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Pictish stone

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The Class II Kirkyard Stone c800AD, in Aberlemno parish.

A Pictish stone is a type of monumental stele, generally carved or incised with symbols or designs. A few have ogham inscriptions. Located in Scotland, mostly north of the Clyde-Forth line and on the Eastern side of the country, these stones are the most visible remaining evidence of the Picts and are thought to date from the 6th to 9th century, a period during which the Picts became Christianized. The earlier stones have no parallels from the rest of the British Isles, but the later forms are variations within a wider Insular tradition of monumental stones such as high crosses. About 350 objects classified as Pictish stones have survived, the earlier examples of which holding by far the greatest number of surviving examples of the mysterious symbols, which have long intrigued scholars.[1]


East face of Class II Maiden Stone

In The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland (1903) J Romilly Allen and Joseph Anderson first classified Pictish stones into three groups.[2] Critics have noted weaknesses in this system but it is widely known and still used in the field. In particular, the classification may be misleading for the many incomplete stones. Allen and Anderson regarded their classes as coming from distinct periods in sequence, but it is now clear that there was a considerable period when both Class I and II stones were being produced.[3]

  • Class I — unworked stones with symbols only incised. There is no cross on either side. Class I stones date back to the 6th, 7th and 8th century.
  • Class II — stones of more or less rectangular shape with a large cross and symbol(s) on one or both sides. The symbols, as well as Christian motifs, are carved in relief and the cross with its surroundings is filled with designs. Class II stones date from the 8th and 9th century.
  • Class III — these stones feature no idiomatic Pictish symbols. The stones can be cross-slabs, recumbent gravemarkers, free-standing crosses, and composite stone shrines. They originate in the 8th or 9th century. Historic Scotland describes this class as "too simplistic" and says "Nowadays this is not considered a useful category. A surviving fragment may belong to a monument that did include Christian imagery".[3]

Later Scottish stones merge into wider medieval British and European traditions.

Purpose and meaning[edit]

The Class I Dunnichen Stone, with Pictish symbols including the "double disc and Z-rod" at centre, and "mirror and comb" at the bottom.

The purpose and meaning of the stones are only slightly understood, and the various theories proposed for the early Class I symbol stones, those that are considered to mostly pre-date the spread of Christianity to the Picts, are essentially speculative.

Many later Christian stones from Class II and Class III fall more easily into recognisable categories such as gravestones. The earlier symbol stones may have served as personal memorials or territorial markers, with symbols for individual names, clans, lineages or kindreds, although there are several other theories, and proposed explanations of the meanings of the symbols.

Standard ideograms[edit]

Aberlemno 1; Class I

Class I and II stones contain symbols from a recognisable set of standard ideograms, many unique to Pictish art, which are known as the Pictish symbols. The exact number of distinct Pictish symbols is uncertain, as there is some debate as to what constitutes a Pictish symbol, and whether some varied forms should be counted together or separately. The more inclusive estimates are in excess of sixty different symbols, but a more typical estimate is "around thirty",[4] or "around forty" according to Historic Scotland.[1]

These include geometric symbols, which have been assigned descriptive names by researchers such as:

and outline representations of animals such as:

Some are representations of everyday objects, such as the "mirror and comb", which could have been used by high-status Picts. The symbols are almost always arranged in pairs or sets of pairs, often with the object type, such as the mirror and comb, below the others, and the animals are generally found only in combination with the abstract types.[1] Hence some think they could represent names, lineage, or kinships, such as the clans of two parents, analogous to the Japanese mon. According to Anthony Jackson the symbol pairs represent matrilineal marriage alliances.[6]

Finds and associations[edit]

A small number of Pictish stones have been found associated with burials, but most are not in their original locations. Some later stones may also have marked tribal or lineage territories. Some were re-used for other purposes, such as the two Congash Stones near Grantown-on-Spey, now placed as portal stones for an old graveyard. The shaft of an old cross is lying in the field.

Another Pictish stone, the Dunachton Stone near Kincraig, was later used as a door lintel in a barn. This was discovered when the building was dismantled in 1870. The stone was re-erected in the field. Recently it fell, after being photographed in 2007, but was re-erected again a few years later by the owner of Dunachton Lodge.

The symbols are found on some of the extremely rare survivals of Pictish jewellery, such as the pair of silver plaques from the Norrie's Law hoard found in Fife in the early 19th century,[7] and the Whitecleuch Chain.[8][9]

The symbols are also sometimes found on other movable objects like small stone discs and bones mostly from the Northern Isles. Simple or early forms of the symbols are carved on the walls of coastal caves at East Wemyss, Fife and Covesea, Moray. It is therefore thought likely that they were represented in other more perishable forms that have not survived in the archaeological record, perhaps including clothing and tattoos. Some symbols appear across the whole geographical range of the stones while, for example, six stones with the single symbol of a bull found at Burghead Fort suggest that this represented the place itself, or its owners, despite other examples appearing elsewhere.[1]

Exeter analysis[edit]

A team from Exeter University, using mathematical analysis, have concluded that the symbols in the Pictish image stones "exhibit the characteristics of written languages" (as opposed to "random or sematographic (heraldic) characters").[10][11]

The Exeter analysts' claim has been criticized by linguists Mark Liberman and Richard Sproat on the grounds that the non-uniform distribution of symbols – taken to be evidence of writing – is little different from non-linguistic non-uniform distributions (such as die rolls), and that the Exeter team are using a definition of writing broader than that used by linguists.[12][13]

To date, even those who propose that the symbols should be considered "writing" from this mathematical approach do not have a suggested decipherment.[14][15] Although earlier studies based on a contextual approach, postulating the identification of the pagan "pre-Christian Celtic Cult of the Archer Guardian", have suggested possible clausal meanings for symbol pairs.[16][17]

Gallery of symbols[edit]

A selection of the Pictish symbols, showing the variation between individual examples. Each group is classified as a single type by most researchers. Only the geometric and object types are represented here, not the animal group.

Distribution and sites[edit]

Distribution of Class I and Class II stones, as well as caves holding Pictish symbol graffiti
The Nigg Stone, 790–799 AD, Class II, shows a Pictish harp, beasts and warriors in a 19th-century illustration, minus the top section.

Only a few stones still stand at their original sites; most have been moved to museums or other protected sites. Some of the more notable individual examples and collections are listed below (Note that listing is no guarantee of unrestricted access, since some lie on private land). Pictish Symbol stones have been found throughout Scotland, although their original locations are concentrated largely in the North East of the country in lowland areas, the Pictish heartland. During the period when the stones were being created, Christianity was spreading through Scotland from the west and the south, through the kingdoms of Dál Riata, which included parts of Ireland, and the extension into modern Scotland of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Bernicia and Northumbria.

Areas that show particular concentrations include Strathtay, Strathmore, coastal Angus, Fife, Strathdee, Garioch, Moray, Strathspey, Caithness, Easter Ross, the Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland.[5]

Three stones with Pictish symbols are known outside areas normally recognised as Pictish: in Dunadd, Argyll; Trusty's Hill in Dumfries and Galloway; and Edinburgh in Lothian. All three are located at major royal power centres.[18]

Two Pictish Class I stones are known to have been removed from Scotland. These are Burghead 5 from Burghead Fort in Moray, showing the figure of a bull, now in the British Museum, and the Crosskirk stone (Caithness), presented to the King of Denmark in the 19th century, but whose location is currently unknown.

Class I[edit]

Class II[edit]

Class III[edit]

Class III Pictish stone in Dunblane Cathedral


The Hilton of Cadboll Stone in the Museum of Scotland.

Gallery of stones[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Pictish Stones Archived 2012-02-13 at the Wayback Machine, "The Symbols"
  2. ^ Allen, J.R.; Anderson, J. (1903), Early Christian Monuments of Scotland, Edinburgh: The Society of Antiquaries of Scotland Volumes 1 and 2; Volume 3.
  3. ^ a b Pictish Stones Archived 2012-02-13 at the Wayback Machine, "Types of Stone".
  4. ^ Forsyth, Katherine (1997). Henry, David (ed.). Some thoughts on Pictish Symbols as a formal writing system (PDF). Balgavies, Forfar: Pinkfoot Press. pp. 85–98. ISBN 978-1-874012-16-0. Retrieved 10 December 2010. Pictish and related studies presented to Isabel Henderson {{cite book}}: |work= ignored (help)
  5. ^ a b Fraser, Iain (2008). The Pictish Symbol Stones of Scotland. Edinburgh: Royal Commission on the Ancienct and Historic Monuments of Scotland.
  6. ^ a b Jackson, Anthony (1984), The Symbol Stones of Scotland, Stromness, Orkney: The Orkney Press
  7. ^ Graham-Campbell, James (1991), "Norrie's Law, Fife: on the nature and dating of the silver hoard" (PDF), Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 121: 241–259, doi:10.9750/PSAS.121.241.260, retrieved 25 November 2010
  8. ^ Clark, J Gilchrist (1880), "Notes on a Gold Lunette found at Auchentaggart, Dumfriesshire, and a Massive Silver Chain found at Whitecleugh, Lanarkshire, exhibited by His Grace the Duke of Buccleuch" (PDF), Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 14: 222–224, doi:10.9750/PSAS.014.222.224, S2CID 253274529, retrieved 1 August 2010
  9. ^ Wainwright, F.T. (1955), Wainwright, F.T. (ed.), The Problem of the Picts, Edinburgh and London: Nelson
  10. ^ Ravilious, Kate. "Mathematics of ancient carvings reveals lost language". New Scientist.
  11. ^ Lee, Rob; Jonathan, Philip; Ziman, Pauline (31 March 2010), "Pictish symbols revealed as a written language through application of Shannon entropy" (PDF), Proceedings of the Royal Society.
  12. ^ Liberman, Mark (2 April 2010). "Pictish Writing?". Retrieved 17 September 2010.
  13. ^ "Ancient symbols, computational linguistics, and the reviewing practices of the general science journals" (PDF). Computational Linguistics. Archived from the original (PDF) on 31 December 2010. Retrieved 17 September 2010.
  14. ^ See now the recent hypothesis about, based on the Shannon entropy, in: Rob Lee; Philip Jonathan; Pauline Ziman (2010) [published online 31 March 2010]. "Pictish symbols revealed as a written language through application of Shannon entropy" (PDF). Proceedings of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences., open access; article abstract)
  15. ^ Viegas, J. (31 March 2010). "New Written Language of Ancient Scotland Discovered". News. Discovery.com. Once thought to be rock art, carved depictions of soldiers, horses and other figures are in fact part of a written language dating back to the Iron Age. A new written language, belonging to the early Pict society of Scotland, has just been identified
  16. ^ Griffen, Toby D. (March 2000). "The Pictish Art of the Archer Guardian" (PDF). fanad.net/grifpub.html. St Louis, Missouri: Celtic Studies Association of North America. Retrieved 30 May 2011.
  17. ^ Griffen, Toby D. "The Grammar of the Pictish Symbol Stones" (PDF). fanad.net/grifpub.html. St Louis, Missouri: Celtic Studies Association of North America. Retrieved 30 May 2011.
  18. ^ Márkus, Gilbert (2017). Conceiving a Nation: Scotland to AD 900. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. p. 82. ISBN 9780748678983.
  19. ^ Ellen MacNamara, The Pictish Stones of Easter Ross, Tain, 2003
  20. ^ Holder, Geoff (2010). The Guide to Mysterious Aberdeen. History Press. ISBN 978-0750959889.
  21. ^ Dougla Scott, The Stones of the Pictish Peninsulas, Hilton Trust, 2004


  • Henderson, George; Henderson, Isabel. The Art of the Picts: Sculpture and Metalwork in Early Medieval Scotland. Thames and Hudson, 2004. ISBN 978-0-5002-8963-1

External links[edit]