Case Study: Landscape of Belief

The Shandwick Stone, Nigg, and its landscape exemplify the complex cultural meanings associated with modern landscapes and the manner in which meanings can change significantly. This case demonstrates the need to engage with the intangible, the unreal and the imaginary in past landscapes – elements generally dismissed as irrelevant or unknowable by research philosophies which favour empirical observation. Bias against research into the valency of belief in the landscape was recognised some years ago (Merrifield 1987) but, with notable exceptions (see Gilchrist 2008), continues to constrain archaeological scholarship.

The Shandwick Stone is Pictish in origin but persisted into the Early Modern landscape, and still stands in situ today . There is a demonstrable connection between Pictish sites and Early Modern fairy beliefs: such sites, and others including fairy hills and holy wells, were integral to a modern magical perception of landscape which intersected the normal, ‘mundane’ sensory environment (Henderson and Cowan 2001). This alternative landscape is one which can be accessed through maps and documentary evidence and through fieldwork.

A second religio-magical dimension of the Shandwick Stone rests in its association with infant burial. Folk tradition records that the Stone was associated with an infant burial ground similar in tradition to the Irish cilliní. In recent years, a number of such sites have been identified in Scotland (McCabe 2010). Typically, these sites are found in association with locations of existing religious significance, most commonly disused pre-Reformation churches (a preference also evidenced in Irish contexts).  Shandwick, while not on a former ecclesiastical site, appears to buck this trend, but its location is in keeping with the use of sites of pre-Reformation significance.  In Ireland, host sites include not only old church grounds but also crossroads, ring forts and other prehistoric sites – sites typically associated with fairy beliefs.

Scottish infant burial grounds appear to have been meaningfully sited in the landscape in another sense: the consistent proximity of infant burial grounds to small flowing water courses and/or views of expansive bodies of water suggests that water was an essential feature, and this may refer to baptism practices and was perhaps an oblique attempt to baptise otherwise lost souls (McCabe 2010).

The Shandwick Stone, Nigg. This Pictish cross slab was an important part of the early modern landscape, becoming a focus for stories and beliefs, © HES

To understand the nature of the Shandwick Stone, its modern as well as its Pictish past must be considered, recognising that it continued to be perceived as busy supernatural hub within a wider landscape. Such sites were home to physically-attestable fairy beings (witch trial records provide ample evidence that people believed they could interact with such beings), and to fairy-like dead infant beings. These beings were tangible and active in the world: flitting through the landscape making sounds, flashing in and out of vision, and even passing on a deadly condition through physical contact with their grave, known as grave merrells (Henderson and Cowan 2001; McCabe 2010).

The ways in which magical worlds were experienced and shaped in human thought are clearly evidenced by the material traces of the use, avoidance, naming and remembering of landscapes and their constituent places. The Early Modern period is often seen as a time in which current familiar modern, rational modes of thought were beginning to take shape. Shandwick testifies otherwise, revealing the now-intangible entities which shared the world in the Early Modern psyche.

Today, the Shandwick Stone has been reduced to its Pictish aspect and encased in glass to preserve its integrity as an early historic monument. It is presented and managed with little reference to its folk past. This act of cultural forgetting and severance reflects three major absences in archaeological scholarship: 1) the under-representation of infants, who in this case have been erased from the landscape’s biography; 2) a bias towards the rational, leading to a lack of engagement with religious beliefs in general, and with non-conformist beliefs in particular; 3) the absence of study of early Modern and earlier superstition which can be studied archaeologically through the material aspects of the practices referring to their existence and the landscape associations of the places with which they were associated.

Return to Section 8.3 Perceived Landscapes



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