Discover Your Backyard: The Kings in the North


Who were ‘The Kings in the North’ I hear you ask? Well, not the House of Stark as Game of Thrones fans would argue. No, the true historical Kings in the North were the enigmatic chieftains of the Picts! Before Scotland became the unified country that we know and love, the land was split amongst various tribes, with the Picts dominating the modern-day areas of The Highlands, Moray, Aberdeenshire, Angus, Fife and Perthshire during the early Medieval period (from around the fourth century AD to the tenth century).


Tap o' Noth Hill Fort - vitrified walls

Over the years, a romantic notion of the Picts has developed, possibly due to their striking artwork, expressed through their carved symbol stones, or maybe due to their belligerent resistance to occupation from the Roman Empire. These enigmatic barbarians, that probably descended from northern Iron Age tribes, were first described and recorded as Picts by the Romans in 297AD, possibly as a derisory nickname meaning ‘the painted ones’. At that time, it seems that they were more of a collection of similar tribes, with powerbases in, amongst other places, Portmahomack (about 30 miles north of Inverness), Burghead (on the Moray coast), and Rhynie (Aberdeenshire).


Rodney's Stone, Brodie Castle

By the late seventh century, the Picts started to unify under one king. Then consolidation occurred between the Picts and Dal Riata (the Gaels / Scots who dominated the Argyll region) as they both came under the leadership of Kenneth son of Alpin in 842/3AD. By the eleventh century, much of the lands of the Britons and Angles in the Lowlands were fused into the emerging Scottish nation, with only the islands and northern coastal regions under the control of the Vikings. Indeed, it was possibly the belligerence of the Vikings that stimulated the process of Scottish consolidation in the first place.

This, of course, is a very short description of the history of the Picts, a history that is a lot more complicated and nuanced, with much left to discover about this mysterious people. However, what can’t be denied is the rich treasure trove of carved symbol stones and dramatic forts that the Picts have left us. Much of this can still be seen in situ, surrounded by some of the best landscapes that the north has to offer. Other evidence of the Picts is now at home within some excellent local museums.


The view from Dunnideer Hill Fort

This travel blog is by no means a complete guide to the historical evidence left by The Kings in the North, but I hope that it gives you inspiration to discover these easily accessible bygone gems. I have categorised these sites geographically, covering the Angus region, then north to Aberdeenshire and then west to Moray Speyside and The Highlands.



Don’t forget that at Tailor-Made Itineraries we delight in creating bespoke self-guided tours. So, if visiting any of these Pictish sites appeals to you, reach out to us by email. We would be more than happy to design a self-guided tour around your requirements incorporating the Picts of the North, or indeed, a general tour of Scotland.


Angus


Aberlemno

There are four stones with Pictish carvings in the village of Aberlemno, variously dating between about AD 500 and 800. Three stand on a roadside, while one stands in the village churchyard.


The southern roadside stone is an unshaped boulder, which is highly eroded, but it may bear the traces of a curving symbol. While the northern roadside stone may have been a prehistoric standing stone reused by the Picts. It bears three of the distinctive symbols commonly found on Pictish symbol stones: a serpent; a double-disc and z-rod; a mirror and comb. The roadside cross-slab is an extraordinary monument. It’s carved on all sides, featuring: a cross with worshipping angels; two ornate Pictish symbols; a hunting scene; the biblical king David fighting a lion.


The churchyard cross-slab is considered one of the finest surviving examples of Pictish carving. On one side it features a fine cross with elaborate interlace decoration on a backdrop of interlaced animals. The side of the stone facing the church depicts a battle.

This scene may commemorate the Battle of Nechtansmere, which was once thought to have taken place near Dunnichen, 10km south of Aberlemno, in AD 685. King Ecgfrith of Northumbria was killed in this battle, ending the Anglian occupation of Pictish territory.


Tailor-Made Top Tip: There is a replica of the churchyard cross-slab in the primary school carpark. This is also an ideal place to park when checking out the three roadside stones.


Aberlemno Stones

The Montrose Museum and Art Gallery

The Montrose Museum and Art Gallery tells the story of Montrose and its people - from the earliest archaeological finds to the gallant Marquis of Montrose and the Jacobite uprisings, to the harbour and maritime trade.


Of particular note is Inchbrayock (or Samson) Stone on display in the museum. This carved Pictish stone shows an armed hunter on horseback chasing a deer. Below is Samson smiting a Philistine with the jawbone of an ass. Samson is dressed as a Celt, and spot the obvious mistake with the teeth on the wrong side of the jawbone. The front is dominated by the Celtic cross, with Delilah cutting the sleeping Samson’s hair.


Traces of ancient pigment have been found on some Early Christian stones. It is quite possible that they originally looked quite different to the weathered stones we see today. I thought that the museum did a great job interpreting what the stone could have looked like.


Tailor-Made Top Tip: During a visit to Montrose, you can also check out the House of Dun and also the Montrose Air Station Heritage Centre.



The Cross Stone of Glenesk

A trip up the beautiful and lonely Glenesk, takes you to the small hamlet of Tarfside. If you take the footpath from the St. Drostan's Church towards the Maule Monument (which is worth seeing in itself), you will find the small Cross Stone on your left, just five-minutes into the walk.


The Cross Stone is associated with St. Drostan, and legend has it, Robert the Bruce planted his standard on the stone before entering battle against the Red Comyn, the Earl of Buchan in the winter of 1306. St. Drostan had sailed from Ireland to Scotland in the year 563, accompanying St. Columba, who is credited with spreading Christianity throughout Scotland. On arriving in Scotland, St Drostan made his way to Aberdeenshire, setting up and running a successful missionary centre in Deer, before deciding to retire to Glenesk.


Tailor-Made Top Tip: Continue up along the path, then cut up through the fields to get to the Maule Monument.


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The McManus: Dundee's Art Gallery & Museum

The McManus has some lovely historical collections, and the building itself has been exquisitely designed. The collection holds a number of Pictish carvings, including the Benvie cross slab or warrior slab, from around 800 AD. The upper part of the stone shows a man with elaborately styled curly hair and a long moustache. This is very Celtic in style. The lower part of the stone shows a helmeted warrior. The Picts were farmers, horse breeders and craftsmen, but they most commonly depict themselves as warriors.


Tailor-Made Top Tip: Dundee is full of great attractions to visit. Consider a trip to the V&A Dundee Museum, RRS Discovery and the Verdant Works.



Eassie Pictish Stone

The Eassie Cross slab is one of the earliest examples of a Pictish cross-slab, dating to the late AD 600s. It’s in a remarkable state of preservation – while weathered, details like the musculature of the deer depicted are still clearly visible. The cross-slab now sits in a purpose-built shelter in the corner of a ruined church at Eassie, and was found in a stream that runs below the churchyard wall. This was very likely the site of an early Pictish church. The Eassie Cross-Slab measures about 2m tall and 1m wide, with a slightly pedimented top.


Tailor-Made Top Tip: Eassie is just a five-minute drive from Glamis Castle which is a great day out.


Read on to discover the Pictish sites of Aberdeenshire.


Aberdeenshire


Picardy Stone

Wonder at the enigmatic carvings on a 2m tall Pictish monolith, which once stood on a stone cairn. The Picardy Symbol Stone is unusual for two reasons: it’s one of only a few Pictish carved stones standing in its original spot and it’s a rare instance of a stone potentially associated with a burial. It’s carved with the mysterious symbols typical of Pictish stones from this era, dating to about AD 600. From the stone’s site we get a good view of the Dunnideer hill-fort, which may have been the stronghold of a Pictish chief.


The carvings on the Picardy Stone are typical of early Pictish symbol stones. From the top, the south face of the stone is carved with: a double-disc and Z-rod; a tightly coiled serpent and Z-rod; a simple mirror. The precise meaning of these carvings is unknown, and remains the subject of debate.


Tailor-Made Top Tip: The stone is just a fifteen-minute drive from Leith Hall, which is open during the summer months and makes an excellent day out.



Dunnideer Hill Fort

Dunnideer Castle, now ruined, was a tower house built around 1260 partially from the remains of an existing vitrified hill fort in the same location.


The substantial vitrified hillfort with outer works consists of two stone walls. Vitrification means that the stone walls had been fused together by the application of intense heat, although it is not clear why this was done. Samples of the vitrification show date the process to between 550-250 BC, so it seems that this hilltop was defended from the Iron Age, through the time of the Picts and on to the Middle Ages.


Tailor-Made Top Tip: Discover the Dunnideer Stone Circle at the foot of the hill, towards the north-west.


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Maiden Stone

The Maiden Stone is a 3m-tall cross-slab of pinkish granite, dating to sometime after AD 700. It bears both characteristic Pictish symbols and what may be a biblical scene. Local folklore exists around the Maiden Stone. One tale has it that the stone was once a maiden, who lost a bet with the Devil. As she fled, the Devil turned her to stone. Another says it’s a memorial to a young woman killed as a result of a dispute between two families.


Tailor-Made Top Tip: The Old Post Office Tearoom, in the nearby village of Chapel of Garioch, is an ideal stop for a coffee when visiting the Maiden Stone.



Kinord Celtic Cross

On the north shore of Loch Kinord stands a 9th-century, cross slab Pictish stone. It is carved with intricate knot work and indicates that there may have been a small monastery or chapel located nearby. At some point in history, the cross was lost and buried however it was dug up again 1820’s and erected at Aboyne Castle. In 1959 it was returned to its current location.


Tailor-Made Top Tip: Loch Kinord is part of the stunning Muir of Dinnet nature reserve and also contains the spectacular Burn o’ Vat pothole, which measures 18 metres across and 13 metres high. You can easily enjoy a half-day or even a full-day exploring this beautiful nature reserve.


Kinord Celtic Cross

Mither Tap

Bennachie, also known as the Mither Tap, is one of northeast Scotland's most recognisable landmarks. From its highest summit of Oxen Craig at 528 metres to Millstone Hill and its most popular peak, Mither Tap, history abounds in this ancient landscape. Some believe that the peak had religious significance which is connected to the profile of the hill - it is shaped like a female breast. This is reflected in the name "Mither Tap" (Mother Top) and "Bennachie" (Beinn na Ciche: 'hill of the breast'). It has also been suggested as a possible site of the battle of Mons Graupius.


There are remains of a hill fort about 30 m below the summit. The main wall, which is around 7 metres wide and up to 1.7 metres high, encloses a central area with the stone walls linking individual granite outcrops. The entrance to the northeast is well-preserved, as is the main wall around the site. There is a parapet wall still visible on the rampart next to the entrance. Recent archaeological works have uncovered radiocarbon dated samples from 613 to 858 AD.


Tailor-Made Top Tip: There are four car parks situated around the hill giving easy access to the forest and hilltops of Bennachie - the Donview car park near Monymusk, Back O'Bennachie near Oyne, the Rowan tree car park and the Bennachie Visitor Centre. A hike from the visitor centre to the Mither Tap and back will take around two and a half hours to complete.



Tap o' Noth Hillfort

Remains of an impressive hillfort can be found atop the Tap o’ Noth hill, near the village of Rhynie. At 563 m above sea level this is the second highest in Scotland after Griam Beg in Sutherland. Two defensive lines have been identified on the hillside. The larger, lower enclosure covers a massive 21 hectares with an outwork, a stony wall with a core of boulders, running round the break of slope on all but the steeper southeast side. The upper fort consists of a massive stone wall, 6-8 m wide and up to 5 m high, that has been vitrified extremely heavily in places, enclosing a rectangular area.


The Tap o’ Noth site has seen extensive archaeological digs. Roman ceramics have been discovered, as well as areas being dated to the Early Medieval period, showing that this impressive hillfort had been in use from the Iron Age through to the time of the Picts.


Tailor-Made Top Tip: There is a carpark at the southern end of the hill, with a winding path leading up to the summit. It can get a bit muddy, so bring appropriate footwear.


Rhynie Pictish Stones

After hiking to the summit of Tap o’ Noth, make sure to visit the three Pictish symbol stones that are housed in a wooden shelter on Manse Road in Rhynie. These seventh century stones were found re-used in the foundations of the old church during demolition in 1878.


Tailor-Made Top Tip: Perhaps the most famous local Pictish stone is that of the ‘Rhynie Man’ and this can be found in the reception area of Woodhill House, the headquarters of Aberdeenshire Council.



Old Dyce Church Stones

Next time you take off from Aberdeen International Airport, take a moment to think of the ruined kirk of St Fergus below. This church, on the banks of the River Don, contains a pair of impressive Pictish stones, one featuring a rare ogham inscription. The older of the two, probably dating from about AD 600, is a granite symbol stone depicting a swimming beast above a cluster of symbols. The later of the two, probably from some time after AD 700, is a cross-slab. It shows a cross boldly filled with interlace carvings, surrounded by four symbols. The cross-slab contains an inscription in ogham, a script which seems to have been introduced to the Picts by Irish missionaries in about AD 600. Its meaning is a mystery.


This mysterious inscription along the length of the cross-slab’s right-hand side is one of about 30 examples of this linear lettering found on Pictish stones. It consists of groups of horizontal or diagonal strokes along or across a vertical line. The inscription on the Dyce cross-slab reads: EOTTASSARRHETODDEDDOTSMAQQROGODDADD. What it means is a mystery, although the last part could refer to a person’s name, Rogoddadd.


Tailor-Made Top Tip: Explore the site around the historic kirk. Evidence points to Dyce as the site of an early and important Pictish church, with is possibly being a pagan site that was converted to Christian use.



Inverurie Cemetery

This cemetery will look a little odd to the casual observer. A flat area, filled with head stones, but bordered by two little hills. The mounds are actually a remnant of a motte and bailey castle - known as the Bass of Inverurie - which was built by the Earl of Garioch in the 12th century. In between the two castle platforms is a large glass display case containing four impressively carved Pictish stones.


The symbol stones were originally built into the old churchyard walls and possibly removed from the foundations of the old church for the purpose of building the churchyard wall. One is a tall pillar bearing incised symbols of a crescent and V-rod, a mirror case symbol, serpent and Z-rod and a double disc and Z-rod. The second is a truncated slab with a disc and rectangle and the arch or horseshoe symbol. The third stone bears an incised double disc and Z-rod. The fourth stone is the only occurrence of a single incised horse on a Pictish stone.


Tailor-Made Top Tip: There is are steep paths that lead up to the top of each mound, giving great views over the cemetery.


Read on to discover the Pictish sites of Moray.



Moray


The Battle Stone at Mortlach Church

Nestled between two whisky distilleries, Mortlach Church is a fascinating ancient Christian site. In the graveyard an impressive Pictish cross-slab can be found amongst the headstones. Known as The Battle Stone, this slab is carved on both broad faces. Face A bears an outline cross with rounded armpits, with incised running spiral ornament. Above the cross are two poorly delineated sea-monsters facing one another, while below is a clumsy attempt at a lion facing right. On face B are incised a bird facing left over a serpent over a bull’s head, above a horseman and hound. The stone is thought to date from some point between the seventh and ninth centuries, and is traditionally believed to commemorate a battle, but this is not certain.


Tailor-Made Top Tip: There is a lovely scenic walk from Mortlach Church that crosses the River Dullan and heads up to picture postcard ‘Giant’s Chair’ feature.



Inveravon Church

Inveravon Parish Church (sometimes called Inveraven) occupies a sublime location on a bluff above the south eastern bank of the River Spey. The church you see today was built in 1806. but was the latest in a series of churches that have stood on the same site. It is possible that a chapel was built here by St Drostan in the early 600s. Steps lead up to a porch on the north wall of the church, which has been converted to provide shelter for the Inveravon Pictish Stones rather than a door into the church itself.


Tailor-Made Top Tip: Ballindalloch Castle is one of the most handsome castles in Scotland that you can visit and it is just round the corner from the church.


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Rodney's Stone

Rodney's Stone is a two-metre high Pictish cross slab now located close on the approach way to Brodie Castle. It was originally found nearby in the grounds of the old church of Dyke and Moy. It is classed as a Class II Pictish stone, meaning that it has a cross on one face, and symbols on the other. On the symbols face, at the top, are two fish monsters; below is a "Pictish Beast", and below that a double disc and Z-rod. On the cross face there is a cross and some animals. The stone is most notable, however, for its inscription, which is found on both sides and on the cross face. It is the longest of all Pictish inscriptions, and like most Pictish inscriptions, is written in the Ogham alphabet. Much of the inscription is weathered, but it does contain the Pictish name Ethernan (a prominent Pictish saint), written as "EDDARRNON".