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  The Brough of Birsay

The Pictish Symbol Stone

The solitary symbol stone found on the Brough o' Birsay, is probably the best-known piece of Pictish art found in Orkney.

Thought to date from the eighth century AD, the Birsay stone paints a vivid and intriguing picture of the Pictish nobility who lived in the area.

Originally over six feet tall, the Birsay stone was found in fragments during the 1935 excavation of a later Christian cemetery on the Brough.

How it met its demise is unclear, but it has been suggested that marks on the rear of the stone could indicate that it was deliberately smashed.

Triple grave?

The original stone was removed to a museum in Edinburgh, but a smaller replica stands on the Brough today.

Although the replica is now found within the graveyard, at the head of a triple grave, this is nothing more than "artistic licence" - the original stone was found in an area outside the kirkyard wall and is unlikely to have had anything to do with the graveyard.

Pictish symbols

Carved into the stone's face are the fairly common Pictish symbols of a mirror and a crescent and V-rod.

Beneath these is the intriguing creature referred to as the "Pictish Beast" as well as another fine example of the eagle symbol.

Then, at the base of the stone, is a relief depiction of three fully armed Pictish warriors.

Clad in ankle length robes, the three men in the procession carry decorated square shields and massive war spears. Scabbarded around their waists are their swords.

The three men seem to be lined up in order of rank or status - the bearded figure at the front is distinctly more ornate and "regal" than his companions.

His cloak is grander, decorated with what appears to be a fringed hem, and his shield is larger and highly embellished. His long, shoulder-length hair is elaborately curled and he may be wearing a head-dress or "crown".

The second man in the line is also bearded but his possessions are nowhere near as grand as his leader. The final warrior is a beardless youth. The impression from the carving is that these two men are definitely subordinate to the lead figure.

What does the stone depict? In truth we will never really know, although we can make suggestions.

It may be that the stone acts as a memorial, perhaps to the warrior "king" shown at the head of the procession.

Or does it commemorate some ancient - and now forgotten - historical event. Is it a marker stone, designating territory, or simply a piece of decorative art portraying a once common but now lost element of Pictish mythology or folklore.