Case Study: Hilton of Cadboll Pictish Cross Slab

Susan Kruse

The Hilton of Cadboll Pictish cross slab (MHG8546) is one of the finest Pictish carved stones from Scotland. Its story resonates on many levels – as a historical source for the time, as a study of reaction against its iconography in the 17th century, a graphic example of how even large objects can be moved, a subject for experimental archaeology, and as a focal point for community memories and oral tradition.

The stone was carved from a large locally-sourced sandstone block around AD 800, measuring 2.3m high and 1.4m wide, and weighing almost 2 tonnes. Four large cross slabs on the Seaboard Peninsula, Easter Ross, at Nigg (MHG7496), Shandwick (MHG8539), Hilton and Portmahomack were probably commissioned by the monastery at Portmahomack, perhaps as perimeter markers (Carver et al 2016, 246–256). Only one face, the non-cross side, survives today, but it has a rich array of interlace, Pictish symbols and a hunting scene in which the central figure wears an elaborate brooch similar to some high-status surviving Pictish examples (Figure 1).

Figure 1: The Hilton of Cadboll Cross Slab with decoration featuring a hunting scene; found at Hilton of Cadboll, Ross and Cromarty, 7th or 8th century AD. ©National Museums Scotland

The cross slab was probably erected near St Mary’s Chapel in Hilton, which excavations have shown was probably active in the Pictish period, and also in medieval times (James et al 2008). The stone had fallen at least once, and by the 17th century had snapped, leaving the base buried. At some point before 1676 the decoration on the cross side was chipped away, and the stone recarved with an inscription to Alexander Duff and his three wives (Figure 2). Although the most extreme case of reuse, it is not alone, with Pictish stones from Golspie (MHG10890) and Conon Bridge (MHG60000) also reworked to become 17th century gravemarkers. The stone remained at or near the chapel, with the carvings face down, until the mid-19th century. By 1903 the stone had been removed to Invergordon Castle, and in 1921 Captain MacLeod of Cadboll donated it to the British Museum. It arrived there, but was soon sent back north due to local protests, but to the National Museum of Antiquities in Edinburgh, not the Highlands (James et al 2008, 238ff). It is a wonder that so little damage appears to have occurred in all these moves.

Stone with an inscription and coat of arms.
Figure 2: The front of the stone with original carvings removed for reuse as a gravestone. ©National Museums Scotland

Many local people felt the stone should be in its original location. In the 1990s, a local project commissioned local sculptor Barry Grove to carve a full size replica, providing an opportunity to gain some insights into carving practices of the time. The carving was undertaken in a shed in nearby Balintore, and proved a popular draw for local and other visitors.

The erection of the replica led to activity on the site, including an excavation of the original position of the site (Figure 3). This yielded numerous fragments from the cross side as well as the in situ base. Although the excavation finds are legally in the care of the National Museums Scotland, the base was claimed by the local community and put on display at the Seaboard Memorial Hall in Balintore, showing just how strongly many members of the community feel about the monument (James et al 2008). Barry Grove later also carved a speculative cross side incorporating some of the many fragments discovered in the excavation.

Decorated base of the Hilton of Cadboll stone in situ being excavated.
Figure 3: Excavations were undertaken at the Hilton of Cadboll site in August and September 2001 to retrieve all the remaining carved fragments from the 9th-century Pictish slab. ©Highland Council

During the excavation, many visitors came to visit, and it was a popular stopping point for locals. Siân Jones recorded many of their conversations, and has written a thought-provoking article on how objects, such as the Hilton of Cadboll stone and the process of excavation and replica carving, become a catalyst for folk memories. In this case, the association of ruins led to the stone and its location becoming linked to folk memories of the clearances, including local tradition that some cleared people were taken in by residents of the Seaboard villages of Hilton, Balintore and Shandwick. Themes of locals and incomers, iniquitous acts of Highland landlords, issues of ownership and power were all explored. In a village experiencing feelings of loss and economic crisis, the excavations created a new arena to explore this, with the history of the stone integral to this narrative (Jones 2012). The many strands to the Hilton of Cadboll stone show how objects can be reinterpreted over the years, providing multiple narratives, some quite unexpected.

Further information

James, H F, Henderson, I, Foster, S M and Jones, S. 2008 A Fragmented Masterpiece: Recovering the Biography of the Hilton of Cadboll Pictish Cross-Slab. Society of Antiquaries of Scotland: Edinburgh.