Theories about Pictish symbols

The Pictish research field is fairly new. John Stuart made the first attempt to capture all the Pictish symbol stones of Scotland in 1856. In 1903, Anderson and Allen developed a classification-system in which each Pictish monument was assigned to a class. The first theories about the origin, function and meaning of the Pictish symbol stones arose after the publication of the multidisciplinary work The problem of the Picts, edited by Frederick T. Wainwright in 1955.

The meaning of the Pictish symbols has been explained by several scholars differing in opinion. Their ideas about the origin, function and meaning of the Pictish symbols can be roughly divided into four groups:

  1. The first group of scholars believe that the Pictish symbols have a religious meaning, read more..
  2. The second group considers the stones to be part of a funerary ritual, read more..
  3. The third group tries to explain the symbols as a simplified communication system, read more..
  4. The fourth group sees the symbols as alliance markers, read more..

Pictish research

John Stuart was unaware of the Pictish origin of these stones. It was only in his second volume of The Sculptured Stones of Scotland, published in 1857, that he made the connection between de Pictish people and the symbol stones. He connected the area of the Picts with the places where the monuments had been found. With a few exceptions, all Pictish symbol stones come from within the borders of Pictland.[1] Stuart was not the first author dealing with the Pictish symbol stones. Eighteenth-century travellers and antiquaries, such as Alexander Gordon, Thomas Pennant and Charles Cordiner had already mentioned the stones in their writings. They only acknowledged the existence of the stones, they did not look any further to find out where te stones came from or who hade made them. The historian John Pinkerton had stated the need for a general publication of all the early medieval sculptured stones of Scotland in 1814. Stuart took on this task and received help from Patrick Chalmers who had made an attempt to collect all the early sculptures in the county of Angus in his work The Ancient Sculptured Monuments of the County of Angus, published in 1848.[2]  Stuart’s attempt to make an inventory of all the monumental stones of Scotland has been of great importance. With his publication he made the general Scottish public aware of the symbol stones and of their Pictish heritage. As a side effect, many other Pictish monuments were found and could be added to the corpus.

Another key work is Anderson’s and Allen’s The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland, first published in 1903. Anderson and Allen consider every early medieval monument in Scotland to be of Christian origin and character. Monuments that display Pictish symbols must be seen as ‘earlier links in the chain of a system of symbolism which, in later links, becomes a prominent feature on the monuments that are undeniably Christian in character’.[3]  This claim has greatly effected their classification system. According to Allen and Anderson there are three classes: a class 1 monument would be a monument that only bears one Pictish symbol or more; a class 2 monument has Pictish symbols and other iconography or decoration; while a class 3 monument bears Christian iconography and does not display Pictish symbols anymore.[4] Their system can only work with the assumption that the Pictish symbols were a primitive way to express the Christian faith. In a later phase, the Picts would prefer Latin Christian iconography over their own Pictish primitive symbols and abandoned these. However, it is impossible to tell if a monumental stone without Pictish symbols was or was not erected by the Picts. Furthermore, it is very difficult to prove that the Pictish symbols were in fact an early expression of the Christian faith. Nowadays, class 3 monuments are usually no longer considered to be of Pictish origin.

The most important theories about the Pictish symbol stones have been published after The Problem of the Picts, edited by Frederick Wainwright in 1955. The Problem of the Picts is an interdisplinairy study on the Pictish people. The conclusion of the book is simple: because of the lack of contemporary sources we can only guess at how the Pictish people lived and why they erected monumental sized stones with enigmatic symbols. The possible meaning behind these symbols has triggered a great number of different authors to try and solve this problem. The findings of these authors are the backbone of this research. Sadly, no one has solved the problem of the Picts, there is no irrefutable theory that gives a conclusive answer that explains the symbols. However, their ideas do give further insights, possible explanations and views on the matter. A systematic outline of these theories will provide a clear overview which, in turn, may lead to new insights and hopefully someday an answer that explains the Pictish symbols. The authors under scrutiny are: Ross Samson, Inga Gilbert, Charles Thomas, Katherine Forsyth, Anthony Jackson, William Cummins and Edward Peterson.

The authors who have tried to solve the mystery share some views or diverge in opinion. Some take the symbols as a religious or, quite the opposite, as a secular phenomenon. This part of the website will draw an overall picture of the views on the Picts and their symbol stones and will demonstrate at the same time how these views have developed over time. There are three main questions that will be asked with respect to every author and these three questions serve as de backbone of this survey. These questions are 1) how are the Pictish symbols explained, in particular as a pictographic system?, 2) which ‘ideologies’ or suppositions determine the approach and method of each author under scrutiny? and 3) is the methodology of the author valid and consistent?

Read more

  • J. Stuart, The Sculptured Stones of Scotland, 2 vols., Aberdeen, 1856-1857. These volumes can be consulted online:
  • J. Romilly Allen & J. Anderson, The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland, 2 vols., Balgavies (reprint of the edition Edinburgh 1903), 1993. This reprint contains an introduction by Isabel Henderson.
  • T. Wainwright (ed.), The Problem of the Picts, London, 1955.
  • This website gives information about scholars who have tried to explain the origin, function and meaning of the Pictish symbol stones. Jane Geddes has written an historiographical article that focuses on scholars who were interested in the art of the Picts. This paper is published in: Stephen T. Driscoll, Jane Geddes & Mark A. Hall (ed.), Pictish progress: new studies on northern Britain in the Middle Ages, Leiden, 2011.
  • Isabel Henderson has, together with George Henderson, written the book: The art of the Picts. This publication is indispensable when doing research after the Picts. G. Henderson & I. Henderson, The art of the Picts: sculpture and metalwork in early medieval Scotland, London, 2004.

[1] Stuart 1967, 3-7. [2] Henderson 1993, I, 13. [3] Anderson & Allen 1903, I, V. [4] Anderson & Allen 1903, II, 3-5.