6.7.1 Pre-Christian Sites

There is little concrete evidence for pre-Christian religious sites in Perth and Kinross. It is often suggested that Pictish symbol stones without crosses, of which there are now ten from the case study area, are indicative of ‘pagan’ or at least pre-Christian commemorative activity, but it is difficult to put exact dates on any single stone. The recent excavations at Rhynie, Aberdeenshire have made it likely that one type of symbol stone, the armed walking figures, can be associated with royal cult centres. The recently discovered example from Tulloch, Perth may represent a warrior deity.  (MPK19094; Hall et al 2021; cf Noble et al 2019). A 30m square enclosure at Forteviot has been interpreted as having a possible Roman Iron Age ritual focus, based on parallels on the Continent (MPK1883; Campbell and Driscoll 2020, 59–63). It certainly appears to have been the focus for early medieval burial from the 5th century, but its function and exact dating remains unclear. Otherwise, evidence for ritual activity comes mainly in the form of special deposits of objects. Human remains as well as artefacts appear to have been deposited in similar ways within houses in the Iron Age (Shapland and Armit 2012; Büster 2021). Mapping where artefacts, including human bone, were buried or left behind in settlements reveals patterns of activities which may stem from ritual activity (eg Hingley et al 1997, 451–5). Entrances and thresholds were often marked with special deposits, and events like the ‘death’ of houses were marked with rituals of passage such as feasts or bonfires (eg Armit 2000, 584–5). Abandoned houses continued to attract burials and special deposits, such as the 9th-century Aldclune brooch and other early medieval finds from an Iron Age settlement complex (Hingley et al 1997, 419). Rather than envisioning ‘temples’ or pagan ‘shrines’, we should expect that pre-Christian ritual activity was most often folded into the structures of everyday life, taking place in the home as well as in natural places in the landscape.

Tulloch Warrior stone ©️ University of Aberdeen

Evidence that natural places like groves, wells and trees could be seen as sacred in the early medieval period is recorded by early place-names. The Gaelic name-element neimhidh comes from an older Celtic word for sacred grove and was borrowed into Latin as nemeton, sanctuary. It is present in at least three names in Perthshire, at Newtyle where there was formerly an elaborate Pictish cross-slab, Tarnavie near Dunning, and Duneaves near Fortingall (Watson 1926, 247–9). There are several holy wells associated with early saints across Perthshire, with a strong, recurring link to abbots and bishops of Iona. For instance, in Pitlochry alone, there are the Gaelic place-names Tobair Chalmaig and Tobair Fheargáin, the wells of St Columba and his successor as abbot, Fergnae; the latter survives as the modern Toberargan Road (MPK1629; Taylor 1997, 56–7). What is unclear is whether the veneration of such wells pre-dates the cult of the saints ascribed to them.

The place-name element bile, surviving in the Strath of Appin place-name Coshieville, denotes a sacred tree (Watson 1926, 248; Robertson 1997, 136). While the veneration of trees seems to be indicative of pre-Christian practices, we know of several examples of trees associated with early medieval assembly places and royal centres from elsewhere in Scotland and Ireland (Gondek 2007, 251–4). The celebrated Fortingall Yew (MPK442) may well be a surviving example of such a bile. The Fortingall Yew, often described as the oldest living thing in Britain (Rodger et al 2006, 149) has been variously estimated to be up to 4,000 years old. While its vast girth suggests a truly great age, unfortunately this cannot be precisely determined through dendrochronology as the original central stem no longer exists. It is located beside the parish church, which is at the centre of an early monastic settlement. This suggests the tree may have been significant in the siting of the church, as seen in similar associations across Britain and Ireland (Morton 2009). Bevan-Jones (2017, 36) offers a more modest age of about 1,500 years, based on the tree being a remnant of the early saint‘s cell of the 6th century, and identifies the tree as a possible living cultural ecofact of the early church. The cultural associations of ancient yew trees are greatly under-researched in Scotland compared to England and Wales (Morton 2009) and would merit investigation.  Other ancient yews, some listed in Hunter’s ‘Woods, forests and estates of Perthshire’ (1883) could form a useful starting-point, including consideration of any other early church site associations or indicators. Ancient, sacred groves of trees were not necessarily yew of course and the study of specific trees should be linked to further place-name analysis. Variations of the nemeton place-names mentioned above are often indicative of this. Perthshire has several Pictish/British places named after or in association with trees, notably including Perth (Hall et al 2011). The roots of later tree place-names such as the Gaelic Crieff are also worth investigating in this context.

Fortingall Yew tree ©️ Trish Steel (CC BY-SA)

Certainly the location of the early monastery at Fortingall (MPK457) was determined by several other factors, including the existing sacred geography marked by the extraordinary density of prehistoric monuments in the fields surrounding the village (eg, Canmore IDs 24999, 25000, 25002). The monastery of Dull is similarly associated with a complex of ancient monuments, and it may be that these landscapes were deliberately appropriated for use as ceremonial centres in the Christian period (MPK1006; O’Grady 2008, 290–3; Driscoll 1998). Rather than proposing a linear, chronological continuity between pre-Christian religious/ritual sites and their successors in any of these cases, we can instead envision a recognition on the ground of ancestral activity. Such activity could have been manipulated through the invention of tradition so as to create a perception of continuity as a power dynamic. (Bradley 1987; see PKARF Early Medieval Section 6.7.2) This seems to have been particularly acute at Forteviot, where the prehistoric monument complex was first marked by a scatter of Roman finds and eventually a square-ditched enclosure, interpreted as a possible Romano-Celtic cult site. It is around this site that the earliest ‘Pictish’ barrows of the 5th/6th century seem to cluster (Campbell and Driscoll 2020, 64–6).