The enigma of the symbol stones
If there is one item that has come to typify the
Picts in Scotland, it must surely be the numerous ornately carved
symbol stones they left behind.
No-one really knows, with any degree of certainty,
why these enigmatic stones were erected or the significance of the
symbols carved on them. But, as with all things Pictish, there are
Some scholars exclaim they were territorial markers,
others that the stones commemorated great people or events.
It has also been suggested that symbols may denote
the rank of an individual within the community, perhaps recorded
marriage treaties, or were a means of representing personal Pictish
The significance of the symbols
Pictish symbols usually occur in pairs and around
50 are known.
These include animals, such as the salmon, deer and
bull, birds such as the eagle and goose, “monsters”
such as the infamous Pictish Beast and more enigmatic designs such
as the crescent and V rod, comb and mirror and double disk.
These symbols, it has been suggested, predate
the symbol stones and were perhaps based on the tattoos the Pictish
tribes used to decorate their bodies.
From body adornments, which
may have had symbolic or magical properties, the symbols may have
been transferred onto objects such as jewellery, shields and doorposts
before finally ending up on the symbol stones.
Pictish symbol stones are generally found in the
north-east of Scotland, with clusters found along the eastern coasts
and into the Highlands.
A handful of symbol stones, mostly fragments,
have been found in Orkney, the most spectacular and well-known being
the stone found at the Brough
o' Birsay. But compared to the numbers found in the heart of
Pictland, actual symbol stones in Orkney are comparatively rare
– only 11 examples of Pictish symbols have been found so far.
Historians and archaeologists have classified
the symbol stones into two distinct groups, depending on the form
of the stone and the symbols found thereon.
||The Class I stones are believed to be the earliest, having
symbols carved into larger boulders or stone slabs. These are
thought to have been carved in the sixth/seventh centuries AD,
but continued to be created well into the period of the Class
||The Class II stones feature symbols carved in relief on rectangular,
shaped slabs. These stones often feature Christian elements
or scenes alongside the Pictish symbols and are found around
the Moray Firth and Tayside in Scotland. Class II stones are
thought to date from the eighth and ninth centuries AD – a
time when the Picts were converting to Christianity.
Orkney's symbol stones
As mentioned above, 12 examples of Pictish symbols
have been recorded in Orkney.