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Issue 51 - A history in stone

Scotland Magazine Issue 51
June 2010


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A history in stone

John Hannavy explores more of the rich heritage passed down to us by our ancestors.

I started this series by looking mainly at some of the marks left by men in the last couple of hundred years, but this time my focus is on traces left by the people who lived here twenty to forty centuries ago. The Scottish landscape is dotted with the relics of their lives – some of which we understand pretty well, but the meaning of others has been lost in the mists of time.

In Galloway, overlooking Wigtown Bay, the remains of two chambered tombs known today as Cairnholy I and Cairnholy II – long since stripped of their protective covering mounds – were built overlooking one of the finest views in the area. This reminds us that in ancient times, the ritual of burial, at least for important members of tribal society more than four millennia ago, was a significant ceremonial event closely connected to the landscape, the sun and the sea. When discovered and excavated in the late 1940s, these tombs revealed many tantalising links with the ancient peoples who lived and worked in Southern Scotland. People have lived, worked and died on the Scottish landscape for thousands of years, and generations of them left their marks – sometimes obvious, sometimes more elusive.

If you know where to look, there are a surprising number of reminders that people lived in and worked our landscape several thousand years ago. Some of the marks they have left behind are so obvious they cannot be ignored – like the magnificent standing stones at Callanish on Lewis, or the huge burial mound at Maes Howe on Orkney – while others are so elusive that if you don’t know they are there, you might never find them! And even if you do find their locations, seeing them can be dependent upon being there at the right time of day and seeing them under the right light.

In between those extremes are some magnificent reminders that, in what we refer to as the ‘Dark Ages’, there were some highly artistic and creative people at work, and what they have left us is wonderfully instructive. Some of the surviving monuments to the past are wonderfully myth-busting! If the Picts had really been the wild, uneducated, and inward-looking people my generation was told about at school, could they possibly have created the magnificent crosses which can be found all over Scotland? More importantly, would they have had either the time or inclination to create records of their lives in stone?

Pictland covered much of the north-east from Dundee to the Moray Firth, and some of the monuments which survive from this era are every bit as spectacular as the abbeys and castles we all know so much about.

In the churchyard at Aberlemno, a tiny village about half way between Forfar and Brechin, stands a magnificent 8th century Pictish cross, more than two metres high, carved out of a single piece of stone. No matter how stunning the cross is, however, it is the reverse that demands our attention.

Sometimes extravagantly referred to as the Pictish equivalent of the Bayeux Tapestry, this remarkable survival tells of the story of the nearby Battle of Nechtansmere (sometimes known as Dunnichen) which took place as long ago as 685AD – on May 20th apparently!

The battle – a convincing Pictish victory – was fought between the local army under their leader Bridei, and the invading Northumbrian forces under King Ecgfrith, and some time early in the 8th century a Pictish sculptor of immense talent carved the story of the battle into the stone.

The narrative – in three layers or rows – shows various aspects of the battle. On the top level, a long-haired Pictish cavalryman is chasing one of the Northumbrian cavalry away from the battle. The Pict is bare-headed, the Northumbrian wearing a fine metal helmet. In the central panel, Pictish foot soldiers armed with spears, clubs and bows and arrows confront another Northumbrian cavalryman, while at the bottom, the cavalry battle continues. One figure is seen being pecked by a raven – this is believed to signify death, and the figure is widely accepted as being King Ecgfrith who died in the conflict.

A few hundred yards along the road, an even larger cross stone depicts a hunting scene on its reverse side. On this cross-slab, standing nearly three metres high and probably dating from the early 9th century, we see the huntsmen with hounds and trumpeters setting off in pursuit of deer.

So, rather than being a wild and unruly people, the Picts were organised, civilized, highly creative, and devoutly Christian. They also seem to have traded widely with western Europe for, as one of the Historic Scotland experts told me at Dunning, some of their sculptures show influences from contemporary French, German, and Italian art, and even Turkish and Islamic motifs.

I had gone to Dunning to see the remarkable Dupplin Cross, now preserved in Dunning Church to protect it from further deterioration in the Scottish climate. I should add at this point that for the same reason, the Rather than being a wild and unruly people, the Picts were organised, civilized and creative Aberlemno stones are covered up by sturdy wooden casing from October to Easter, and are therefore hidden from view.

The Dupplin Cross has recently been the subject of intense scrutiny from historians and archaeologists, and their researches are rewriting Pictish history. For a start, this stone shows that Pictish art continued to flourish much later than had previously been thought, and secondly, it shows strong creative influences not just from western Europe, but much further east. The horse’s gait, for example, is more in keeping with Germanic styles of the period than traditional Pictish.

Despite my lifelong love affair with Scotland, I was visiting many of these remarkable monuments for the first time. I recommend you do the same!

The tradition of commemorating great achievements in stone continues, of course, and one of my favourites stands in the little church at Innerpeffray in Perthshire. A gravestone from 1707 commemorates the life of a local woman, Joanna Falchney, and ten of her children who predeceased her!