrum) and Walloch (Glass, Tarland).

 

 

Simple incised cross in a boulder delineating the boundary of Pictish church lands at Afforsk, Aberdeenshire

Simple incised cross in a boulder delineating the boundary of Pictish church lands at Afforsk, Aberdeenshire

The association of cross-incised or simple cross-relief stones with all of these localities is remarkably clear. In addition, cross-stones have been found in locations of known early foundations such as Botriphnie (Fumac), Culsalmond (Serf), Dyce (Fergus), Fintray (Modan), Premnay (Caran), as well as in early ecclesiastical sites with no proven founder, such as at Abersnithock, Barra, Bourtie, Dunecht and Inverurie (Apollinarius).

Placenames, particularly those containing cill– and both– elements, show

origins in the seventh century and possibly earlier of the location of a simple church or cell. This ties them in with contemporaneous reference to patron saint Ethernan, d.669, as one means to substantiate dating.

While a lot of Ethernan research concentrates in Fife one might extrapolate to include the occurrence of IDDARRNON or its abbreviations (DDOAREN, DDARRNNN) in ogham in locations where all three elements exist, suchas Brodie, Brandsbutt, Fordoun, Newton and Scoonie.

 

King Giric (878-889) is said in the Chronicles to have given

‘liberty to the Church, which was in servitude up to that time after the custom and  fashion of the Picts’,

(Scots Chronicle, Skene, 1867, 1887).

In 906 King Constantin and Bishop Cellach swore on Scone’s Hill of Faith to ‘keep the laws . . .of the faith and rights of the churches. . .in the same

manner as the Irish’ (Poppleton MS).

 

pre-Christian pagan symbolism on the Pictish carved stone in Inverurie kirkyard

preChristian pagan symbolism on the Pictish carved stone in Inverurie kirkyard

By that time, brought back to prominence at the Scots court from banishment in Pictish King Nechtan’s time, Ionan céli Dé reform had begun again.  Certainly in ‘Alba’ by the 9thC, the Gaelic language must have been in full use by kings, noblemen and the skilled classes in former Pictland, with diminishing enclaves of Pictish survival.

 

There appears a rationale for the concept of domination and utter extinction of the Picts by the ‘might is right’ attitude of their aggressors, the Gaelic Scots, with consequent purging of all Pictish lifestyle, customs and language.

 

There is a passage in the Poppleton Chronicle (Skene, 1867), a post-AD780 kinglist translated into 10th century Gaelic from materials contemporary with the 9th.  It demonstrates the self-righteous attitude of an already victorious race for a ‘people expelled for its sins from its promised land’:

 

God deemed (Picts) deserving of being deprived of their inheritance 

‘by reason of their wickedness,

because they not only spurned the mass

and commandment of the Lord,

but in right of justice

would not be put on a level with others’.

 

From within the security of an accepted (Columban) faith, this message proclaims a holy right to Gaelicize Pictland, and to subdue a previously superior and independent people.

 

™Marian Youngblood (1997-2009)   
Bede HE = Bede’s 8thC Ecclesiastical History

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