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The Picts -
Lords of the Rings - Set in Stone

The Romans called this pre-Celtic people Pictii, or "Painted," although Claudius' words are proof that (as claimed by many historians), the ancient Picts actually tattooed their bodies with designs. To the non-Roman Celtic world of Scots and Irish and the many tribes of Belgic England and Wales they were known as "Cruithni" and for many centuries they represented the unbridled fury of a people who refused to be brought under the yoke of Rome or any foreign invader.  Aberdeenshire was their heartland.  Aberdeenshire, Banffshire, Moray and Kincardineshire are counties in North East Scotland with the highest density of prehistoric and early-historic monuments per square mile in the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland.

Nectan and Cruithne

It is interesting that with so many stone circles that pre-dated the Picts that they did not adopt these ready hoardings for endorsing with their Symbols - or did they?  The conjoined circles, zeds, and arcs have graphic and geometric discipline which seem to point a message of tribe or territory. In addition to familiar animals we have heraldic beasts - Elephantine shapes, Seals, and Dolphins morph into each other. Serpents or Adders twine around gusseted right-angles and Zeds.  Conjoined Concentric Circles, Half Zeds or Vees with arcs, Puzzle protrusions or  notches, Disks and or mirrors look like their modern replicas and the presence of combs would indicate fine skills in bone but why record such a painstaking addition to a Marker Stone.  Female vanity respected, recorded and women revered as the obvious source of life?  A new generation of Pictii are abroad in our land adorning their flesh in similar manner with familiar and ornate exotic designs that invade areas of semi exposed and ever reducing areas of unadorned skin.

The class of archaeological remains, called sculptured stones. These are of 3 kinds: 1 those with incised symbols only, 2 those with in addition Celtic ornament carved in relief, and 3 monuments with Celtic ornament in relief and no symbols. The 1st class is the only one largely represented in Aberdeenshire and a good many representatives are in existence. The symbols most commonly seen are the crescent and sceptre, the spectacles, the mirror and comb, and the so-called "elephant" symbol, a representation of a beast with long jaws, a crest and scroll feet. Another is the serpent symbol. What the symbols signify is still a mystery, but the fact that the stones with symbolism are unusually common in what was known as Northern Pictland seems to point to their being indigenous to that area. Out of 124 stones in the first class Aberdeenshire has 42.

It would seem as if the county had been the focus where the symbolism originated.  The richness of the locality round Kintore and Inverurie in symbol stones is taken to indicate that region as the centre from which they radiated.

The Picardy Stone
Inch Aberdeenshire one of the oldest
Stones incised with the double disc and Z-rod, serpent and Z-rod and mirror symbols. The stone formerly stood on a small cairn containing a grave which illustrates the use of such stones as burial markers.

Picture Rhynie Man Pictish Standing Stone - Scotland

Ploughed up stone in 1978 at a farm Barflat, Rhynie. The Gabbro stone measures 1.78m long and dates between 700 and 800AD. It has an incised figure of a man walking, an axe upon his shoulder and wearing some sort of sleeved garment extending to just above the knee and tied around the waist by cord. His shoes are pointed and he wears some sort of head dress. There are few Pictish carved figures in Scotland and this is the earliest figure carving to date found in Grampian. It now stands in the foyer of Regional Council Offices, Aberdeen.

The symbols used by the ancient Picts, who lived in Scotland from AD 300-843, were an actual written language, rather than just symbology.  What historians know of the Picts has so far been gleaned from the artefacts they left behind and via the writings of the people whom they had contact with, such as the Romans.  But if the meaning of inscribed patterns and symbols on Pictish stones and slabs can be deciphered, the potential to learn more about ancient Scotland could be immense.

There are only a few 100 surviving Pictish stones and slabs. Some of them have symbols carved onto them like a relief. Christian motifs, such as a cross, can also be seen on a number of them. There are also several painted pebbles, whose patterns seem particularly perfunctory. Researchers have long grappled with the question of what they represent. Are they mere symbols?  Or are they full-fledged texts (albeit un-deciphered) which communicate a written language?

A team of language experts, led by Professor Rob Lee of Exeter University, analysed how random the Pictish symbols are. If the symbols didn’t show evidence of any kind of order, then it would be unlikely that they represented a written language, but if the same symbols are being written in the same way over and over again, then there is a good chance that it does communicate written language.

Measuring the amount of randomness in an un-deciphered script is difficult because there are usually a limited number of examples (only a few hundred for the Pictish language) and quite often these haven’t been compiled together and published. This means that researchers have to work with small datasets, making this analysis tricky. Working with the symbols available to them, the team was able to determine that there is some predictability in the Pictish symbols, enough so that it seems likely to be a written script. “It is extremely unlikely that the observed values for the Pictish stones would occur by chance,” the researchers said in a paper published recently in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society. The next step is to expand their dataset and get a record of every Pictish symbol ever recorded. Researchers can then hone in on the language and, hopefully, decipher it.

“Demonstrating that the Pictish symbols are writing, with the symbols probably corresponding to words, opens a unique line of further research for historians and linguists investigating the Picts and how they viewed themselves,” No doubt scholars will be hoping to discover a Scottish version of the Rosetta Stone or the Behistun Inscriptions to help decipher the language. If the Pictish code can be cracked, we could be about to learn a lot more about the ancient people of Scotland, and open up our understanding of ancient Britain.


Engraved Pictish stone on display at the National Museum of Scotland

Pictish Stones Distribution                                                     The Hilton of Cadboll Stone in the Museum of Scotland.

Picture, Pictish Symbol Stone Tillytarmont 1 - Scotland

The "Goose Stone" or Pictish Incised Symbol Stone Tillytarmont 1, was one of the first stones to be discovered in Donaldson Hough between the River Isla and the River Deveron in 1867 by a  Mr Hunter. The stone was removed from their and built into the Farm Steading (building) of North Tillytarmont Farm in the late 1800's. It was then removed from there in 1979 for safe keeping to the University Aberdeen and can be viewed there by appointment. The picture was photographed in 1954 showing it's position built into the wall of the Farm Steading.

Pictish Stones

Now while the numbers of Class I stones there must remain impressive, it is possible to offer a statistical argument for a more northerly origin centre. The impressiveness of Aberdeen's numerical lead depreciates considerably when we consider statistics relevant to the more ancient land divisions. Allen attributed 41 stones to Aberdeenshire with its nearest rival Sutherland with 15. The new relevant figures are: Mar and Buchan 54; Moray and Ross 42. Moreover 16 of the 21 examples in "Cathanesia" are in SB. Sutherland. If then, high numbers, together with normal representation in other classes are a criterion of the origin centre, then we can look as justly to the coastal strips round the Moray and Dornoch Firths as to Aberdeenshire. "We may therefore conclude with probability that Class I had not long been introduced into Forfarshire when it was changed into Class II, by the advancement of the art, but that the advanced type took sometime to spread into Aberdeenshire where the primitive type continued to prevail . . .

The stone was found built into a dry stone dyke on Redhill Farm, Rothiemay by George, the grandson of farmer Alex Anton, in the middle of the 1800's. It was removed from it's location early in the 1890's and used as a Sundial Stand in the Gardens of Rothiemay Castle. In 1955 as the Castle was falling into disrepair, the stone was removed, and placed with Tillytarmont 2 & 3 in the garden of Whitestones House Rothiemay.

Back to Stones of RothiemayPloughed up in North Tillytarmont in Spring 1944 at Donaldson Hough, Rothiemay, Scotland close to the previous find of the "Goose Stone" was the Pictish Incised Symbol Stone Tillytarmont 2. Unknowingly or not the stone was placed at the side of the field where it was then forgotten. Ten years later (1954) Dr Mackay while fishing on the Deveron, found the stone lying where it was left covered in weeds and grass and reported it to Mr Mitchell the Huntly Antiquarian and on his advice this stone too was placed in Whyness Riddochs garden at Whitestones, Rothiemay, Huntly for safe keeping. The stone still remains there along with Tillytarmont 3 in a cops of Trees. Although the stone is damaged and badly weathered the Crescent and V Rod, Double Disk and Z Rod can can still be seen.

Picture 2, Tillytarmont 4 Pictish Symbol Stone Rothiemay - Scotland

Back to the Stones of RothiemayThrough various researches the incised Pictish stone known as Tilytarmont 3 was possibly the stone that was discovered by Dr Grant of Huntly in the Spring of 1867. Dr Grant unfortunately died only a few months later and  information regarding the stone and it's position was scant. The stone was rediscovered in 1954 by Mr Whyness Riddoch of Whitestones, Rothiemay and Mr James Forbes lying covered in undergrowth beside the pathway to the old wooden Avochie suspension bridge (sadly no longer there) that crosses the River Deveron at Donaldson Hough. Later on that same year (1954) and by the permission of the Huntly Historian the stone was removed in case of further damage to the garden of Whitestones, Rothiemay where it still remains. The stone is badly weathered but shows the incised Crescent, Z rod and Concentric Rings.

Picture 1, Tillytarmont 4 Pictish Symbol Stone Rothiemay - ScotlandThe incised stone known as Tillytarmont 4 was the first of two stones that were ploughed up by Mr Allan of North, Tillytarmont Farm, Huntly, Aberdeenshire on the 18th October 1972. The stone was found while deep ridging at a depth of 28in in the place known as Donaldson Hough, which lies between the River Isla and the River Deveron at Rothiemay.  He then again moved around 1992 . On my visit to Boyndie in 1996 the stones had been purchased from him. They are now in the University Museum Aberdeen. Mr Allan is pictured on the left in the second of the two photographs taken on its discovery. The stone is incised with the Eagle and the Beast. 

Back to the Stones of Rothiemay

The stone known as Tillytarmont 5 was the 2nd of 2 stones that were ploughed up by Mr Allan Milne of Nth Tillytarmont Farm, Nr Huntly, Aberdeenshire on the 28th of March 1974. The stone again was found while deep ridging at a depth of 28in in the place known as Donaldson Hough, which lies between the River Isla and the River Devron at at Rothiemay. Upon his retirement in 1981 both stones were removed to his house at Boyndie, Nr Whitehills, Banffshire and both stones, were built into a wall in his garden.

By 1996 the stones had been removed and were purchased from him and are now in the University Museum Aberdeen. The only representation available of the stone is this drawing Depicting the Serpent and Zed Rod the Crescent, Comb and Mirror.  

Picture Redhill Neolithic Pictish Standing Stone - Scotland






Aberlemeno Pictish Stone 2Aberlemeno Pictish Stone 2


Burghead Bull 1Burghead Bull 6Neolithic man Engraving in Stone, ScotlandBurghead Fort OverlayArtists Impression Fort Entrance by John Tasker

These  remaining stones depicting what is now known as the ‘Burghead Bulls’ were thought to have adorned the ramparts of the fort or possibly around the forts gates and are thought by some to be a symbol of strength. Of the remaining stones, which are known, Burghead 3 and 4 can be seen at the Burghead Library, Burghead 2 and 6 are in the Elgin Museum, Burghead 1 is in the Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh and Burghead 5 is in the British Museum.  There is no doubt that Burghead Fort played a dominant part in Pictish society and must have been an important stronghold in the North for the Picts. The fort may well have been a ‘Pictish Capital’ of Northern Pictland.

If only they had Patented the Teething Ring, Mirror, Comb or the Brassiere


Brandsbutt Symbol Stone - About one mile north west of Inverurie

View larger imagePetrospheres ~ Carved Stone Balls 70mm in Diameter

An important, if enigmatic, type of ceremonial object which was well represented in the North-east around 2500 BC, is the carved stone ball. Of the more than 400 known, most have been found in the North East of Scotland between the Rivers Dee and the Deveron - the heartland of Aberdeenshire. The size of a tennis ball, usually with 6 protruding knobs, they are sometimes more elaborately decorated with spirals or plastic ornament which is similar to Grooved Ware, a type of late Neolithic pottery not known in the north-east but common in Orkney and Fife. They were clearly well-looked after by their owners to whom they must have conveyed status and prestige.   

The image seen here is of the stone ball found at Towie, Strathdon, which is one of the most highly decorated of the balls, with a complex pattern of spirals and concentric designs. It may be seen in the Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.  the decoration used falls into 3 categories, those with spirals, those with concentric circles and those with patterns of straight incised lines and hatchings. More than one design is used on the same ball and the standard of artwork varies from the extremely crude to the highly expert which only an exceptionally skilled craftsman could have produced. Some balls have designs on the interspaces between the knobs which must be significant in the context of the speculated use of these artefacts. 26 of the 6-knobbed balls are decorated.  The Orkney examples are unusual, being either all ornamented or otherwise unusual in appearance, such as the lack, bar one example, of the frequently found 6-knobbed type.  Metal may have been used to work some of the designs.  It has already been established that many of the late Neolithic stone balls had a diameter within a millimetre of each other, which indicates that they could be used collectively in some way rather than individually. By plotting the find sites on a map it can be demonstrated that often these petrospheres were located in the vicinity of Neolithic recumbent stone circles. 

Could these have been a respected and widely accepted commercial weight standard for a balance, perhaps a rope or leather thong swung weapon - but then any suitably shaped beach stone would do.

A highly prized unit of exchangeable wealth?  Ceremonial Orbs?

Standing With Stones


The Celts

The Celts, those mysterious denizens of the Iron Age, buried prominent people with wagons along with other goods. Wagons dating from about the 800 BC to 500 BC have been found throughout Europe in places like France, Germany, Austria and the former Yugoslavia.  Artwork of the time also featured images of wagons, which the Celts outfitted with iron tyres and pivoted axles. This includes engravings on a couch found at the burial site of a Celtic Chieftain, on which the dead reclined.  The couch, known as the Hochdorft kline, shows a 4-wheeled wagon drawn by a pair of horses. Seated on the wagon is a man carrying a shield and a sword, which leads historians to believe that wagons were used during times of war.  The Hochdorf kline is housed at the Hochdorf Celtic Museum in Germany.  Along with proving helpful in warfare, wagons during the Iron Age of the Hallstatt period (8th to 6th centuries BC) were used for transporting goods such as mined salt. Several carriages have also been found whose purpose appears to have been exclusively ceremonial. The carriages feature animals and symbolic objects rather than providing room for passengers.

Rodney's Stone

An upright cross-slab of grey sandstone was found in 1781 during excavations for foundations for Dyke Church, which was constructed behind its pre-Reformation predecessor. The stone must have been in the graveyard of the old church.  The stone was erected in Dyke village in commemoration of Rodney's victory over the Count de Grasse (Battle of the Saints - 1782) from which it received the name 'Rodney's Cross.' It was removed to the Park of Brodie a few years before 1842. (J G Callander has noted in the National Museum copy of Allen and Anderson 1903 "this stone was dug up by a gravedigger...locally known as Rotteny..and it was from this it got its name, not from Rodney's victory - authority of the late Rev. John MacEwan, Minister of Dyke.)
The stone, erected on a modern base and held upright by wrought iron struts, is rectangular in shape, 6'4" high by 3'5" wide at the bottom and 3'2" wide at the top. It is sculptured in relief, with Ogham inscriptions down each of the four angles.  The front bears a celtic cross with interlacing, and the back bears symbols including fish monsters, the elephant or dolphin, double disc and z-rod.

Rodney’s Stone is a Class II Pictish symbol stone, probably carved in the 8th century. Along 3 corners runs the longest known Scottish Ogham Inscription, extending for over 3m. Reused as a recumbent grave marker in perhaps the 16th or 17th century, it was rediscovered in 1781 during the excavation of foundations for a new parish church in the village of Dyke. Having been erected in Dyke the following year, it was subsequently moved to its present position in the 1820s/30s. Deri Jones Associates undertook a 3-D laser scan of the entire stone, with further, higher resolution scans of the ogham text/s and of strategic areas to act as a baseline for condition monitoring between March–December 2010. Data processing by Archaeoptics Ltd is ongoing; it is hoped that the high resolution data will allow a more complete transcription of the ogham to be created, elucidating some of the more heavily eroded letters.

Ogham writing is the earliest known form of written Irish. The alphabet pre dates the 5th century.  It consists of an alphabet of 20 letters used for stone and wood inscriptions in Celtic Ireland. The letters consist of one to five perpendicular or angled strokes meeting or crossing a centre line. The form of the letters allows them to be carved easily on objects of wood and stone. Ogham was carved and read from bottom to top.

Ogham is sometimes referred to as the Celtic Tree Language as each letter was named after a tree the people were familiar with, and used.Ogham inscriptions consist almost exclusively of personal names and marks, possibly indicating land ownership, though some appear to be memorials to the dead.  Any wood Ogham inscription have, of course, long vanished. However, there are roughly 400 Ogham inscriptions in stone found to date, of which 330 are from Ireland. The other Ogham stones have been found in England, Scotland, Wales, Isle of Man and Shetland.
The Irish had no other written alphabet until Christian missionaries introduced Latin. Ogham ceased to be used after the 1st few centuries of the Christian era, as the use of inscription language was reviled as a pagan practice.

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Last modified: 01/09/2013