Pictish Eagles and the Strathpeffer Stone

by John Wombell (NOSAS)

There are 12 known Pictish Eagle carvings, all in the RCAHMS publication of 2008 ‘The Pictish Symbol Stones of Scotland’.  They vary considerably and by far the best known and the best preserved is on the Clach an Tiompain at Strathpeffer (HER MHG43542) meaning the ‘sounding stone’ but known more widely as the Eagle Stone.

There are many images of it in circulation but a week ago I took a new set of photos which Alan Thompson kindly processed for me using photogrammetry (see images above and below, as well as on Sketchfab).  The reason behind this was that I wanted to try to produce an engraving of it on wood and needed to see more detail that is not visible to eye or touch at the stone.

The Eagle Stone has had several lumps bashed off it in the past removing part of the horse shoe symbol and the eagle’s rear end.  Otherwise damage to the carving is minimal with only part of the eagle’s leading leg either fallen or bashed off.

My dilemma was whether to give the eagle a tail or not.  I feel sure that unlike most Pictish eagles this one was drawn from a live eagle depicted walking.  It is correct in a lot of detail even though the carving is full of symbolism.  I decided to give my version a short dipped tail represented as two feathers after one of the Orkney eagles.6 of the eagles face left and 5 face to the right.  Some stand and others are walking.  All very intriguing.

Strathpeffer – a powerful bird facing right walking slightly down hill. Survives well.

Birnie – not very eagle like, a fat bird left facing with pointed beak.  Very eroded.

Inveravon – odd looking bird, left facing with large 4 feather tail pointing directly backwards, and has an over curved beak.

Mortlach – a very odd bird left facing with few lines and a curled beak.  Simplistic tail.

Brough of Birsay – a walking eagle, right facing, similar in some ways to the Strathpeffer eagle with a two feather downward sloping tail.

Knowe of Burrian – very eroded, right facing, no tail

Gairloch – only part of the bird remains, tail end missing, left facing

Tyrie – eroded walking eagle, left facing, no tail, also known as the ‘Raven Stone’

Tillytarmont – standing eagle, right facing, few lines, no tail

Fyvie – central part only of a possible eagle, right facing

Delnadamph – a very simple bird of eagle shape, left facing, no tail

Latheron – walking bird, left facing, no tail, survives well

Pictish symbol stone, Brough of Birsay, Orkney (NAS IB 243) Off the north-west tip of the Orkney Mainland there is a tidal island known as the Brough of Birsay. Most of the buildings visible there now date to Norse and early medieval times, but previously there was a thriving Pictish community. The symbols, from the top downwards, are the ‘mirror-case’, the crescent and rod, a Pictish beast, an eagle and three warriors carrying shields and swords. The leader has a curled hairstyle and decorated robe, possibly representing a local chieftain. The relief carving on this stone is very low, suggesting it dates to the 8th century. Earlier Pictish stones had only incised symbols, while later cross-slabs had decoration in bold relief. Source: RCAHMS contribution to SCRAN.

2 thoughts on “Pictish Eagles and the Strathpeffer Stone

  1. John Wombell

    I have since found another Pictish Eagle also in Ross and Cromarty at Nigg on the well known cross slab. A fine Eagle facing left, similar in some ways to the Strathpeffer Eagle and it has a symbolic downwards pointing two feather tail.

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  2. Peter Mason

    I was told on a course that the B of B eagle may have been copied from an illuminated manuscript representation of one of the evangelists. This is from memory, so please forgive vagueness! Do I remember a connection with Jarrow and was it a white tailed sea eagle?? There are Norse eagle place-names in Orkney so they would have been present in “Pictish” Orkney.

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