A Newly Discovered Pictish Stone for Easter Ross

by Anne MacInnes

Photographs of all 4 faces of the Conan Pictish stone © HES.

Whilst on a walk close to Dingwall, I came across a site that struck me as being slightly mysterious, atmospheric and with an air of neglect about it. I was immediately fascinated, and started to try and find out more about it.

I established that it was an early religious site, privately owned, and asked the landowner if I could have permission to survey it. This granted, and because of the difficult access, I began to form a plan of just how to carry this out. A specific parking place for one car was established and the survey began.

I followed the methodology used by Susan Kruse at Kiltearn, where I had helped carry out the survey (see blog).

First of all, three of us, sectioned off the site using tapes and this enabled me to draw up plans marking all the visible stones. They were all numbered, and then surveyed and photographed in detail. Inscriptions were carefully copied on to the recording forms, which at times involved a lot of head scratching due to the worn stone. Moss was removed but not lichen as this could damage the stone. Linda helped me almost every day, with Meryl and Beth helping when they could.

The weather was kind in the winter months when this survey was done, and we were struck by the oasis of peace, emerging wildflowers and variety of birdlife with occasional visiting roe deer. A large area of ponticum and invasive sycamore was cleared with chainsaw by Terry Doe, with Linda, Kay, and myself dragging it offsite. Finally a group of nine NoSAS members planetabled the site and did levels to show the footings and platform of a chapel, and Meryl drew this up.

The survey revealed as well as the probable chapel footings, upright headstones in various shapes and sizes, lair markers, tabletombs, graveslabs, some lightly covered by moss.

Most of them looked like this, either blank or with initials carved at the top. All the stones were orientated with their carved faces towards the east.

One day, I was brushing off leaves from a graveslab sitting on the ground, not buried, when I  noticed a bit of carving that looked like a foot. Carefully removing a bit more, a leg was attached to this foot! I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, so much so that I went to do something else and ignored it. However on my return it was still there and more was revealed.

I sought the advice of more experienced members, Tim and Jonathan who confirmed that it was a Pictish stone with part of it reused as a graveslab in the 18th century, and we reported it to Kirsty Cameron, the archaeologist with Highland Council. From then due process was followed, ownership established, and plans put in place to remove the stone to a place of safety with a view to conserve and eventually display the stone for study and enjoyment by everyone.

Above left: The stone in situ prior to lifting. Above right: Photo of face C at conservators © HES. According to John Borland the face includes: Late C18th inscription; Serpent and Z-rod symbol (probably); Double disc and Z-rod symbol with spiral decoration in the discs; A hippocamp; A man with either an animal mask or animal head armed with a sword and shield; A cauldron supported on vertical posts; A centaur wielding what is probably a double-headed axe – The human part of the beast has been removed and only one axe blade survives; Two quadrupeds -The one on the left is wolf- or dog-like, with gaping jaws and teeth. The one on the right is more leonine but it’s head has been damaged; A pair of horned cattle (oxen?).

NoSAS adopted the preservation and display of the stone as a project to enable funds to be raised and a small working group, joined by Kirsty Cameron was established with the committee being kept informed of progress. We have been supported throughout by John Borland, President of the Pictish Arts Society, who has drawn the stone, and the society helped us with the initial funds to lift the stone.

Until the stone was lifted, its discovery was kept under wraps until it was safely removed. Its location has not been mentioned due to the sensitivity of the site and the privacy of the landowner.

I certainly took a deep breath, and enjoyed the restored peace of the site.

Above: The stone being uplifted from site. Below: An example of the media coverage from I Newspaper, see also https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-highlands-islands-49446609 and https://stv.tv/news/highlands-islands/1440226-pictish-stone-carved-1200-years-ago-found-in-highlands/

Once the stone had been carefully relocated to the conservators and allowed to dry out, we had the exciting prospect of seeing what was on ‘ the other side’. It did not disappoint.

Above left: Photogrammetry model of Face A. Above right: Photograph of Face A © HES. Below: Again, John Borland has drawn this side and produced an amazing detailed illustration of the whole stone © HES.

This stone has been described as uniquely significant. The stone is red sandstone and currently measures 1.5 by 0.6 by 0.2 metres. However it is broken and experts believe it may have originally stood up to 2.4 metres high.  On one face, the stone is decorated with a number of Pictish designs including several mythical beasts, oxen, an animal headed warrior with sword and shield, a double disc and z rod symbol. On the other face a large ornate Christian cross is flanked by huge serpents heads that are either eating or producing smaller snakes. It is one of only about 50 complete or near complete Pictish cross-slabs known in the world, and the first to be discovered on the Scottish mainland for many years.

To quote two Pictish experts:

John Borland says

The discovery of the top half of a large cross slab with Pictish symbols is of national importance.  The find spot – an early Christian site in Easter Ross – is a new location for such sculpture so adds significant information to our knowledge of the Pictish church and its distribution, This new discovery will continue to stimulate debate and new research.

On one side, beneath two Pictish symbols, is a figurative tableau, much of which appears to have strong connections with the cross slabs of southern Pictland.

On the other side, the two massive beasts that flank and surmount the cross are quite unlike anything found on any other Pictish stone.

Isabel Henderson says

The new Dingwall cross-slab is a uniquely significant western extension of the prestigious Pictish symbol-bearing relief sculpture of Easter Ross, notably connected with the tall slabs of Shandwick and Rosemarkie.

Of particular interest is the sculptor’s evident knowledge of southern sculpture, which encompasses not only the cross-slabs but also carving styles and motifs from sculpture in other formats – for example the Murthly panel and one of the Meigle recumbent grave markers. This raises the still to be fully explored general question of the relationship between the sculptors and patronage of the cross-slabs, and that of the non symbol- bearing formats of church furnishings and elite graves.  Careful assessment of this remarkable monument will be able to tell us much about the production of Pictish sculpture, in both the north and the south, that we could never have guessed at.

During his talk at The Highland Archaeology Conference, after which he launched the crowdfunding bid, John Borland commented on that although the size of the stone was similar to other stones found in Easter Ross, its imagery was very different. He said that the carvings were unique, bearing little relationship to Easter Ross carvings but having more in common with carvings from southern Pictland. An example of this is the kneeling warrior which mirrors a carving found on the Murthly stone. He has never seen carvings, like those of the deeply incised fierce serpent heads with large fangs, before.

He said that it is likely that the stone was carved by someone with a good knowledge of southern carving styles who was an itinerant travelling craftsman, and it is a timely reminder of the Picts’ capacity for individual creativity.

Above: This stone from Murthly has an almost identical kneeling swordsman with animal head to the Dingwall cross-slab. Below: A centaur with double headed axe appears on this stone from Glamis Manse.

The stone now needs to be repaired, cleaned, recorded and mounted before being put on permanent public display at Dingwall Museum in Easter Ross. At Dingwall, the conserved stone is expected to make an impressive cultural attraction, which will be of significant benefit to both the museum and the town.

To do this we applied to both HES and the Highland Council for grants. However we needed to raise an additional £20,000 to complete this work. Both NoSAS and The Pictish Arts Society joined to launch a crowdfunding bid to raise this money.

This successful campaign has now closed. All contributions, however small, were gratefully received by the organisers. Any money left over from the campaign will go towards a series of community events and workshops in the local area that will enhance understanding of the Pictish heritage of those who now live there. Easter Ross is known to have had particular significance in Pictish times.

Meanwhile I have collated all the information recorded and done a site report, and am currently researching its history for the final written report to be put onto HER.

My grateful thanks go to the landowner, members of NoSAS who helped with the survey, the help from, and hours of work put in by the working group, support from the NoSAS committee, and finally a special thanks to Kirsty Cameron and John Borland along with the Pictish Arts Society.

Without them and all your contributions, this would not be happening.

Above: John Borland with the stone at the conservators. Below: Photogrammetry views of the stone © Andy Hickie.

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