Monumental Stones

Pictish symbol stones can be found in the area that once was inhabited by the Picts. Monumental stones have been found along the east-coast of Scotland, all the way up to the Shetland Islands, and deeply hidden in the Hebrides. To get a good overview of where the symbol stones have been found and the density of monuments in one particular area I can highly recommend the Pictish Stone Database of the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow (see link below). In it a total of 340 (!) Pictish monumental stones have been collected and described and it is therefore a convenient help for everyone who wants to know more about the Picts. Nowadays you can find Pictish stones in real-life in various locations: still standing proudly in the Scottish landscae , in museums, or built in (church) walls.

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Rhynie 1: Fish and Elephant (source: see images)

The common Pictish monument has two symbols placed above each-other, such as the Rhynie 1. A frequent variation on this type of symbol stone is the addition of a Mirror and Comb symbol at the bottom of the lower symbol (see: Pictish symbols). Monuments that display more than 3 symbols (Mirror and Comb not included) are rare. Stones that bear Pictish symbols come in a great variety, some stones are monumental in size while others are as small as a book. There is also a great difference in quality. There are monuments that have crudely incised symbols carved with the minimum amount of incisions, and there are others which are squared and show remarkable detailed carvings with beautiful decorations. There are also Pictish stones that are severely damaged. This could be due to their age, but some believe that these stones were intentionally damaged by the Picts themselves.

Some Pictish monuments bear, next to Pictish symbols, other iconography such as Christian elements or script. The Drosten stone is such a monument. This stone displays a scene with animals and a hunter next to the Pictish Double Disc and Z-rod, Crescent and Mirror. On its side, beneath some beautiful knotwork, is an incomplete inscription in Hiberno-Saxon lettering! There are only three other Pictish monuments known to display Pictish symbols as well as Latin script, therefore its very rare. It is unfortunate but these Latin inscriptions do not shed any light on the possible meaning of the Pictish Symbol stones. Most inscriptions on Pictish monuments are in Irish ogham script. Scholars have been able to understand the Insular inscriptions which are found in Ireland, but unfortunately the Ogham inscriptions that occur in Scotland are considered to be difficult to understand or are even unintelligible.

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Drosten Stone: Double Disc and Z-rod, Crescent and Mirror (source: see images)

An example of a Pictish monument with Christian elements is the Aberlemno 2, Kirkyard stone. This stone has a cross, decorated with beautiful interlaced knot-work on one side, and a battle scene on the other. It bears a Pictish Fish Monster, Notched Rectangle with Z-rod and Triple Discs.

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Aberlemno 2 (Kirkyard Stone): Fish Monster, Notched Rectangle and Triple Disc (source: see images)

The stones mentioned above are all monumental in size and most of those are still standing in the open Scottish landscape. This is a sharp contrast with other Pictish stones that have been found, such as the so-called Burghead Bulls. During nineteenth-century building works in Burghead, workers found at least six identical small stone slabs that displayed a Bull. These slabs were probably thrown into the water at Burghead for reasons which are unknown to us. The function and meaning of the Burghead Bull is probably different than that of the stones mentioned above. It bears only one Animal-symbol which is uncommon because Pictish Symbols normally appear in pairs.

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Burghead Bull (source: see images)

Read more

  • Pictish Stones Search Facility.
  • If you are interested in de Pictish monuments that bear Latin inscriptions I can recommend: John Higgit, ‘The Pictish Latin inscription at Tarbat in Ross-shire’, Proceedings of the Society Antiquaries of Scotland, 112 (1982), 300-312.
  • If you want to know more about Ogham, you can read Katherine Forsyth’s thesis: The Ogham inscription of Scotland; an edited corpus, Cambridge (Mass.), 1996.
  • Another recommended survey work on medieval inscriptions is: J. Higgitt, K. Forsyth, D. Parsons, Roman, Runes and Ogham: medieval inscriptions in the insular world and on the continent, Donington, 2001.
  • I. Fraser, The Pictish Symbol Stones of Scotland, Edinburgh, 2008. This is a publication that contains clear drawings of almost every Pictish monument.