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Articles by Stuart McHardy

Back in the 17th and 18th centuries many of the monuments of the past were referred to as Pictish - it was used a kind of general term for “the ancestors”. This meant that constructions as far apart as Stone Age barrows and medieval Deer Dykes were given the label of being Pictish. Today some people still think that anything old is Pictish but scholars nowadays would tend to put the “ Pictish Period” from around 80 AD to the mid 9th century. 80 AD Was the date of the battle of Mons Graupius between the Romans and the Caledonians who were called Picts by later Roman writers,. The only record we have of this battle, and argument still rages as to where it was fought, is a Roman one - and it will come as no surprise that it claims a total Roman victory. The fact that the Romans retreated from Scotland north of the Forth soon after and only ever came back on temporary raids suggests a different interpretation. To misquote an even earlier Roman, Julius Caesar ven, vidi, vanished! In the middle of the ninth century the Picts amalgamated with the Scots of Dalriada - they had had several joint monarchs before this - and the country became known in time as Scotland. The Pictish language, probably like an early form of Welsh, disappeared, which has led many people to speculate on the disappearance of the Picts themselves. Language and culture changed, leadership too but there is no reason to suppose the people were either eradicated or emigrated. In short the Picts are our ancestors, as are the Scots, the Norse and the Angles.

However the notion of the Picts as the ancestor people was widespread and survived in many parts of Scotland. One version of this idea, from Fife is particularly striking. According to this tale the Pechs, or Peghts, as they were generally called in the oral tradition  were wee short folk with red hair, long arms, broad feet and were tremendously strong. They were the builders of all the old castles and forts in the land and would stand in a line from the quarry to the building site passing the stones from hand to hand until the building was finished. One version of the story says their feet were so broad that when it rained they could stand on their hands and use their feet as umbrellas!

Although the Picts left few written records, and their domestic and military architecture blends in with that of other tribal peoples of Scotland they have left one unique set of artefacts. These are the Pictish Symbol Stones, scattered in the landscape from Fife to Farr in Sutherland from the Hebrides to Buchan and beyond into the Northern Isles. These beautiful stones, whose art strongly influenced such works as the illuminated manuscripts of the Books of Kells and Durrow are truly magnificent with life-like animals and intricate geometric shapes that tell of a great artistic tradition among the Picts. Nowadays suggestions are being made about some of the meanings to be found in the symbols but a handful of the stones have stories attached to them which tell us something of Dark Age times and later.

The Maiden Stone

Nestled in the shade of Bennachie in Aberdeenshire is the Maiden Stone. This magnificent granite Pictish Symbol Stone is, like so many others, fading under the onslaught of 20th century pollution but the symbols can still be discerned . The story of the Maiden Stone seems to be later than Pictish times.

A young lass in the area was known far and wide for her beauty and was generally called the Maid of Drumdorno, which was the name of her father’s farm. She had been wooed by many local lads and had at last agreed to marry one of her suitors. The afternoon before the wedding she was alone in the farmhouse, busy baking bannocks and cakes for the following day - and all the while day-dreaming about her wedding. Suddenly she became aware that she was being watched. She looked up and there at the open window was a tall, dark and good-looking stranger. She gave a little cry and the stranger spoke. He told her she was doing her work well and looked good with it but maybe she was just a bit slow. She retorted that she was as quick as any one else but, flattered by the attentions of the handsome stranger exchanged a few words with him. She was quite clear about letting him know she was getting married the next day. He just laughed and said that  was all very well but she would have to be a bit quicker at the baking to make a good wife. She took objection to this and told him so. Again he laughed and said he bet that he could build a road to the very top of Bennachie before she could finish her baking.  He added that if she took the bet and he won, she would have to marry him instead of her intended. This was such a silly bet, she jokingly agreed and told the stranger to be on his way. Tipping his hat to her with a smile, he moved off.

She returned to her labours and soon all thought off the stranger had flown from her head. However a few hours later, just as the daylight was beginning to fade she had just got the last batch of bannocks ready to bake when she looked out of the window. There in the fading light she could clearly see a brand new road, leading all the way to the very top of Bennachie. She gasped and at that moment the stranger came into view. She now realised what she had done. She had entered a pact with the Devil! Panicking, she ran from the farm towards the Pitroddie woods. Non one was about and she could hear running footsteps behind her. She struggled to say a prayer but no words would come. The footsteps got louder and still she could not say the Lord’s name. Just as the fiend caught up with her and grasped her waist, the prayer she had been unable to utter was answered, after a fashion. The Devil instead of clutching a warm and vibrant lass was holding onto stone! In his hand was a piece of that stone which had broken off as he grabbed. He had been thwarted in his desires at the very last minute.

Although the lass had lost her life by being turned into stone she had been spared the fires of hell and a great deal else besides! The abstract symbols on the stone, which has a small piece missing at the side of it - were said to represent the baking implements of the Maid of Drumdurno.

This tale ties together the Pictish Symbol Stone with the earlier causeway on Bennachie and was probably inspired by an attempt to decipher the meanings of the Pictish carvings.

Martin’s Stane

Another Pictish Symbol Stone whose carvings might have inspired the local story is Martin’s Stane on the back road from Dundee to the village of Tealing. Like many other such stones it has a serpent and Z-rod carved on it as well as a mounted figure and the Pictish beast, a truly enigmatic figure, a little like a dolphin. The local tale has survived in a short poem which tells of a great Dragon.

“It was tempit at Pittempton,
Draggelt at Badragon,
Stricken at Strikemartin,
An killt at Martin’s Stane.”

One hot summer’s  day the farmer at Pittempton, now on the northern edge of Dundee was working hard in his fields. He grew thirsty and called for his eldest daughter to go to the well and fetch him a drink of water. Off she went and when after a few minutes there was no sign of her  coming with the water, he sent his next eldest daughter to hurry her up. Now the farmer at Pittempton had been blessed by having nine daughters, all of whom he loved dearly and the eldest had recently become betrothed to a local man called Martin. When the second daughter also did not return, he called for his third eldest daughter to go and see what was happening. And again she did not return. So one by one the farmer sent his lovely daughters to the well. When even the youngest had not returned he was sure they were playing a trick on him and went to the well himself.

There he saw a terrible sight. Round the well lay a great, coiled, dragon-like serpent. Scattered about were the limbs of his nine daughters. The beast had killed them all. He let out a great shriek and ran to summon his neighbours. Several had heard his cries and in minutes a large crowd of men and women carrying various arm implements as weapons descended on the well. Seeing them coming the dragon shot off towards the north hotly pursued by Martin who had somehow managed to pick up a large club. As the great scaly creature got to the Dighty Burn Martin caught up with it and raised his club. The following crowd yelled out as one, “Strike Martin” and he gave the beast a crashing blow. This only served to make it double its speed and it soon outstripped him. Help was at hand  however for horses had been brought and soon Martin and several others were in hot pursuit of the monster. Soon they had it surrounded and after a short struggle killed and buried the fearsome beast. It is on this spot that tradition tells Martin’s Stane was raised and the village of Strathmartine itself, close to Pittempton is said to have once been called Strikemartin!

Other Pictish stones were once to be found in this area, one with a carving of a man with a large club over his shoulder, others, of which one is in nearby Dundee Museum, all had serpents of different kinds on them. This suggests some sort of important Pictish centre here, perhaps a pagan temple or similar. What is certain however is that this is not the only story of the Nine Maidens. The hills to the north of the Stone have a different group - the Nine Maidens who were known as Pictish saints, and other tales tell of similar events in Aberdeenshire while there are Nine Maidens Wells in many locations. There are also links to King Arthur and the Nine Maidens of Avalon, Apollo and the Nine Muses and the Norse god Heimdall who had nine mothers. Perhaps what we have here is a remnant of a memory of groups of ancient pagan priestesses. Whatever the Nine Maidens were, their hold on the public imagination lasted along time. 

In Forres on the coast of the Moray Firth there is one of the most remarkable of the Pictish Symbol Stones. Standing almost five metres high it has been suggested that this stone is possibly later than all the other Pictish stones. It Is a slightly different style from most of the rest but in its obvious depiction of a battle it is not unique - the other famous battle stone being the Aberlemno Kirkyard Stone, thought by many to be a depiction of the battle of Dunnichen in 685 when the Picts slaughtered the Northumbrian Angles near Forfar. In certain areas of Scotland the Pictish stones were long thought to be Danish and there is a strong connection with Scandinavia in the story of Sueno’s Stone.  Though the stone itself was found buried in the 18th century and then re-erected the tale carries us back to the Dark Ages. We are told that the stone commemorates a battle between the local people and an invading force of Norsemen. Fighting had been going on for many years as the Norsemen had started to settle in the area and in the struggle for overall control of Moray the principal antagonists were Maelbrigde, the Mormaor of Moray and the Norse Jarl Sigurd. Mormaor and Jarl are terms meaning something close to High Chief.  They agreed to settle matters for once and for all by having a battle which each would come to with 40 horsemen. On the chosen day Maelbrigde, known as the Bucktoothed because of a peculiarly long eye tooth that was like an animal’s fang, set off for the battlefield. As they approached the selected spot they saw the forty  Norse horses ahead. However each of the Norsemen’s horses carried two warriors - Maelbrigde had been tricked. With such an advantage the Norsemen were assured of victory and the men of Moray were all killed. In celebration of this victory the Norse beheaded their enemies and returned to their camp each astride a horse. Sigurd, in emulation perhaps of ancient tribal tradition had taken Maelbrigde’s head with him and slung it from the pommel of his saddle. As they rode, singing of their triumph, and no doubt drinking in celebration, Maelbrigde’s bucktooth began rubbing on Sigurd’s thigh, eventually piercing the skin. Although superficially just a scratch, the wound festered and within three days Sigurd died in agony form blood-poisoning. Maelbrigde had his revenge.

Vanora’s Stone

Another Pictish Symbol stone with a remarkable story is in the wonderful little museum of Pictish Symbol Stones in the Strathmore village of Meigle, 20 kilometres north-west of Perth. Among this magnificent collection of Symbol Stones which clearly point to an important religious centre nearby, is the great Cross-slab known to locals as Vanora’s’ Stone. On the side opposite the magnificent Cross there is scene which has been interpreted by various learned commentators as representing Daniel in the Lions’ Den. It shows a gowned figure flanked by four-legged animals with heavy shoulders or manes. Many Pictish Symbol Stones clearly show both Christian and pagan symbols and in basically pre-literate societies it is at least feasible that older stories could be attached to Christian symbolism. The Picts, like all early peoples had their own mythology and beliefs.

Vanora’s Stone is unusual in that it once formed part of a complex linked monument of different stones though we sadly have no clear idea of how it used to look. The story is that Vanora was the wife of the great king, Arthur.  Having defeated his enemies, Arthur decided to go on a pilgrimage to Rome, leaving his nephew Modred as regent. Hardly had he set out when Vanora became involved with Modred, and they began to rule the land together. Whether Vanora was seduced by Modred or it was the other way about is unclear but they began ruling as man and wife with the support of Modred’s own Pictish troops. Arthur was still in Britain when he heard the news and immediately headed north to raise his own followers and remove the usurpers. The battle where Modred and Arthur met is said to have been at Camlaan, on the Forth and the site of a 6th century battle. In the fighting Modred was defeated and killed but Arthur was fatally wounded himself and though victorious soon passed away. Vanora was imprisoned on the great Iron Age fort on nearby Barry Hill while her fate was decided. She was guilty of adultery but had betrayed the king and thus the people - breaking a sacred trust and her death was a foregone conclusion. Such was the blackness of her deeds, the story goes, that the wise men and priests who considered her fate decided she should be made to suffer as dishonourable a death as possible. So it was decided she should be torn to death by a pack of wild dogs and the sentence was duly carried out. This is the how the locals interpreted the scene on the Cross-slab. Following her execution, her body was buried with oaths and imprecations being heaped upon her burial in a manner very suggestive of ancient pagan practice. This burial is said to be in Vanora’s Mound in the kirkyard of Meigle and it was believed until recently that any young woman foolish enough to stand upon Vanora’s Mound would be made barren, such was the power of the imprecations and curses heaped upon it so long ago. This was clearly not known to a local photographer who quite recently had the habit of posing newly-weds on the mound for photographs!

There are many places in Scotland that bear the name of Arthur - Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh, Ben Arthur in Cowal, another Arthur’s Seat further up Strathmore from Meigle, and a handful of them are scattered in the landscape around Meigle. This is hardly surprising as the mythical Arthur was almost certainly common amongst the traditions of all the P-Celtic speaking tribal peoples of Britain. In modern terms these languages survive as Welsh and Cornish, as well as Breton. Accurate information can last for hundreds and even thousands of years through oral transmission and the idea of Arthur belonging as much to Pictish Scotland as Wales or Cornwall is not really strange at all, even though the Pictish language itself died out over a thousand years ago.

 A mile or so north of Largo Law on the north side of the Forth - a hill said to have received its cleft shape from a ploughshare thrown by the Devil, there used to stand a tumulus or burial mound on the farm of Auchendowie.  The site of the mound is still marked on maps though little now remains of  what was known locally as Norrie’s Law. Law means hill but there always seems to be the sense of ritual of some kind, social, or sacred in the name.  On the slopes of Largo Law itself until a generation or two back children would play a widely known game, with a local variant. One child would stand in front of a group of pals and  say,

“A’ll tell ye a story, Aboot Tammie o Norrie,If ye dinnae speak in the middle o it, Will ye no?” The intention is clear, to make one of the other, probably younger children say no and thus the story can’t be told. This is a very widespread bairns’ game the difference here being the mention of Tammie o Norrie, a unfortunate local cowherd. It was told that a ghost haunted the slopes of Largo Law, a ghost  condemned to roam the earth till he could unburden himself of the secret he had died to save. This was the location of buried gold on Largo Law and it seems clear that the ghost’s punishment arose from some evil deed concerning that gold. A local man, the shepherd on Balmain farm became obsessed with the idea of this gold and decided that he would approach the ghost and relieve it of its burden, thereby enriching himself.  It took all his courage but one evening he went to Largo Law as night fell hoping to meet the unfortunate spirit. His luck was in and he soon spotted the ephemeral figure. He approached the spectre and asked what was keeping it from its rest.  The spectre looked long at him and the shepherd’s blood ran cold. Then the spirit spoke ,

“If Auchendowrie cock disnae craw,
An the herd o Balmain  disnae blaw,
A’ll tell ye where the gowd is on Largo Law.”

The time appointed was to be eight o clock the following evening.  The shepherd, excited at the notion of impending riches did his best to ensure the ghost’s conditions would be met. That night the rooster of Auchendowie farm mysteriously disappeared. The shepherd went the following morning to speak to the cowherd of Balmain, Tammie  Norrie and after trying to wheedle him into not blowing his horn to summon the cattle into the byre that evening, finally threatened to kill him if he dared do so. Sure that he had frightened Tammie sufficiently the shepherd made his way to Largo Law as eight o’clock approached. Just as the wraith appeared and was about to speak, the sound of a cow horn floated through the air from Balmain. The ghost, deprived of its release form earthly torment, spat put the words,

“Woe tae the man that blew that horn,
Fae oot o that spot he shall neer be borne”,

and disappeared. In a blind rage the shepherd ran to the north the thought of killing the Balmain cowherd pulsing in his mind. When he got to what is now the site of Norrie’s Law he was too late. There stood the figure of Tammie Norrie, horn at his lips - turned to stone. The local people tried to shift the unfortunate man, but some magical force prevented them and in desperation, and some fear, they heaped a great mound of earth over the unfortunate cowherd. This was given the name of Norrie’s Law.

This story seems to be a degenerate version of an even older tale that said  inside the mound was the body of an ancient warrior called Norroway who had been buried astride his horse in a suit of silver armour! What we do know is that sometime in the 1830s a  local cadger, or carter, was digging sand out of the hill for some building he was doing when he made a remarkable discovery. He found the treasure and over a few years he sold most of it to a silversmith in Cupar who melted it down and re-used it. Eventually the cadger’s conscience got the better of him and he handed over the few remnants he had to the widow of the local landowner, the recently deceased General Durham. She in turn donated the material to the then Museum of Antiquities and the few magnificent remnants of the original Norrie’s Law hoard can be seen in the new Museum of Scotland. There a just a few bits and pieces including a pair of pins with Pictish symbols, a couple of lozenge-shaped pieces that once might have been part of a corselet of mail, and pieces of a sword hilt, helmet and scabbard.

The hold that the idea of the Picts as our ancestors held was remarkable. When we remember that almost universal literacy is only a century or so old in Scotland and that only two or three generations ago most people travelled rarely and not very far it is easy to understand how ancient stories could retain a strong hold on peoples’ imaginations. This tenacity of belief was shown remarkably in Orkney a hundred and fifty years ago. There like many places in Scotland people believed that the Picts were wee dark and exceedingly hairy people, who haunted the ancient ruins and wild places of the countryside. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote an interesting version of the story of Pictish Heather Ale in his poem the King of the Picts but his father had a startling encounter with belief in the Picts. He was in Orkney surveying a site for a new lighthouse when he and a colleague were visited in their lodgings by a distraught local. He begged them to come with him and help him and his neighbours with a desperate problem. Their help was sought because they were educated men and whatever the problem was it was taxing the powers of the local community. He told them that a Pict had turned up in their village. This was met with utter disbelief by Stevenson and his friend but the local was insistent. It was a wee dark, hairy man with great big feet, clad in strange shaped shoes, dressed in rags and couldn’t speak. He had come into the village and collapsed. The engineers were hardly keen to go outside, it was a wild night and they were comfortable by the fire. However the man was in such a state of distress they thought they should try and help and at last agreed to go. When they reached the nearby village they were ushered into a humble cottage, surrounded by a crowd even in the biting cold. Inside yet more people were grouped around a bed on which lay the Pict. The mood of the people was sombre and mutterings of ”get rid of it “ and other such comments could be heard. In truth the man sound asleep on the bed was very small, not much over four feet and had a mass of unkempt hair and a big black beard. His clothes were stitched together rags and his feet were encased in extremely crude boots, obviously hand-made by someone with little if any cobbling skill. It seems Stevenson might have had trouble keeping a straight face for he in fact recognised the sleeping Pict. He was a man who had been a shopkeeper in Edinburgh till one day he got the call to go on the road and spread the word of the Lord. He gave away all his worldly goods and left the city to wander wherever his feet took him, spreading the Gospel and living as simply as he could. He had eventually ended up in Orkney, got lost and by the time he found the village was in a state of absolute exhaustion, made worse by not having eaten for several days, if not longer. His life on the road accounted for his appearance and he had, naturally   made his own boots, with no skill or instruction in that particular art.  The villagers took some convincing but when the Pict at last opened his eyes, recognised Stevenson and spoke to him in Scots, their scepticism disappeared.  Their fears that an ancient Pict had burst forth from a burial mound to wreak havoc among them could be laid to rest.

When we think of this tenacity of belief as superstition we should maybe consider if we ourselves are free from all ancient belief. How many of us still throw spilt salt over our left shoulders or touch wood at the mention of unpleasantness?

Picts: Part 1- Symbols and Signs

Picts: Part 2- Symbols and Statements

The Phoenician Origin of Britons, Scots & Anglo Saxons
Discovered by Phoenician & Sumerian Inscriptions in Britain by Pre-Romans Briton Coins & A mass of New History by L.A. Waddell (1924) (pdf)

Discovering the Picts: From Enemies of Rome to Powerful Kingdoms of Early Medieval Scotland
By the Royal Philosophical Society of Glasgow

Largest Ever' Pictish Hillfort Discovered in Scotland

Discovering the Northern Picts with Professor Gordon Noble
The first lecture in the 2022-2023 academic year is by Dr Gordon Noble, Professor of Archaeology at the University of Aberdeen. In this lecture, Professor Noble discusses The Northern Picts project at Aberdeen, which is an award-winning project run by the University of Aberdeen uncovering the archaeology of Pictish society in Scotland. Winners of the 2021 Current Archaeology Research Project of the Year, the project has uncovered major new central places of the Picts including an early royal centre at Rhynie and a 16-hectare settlement at Tap o’ Noth with over 800 house platforms. This talk outlines some of the major discoveries of the project and outlines what the new findings mean for Pictish society in the period c.300-900 AD.

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