The Sueno’s Stone Cover-up

Forres's AD9th-century Sueno's Stone before enclosure

In October 1992 the then Scottish Office (now State department of Parliament of Scotland) along with Historic Scotland, the country’s watchdog on listed buildings, ancient monuments and sacred stones, chose to enclose the Pictish slab, ‘Sueno’s Stone’ at Forres, Morayshire in a glass-and-steel construction. This was part of a longer term plan to retain significant Pictish (5th-9thCC) symbol stones in situ in the countryside, rather than remove them all to museums and replace them with replicas–as had been previously done with Strathearn’s Forteviot Cross and Easter Ross’s Hilton of Cadboll stone. In hindsight, similar glass enclosures, like Black Isle’s Shandwick, have proved effective in drawing tourism to lesser-known antiquities, but the greenhouse-like enclosure has had a marked influence in drying out the stones.

The following article was written by Marian Youngblood and published in the January 1993 edition of Leopard Magazine. It is reprinted here with permission.

The Sueno’s Stone Cover-up

Sueno's Stone, Forres, enclosed autumn 1992

CHIEFS FROM the Scottish Office carried out a strange ritual of stone worship –almost Pictish in its trappings– on the shores of the Moray Firth in mid-October (1992), closely resembling a ceremony over 1000-years earlier when Kenneth macAlpin used the same stone to win over Pictish chieftains to his side in the new combined kingdom of Picts and Scots.

Kenneth macAlpin (Cinaed, son of Alpin) is said in legend to have slain seven Pictish princes, in order to have his claim through the female line to the Pictish throne recognized, and to make himself lawful king of Picts and Scots in AD843. Ethnologists and cultural anthropologists think that Sueno’s stone at Forres, on the Moray Firth, (erroneously named in the 18th century when it was popular to think of ancient stones as Viking imports) was probably raised by his generals after a decisive battle on the Moray coast, and as a warning to future Pictish would-be claimants to his newly-seized throne.

So, on a cold October day in 1992, when the 20-foot high (6.5m) stone could have celebrated a near-1150th birthday, another Scots chieftain, Sir Hector Munro, MP for Dumfriessshire, and Minister for the Environment at the Scottish Office, made another heroic gesture, cutting the ribbon wound around its massive glass enclosure and declaring Kenneth’s stone open, er, that is, closed.

The ceremony for which Sir Hector and representatives of the State Secretariat for Scotland –including Historic Scotland– travelled to the North Coast, was to declare the eleven-centuries’ old stone well-and-truly protected from 20th Century elements and pollution in a plate glass edifice which cost the nation £115,000.

Designed by Brian Paul and constructed by the Glasgow firm of Gray and Dick, the wind- and weatherproof structure now seals the carved stone in a transparent sheath, making it possible to view its 97 figures of defeated and dejected Picts on their fleeing horses, dominated by victorious Scots. But it is no longer a hands-on monument.

Thought to have been carved shortly after the macAlpin takeover, its Moray sandstone surface has survived the ravages of the intervening centuries by beingb lost to the shifting sands of the coast where it lay buried until rediscovered in 1726. Its present site is probably not too far from the original, but it is possible that it used to face the other way around.

This was Kenneth’s problem:
His mother was a Pictish princess which gave him a genuine claim to the throne of his East coast relatives who reckoned succession through the female line. But the Picts were (and still are) a different race from the Scots of Dal Ríata, with rich and extensive landholdings. They took pride in displaying their pagan symbols alongside their Roman Christianity in blatant declaration of their (superior) knowledge and dominion over their Church which, since Nechtan’s reign (AD703-729) had allied itself with Rome. Rome was considered a powerful ally and Pictish stone church buildings (since 710) held services to educate the populace ‘in the Pictish manner’. This was considered enlightened and more advanced than the provincial Iona (Columban) version of the faith practised by Scots.

Pictish Christianity was, in essence, the first ‘state’ religion, whereas the Scots still believed that their method of communing directly with God was the better way. The two races had tended historically to maintain separate courts, religious practices and alliances (Scots with Irish; Picts with Northumbria); only in battle when they needed to defeat a common enemy (as seen in the Viking threat), did they call upon their brothers for help. It was an uneasy brotherhood and allegiances changed regularly.

The Norsemen had attacked the Picts four years earlier in 839 and Kenneth knew their borders and forces had been weakened. Legend has it that he used this opportunity to march North, ostensibly to help his Pictish kinsmen, but in reality he meant to seize Pictish lands. He planned — by killing seven Pictish princes at a banquet held in his honour– to subjugate the Picts to his authority and to proclaim himself king of the dual throne and having himself crowned King of Picts and Scots.

By the mid 9th century, the Pictish kingdom was split into North and South, with the royal capital in the South at Forteviot/Strathearn, but with the strongest family alliances in the North: in Cat –Caithness, Orkney and Shetland; Fidach –Ross, Inverness, Moray and Banff; and Ce –Aberdeenshire. If Kenneth was to overcome the Picts by force and deceit, he would have to hit their major stronghold (Moray) and make it stick.

Pictish carved stones before Kenneth’s time (Class I, 5th-6thC; Class II cross-slabs and simple cross-stones, 8thC) had all told stories of family lineage, power hierarchy and symbolism and it is likely Kenneth used a similar method to get his message across.

Sueno’s Stone is probably the tallest news report and propaganda announcement ever carved, celebrating the victory of Scots (and their brand of Christianity and freedom) over Picts with their control over state and church. At the same time it was a warning to any future Pictish claimant to keep off. It is significant that the Scots felt deeply about differences between their ‘simple’ Christianity and the Pictish secular control of ‘Lord over Church’. It took another fifty years after Kenneth was dead and gone before the ruling monarch in 889 ‘liberated’ the Church which had been, according to the Scots Chronicle ‘in servitude up to that time after the fashion of the Picts.’

Sueno's east face: panels from top: A, B, C, D

Backed by Kenneth’s Christian power –might is right– the western face of Sueno’s Stone is decorated by a gigantic interlace cross overlighting two bent monastic figures flanking a central supreme being (Kenneth himself?) in a Dali-esque coronation of the king by angelic powers of his (correct) faith.

But on the stone’s east face, the carvings tell a grim tale. Split into four panels, from top to bottom, the story goes somethiing like this:
A: enter a strong band of armed Scots on large horses, overseen by a supreme chief and four henchmen at the top of the stone.
B: central crowned, kilted figure (Kenneth) and supporters watch warriors fighting and, immediately below, within the precinct of a Pictish broch (last stronghold of the Northern Picts, probably nearby Burghead) the decapitation of seven Picts, while the rest of the attackers chase away very small Picts on very small horses.
C: while the rest of the battle winds up, the ultimate deceit is carried out –the slaying of seven princes under an awning, denoting legendary betrayal of the law of hospitality by the killing of one’s hosts. Headless bodies lie under the canvas.
D: the victors, right, banish the defeated Picts, (without shields or horses) to their hinterland. It is this final message that has led historians to believe that the stone used to face the other way around: with a message to other potential pretenders to go back North where they came from, while confidently displaying a giant cross on the other face to confront anyone approaching from the South and East.

If Sueno’s Stone was indeed raised by Kenneth as a graphic declaration to the last of the Picts, it seems to have worked for a remarkable two hundred years.

Only when Macbeth and his Men of Moray (the descendants of vestigial Picts) seized the Scots throne in 1040 did fire rise once again in the proud Northeast breast.

But that is history.
©1992-2011 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

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