The Pictish carved stones are the iconic material remains of this period, and have been the subject of a great deal of research in the past (Future Thinking on Carved Stones in Scotland ScARF section 2.3; ScARF Medieval section 5.2; Henderson and Henderson 2011; Carver et al 2016, 123ff; Noble and Evans 2019, 119ff). The purpose of the stones is still a matter of debate. The cross slabs are clearly an expression of Christian faith. The symbol stones with their enigmatic symbols and naturalistic depictions may also be tied to religion, or even commemorative with a naming system little understood. Some may have marked significant places in the landscape for reasons unknown. However, on balance they appear in the main to relate to the ritual aspects of society (ScARF Medieval section 5.2), and are therefore considered in this section. Nevertheless, the presence of a rich collection of carvings at the elite power centre of Rhynie in Aberdeen-shire shows that the placement of stones had political as well as ritual significance (Noble et al 2019, 124-5). At the very least the sculpture shows a presence throughout much of the Highlands, and a shared identity.
The distribution of surviving stones is weighted towards the east, but there are carved stones on the west, albeit not in northwest Sutherland (see Map 8.1). Significant collections can be found in Dunrobin Castle Museum, Sutherland (Close-Brooks 1989), Tarbat Discovery Centre (Carver et al 2016), Groam House Museum in Easter Ross, Inverness Museum and Art Gallery as well as the National Museums Scotland in Edinburgh. New stones are found every few years, adding to this corpus (Case Study Conan Pictish Cross Slab).
Pictish sculpture has been traditionally organised into three groups: Symbol stones (Class 1) with abstract and naturalistic symbols often on boulders; cross slabs and free standing crosses (Class 2) which have Christian iconography as well as Pictish symbols; and crosses without Pictish symbols (Class 3). Dating remains difficult, though recent work by Noble et al (2019) employing radiocarbon dating of structures, burials and some objects with Pictish symbols, suggests symbol stones may date from at least the 3rd to 4th century; this dating suggests Roman influence as the catalyst (Noble et al 2019, 126-9). Cross slabs clearly must date after the introduction of Christianity, traditionally held to be in the 5th or 6th century; St Columba’s mission up the Great Glen was around AD 565 (Noble and Evans 2019, 140ff). Cross slabs were clearly being carved at Portmahomack in the 8th century.
The reasons behind the carving of the symbol stones have been much discussed. Currently the main theory is that the symbols represent writing of some sort, perhaps a naming system, although undeciphered. Some may be grave markers, but although symbol stones are found at some graves (eg Dairy Park, Golspie, Sutherland; Garbeg, Inverness-shire; Ackergill, Caithness), in each case there is the possibility the stones were being reused from elsewhere (Mitchell and Noble 2019, 102). Other carvings may have been used in buildings or walls (Henderson and Henderson 2004; Gondek 2015).
Some of the stones have ogham inscriptions, and one, from Portmahomack, has a Latin inscription. In these cases it is worth considering who would have read these inscriptions. Was this only for the religious elite? And if indeed the symbols represent written language, who was able to interpret this language?
Some of the Highland Pictish symbol stones, for example at Dingwall (MHG9031), re-used prehistoric rock art; this choice must have been deliberate, since it would be much easier to carve a design if one did not have to incorporate cup marks. The re-use of the Clava Cairns in this period also suggests a focus back to a prehistoric past (Noble and Evans 2019, 139).
A large number of stones with inscribed crosses, both simple and more ornamented, have been found in the Highland region (see Map 8.3, Datasheet 8.3; Henderson and Henderson 2004, 259ff). They are often overlooked compared to those with Pictish symbols or narrative scenes. Many have been dated to this period such as St Kenneth’s Church, Laggan (MHG44924; Scheduling document SM4653), but the dating is generally on art historical grounds, with little other indication of their date. A number were found at Portmahomack, with different styles of crosses, and they are generally ascribed as gravemarkers, though most were redeposited (Carver et al 2016, 139, 148). Further work on these monuments would be useful, including their context.
The ScARF Future Thinking on Carved Stones Framework identified a number of research questions (3.8, 4.4, 5.4, 6.3, 7), many of which apply to this period. The National ScARF Medieval Framework suggested studying stones in their local context, citing the Shandwick, Easter Ross stone (MHG8539; ScARF Case Study Landscape of Belief) as a good contender (ScARF Medieval section 5.2). Further investigation into the connections of symbols and written communication, and then their attribution to the Highland material would also be of interest.