by Tim Blackie
In 2004, I was looking over my garden wall into Rosemarkie’s ancient graveyard and noticed gravediggers preparing a burial plot. Pictish sculpture has been discovered for over two centuries in the graveyard so I leapt over my wall and was told that it was an old family plot and a recently deceased woman was about to join her long-departed husband.
I asked if any pieces of stone had been recovered from the burial plot and I was pointed in the direction of a piece of dressed stone holding down the edge of the tarpaulin. After cleaning off the dirt, I noticed incised lines appearing on one side of the stone. It turned out to be a fragment of a Pictish grave marker dating to the 8th or 9th century. Carved on a finely dressed face was a quadrant of an incised ringed cross with the connecting ring and part of the shaft and one of the cross arms.
I have been interested in Pictish sculpture for many years and I co-authored ‘The Sculptured Stones of Caithness’ (Pinkfoot Press 1998). During my time living in Caithness, I had travelled the county examining old walls and clearance cairns near early chapel sites in the hope of discovering reused pieces of sculpture without success. I was therefore seriously chuffed to have recovered a piece of Pictish sculpture in Rosemarkie graveyard, next door to my garden! This carved stone is now on display in Groam House Museum (GHM) (https://her.highland.gov.uk/Monument/MHG38857).
The museum is famous for its unique and rich collection of Pictish sculpture and a visit to the museum is always inspiring with the magnificent Rosemarkie cross slab taking pride of place. There are also many other pieces of sculpture on display including parts of an altar or a shrine, emphasising the importance of Rosemarkie as a major monastic settlement in early medieval times (https://her.highland.gov.uk/Monument/MHG25214).
Some of the carved stones were discovered while repairing the medieval church in 1735 when “stone coffins of rude workmanship…” were revealed “…in a vault under an ancient steeple”1, and others were found in the surrounding graveyard over the last two centuries. A number of other fragments of sculpture have been found more recently in local garden rockeries in Rosemarkie and Fortrose! The medieval church was demolished in 1821 and replaced by the current church.
Since 2016, I have been a volunteer with the Highland Council Historic Environment Team working on the Highland Historic Environment Record (HER), adding the results of numerous North of Scotland Archaeological Society (NoSAS) surveys carried out over 20 years (see https://www.nosas.co.uk/siterecords.asp). So far, I have created and/or updated the existing records of over 5000 archaeological sites. The HER (https://her.highland.gov.uk/) contains over 100,000 records detailing the heritage of the Highland Council area from the earliest human activity to the Cold War. New information is being added to the site all the time.
I had been looking at the records and images of the GHM Pictish and medieval carved stones on the HER, Historic Environment Scotland’s Canmore, and GHM’s own website and felt that there was scope for a comprehensive review and updating of the records on the HER and GHM website. I therefore embarked on a collaborative project in 2021 with Jill Harden, historic environment and museum specialist and collections volunteer at GHM to update the HER records with information and images held by GHM on each carved stone and also to create a format where visitors to their website could easily access the updated HER records and images. Each HER record also has a link to each individual Canmore record. The list of GHM carved stones contains a brief summary of each piece of sculpture and its provenance with a direct link to the HER record.
It is hoped that this project will lead to an increased interest and awareness of GHM’s unique collection of Pictish and medieval sculpture and the possibility of more lost fragments of carved stones being discovered in local gardens and walls.
The updated information on the GHM website is accessed through the following links:
There follows a selection of images of some of the sculpture in the GHM collection;