Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Pictish Stones of Forres: Rodney and Sueno

The carved symbol stones of the Picts are one of Scotland's unique contributions to global culture (like brochs, the tower house and golf) but remain little known outside their heartland, stretching from Angus to Easter Ross. Growing up on the west coast I had no knowledge of them. They are a localised, north-east phenomenon. Anyone from the west coast seeing a Pictish pattern might easily think to themselves, 'oh, an old Irish design'. Hopefully this post will abuse anybody else of that notion.

Two excellent examples stand near the pretty wee town of Forres. The first, the Rodney Stone, is slightly taller than a human. It was discovered in the churchyard of Dyke in 1781, and moved to its current site in 1842. Why Rodney? They didn't have Only Fools and Horses in those days, but they did have a war with France, and Admiral Rodney in 1782 beat a French force in the West Indies. Who knows, if the stone had been discovered in 1805 it might have become known as the Nelson Stone.

The Rodney Stone west face:

The age of these stones is not precisely known, carbon dating being no use on stone. They are generally believed to date from between the 6th and 10th century AD, but arguments have been put forward that the earliest date from when the Romans still occupied southern Britain.

Certain symbols appear on Pictish stones with great regularity, and the Rodney stone's eastern face has a typical collection. A pair of fish; the 'swimming elephant' or Pictish beast, a uniquely Pictish chimera; and a Z-rod and double disc.

Reverse side of Rodney Stone:

The symbols on Pictish stones form a visual lexicography the meaning of which has now been lost: the z-rod, the v-rod, the crescent, the double disc, the mirror, the comb, a boar, bull, wolf, raven and 'Pictish beast' being the most common - it has been suggested that the symbols represent the talismans of different tribes that may have originally been tattooed on bodies, or, in the case of the mirror and the comb, that they represent a high-ranking woman. As with much to do with the Picts, speculation fills in all-too-frequent gaps in knowledge.

While the Rodney stone is only slightly taller than a human, Sueno's Stone is an absolute whopper.

Sueno's Stone, like Rodney's Stone, is not originally named. It was traditionally thought to commemorate an 11th century battle against a force led by Sweyn Forkbeard, king of Denmark. Scholars have recently shown this to be false, but the name remains. What is clear is that it seems to show battle scenes rather than the more usual abstract shapes and animals.

Another theory has it that it commemorates the nearby death of King Duff in 966 or 967 (the old chronicles disagree on the exact date), when he came north from the old Scottish heartland around Perth to fight the men of Moray. King Duff's body supposedly remained lost and the sun disappeared until it was found under a bridge - perhaps a total eclipse can be used to determine the exact date? There was a partial eclipse on 20 July 966 - and another on 10 July 967. So that is no help!

Sueno's Stone is the tallest of all the Pictish stones, but intriguingly, the 16th century map-maker Pont reported that there was a similar one nearby. What a tremendous find that would be!


Gavin Macfie said...

I really should stop to have a look at them next time i'm over that way. Re brochs: I recall a passage in 'the Scots: a genetic journey' to the effect that brochs are found elsewhere in Europe (Italy perhaps) and that the Scottish versions may have been built by migrant workers from this place. Can anyone recall the details?

Robert Craig said...

Is that the Alastair Moffat book? He does have a taste for bold assertions, but usually has some archaeological or scriptural evidence to base them on, however speculative. I don't know about the Italian claims, but there are some interesting prehistoric structures on Sardinia (see The Modern Antiquarian) that might be the basis for his comments?