Pictish Symbol Stones
Pictish Symbol Stones are generally thought to have been carved between around 500AD to around 900AD. They are found all over modern Scotland, from the South West of Scotland to the Shetland Isles. While there are a few examples from the west coast and the Hebrides, the highest concentration is found in the East of Scotland, particularly the North East of Scotland.
The symbols themselves are usually found in pairs (on un-broken stones), and can also feature the apparently subsidiary symbols, the ‘mirror and comb’. There are varying estimates of the number of symbols used by the Picts within the symbols pairs. While some estimates suggest up to as many as sixty symbols, more recent analysis suggests a more reasonable figure of around 28-40 symbols, . These appear in different combinations on around 350 stones.
Symbols have also been found on silver objects, such as the silver plaques from the ‘Norrie’s Law’ horde and silver chains and it is possible that symbol pairs represented on other media which have simply rotted away. It is possible these symbols were painted or tattooed on the skin of Pictish warriors.
The symbols found on Class I and Class II stones can be quite exquisite in their execution, created with great artistry and free flowing lines. This is particularly true of the some sixteen or so animalistic symbols. These include beautiful representations of lions, deer, wild boar, birds and fish and other creatures (real or imagined). These are reminiscent of the animal figures that appear in the Book of Kells and other religious illuminated manuscripts originating from the Celtic Church from the second half of the first millennium (although Class I stones probably predate these manuscripts). This has led to speculation on the input of Picts in the creation of these great art works – heightened by the strong possibility that the Book of Kells was probably created in monasteries on the west coast of Scotland. Parallels have also been drawn with other artefacts featuring animals from the burial site of an Anglo-Saxon king at Sutton Hoo dating from around 650 AD, as well as much earlier examples from Celtic artefacts.
The seemingly abstract Pictish symbols that appear in pairings on hundreds of stones, number in the high twenties, and can be highly sophisticated in design and execution. It is possible that some represent particular objects that would have been recognisable to the population at large in Pictland but have been rendered in a two dimensional manner that makes them difficult to decipher as recognisable objects. In addition there are secondary symbols that are clearly depictions of inanimate objects which often appear alongside the principle symbol pairs, and usually take the form of a hand mirror and comb, or more rarely implements which may be related to the art of the blacksmith; including hammers and tongs and perhaps even the blacksmith’s anvil (see Abernethy stone below).
Classification of the Stones
The stones have been sorted into three classes; Class 1, Class 2 and Class 3.
Class 1 stones are thought to be older in origin, with Pictish symbols incised into the surface of the stone. The stones themselves are rough and unworked. Some may have been originally neolithic stranding stones, reused by the Picts. They have no Christian symbolism present.
Class 2 stones generally have both Christian symbolism and Pictish symbols present. The stones are worked rather than rough, and the images are carved in relief, in contrast to the incised technique used in class 1 stones.
Class 3 stones are Christian stones from the Pictish period, but with no Pictish symbols present.