Two journeys, one destination (6) – a Pictish horizon

With the wonderful Portmahomack behind us, it was time to meet the three Pictish stones that marked the horizon line of the Tarbat Peninsula. These would originally have been visible from the sea, and boats approaching from the Moray Firth would have known they were approaching sacred Pictish land – centred on the monastery at Portmahomack.

On this second day of the Silent Eye’s Pictish Trail weekend, our plan was to work our way back from Portmahomack along the spine of the Tarbat Peninsula towards Inverness, viewing each of the major standing stones and ending with a visit to Rosemarkie – across the Cromarty Firth on the Black Isle.

Our first stop was at Balintore, a village that looks out over the Moray Firth. There, we saw signs for the nearby Hilton of Cadboll Pictish stone. I was eager to see this famous stone, about which we had read so much in the Tarbat Discovery Centre. I knew a little of its history, but the truth was to be more fascinating than I could have envisaged…

This Pictish stone at Hilton Cadboll was created at the Portmahomack Monastery to the classic design of a what we now call a Pictish Class II cross-slab. One side would have contained symbols from the older Celtic (pre-Christian) religion, mixed with local glyphs of the sponsoring family. The other would contain Christian iconography.

The cross-slab was erected here in about AD 800. Sadly, it broke soon after, under the pressure of high winds. The stone was re-erected, on the same spot; the lower portion being buried to form a new base. It broke again in 1674, and a further section was left in the ground. This beautiful stone has not enjoyed a happy history…

In about 1676 the entire Christian cross-face was chipped off by a local laird to create a family grave slab! By 1780 the surviving half of the stone was recorded as being near the ruins of a now-vanished chapel which is presumed to be located under the mound of earth next to the present stone.

(Above: the mound that covers the ancient church and, possibly its hamlet)

100 years later the stone endured a somewhat ‘political’ journey via Invergordon Castle and the British Museum to be returned to the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, where the original is now located.

The local people were not happy at the loss of their precious stone, but accepted that it was now safe from harm and, at least, back in Scotland. Its original base and thousands of broken fragments were extracted from the site in 2001. But the local population were so supportive of their folk-history, they paid for a magnificent replica to be carved, in situ, over a five year period. The work was carried out by local sculptor Barry Grove.

(Above: the seaward-facing side of the Hilton Cadboll slab-cross. This was re-created by the sculptor using his knowledge of similar stones)

Barry says of the reconstructed stone:

“No Pictish tools survive. At our Iron Age bonecarving workshop, Jim Glazzard used a Viking tool box as his basis for the iron tools. The Hilton of Cadboll stone also provided some evidence. It snapped and blew over several centuries ago, and the remains of the base and lower areas of carving became buried.”

Remarkably, during an excavation taking place prior to the erection of Barry Grove’s replica, the original base (from AD 800) was found preserved by the soil – which also revealed the nature of the Pictish carver’s chisel marks. This provided the sculptor with a basis of authentic design and technique for the reconstruction of the missing cross face. Using what he had as clues, Barry Groves spent a month on the design, then began what would be five years of stone carving. The rediscovered original base has a secure home in the local Seaboard Memorial Hall in Balintore. Sadly, we didn’t have time to visit.

It’s a remarkable story of a small community succeeding against the odds…

(Above: the upper face of the ‘Celtic’ Pictish design, showing a noble woman leading a hunt, which includes several men in the group on foot. This is deemed to show her superiority. She may well have been the sponsor of the Hilton of Cadboll stone. Above the hunt scene, the upper face contains the traditional twin discs and ‘V-Rod’ design, which will be commented on later in the post.

Standing before the ‘restored’ Hilton Cadboll cross-slab is a profound experience. You can view the stone as original Pictish ancestors would have seen it over 800 years ago. Standing in front of it in the sunshine, with the sea at your back, is quite an experience…and freely given. There is no charge.

It is believed that all such stones were originally painted. The image below shows how the centre section of the Hilton Cadboll cross slab would have originally looked. The use of colour makes the symbols a lot more ‘familiar’.

But what of the Pictish symbols, such as the ‘V-Rod’ and the twin discs, both of which feature on the Hilton of Cadboll stone? It is unlikely that we will ever find a ‘Rosetta stone’ that gives a word for word translation. But there’s nothing stopping us looking at the symbols and letting our conscious (and possibly subconscious) minds having a go…

Symbols are universal. If they ‘speak’ to us, then there’s a reason. We can relax and let them share what they are. We don’t have to be archeologists to sit with the symbol and let it talk. If we take a child’s approach and ‘say what we see’, then insights can happen.

Take the upper symbol above – the V-Rod. When I did this, earlier, the two halves of the rod suggested an arrow. But it’s not broken in two, just bent… at what looks like a precise angle; a little greater than 90 degrees. Lets take a guess and examine what 100 degrees looks like:

That looks quite close… So, as fingers have been around for a long time, and the Picts clearly had a strong grasp of numbers and geometry, we could say that the V-Rod might represent 10×10 fingers – or ten ‘men’. The arrow may indicate that they were warriors, so we have ten warriors, which may have had symbolic significance. It might have been short form for an army, for example.

The crescent looks moon-like to me, but it might also represent the bowl of the heavens. Also, it seems to contain waves. This might alter the overall interpretation of the symbol. The lower curves in the crescent remind me of the bowed shape of a sail. We might be looking at sailing warriors, then. Masters of the craft of sailing long distances, possibly using the moon or stars for stealthy navigation? Or perhaps the moon is simply a symbol for the sea, with which it is intimately connected?

And here, I’d better stop, because I’ve just realised I’m making a very good case for a leading family whose ‘crest’ this is being Viking!

My logic may be baseless, but it’s the kind of open-minded approach that can bring insights. But we should move on… We had a timed entry at the museum in Rosemarkie, due to Covid restrictions, and we’d yet to visit Shadwick and Nigg.

The Hilton Cadboll stone is a dream to photograph…unlike our next location; which is a classic example of an intact Pictish cross-slab that has stood in its original position for over a thousand years…

To be continued…

Other posts in this series:

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five. This is Part Six

©Stephen Tanham, 2020.

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching school of modern mysticism that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.

The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.

Steve’s personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.

32 thoughts on “Two journeys, one destination (6) – a Pictish horizon

  1. Having just moved (one week before lockdown!) to Fortrose on the Black Isle, I am loving learning more from you about these wonderful sites around my new home – thank you! This is now on my list of places to visit.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Fortrose is lovely, Deborah. We stayed on the Black Isle for a holiday two years ago, and loved it. Rosemarkie and Cromarty were two other favourites. For me, nothing beats Portmahomack, though Dornoch is wonderful and has the best beaches.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m living dream that has taken 20 years to come to fruition, and I don’t regret abandoning southern England one bit! Rosemarkie is my current favourite beach, as its the best place for dolphin watching.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I can understand that! I used to work in London for several days each week – though based in Manchester. Cities are great places, but the heart longs for other landscapes. Where you are is, I think, one of the finest. And you have beautiful Inverness on your doorstep!

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  2. I KNEW nobody would do their homework!! 😀

    At these latitudes, the midwinter sunrise (SE) to midwinter sunset (SW) describes an angle of 90º

    Never forget the wobbly moon! (5º ?)

    At lunar minor standstill, observing the moonrise and moonset directions describe an angle of *cough* 100º.

    I once suggested, to those more educated in such things as I, that the V-rod, in its basic representations, should be regarded as a lunisolar symbol:
    – the crescent represents the horizon and the arc of the equinoctial sun.
    – the “arrow” indicates the direction of a particular lunar solstice (the minor) which may have had significant ritual importance for the Pictish peoples.

    That’s when they threw me out, citing two technicalities:

    1. the symbol is “upside-down” for that.

    This is true, but only if we force a modern interpretation of what direction should take precedence when navigating our way through the world. For me, in northern latitudes, early peoples may have held south as prime direction… that’s where all the solar (and lunar) action happens.

    2. they were too primitive to be able to describe angular relationships in a meaningful way.

    Yet somehow were able to lay out stone circles with sufficient precision to accurately record complex lunar movements occurring over an 18 year period?

    That’s when I slammed the door…

    (Above strop is included for dramatic purposes only – I didn’t slam the door. And they didn’t throw me out. Though they may have stopped talking to me in order to distance themselves from the crazy bear dude… 😀 )

    Now. Back to your homework, young man!! But only after you write “When Picting, I must remember the solstice of the moon” 100 times.

    😀 ❤ xx

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Brilliant, Allan! I did remember your moon talk, when we were drowning at Inverurie, but I was too busy howling at your description of the ingress of highland rain to digest it…obviously! Just prior to our recent jaunt, I did remember you’d done a lunar paper after the event, but couldn’t find it… so if you have a spare copy I’ll settle down to my homework… sorry, lines. Hope your both okay and surviving. You’re welcome on any of these, as you know. More than welcome. Say hi to Ann. 😎

      Liked by 1 person

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