The Scottish countryside is littered with a wealth of Pictish stones, which remain the most tangible record we possess of the now disappeared Pictish culture. Some 400 stones have survived, although this total is probably only a small fraction of the total amount that once existed.
The stones have variously been interpreted as boundary markers, marriage proclamations or even pagan altars. The balance of academic opinion however considers that they are most likely to be memorial stones , commemorating either the dead or some significant event.
The classification of Pictish stones
Pictish stones are categorised into three groups following the system established in 1903 by J. Romilly Allen and Joseph Anderson (1) as follows;
- Class I: are undressed stones, bearing no Christian iconography; the decorative features consist of symbols which are incised with frequent addition of similarly incised curved or spiral lines.
- Class II: are upright cross-slabs (stones that have been dressed into an approximately rectangular shape) that feature a Christian cross, normally in an interlace design, sculptured in relief on the front of the slab, with symbols similarly carved in relief on the back.
- Class III: are generally Christian, but do not feature any symbols. They are much more varied in form and include both recumbent and upright cross-slabs as well as upright free-standing crosses.
There is generally assumed to be a chronological progression from the earliest Class I through to the later Class III types, although such distinctions are unlikely to be precise.
The Class I and Class II stones are considered to be the most authentically "Pictish" as they feature Pictish symbols. It is these Pictish symbols that generate the most interest as they constitute the only form of written record that as ever survived of the Picts.
Some fifty different symbols have been identified, which are generally either in the form of representations of various animals or of a geometric nature such as a double disc or crescent. Unfortunately no one has yet discovered the Pictish equivalent of the Rosetta Stone so the precise meaning of these symbols remains elusive and a matter of conjecture. (2)
Generally speaking, apart from the mirror and comb symbol (which is thought to mean "here lies" or something similar), and the hammer and anvil symbol (meaning "built by"), most are believed to represent names; either the name of the dead person being commemorated, or of the person who had the stone erected.
(1) The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland (Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 1903)
(2) There is the Drosten stone that features a brief inscription, but this is too short and fragmentary to be of much use.
Sourced from The Age of the Picts - W A Cummins (Sutton Publishing, 1995) and British Archaeology (No 3, April 1995) at http://www.britarch.ac.uk/ba/ba3/ba3feat.html