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

Gaels progress through Pictland via the Church

Promontory with Pictish stronghold before Scots takeover

Promontory with Pictish stronghold before Scots takeover

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

Arch from stone building in Pictish capital Fortriu/Forteviot

Arch from stone building in Pictish capital Fortriu/Forteviot

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

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

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

 

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

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

 All provide unquestionable links with a Pictish Church.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

(Scots Chronicle, Skene, 1867, 1887).

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

manner as the Irish’ (Poppleton MS).

 

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

preChristian pagan symbolism on the Pictish carved stone in Inverurie kirkyard

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

‘by reason of their wickedness,

because they not only spurned the mass

and commandment of the Lord,

but in right of justice

would not be put on a level with others’.

 

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

 

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

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