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  The Picts

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 theories aplenty.

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 names.

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.

Class I 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 II stones.
Class II 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.

These are:

Section Contents

See Also
The Brough o' Birsay

At Burrian, in Harray, an incised cross was found along with an impressive eagle, similar to the one carved on the standing stone at the Brough o' Birsay, a crescent and V rod and mirror symbols. The cross, like many other remnants of Orkney's past now resides in Edinburgh but the eagle can be viewed at the Orkney Museum in Kirkwall.
The earliest dateable symbol stone in Scotland was unearthed at Pool in Sanday. This stone fragment was found to be decorated with a rough double-disk symbol and dates from the middle of the sixth century AD.
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