The Sculptured Stone
monuments of Scotland may be considered the earliest existing expression of
the ideas, and the most genuine records of the skill in art of the early
inhabitants of Scotland; but now, when attention has been directed to them
it is found that they are diminished in numbers and in many cases mutilated
in their form. It is therefore satisfactory to know that in Easter Ross is
found a number larger and of more exquisite workmanship than have yet been
discovered in any one district in Scotland.
It has been supposed that the sculptured standing stones succeeded the rough
unhewn obelisks which appear so frequently in Scotland, or that Christian
sculptures were put on pillars previously erected, and it was a primitive
custom to erect stones for purposes of devotion, memorials of events, and
evidences of facts even down to early Christian times, and such monuments
were distinguished by their having a cross inscribed on them. Their purpose
and meaning, however, seem to have been forgotten ere the time came when
they could be written, though even yet in some such form men continue to
hope to hand down their memory to future times. There is no difficulty in
supposing that many of our Scottish monuments are sepulchral and may mark
the last resting place of the most illustrious of the early heroes and
missionaries, and it is easy to understand how others would wish to be laid
near the same spot, and how they would be chosen as fit sites for the
churches, and those in Easter Ross followed this rule.
The labour bestowed on the ornamentation of these stones, and especially on
the crosses, is quite remarkable, and some would attribute it to Roman
civilization from which so much of medimval art must have derived an
impression. But if the symbols could have been derived from this source, it
is difficult to explain why other countries open to the same influence do
not have them. If the symbols are Christian, it seems strange that they are
not found in other parts of Christendom as well as in the north-east of
Scotland. The only inference open is that most of the symbols were peculiar
to a people in the north-east of Scotland and were used by them at least
partly for sepulchral monuments. To the question, Whence did the inhabitants
of this district get their symbols? there is no convincing answer.
Of the stones in Easter Ross those best known are the Hilton, the Shandwick,
and [the Nigg stones which stood at no great distance from one another. They
are perhaps the most remarkable in Scotland for their elaborate finish and
varied representation. The Hilton stone now in “The American Gardens” at
Invergordon was at some period taken down and converted into a gravestone.
For this purpose one of the sides was smoothed by erasing the ancient
sculpture upon it and the following incription was substituted :—
“He that lives weill dies weil,” says Solomon the wise.
Heir lyes Alexander Duff and his thrie wives.
In this stone the “spectacle” ornament is transferred to the border amid the
ornamental tracery, while two unconnected circles take the usual place on
the face of the stone near the crescent, the whole being filled up with
elaborate tracery. The two figures in the upper corner on the right hand
seem to have been trumpeters. The centre is thickly occupied by the figures
of men, some on horseback, some afoot, of wild and tame animals, musical
instruments, and weapons of war and of the chase.
The Shandwick stone is a magnificent obelisk near the village of Shandwick.
In 1776 it was surrounded at the base by large well-cut flagstones formed
like steps. It was unfortunately blown down in April 1847 and broken, but
soon afterwards it was, by the order of Sir Charles Ross, bound up with iron
and re-erected on its ancient site. It is about eight feet high, four feet
broad, and one foot thick. It has been supposed that the figures on each
side of the cross, immediately beneath the transverse bars are intended to
represent St. Andrew on his cross, but it may be doubted whether they are
not meant to represent angels with displayed wings. Hugh Miller says that it
bears on the side which corresponds to the obliterated surface of the other,
the figure of a large cross, wrought into an involved and intricate species
of fretwork, which seems formed by the twisting of myriads of snakes. In the
spaces of the left side of the shaft, there are huge clumsy looking animals,
the one resembling an elephant, the other a lion; over each of these a St.
Andrew seems leaning forward from the cross, and in the reverse of the
obelisk, the sculpture represents processions, hunting scenes, and combats.
The ground around was for ages used as a burying place, and all unbaptized
infants of the parish were buried here up till fairly recent times. The
ground around is now cultivated.
The exquisitely beautiful Nigg stone now stands under a portico at the east
gable of Nigg Parish Church but it stood near the gate till 1727, when it
was blown down by a blast of wind which also threw down the church belfry.
Towards the end of the eighteenth century it was removed for the purpose of
gaining admission to the vault of the family of Ross of Kindeace, and during
the operation it fell and was broken. It was afterwards bound in iron and
re-erected in its present position. The top of the stone is triangular. On
the one side of this upper compartment are two priestlike figures attired in
long garments, and furnished each with a book. They incline forward as if
intent on reading and devotion. Betwixt them is a small circular table,
which may represent an altar; and above it there is the representation of a
dove in the act of descending to carry away the sacrifice offered. It has a
circular cake in its bill.
Under the table, two dogs of
large size seem restrained by the priestly incantations of the human figures
from executing their evil intentions. Under the triangular top and on the
same side the surface contains the figure of a cross beset by serpents. The
spaces above and below the arms are divided into rectangular compartments of
mathematical exact ness. On the other side the centre is occupied by the
figure of a man attired in long garments, caressing a fawn, and directly
fronting him, there are the figures of a lamb and a harp. The appearance of
the chalice and host between the kneeling figures at the top is very
remarkable. None of the symbols occur on this stone.
Casts of this stone are to be seen in Edinburgh, London, Dublin, and in
several Continental museums.
There are fragments of a stone in the churchyard of Tarbat which formed
parts of a cross which stood in the centre of the churchyard. It was however
knocked down long ago by the gravedigger and broken up for gravestones.
There is a sculptured sarcophagus in the churchyard of Kincardine. The
statistical account says “In the churchyard there is a stone about five feet
in length, and two in breadth and thickness; it is hollow and divided into
two cells. The ends and one of the sides are covered with carved figures and
In the churchyard of Edderton there is a stone on each side of which is a
carved cross and below one of them is the figure of a man on horseback. In
the compartment below this are two horses with their riders lined out. About
a mile to the west of the Church at Edderton is an obelisk of rough unhewn
whinstone which has a fish sculptured on the north side, and below that two
concentric circles. There is a tradition that a bat-tle was fought in this
place betwixt the inhabitants of the country and Norwegian pirates and that
the leader of the invaders—Carius—was slain and interred here, and hence the
There is, or rather was, a complete chain of dunes or brochs surrounding the
parish of Edderton but the most complete of them Dunalliscaig was completely
destroyed about 1818 and the material of which it consisted was used for
building dykes and farm houses in Easter Fearn. There is little doubt that
many of these once existed in the district but were used up by utilitarian
farmers or proprietors in the same way.
Investigators are now all but agreed that these carved stones could not have
been the work of the Norsemen, as Hugh Miller contends. As most of them are
found in the district once called Pictland, and scarcely anything like them
in other parts where the Norsemen held sway, it is fair to assume that they
were the work of these Picts. As to when they were erected evidence points
to the eighth century as the most probable period.