Guest Blog from the Granite Past to a Future Historian

Aberdeen's Castle Gait, east terminus of granite-lined Union Street: Town House, medieval Tolbooth and Mercat Cross right and foreground

ABERDEENSHIRE granite is to be celebrated in May 2011 as “Granite Month” That is, IMHO, a relatively short period to show gratitude to a species of igneous rock on which the historic city was founded and built. But a month of ‘celebration’ is better than no celebration at all.

RICHARD CAMERON KELMAN was in his senior years Chairman of the Board of Directors of Craigenlow Quarries, Dunecht, before the Aberdeen-based company was sold in 1979 to Tarmac Holdings. Because of a former excelIent relationship established by Mr Kelman, his board and the late third Viscount Cowdray (Dunecht Estates), Tarmac continues to operate mineral rights courtesy of the present mineral rights holders, Dunecht Estates and the Hon. Charles Anthony Pearson, younger son of the former Viscount.

Richard Kelman wrote this article while the quarry still operated as an extraction business. It was originally published in the Aberdeen Press & Journal.

“In many parts of the rapidly changing Granite City of Aberdeen, where the insidious influences of steel and chrome, concrete and precast substitutes have not yet obligerated our traditional image, it is still possible to admire the beauty of the city’s native granite.

Take a walk round the roads not far from the famous Rubislaw Quarry — say down Rubislaw Den and streets adjacent — and there you may still see beauty in natural stone.

Not the straight-axed faces that make granite (or any other stone) so featureless, but the diamond-cut bull-faced block stone that bespeaks dignity and grace and character, and glistens like its brother mineral, the diamond, when cut to advantage.

Look at Earl’s Court Hotel in Queen’s Road in its grey dignity or the red and grey masterpiece of masonry at No.92.

Look also and admire the sheer magnificence of the salmon-pink granite mansion at 46 Rubislaw Den North.

Rubislaw granite used to build grand Victorian houses in Rubislaw Den North


Such are part of the past of our city, famous for its Marischal College (the second-largest granite building in the world) and for its many other civic structures — the Salvation Army Citadel, the main Post Office, His Majestys Theatre — built of the stone extracted from Rubislaw or Kemnay or Corrennie or Dancing Cairns or any other site where such attractive granites have been worked.

Recently [this essay was written in May 1972. Ed] Aberdeen Corporation’s direct labour force and other contractors have been uplifting almost the last of the granite setts that have been a feature of the city’s streets for so many generations. And it seems that with such a move they have closed a chapter on the history of Aberdeenshire granite, now so rarely used for monumental, ornamental or traditional building purposes.

What of the future?

It was perhaps only natural to expect that some of Aberdeen’s granites, with their high crushing strength, would be highly suitable for roadmaking and so it has turned out. As part of a massive national programme, this area has met the call of the motorway.


The rapid development of roadstone production has been a specialist effort of Craigenlow Quarries Limited, from their site at Dunecht, about ten miles west of the city boundary. From this quarry came the raw materials of which Dunecht House was built by the first Viscount Cowdray, as well as stones for the erection of most of the village of Dunecht and adjacent countryside dwellings.

'The hole', 1955: Rubislaw quarry at the height of its production. Workings had to stop when the hole reached 466ft below surface

When the quarry was opened just after World War II, it was considered that the stone was unsuitable for monumental work and major ornamental projects; this economic niche was already filled by the ‘great hole’ of Rubislaw quarry within the city limits. So Craigenlow production was concentrated on making smaller building material and aggregates of six-inch down to dust.

Today as would be apparent to anyone visiting the working area at Craigenlow, it has become one of the largest granite quarries in Scotland.

Granite operations in 1885

There could be no greater contrast between the methods of opertion of, say, 100 years ago and today.. Some weeks ago I had the peasure of escorting one of Aberdeen’s leading citizens round the quarry. He said to our manager: ‘I used to be involved in the quarrying business myself.’

We were interested. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘out in Burma when I was a prisoner-of-war working on THE ROAD.’

That allusion would be a fair comparison with 100 years ago in quarrying — the days of hammer and chisel. Today the industry is highly mechanised. For instance, last year the quarry consumed 1.25 million units of power, with an output potential of 2000 tons of crushed aggregates or bitumen-macadam a day for road-making and maintenance, general building work, precast stone manufacture and so on.

The quarry has a main face about 100-feet high and a few hundred yards long.

Since restarted in 1945, the ‘hole’ has grown and grown and is now more than 20 acres in extent.

Craigenlow quarry reopened after 1945 to produce roadstone

From the ‘top’, 4.25inch holes are drilled about 100 feet down — 50 to 80 of them each time — about 15 feet back from the edge. Usiing specially hardened bits and powerful mobile compressors, it takes about four months to complete preparations for a blast.

12-24 TONS

When ready, anything from 12 to 24 tons of explosives are loaded – the composition is constantly being changed in the course of experiment – but it is generally a mixture of ammonium nitrate and open-cast gelignite.

In the early days a blast was a big occasion, involving formal invitations to VIPs such as the Lord Provost, town and county officials and colleagues in the building industty, road surveyors and so forth; those who could be included consistent with strict safety measures laid down by the Ministry of Mines and the police.

Records for December 1961 recall . . .
‘Most successful blast: probably around 150,000 tons; superb weather (in December); strong west sun; blast most dramatic; little small stuff reached the “trenches”, but dust cloud very intense, heavy with minute grit particles which covered all the onlookers in the pillboxes and behind the special screens.’


‘Numerous photographers; BBC television and ITV – this time with sound-recording units; blast on television at 6p.m. that night (ITV) and the sound background (countdown and blast) was excellent. All guests attended late luncheon at Broadstraik. George Leslie (manager) gave a technical comment of the morning’s activities and I addressed the company afterwards.’

That was ten years ago and more. . . now the firm take each job (blast) in their stride, but are always relieved when its successful completion is reported.

Rubislaw quarry today: the great hole, now flooded, recently went on the market

In an address to that representative gathering at the Broadstraik Inn that December I said:
‘It is rare that a month goes past withut some comment in the Press babout the granite trade. Recently some critics were laying it on thick about the travesty of ersatz shop fronts on main street. Quite rightly, too. Our native city has a reputation to maintain and any encroachment by modern shop fronts in chromium and the like will merely bring a pseudo and garish appearance to our ancient dignified city.


‘We hear so much nonsense about the Aberdeen granite trade. As a loyal and proud citizen, I resent irresponsible comments that find their way into the Press about our industry which dates back over 500 years.

World's second-largest granite building, Marischal College, designed by Archibald Simpson, 1836-1844

‘Undoubtedly Aberdeen’s reputation as the “Granite City” arose primarily because of its production of granite for monumental, ornamental and decorative purposes. Its quarries produced the raw materials — three-quarters of the city is constructed of the darker grey of Rubislaw. Most of the larger public buildings are constructed of the lighter grey of Kemnay; for example, Marischal College, the Northern Assurance building at the corner of Union Terrace and Union Street, and most of the buildings in Union Terrace, Union Street, the Post Office in Crown Street, and the Citadel and Town House in Castle Gait.

‘Even as early as 1884 the granite masons who had become world-famous for their skill in working their native stone found that the range of colours in local granite was not sufficient to meet the demand.


Marischal College's Mitchell Tower incorporated elements of the old college heraldic ceiling, which will be saved from vandalism or council alteration

The trade began to look farther afield and brought in black and rich reds from Sweden and Labradorite from Norway and thus were able to provide their customers with greater variety. Alas today the overseas market is non-existent.

‘Two World Wars have finished what tariffs and quotas began and cheaply-produced foreign stone from Europe and India is allowed to flood the home market, so that up until recently the monumental and ornamental side of the trade reached an uncertain state.

‘Now the trade has turned to another line which is developing most promisingly — the construction of granite facings for buildings.

‘All these activities do not concern us here today. Much as it is admirable that Aberdeen’s master masons are again holding their own in the skills that have been handed down for over 500 years, the fact must be faced that most of their raw materials are being imported from abroad: Finland, Norway, Sweden and further afield.


‘In a modest way we might claim that at Craigenlow we are trying to maintain a tradition. Each year a famous name in the history of granite in this Northeast corner of Scotland is added to the obituary list. The ruthless sword of economics cuts indiscriminately.

‘Survival becomes dependent on productive efficiency and so far as Craigenlow is concerned, we who carry the company’s administrative burden can, I think, look with confidence to the future business of keeping the flag of the granite industry flying, maintaining the traditions which were created so long ago.’

‘Today — 10 years later — that confidence has proved justified. It is true that few quarries have survived the last 10 years. Even the most famous of them all — Rubislaw — has ceased to operate.

Rubislaw, 'biggest man-made hole in Europe' for sale: now an urban lake with no boats

‘But we feel that skilled management and harmonious teamwork, service at any hour and on any day and excellent public relations, have created their own reputation over the last 25 years.

‘The old anonymity is gone for ever and we find ourselves in the forefront of the extraction industry, even on a national scale.'”
©1972-1986 Richard C Kelman

Provost Skene's House, saved from destruction when Council flattened Aberdeen's medieval Broad Street in 1970s to build concrete offices which they are now demolishing by dynamite

This article was published in the Aberdeen Press and Journal edition of May 23, 1972. It appears prophetic in its prediction of the collapse of the granite industry generally and in Aberdeenshire in particular. Richard Kelman knew that Aberdeen’s grey granite built the terraces of the Houses of Parliament and Waterloo Bridge in London and that its granite setts (‘cassies’) were used to pave much of London’s streets. He witnessed the closure of Rubislaw quarry within the city limits off Aberdeen’s Queen’s Road in 1971. But he could not have foreseen the building of a new bridge over the Dee within the last decade using imported white granite from China.

Misuse of public funding and available resources continues.

Currently the Market Square in Oldmeldrum (twice altered in the last 30 years) is receiving a third facelift, to the chagrin of enraged traders and local residents who were not asked to approve the plan. Again stone being used is not local, but some granite facing is being incorporated–from a Chinese quarry-alongside concrete conglomerate, at a cost to the taxpayer of £370,000. To add to the so-called pedestrian precinct (which upon revision cannot be implemented because Aberdeenshire Council failed to provide adequate alternative routing for traffic) is the installation of a stone sculpture on the Square at a further cost of £23,000. Aberdeenshire Council is presently facing bankcruptcy. Aberdeen City Council is already bankcrupt.
RC Kelman will be turning in his (Craigenlow-granite-topped) grave.

Detail of Marischal College granite: Aberdeen Leopards from the City's coat of arms form a decorative frieze in the former University building

Probably the greatest irony is that bankcrupt Aberdeen City Council recently announced it was to move its operations headquarters into Mr Kelman’s ‘world’s second-largest granite building’, the 19th Century former university tower and quadrangle of Marischal College. [The world’s largest granite buildiing is El Real Monasterio de El Escorial, Madrid]. The move is required because the Council’s former offices–a concrete structure built on the flattened remains of irreplaceable medieval precinct known as Guestrow (of which Provost Skene’s House, 1535, is the only survivor)–is to be ‘removed’.

Guestrow ghosts must be seeking revenge. The concrete structure– locally humourously referred to as the ‘penthouse with the best view in Aberdeen–because it is the only place you cannot see the building’–is itself to be flattened (i.e. blown up). All this dynamite and gelignite would please the old Kelman granite heart.
Ed. (2010)


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

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