Three days of the Oyster-catcher (Part 5) – Stone in the Sky

A Pictish stone so large, it needs its own ‘hangar’.

You can’t miss Sueno’s stone. It sits on its own plateau, just off the old main road between Findhorn and Forres; now bypassed. You see its ‘hangar’ first, then realise that this glass and steel monolith contains something special…

Sueno’s stone is massive – 7 metres tall. Sadly, the type of glass used to protect stones of this nature makes it difficult to capture images through the reflections on its surface.

Sueno’s stone was thought to be named after Swenson Forkbeard, but this is disputed. There is also a folk-link to King Duffus, whose castle we visited earlier in the day. The stone was mentioned in Scottish history as early as the 15th century, but accurate records date to the work of Lady Ann Campbell, the Countess of Moray, who, at her own expense, carried out maintenance work on it in the early 1700s in an attempt to stabilise the heavy stone. Stepped plinths around the base of the stone were the fruit of this dedicated work. We owe her a debt of gratitude.

Above: Image of Lady Ann Campbell’s preservation work of the 1700s. The red scribble (mine) shows the original Old Red Sandstone cross and base. The stepped plinths were added to protect and stabilise the Pictish masterpiece. Image: Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

There is archeological evidence that it was originally one of two stones, the other being smaller. Sueno’s stone is massive – seven metres (23 feet) tall. It was carved from Old Red Sandstone – a commonly used rock in this part of the Moray Firth’s coast. It is an upright cross slab bearing typical Pictish-style interwoven vine symbols on its edge panels. These were difficult to photograph so I have used the Historic Scotland noticeboard images to supplement the actual photos

Above: The front of the giant stone – a ringed cross

The front face is carved with a great ring-head cross. The shaft, base and background are filled with interlaced decoration. Beneath the base, two figures lean over a smaller figure. Two other attendants wait in the background.

A great battle scene is depicted in four panels on the back of the stone

Each narrow side is intricately decorated with interlace designs, which include spirals of foliage within which small human figures are perched. The reverse of the stone shows a great battle scene – covering four panels. This depicts cavalry, foot soldiers and the beheading of the defeated – the usual savagery of bitter wars…

The historic scope of the stone is considerable. From the arrival of one army in the top panel, to the main battle, and the resulting rout of the defeated in the middle panel, to the fleeing of the fallen army in the bottom panel, something of monumental importance is being shown.

But what?

The artistic style of the carving – a mixture of Pictish, Irish and Northumbrian techniques – suggests that was carved in the 9th or 10th century. This points to three possibilities:

Above: The Historic Scotland board features drawings to make the ancient carving clearer. Here, related work from Pictish Symbol Stones is shown. The first shows the cross-stand on display in nearby Elgin Cathedral. The second shows its reverse: an animated hawking scene.
A bull-head carving from nearby Burghead. The bull symbol was a key element of Burghead’s art and decoration.

One is that the stone commemorates the vanquishing of the Picts by the Scots, under the command of Kenneth MacAlpin, in the mid 9th century. A second is that the stone denotes a confrontation between a local Pictish and Scottish force and marauding Norsemen. This would tie in with the known date of the destruction of the headland settlement and fort at Burghead (see previous post).

The third possibility is the stone depicts a conflict between the Scottish king, Dubh, and the men of Moray. The oral records claimed that the body of the dead king lay beneath the famous bridge at Kinross, a short distance away. This bridge could be the curious arched object carved at the bottom of the battle scene.

There may never be an answer. There is no inscription on the stone and historical data is limited.

Difficult to photograph through the darkened glass, but magnificent.

Historic Scotland has a policy of protecting the larger Pictish stones by this method of enclosure within steel and glass. You can understand the need to do so, but it does make them less accessible. During our scouting visit with Dean, in March, we came across another stone of the ‘Pictish Trail’ just south of Portmahomack, an hour’s drive north of Forres.

Above: During March 2019, while scouting for the the Silent Unicorn weekend, we discovered this beautifully-located Pictish stone – the Shadwick Stone, on the peninsula south of Portmahomac; and close to the former Pictish monastery there.

The description reads:

Shadwick Stone (near Tain)

“A Christian cross has been carved on the seaward face of the slab. Some of the other motifs on this side may be religious symbols. Immediately below the arms of the cross are angels with outspread wings. They are placed about animals which could be interpreted as David’s lions. Then there are snakes and serpents. The designer of this and the other stones in the area were certainly not working alone. They must have known of the Christian decorated manuscripts of Lindisfarne and Iona, as well as the metalwork and sculpture of Pictland, Northumbria and Ireland.”

The front view of the Shadwick Cross – rendered as best I could through the tinted glass

We left Sueno’s Stone feeling that we had only glimpsed the importance of its place in Scotland’s history. Our Saturday – which had begun a long time ago – was taking its toll and people were getting fatigued.

Dean at Logie Steading – a welcome cup of tea… and perhaps an afternoon scone with jam and cream…

Luckily, Dean had arranged a mid-afternoon detour to the wonderful Logie Steading… The old stables of the Logie estate, and a place of craft displays, food stalls and a very nice tea room….

The photos were taking during our scouting visit in March 2019 – hence the lack of resting attendees!

Beyond the refreshments at Logie Steading, we were headed for a location provided at the the last minute by two of our number, Michael and Eva. We had completed our assignments with the Element of Water. Now, we were going to explore the Element of Air in a rather different kind of location…

To be continued…

Other parts in this series

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, this is Part Five

©Copyright Stephen Tanham

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.