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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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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