Etching and engraving Pictish symbols and figures on to wood

by John Wombell

The Conan Stone on wood by John Wombell see A Newly Discovered Pictish Stone for Easter Ross

First the excuse.  I tried this in the Autumn of 2019 to boost entries for the Tarradale Through Time art competition with a new interpretation of Balblair man, on a panel long since removed from a position beside Kilmorack School to Moniack Castle.  Despite being a Mercian through and through I have lived and worked in the land of the Picts for over half a century. This, as well as being married to someone with Pictish genes for sure, has led one to develop an ongoing interest in the mysterious Picts.   Living not far away, we visited the Sueno’s stone in Forres more than once with the children many years ago.

For a decade plus I had responsibility for a number of burial grounds in Kincardine and Deeside with fine Pictish stones in them (Fordoun, Tullich and Migvie). Then came one of those special moments in archaeology; when digging at Birnie I discovered the Birnie Painted Pictish Pebble and that  kept my interest going.  Stories of discovery are rarely told unless it is the likes of Tutankhamen’s tomb, and the story of the discovery of the Birnie pebble has never been told so why not now?

I had been patted on the head and set to cleaning and defining an area within what was thought to be a small Pictish house built in the ruins of a roundhouse.  What was revealed was a small setting of smooth cobbles looking like it might have been a crafting workplace.  When I first encountered the pebble it was tilted slightly on its long axis.  Fortunately that day I was in ‘careful mode’ and as soon as the top edge of the pebble was revealed it was clearly quite different and it looked like quartz or quartzite.  I left it firmly in place and carefully cleaned away another cm or so of sand from round about it. It continued to look interesting so I called over Alan Braby, who’s trench I was in, for a look see.   Alan came over, peered at the pebble, plucked it out of the sand and asked me if I had a wee brush of some kind, which I had.  Then he cleaned the pebble off and said ‘have you any idea what this is?’  ‘Haven’t a clue,’ I replied, ‘other than a finishing stone for some kind of craft work maybe’.   So then he showed me the feint decoration on the stone that was becoming clearer as the pebble dried out.  Well Alan says, ‘it is a Painted Pictish Pebble and the first to be discovered on the South side of the Moray Firth.’ Then we realised that it was decorated on both sides.   It was most exciting day.

Birnie Painted Pictish Pebble

Painted Pictish Pebbles are rare artefacts and most have been found at Caithness and Shetland broch sites.  They are at the very bottom of the Pictish art spectrum and I remain convinced that the designs on them reflect the Picts knowledge of cup and ring marked rocks, which in Pictish times would have been far more numerous than today.  Since then I have never stopped looking for blanks of the same size and shape and they are as rare as hen’s teeth.  Beach pebbles of quartz tend to be rounded and if oval they tend to be too large and too heavy.  The nearest I have found are quartzite and the replica I made of the Birnie pebble is on such a blank.  There is plenty of information on Painted Pictish Pebbles free online.

Selection of painted pictish pebbles from Shetland.

They are thought to be amulets and I have often wondered about who first found exactly the right pebble, decorated it, carried it around with them and what it meant to them.  When it was being conserved in Edinburgh they thought that it had been repainted at some stage (Fraser Hunter pers comm.). It is thought that the paint used was the soot from lamp oil dissolved in something unknown.  I have tried to make such paint and failed miserably.

Archaeology and experimenting is supposed to be fun as well as serious and I quite enjoyed carving the reproduction of Balblair man.  It was carved using a hammer and chisel on a slab of spruce about 18” long. I charred this after carving with a gas torch just to see what the effect was, which was great.  Charring I have since discovered seals the wood and makes painting with acrylics easier.  So I carried on with a much more difficult reproduction of the Eagle Stone (see Pictish Eagles and the Strathpeffer Stone) using a new photogrammetric model as the base from which to make a new sketch and have ago at working out what the damaged and missing parts were.   The main question was ‘did the Strathpeffer Eagle originally have a tail?’  After researching every known Pictish Eagle I decided it did so I gave it one!   To carve the eagle I switched to using a small electric engraving tool and this time I coloured the symbols which was even more fun.

Sides of Conan cross-slab on wood

After that I experimented with different woods and MDF, of which never again.  Spruce, either Norway or Sitka, works best and acrylic paint is better than oil based enamel.  I carried on with local symbol stones including all of the best ones that are in Inverness Museum.  Quite a lot of them are broken, some badly, so considerable research, care and artistic license was needed to reconstruct some of them.  Then I finished the winter off after much deliberation with reproductions, at about one quarter scale, of the Conan Stone (see top of post and above) based on the wonderful drawing by John Borland.  While it was quite challenging it was enormous fun and I learnt a lot, particularly about interlace and knot work.

Then there was too much to do outside, but before I packed the tools and paints away I had been thinking about having a go at the other known Pictish figures following on from Balblair man, and that is exactly what I have done over Xmas 2020.  So far they are just figures traced onto wood, about A4 in size.  I quite like this stage in the process as once you start engraving all sorts of things can go wrong and there is some very fine detail in some of the figures.  The figures are sharp, plain and simple right now so I have gone over them quite firmly and embarked on this blog before I risk making a mess of the engraving and they end up as kindlers.  The pencil is Faber Castell’s  Krapplack Madder which I discovered last year is the easiest colour to follow when engraving.

After much preliminary research I settled on 5 figures, carved mostly on their own on slabs or eratics. This is about it apart from Rhynie No3 which, despite some excellent new images sent to me by Michael Sharpe, is proving so far impossible to interpret sufficiently to reproduce.  So to make up what I am calling the Magnificent seven I have included 2 well known figures from grave slabs.

From north to south they are:

  • Mail from Cunningsburgh, Shetland.
  • Collieburn, Golspie – a figure taken from a cross slab.
  • Balblair Man – originally from a position near the old school at Kilmorack but long since removed to Moniack Castle.
  • Rhynie Man – No7 from Barflats Farm in Aberdeenshire.
  • Newton of Collessie, Fife.
  • Samson from a cross slab at Inchbraycock, Fife.
  • Tulloch Man, discovered just 3 years ago in Perth.

They pose all manner of questions and cover a wide time span from the 5th to the 8th centuries.  I can commend two good papers to read, both available free of charge online.  Most of the figures are discussed in a recent research article – ‘Warrior ideologies in first-millennium AD Europe: new light on monumental stele from Scotland’ in Antiquity 2020 Vol 94 (373): 127-144, available at https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2019.214.   The second paper by Val Turner is in Proc Soc Antiq Scot 124 (1994), 315-325 entititled ‘The Mail Stone: an incised Pictish figure from Mail, Cunningsburgh Shetland‘.

I used a mixture of imagery to get to something transferable to wood, and again I have had to do some new interpretation and use some artistic license.  Several of the stones are badly weathered and defaced.  One can’t do reproductions with bits missing.  I have to say that whilst some record sketches and drawings are superb some are a little careless in detail.  My own take is irreverent at times but I don’t think it is a jailable offense.

Above: Mail man on wood by JW. Below: Artistic interpretation of the Mail Pictish stone from Cunningsburgh, Shetland.

So I’ll start in the north with the finely incised figure from Mail, now in the museum at Lerwick. I used the excellent sketch by Lynnie Ritchie with no alteration other than to give ends to the axe shaft and the club.   All I would add is that incising or scratching stone is very similar to cutting glass or ceramic tiles.  It is not easy and has to be done with controlled pressure, and you get just one go at getting it right which is why I think scratch art –  prehistoric and Pictish – often looks untidy, sometimes with mistakes corrected.   The grave digger at Mail who first discovered this stone and others that had been thrown over the grave yard wall onto the beach, described them as ‘scatchet stanes’ – an endearing description.  The figure is strange looking with its half human half dog face.    Shades of shamanism and shape shifting or spirit helpers – who knows.   The figure’s robes bear some similarity in decoration to the 3 famous figures on the slab from Birsay and the club is very like that carried by Balblair man.  They look more like weapons to me than walking sticks. Note the hem line on the coat.  All the other clothed figures show the same hemline – just above the knee – which is exactly where the kilt is properly worn today.

Above:  Collieburn man on wood by JW. Below: Image and artistic interpretation of the Collieburn Pictish stone from Dunrobin.

The figure taken off the cross slab from Collieburn near Golspie, now in the museum at Dunrobin, is another odd figure. The head is the most difficult to interpret accurately and it may have been altered at some point.  The nose is ‘beak like’ and the lips are like those of some species of monkey.  The figure wields a knife in one hand, held in the stabbing position, and in the other a T axe, similar to those wielded by the headless centaur on the Conan slab.  The figure has just made contact with the nose of a probable wolf as indicated by the wrinkles on its face!  These axes would be of little practical use for felling a tree; more for butchery or chopping kindlers.

Above: Balbair man on wood by JW. Below: Image and artistic interpretation of the Balblair Pictish stone.

One would be hard pressed to see any figure on the Balblair stone today as it is years since it was last cleaned up for drawing and photography.   I think the figure represents a well to do, well dressed country gent out for a stroll to check up on all his minions.  He has a paunch and although he appears to be using a war club as a walking stick he has a kindly look on his face, someone you wouldn’t mind stopping to have a blether with.  The panel sits to one side of a rockery in front of Moniack Castle.  We were last there in the winter of 2018/2019 when, thanks to a careful interpretation  of antiquarian notes by Anne Cockcroft, we found the missing cup marked stone from Brahan given to a 19thC lady tenant of the castle.  It was buried upside down under turf and it now sits in a new safer position on the opposite side of a turning area to Blablair man.  Antiquarians thought there were cup marks on the Blablair stone as well but they are very unconvincing.

Above: Rhynie man on wood by JW. Below: Image and artistic interpretation of the Barflat Rhynie Pictish stone.

Rhynie Man as he is popularly known, but correctly Rhynie No 7 from Barflats Farm, is a character you would definitely not like to meet on a dark night.  I decided after careful study of all the available images that the sketch of him in general circulation needed minor adjustment, so I have reinterpreted it slightly.  I think the carving shows an older man, walking with a stoop, and who is balding and has lost all but two of his teeth, though sometimes I think 3 are shown!   I believe he is depicted with longer than shoulder length hair, not a cape or head cover as it would need sky hooks to keep it in place.  He was no doubt the boss at Rhynie, a king even. There is a video of an STV news item from about 30 years ago online where a young reporter interviews the farmer of Barflats and his son. It is very well worth watching provided you can understand Doric.  The stone has for the past 30 years been in Woodhill House, Aberdeen.

Above: Collessie man on wood by JW. Below: Images and artistic interpretation of the Newton of Collessie Pictish stone.

Collessie Man from Newton of Collessie in Fife is a fine tall athletic warrior carrying a spear with kite shaped head that has an apple shaped sphere at its base.  The figure is in a very odd pose with legs walking to the left, the upper body facing front and head looking to the left.  If you try this pose you are likely to fall over.  The spear is unusual and appears the same type carried by both Rhynie No 3 man and Tulloch Man.  It appears to be for thrusting bayonet fashion, not for throwing. When I look at these spears I think of Corporal Jones in Dad’s Army and his oft repeated ‘they don’t like it up em!’

According to the recent research article Tacitus first describes the apple shaped end saying that it was made of bronze.  I wonder if this ball was to firstly aid thrusting – ball in the palm of the hand, then possibly to help pulling the spear back out of the unfortunate victim.  The kite shaped head might also have been for the latter purpose.  If you couldn’t get the spear out of one victim you couldn’t go after the next one, meantime getting your head chopped off.

On close examination of the best images there is something unusual about the hair on this figure that survives as possible rings which maybe signify curls or knots.  Tacitus apparently also wrote of Pictish warriors that ‘the hair is twisted back so that it stands and is often knotted on the very crown of the head’.  The idea was to make themselves look taller to their enemies and I think this is what is being suggested by what look like rings in the hairdo.  Other observers think the figure may be wearing a torc, but I simply do not see this.

Above: Inchbrayock man on wood by JW. Below: Image of the Inchbrayock Pictish stone.

The cross slab at Inchbrayock (Inchbraoch), Fife is also known as the Samson Stone and the figure is said to be Samson confronting a Philistine with the jaw bone of an ass.  He only has one arm and just in case the Philistine dodges the ass jaw, Samson has a massive sword on his waist with which to chase him. St Luke 15 says Samson killed 1,000 Philistines with his ass jaw, a likely story whatever you believe in, and I wonder what Mr and Mrs average Pict made of it and stories like it – ‘I think we’ll stick to what the shaman says dear.’

Above: Tulloch man on wood by JW. Below: Images and artistic interpretation of the Tulloch Pictish stone.

And last but not least, on to Tulloch Man, discovered buried 3ft down by sharp eyed workmen on a major road improvement in Perth near the crematorium and the St Johnstone football ground.  The circulating sketch of this fellow has bits missing, so again I have combined liberties with artistic licence most notably in that I have given him a willy, as he would be in a bad way without one and the whole idea was supposed to be to scare the enemy into running away.  On close examination of the available images I think there is enough of a credible willy depicted on the panel to include one.  Again this fellow is tall and athletic looking although he has a hump back.  He also has a bun hair do.

I rather think that trained Roman soldiers, far from running away, would have had a good laugh and then gone after the Picts even more determinedly.  If of course there is any truth in the whole story.

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