Search just our sites by using our customised search engine
Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Friends of Grampian Stones

Friends of Grampian Stones


Friends of Grampian Stones

by Marian Youngblood appeared in summer 1997 issue 127 of The LEY Hunter

An announcement by the Secretary of State for Scotland Michael Forsyth last week that the Pictish Maiden Stone which has stood on the slopes of Bennachie in Aberdeenshire for 11 centuries was not to be moved but given a shelter brought rejoicing within the 300-strong membership of Friends of Grampian Stones. This volunteer charity has campaigned for seven years alongside community groups to keep the 9th-century Pictish cross-slab in situ. While various wings of the archaeological establishment threatened to move it indoors, support from the Pictish Arts Society and other stone-sensitive groups has helped the cause.

Both factions are agreed that the 3-metre high slab of crusty pink Bennachie granite is in need of protection, as even such sturdy material is weathering with its relief symbols becoming difficult to see except in bright slanting sunlight. The threatened solution by the pro-museum faction seemed to be wholesale carting off, but this produced local hue and cry by historians, romantics and, naturally, the sky-watchers who were convinced the Maiden had secrets to reveal where she stood - secrets which might fossilise and lose meaning in an indoor environment.

Extra pressure had been brought to bear by a trustee of in-construction prehistoric theme park Archaeolink nearby, due to open in April 1997, as it was felt the presence of a 'real stone' in the interpretation centre would attract more visitors. "We shall still consider installing a replica at Archaeolink," said a trust member. But the decision by the Scottish Office, through its executive department Historic Scotland means that a solution will have to be found on the ground. Historic Scotland is the Scots equivalent to English Heritage which protects antiquities through a scheduling process and which last year set up the National Committee on Carved Stones in Scotland. Though the committee states clearly that Scotland's carved stones are at risk! (their exclamation mark), the official line in protection has been less dramatic:
"In some instances this might involve constructing a shelter around them, particularly where they are on such significant sites that it would be difficult to justify moving them; however, this is not a solution that is likely to be frequently applicable. More often it may be advisable to move stones to a sheltered local environment so that they are fully protected from the elements but still within the area to which they belong."

In such a framework, the decision not to move the Maiden Stone but to construct a shelter, perhaps similar to the glass cage which encases the Forres Sueno' Stone in Morayshire or the Shandwick Stone in Easter Ross, is miraculous.

Aberdeenshire is famed for its Pictish symbol stones thought to date from at least the 5th century, the earliest found in profusion on fertile farmland of a busy agricultural society, saved from destruction by gunpowder or the plough by deep-seated superstition. Within an oral culture handed down from ancestral times, it didn't do to harm the stones. They were, after all, one of few remnants of the country ('pagan') tradition which predated Christianity, of which the ancestors spoke. Parishes of Northeast Scotland in the farflung reaches of Aberdeenshire, Banffshire and Morayshire followed the instruction of the Reformed Church to the letter while at the same time managing to guard handed-down veneration of ancestral places. This apparent anomaly has resulted in the survival of around 600 Neolithic recumbent stone circle sites in the northeast corner, and though separated by 3500 years, roughly 100 Pictish symbol stones (Class I, inscribed; Class II, relief-carved cross-slabs) found in association with the earlier sacred sites.

Throughout the early years of Christianity in this far-northern corner the sacred sites were in no immediate danger. Pope Gregory I in 596 AD sent through Augustine the instruction: "By no means destroy the temples of the idols belonging to the British, but only the idols which are found in them; inasmuch as they are well-constructed, it is necessary that they should be converted from the dowership of demons to the true God."

But a century after Augustine, more extreme measures were called for: in Theodore's Penitential, 690 AD, "idolatry, worship of demons, cult of the dead, worship of nature, Pagan calendar customs and festivals, witchcraft and sorcery, augury and divination and astrology" were banned. Yet the old ways persisted.

Megalithic structures such as the recumbent circles survived ("superstition spares them though stones are so scarce", wrote one 18th-century Aberdeenshire clergyman), but the Pictish stones did not fare so well. Ultimately their portability became their downfall. While superstition had spared them until the onslaught of Victorian gentlemanly antiquarianism, from that point on they were coveted, uprooted, "taken in" and "protected" all over the place. The Church, of course, had first priority because by "taking them in" (installing in graveyards, building into the fabric of hallowed structures, or reusing as family tombs) they were being de-paganised and therefore gently being nudged under the Christian umbrella. Class I stones carved with animal and geometric symbols stand within kirk precincts today at the Banffshire churches of Mortlach, Marnoch and Ruthven, in Morayshire kirks at Advie, Birnie, Inverallan, Inveravon, and Knockando, and in Aberdeenshire at Clatt, Rhynie, Tyrie, Fetterangus, Dyce, Deer, Fyvie, Kinellar, Kintore, Bourtie and Inverurie.

Class II stones, usually a cross-shaft sharing space with familiar animal 'spirits', are found in St. Mary's Monymusk, Migvie, Logie-Coldstone, Tullich-Deeside, Fordoun-Auchenblae (the Mearns), Elgin cathedral.

The lairds also had their fair share of the spoils. In the rush to comply with post-Reformation instruction to build new churches, often on pagan sites, stones were broken up for building, reused in threshing or milling, or taken off to form a feature at the laird's house. National Trust for Scotland's Leith Hall and Brodie Castle are custodians of three, open to the public. Others, at Newton House, Arndilly, Keith Hall, Castle Forbes, Park House, Logie House, Mounie Castle, Craigmyle House, Tillypronie Lodge, Knockespock House, Blackhills House, Whitestones House and Whitehills are private. Five known Class I stones in Aberdeenshire still stand in their original sites: at Ardlair, Nether Corskie, the Insch Picardy Stone, Brandsbutt Inverurie (re-constituted after blasting) and the Rhynie Craw Stane. Moray Class I stones thought to be in situ stand at Congash (2) and Upper Manbeen. The rest, totalling an unknown figure (32 recorded) abound in museums round the Northeast, are in Edinburgh or are "lost".

Upwards of 30 carved sacred water bull stones were thought to guard the Pictish port-stronghold of Burghead (L. Tarvedunum, dun, fort of the bulls) which juts out from the mainland into the Moray Firth. All but six bulls were destroyed or thrown into the harbour in early 19th-century reconstruction of the town. Ironically Burghead is the most ardent in keeping Pictish tradition, celebrating the sun's return after winter solstice by "Burning the Clavie" - a man-size torch carried sun-wise round the town on the shoulders of the clavie king and his crew on January 11th each year.

Sueno' Stone, Forres (Class III with cross but no Pictish symbols - instead panels depicting the saga of the Scots victory over the Picts) was re-erected, possibly the wrong way around after being found buried deep in sandy Moray soil.

Clusters of Pictish symbol stones found embedded in mediaeval mounds at Kintore, Tyrie and Drumblade, buried face-down at river confluences (Donaldstonehaugh, River Isla) or close to Pictish villages (Aikey Brae and Rhynie Barflat) have disappeared. A Class I stone carved with horseshoe on an earlier stone circle stone was rescued from oblivion in the 19th-century erection of a memorial to the Duke of Lennox and returned to Huntly market square to share honour with the Marquis. Another, carved on a circle stone near Dunecht, was only discovered after a horse with "mange" rubbed himself on the stone and the farmer, fearing spread of the affliction, wiped the stone with lime, revealing long-lost symbols.

As late as 1978 and 1983 symbol stones from Barflat (Rhynie "Man") and Insch (Wantonwells) were removed from their original location as archaeological prizes: Wantonwells went to Aberdeen's Marischal Museum where it is climate-controlled, but Rhynie Man stands in the vestibule of Woodhill House, local government office headquarters and a prize possession as blatant as any claimed by19th century "gentleman-archaeologists".

Into this climate of haphazard care, the Maiden Stone interjects herself. One of only four Class II stones in Aberdeenshire, she might have been carried off as a prize, but, perhaps because of her legendary character, she has survived. Earliest remnant of a pre-Christian myth is a wonderfully-confused tale that she was the maid of Drumdurno, turned to stone by the spirit of the mountain (Jock of Bennachie, Sc.Gael.diadhachd pron.Jahck = a god) when she prayed to be rescued from pursuit by the 'devil' who had bargained with her that he could build a causeway up Bennachie (Maiden causeway, prehistoric) before she could finish baking her "firlot" of bannocks. Another, more likely to be based on fact, is that she was the daughter of the laird of Balquhain who was killed by accident after eloping with the son of a rival laird. Third, that she was one of several maiden conquests of a Leslie laird who dragged his prey to the "fort" on top of Bennachie where he had his way with them! Fate saw to it that he died at the battle of Harlaw, 1411.

All four surfaces, broad E & W faces and narrow sides, are decorated. The pagan side, facing east, depicts four panels each featuring symbols used in earlier Class I stones, but typically late carving in relief. In coarse-grained granite this was no mean feat but the technique allows animal and geometric forms to stand out clearly in low raking sunlight, even after 1100 years. The west face is dominated by an interlaced wheel cross, underpinned by a circular spiral-filled design with key pattern and knotwork, while overhead are mounted two ketos or fish gently cradling a clerical figure. This "Christian" face is badly weathered.

The Maiden stone has a virtually unique combination allowing sacred Pictish symbols to cover one whole side, while also dominating part of the invading Christian side. If its dating is correct to post-843, after the Scots finally obliterated the kingdom of the Picts in this Northeast corner, the inner sanctum of the vanquished race, it was perhaps politic to share religions.

Sueno' Stone at Forres, closer to the last Pictish stronghold at Burghead, is more warlike in proclaiming its Christian message of Right is Might, but it, too, shows a central figure supported by two curving shapes on the Christian side, below the cross. In fact on all other known Class II cross-slabs in Northeast Scotland where sacred symbols of the two faiths share space (Monymusk, Fordoun, Migvie, Mortlach, Dyce) the cross occurs on the same face as Pictish animal and geometric symbols.

The invading Scots perhaps had the presence of mind never to carve here free-standing crosses such as the High Crosses of Iona and West Scotland. The closest to a western motif is the Loch Kinord cross-slab at Cromar, but even its curly-terminal cross is trapped within the oval of the stone. Farther south within Angus/Forfar and Perthshire/Fife a clear dominance by warlike Scots results in a multitude of "Class III" stones, sometimes so-called because they feature crosses and horsemen, but few Pictish symbols. It is an historic fact that central Scotland succumbed to Scots rule long before the Men of Moray who held out culturally until Macbeth (d. 1057).

So it may be that the Scots who influenced the carving of the late Pictish Maiden Stone had to bow to the strength of a prevailing worship of nature spirits in order to get their message across. It is now accepted that the Picts had their own water cult and that the salmon, dolphin and other great fish (Gk. ketos) were central to that worship. Roman historians were aghast when discovering that Picts ate no salmon, though the rivers were teeming with them. Flesh of the goose, too, (Roseisle Class I stone in Edinburgh) was never eaten, though they roamed wild in profusion. The dolphin (or Pictish "beast" carved on 24 Class I stones in east Scotland) was believed to be sacred because it could live both in air and water and shared knowledge of the world beyond the sunset. The salmon was sacred; it also lived in two media - saltwater and fresh - sharing its knowledge of the seven springs of wisdom. References to sacred salmon kept in wells occur as late as the 16th century, usually by the priest or the minister, who by then was supposed to be as learned as they. 'A well . . . at which are the hazels of inspiration and wisdom, the hazels of the science of poetry and, in the same hour their fruit and their blossom and their foliage break forth, and these fall on the well in the same shower, which raises on the water a royal surge of purple. Then the sacred salmon chew the fruit and the juice of the nuts shows on their red bellies. And seven streams of wisdom spring forth.' Stokes trans. 1887 Old Celtic Legend.

All Pictish Class I stones in Northeast Scotland whose original location is known were placed within a mile of water. Would it not then be wise to enlist the support of this great spirit of the water when proclaiming a new faith to a Pictish audience? The fish on top of the cross on the Maiden stone may not only be supporting the little cleric, new at his job, but whispering their knowledge in his ear. On the eastern ('pagan') side, it is probably significant that the four panels depict the highest order of Pictish symbolism, even if adapted in late relief form: at the top a panel shows animals of the forest, but one has the ability to shape-shift to part-human. Shape-shifting was legendary among the Picts and incoming clerics made use of this belief to convert, even using shape-shifting themselves (according to tradition) to show the potency of the new faith. Columba was known to encourage belief in his ability to shape-shift, raise and still storms and produce wine from water in order to convince his new flock.

Panel two shows the great Z-rod & fire altar used in the four annual fire festivals at the doorway to the seasons - Samhain, Oimelc, Beltane and Lughnasadh. Interestingly, Burghead's fire-altar the "Doorie", into which the flaming mass of burning creosote, tar and oak staves is thrust as a final gesture in Burning the Clavie, is similar in shape. The Z-rod, thought to symbolise the magic of lightning or a celestial wand, occurs in tandem with fire-altars, serpents, double-sun symbols in a majority of Northeast symbol stones.

Panel three holds the sacred dolphin, carved without companions or embellishment - alone in his supreme position as carrier of great knowledge. Panel four bears the female symbols of mirror and comb, probably the oldest symbolism of all, of the goddess, the earth herself, but by early Scots times diminished into a lower order. The Picts had a matrilineal system of succession, but this and all it signified was forceably quenched in the Scots order of male rule. Though Macbeth claimed the throne by tanistry (the Pictish right by blood through the female line which enabled brothers to succeed brothers or uncles, but not sons to succeed fathers) he was last to lose to the Scots system which prevailed.

Etymology plays a part in the jigsaw of piecing together the Maiden's meaning. Gael. Maoid-hean means prayer, entreaty, supplication. If it was used as a place of prayer, as records show many Pictish stones were, it was a habit capitalised on by early clerics in their conversions. Stones around Aberdeenshire named for saints include Marnan's chair, a megalith in St Marnoch's churchyard, and Brandan Stanes recumbent circle, both Banffshire; three symbol stones ogham-inscribed to indicate "Eddernan" or St. Ethernan preached at each; and Clochmaloo or the stone of Moluag, patron saint of inland Aberdeenshire, a glacial erratic perched on a slope of Tap o' Noth topped by a huge five-acre vitrified fort. Also Mâg (plain, pron. mai)-dun means a fort commanding an open plain.

The astronomers may have the last word: Gael. Madiunn means morning; the morning sun rises to shine on the pagan eastern face of the stone until precisely midday, when it casts no shadow on either face. Meadhon means mid or centre, either denoting the centre of a powerful area, which the fertile Garioch plain most certainly was, its nickname 'Girnal" (grainstore) of Aberdeenshire handed down for generations; or it could mean mid in a time sense. As noon approaches on any clear day, but spring and autumn give better angular light, the sun which has shone directly at the symbols all morning begins to pick out the gentle curves and cast the tiniest of shadows along the bodies of pagan beast and mystic wand. Shadows lengthen until at noon they completely fill the space of the recessed background from which the symbols spring in relief - almost as if filling a pool.

At noon, the sun casts no shadow either on pagan or Christian side - just a brief gnomon-like shade in the short grass. Then as the minutes tick by after noon, shadows appear to fill the spaces on the Christian side and form pools in the four sockets of the wheel cross gradually shortening over the bodies of the giant fish, until around 12:10 p.m. when shadows are once again imperceptible. As a noon sundial, the Maiden is unbeatable.

Local support for leaving the Maiden Stone untouched was strong, though if the decision had gone the other way, few would have stood up and caused a revolution. It is because the decision has been made in favour of her native setting, hovering over the Water of Crowmallie, that future generations may be able to share the Maiden's knowledge which was originally shouted in a loud voice from the slopes of Bennachie. Only we, her children, have forgotten the meaning of the words. It is up to us now to remember the ways of the natural world, and to take into ourselves the messages left by a culture which may have much to teach us.
©1996 Marian Youngblood
Published in Summer edition 1997 number 127 of The LEY Hunter
used with permission of TLH editor

Marian Youngblood is author of a book on early church history - Bourtie Kirk - 800 Years , ISBN 0 9526 365 2 2, and has a guide to the stones & other antiquities of Grampian in production. She is newsletter editor and information officer of the charitable society Friends of Grampian Stones. Information on membership can be obtained via email to or clicking to Membership

The Ley Hunter (TLH) publishes regularly on matters of scientific and philosophical intent. Its former editor Paul Devereux is well-known for his articles and books on alignments, seasonal & cultural ritual and natural phenomena.
Friends of Grampian Stonesis a non-profit charitable organization registered in Scotland with the Capital Taxes Office number ED/455/89/JP
©1999-2000Friends of Grampian Stones

  Return to Friends of Grampian Stones Index Page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus