Rare Pictish symbol stone found near potential site of famous Scottish battle


A team of archaeologists have uncovered a Pictish symbol stone close to the site of what is thought to have been one of the most important battles in Scotland’s history.

Researchers from the University of Aberdeen discovered the 1.7metre-long stone in a farmer’s field while investigating the areas around one of the most significant carved stone monument sites ever uncovered in Scotland.

The team were conducting geophysical surveys to try and build a greater understanding of the important Pictish landscape of Aberlemno, near Forfar.

Well known for its importance to Pictish heritage, Aberlemnois where a collection of unique Pictish standing stones had already been found, the most famous of which is a cross-slab thought to depict scenes from a battle of vital importance to the creation of what would become Scotland – the Battle of Nechtansmere.

The archaeologists were conducting geophysics surveys of the ground early in 2020 in an effort to better understand the history of the existing stones and after finding anomalies that looked like evidence of a settlement they dug down to instead discover a carved Pictish symbol stone, one of only around 200 known.

Hindered by the pandemic, they have only now just been able to investigate the stone fully and think it dates to around the fifth or sixth century.

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They have painstakingly excavated part of the settlement and removed it from its resting place – finding out more about the stone and its setting.

Professor Gordon Noble who leads the project says stumbling upon a stone as part of an archaeological dig is very unusual.

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The team lifting the Pictish stone

He said: “Here at the University of Aberdeen we’ve been leading Pictish research for the last decade but none of us have ever found a symbol stone before.

“There are only around 200 of these monuments known. They are occasionally dug up by farmers ploughing fields or during the course of road building but by the time we get to analyze them, much of what surrounds them has already been disturbed.

“To come across something like this while digging one small test pit is absolutely remarkable and none of us could quite believe our luck.”



A close up of one of the Pictish symbols
A close up of one of the Pictish symbols

Research fellow Dr James O’Driscoll who initially discovered the stone describes the excitement: “We thought we’d just uncover a little bit more before we headed off for the day.

“We suddenly saw a symbol. There was lots of screaming. Then we found more symbols and there was more screaming and a little bit of crying!

“It’s a feeling that I’ll probably never have again on an archaeological site. It’s a find of that scale.”

Like the other stones at Aberlemno, the new discovery appears to be intricately carved with evidence of classic abstract Pictish symbols including triple ovals, a comb and mirror, a crescent and V rod and double discs. Unusually the stone appears to show different periods of carving with symbols overlying one another.

The stone has now been moved to Graciela Ainsworth conservation lab in Edinburgh where more detailed analysis will take place.

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Professor Noble hopes that it could make a significant contribution to understanding the significance of Aberlemno to the Picts.

“The stone was found built into the paving of a huge building from the 11th or 12th century.

“The paving included the Pictish stones and examples of Bronze Age rock art. Excitingly the 11th-12th century building appears to be built directly on top of settlement layers extending back to the Pictish period” he added.

“The cross-slab that stands in the nearby church at Aberlemno has long been thought to depict King Bridei Mac Bili’s defeat of the Anglo Saxon King Ecgfrith in 685, which halted the expansion of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms to the north.

“The settlement of Dunnichen, from which the battle is thought to have taken its name, is just a few miles from Aberlemno.

“In recent years scholars have suggested another potential battle site in Strathspey, but the sheer number of Pictish stones from Aberlemno certainly suggests the Aberlemno environments was a hugely important landscape to the Picts.

“The discovery of this new Pictish symbol stone and evidence that this site was occupied over such a long period will offer new insights into this significant period in the history of Scotland as well as helping us to better understand how and why this part of Angus became a key Pictish landscape and latterly an integral part of the kingdoms of Alba and Scotland.”

Researchers will now be working with the Pictish Arts Society to develop a fundraising campaign for the conservation and display of the stone.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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