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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