6.7.3 Carved Stones

Perth and Kinross preserves a significant quantity, diversity and richness of early medieval sculpture, with excavations, survey work and casual discoveries continuing to turn up important new finds. Recent examples include a rare Pictish warrior/warrior deity carving found during roadworks in Tulloch, Perth (MPK19094), which probably dates to the 5th–6th centuries (Hall et al 2020). Another rare example is the 8th-century cross-slab (MPK1016; Perth Museum 2007.1.1.1) excavated from beneath the floor of Dull parish church, incised with the probably female personal name ‘Becli-’ (Will et al 2003). Additionally, a small fragment of a 9th/10th century cross-slab was excavated at the external base of the churchyard wall in Dunning. To these finds may be added several cross-marked stones recorded during survey work in the cemetery at Fortingall (Robertson 1997). These examples show that early medieval, and specifically early Christian, carved stones are one of the richest resources in this region, and more new finds should be expected from future development.

Early cross carved stone from Dull ©️ HES

These sculptures are one of the most recognisable and important cultural heritage resources of early medieval Perth and Kinross. They have been the subject of antiquarian and archaeological research since at least the 18th century and the landmark publication in 1903 of Allen and Anderson’s Early Christian Monuments of Scotland remains a key reference for the corpus of monuments. Of course many more stones have been discovered since then and the framework of analysis has changed. Their three-class system of stones with symbols only, stones with symbols and Christian crosses and stones without symbols places too much emphasis on a chronological sequence. It also neglects other sculptures, notably simple incised crosses – (Henderson 1987). Although local surveys have captured some of the additions (eg for Perth and Kinross, RCAHMS 1990 and 1994) and some national surveys have updated elements of the corpus (Fraser 2008) complete regional and national surveys of the entire corpus are still a high priority (Foster et al 2016, 20–1). Each region has different concentrations and clusters of types of sculpture, and in Perth and Kinross there are many fewer symbol stones, but there are many more cross-slabs. Many of these are of the highest quality, indicative of the growing wealth and importance of early medieval Perthshire.

Cross slab from Meigle ©️ HES
Meigle 2 cross slab ©️ HES

The exact meaning of the symbols remains unknown, but they likely formed a symbolic language (Forsyth 1997) that may have emerged in an initial form as early as the 4th century (Noble et al 2019). They appear to have been carved onto standing stones from the 5th century onwards (Noble et al 2019). Some of the early examples have been found on or adjacent to burials, but they tend to survive in a collapsed and fragmentary state, so that their original position in relation to any burials is unknown. Many have had ‘multiple lives’, having been removed, reused and repurposed (Clarke 2007; Hall 2015). Examples include the Abernethy (MPK3076) symbol stone found in the 19th century in the foundations of a house. It had previously been trimmed for building use and was subsequently erected against the south face of Abernethy tower (Proudfoot 1997, 48; for a broader discussion Gondek 2015). The Inchyra symbol stone (MPK5427; Perth Museum 5/1945) was discovered in 1945 during ploughing; it was found lying flat over a small cairn of 49 water-rounded stones, which overlay the remains of a human skeleton. There are differently aligned multiple paired symbols and four ogham inscriptions that suggest multiple phases of re-purposing and re-carving of the stone (Forsyth 1996; Clarke 2007; Hall 2012). The erection of monumental symbol stones was driven by commemorative and memorialising practices (including funerary rites) and by boundary and threshold marking, though the balance of these and other factors in any individual case is often opaque. The Inchyra stone shares its story with the massive cross-slab from St Madoes (MPK8540); both were erected in an already ancient landscape, perhaps to help Christianise it (Hall 2012).

Abernethy roundtower stone ©️ Perth and Kinross Heritage Trust

The carved stones tend to be found along the river valleys and main routeways in Perth and Kinross. There are 11 symbol stones with abstract and animal symbols incised on boulders and standing stones. Most were subsequently incorporated into buildings or recovered through ploughing, although some may be in or near their original locations. Peterhead (MPK15111) stands in arable farmland and was probably originally a prehistoric standing stone and Keillor (MPK5353) is positioned on a possibly prehistoric burial cairn beside a public road.

The Keillor Pictish stone ©️ ScARF

Most cross-slabs which fuse symbols and overtly Christian iconography or deploy only the latter have been found in medieval parish churches or burial grounds. It suggests these were church sites of some importance since the early medieval period, allowing for the later gathering of stones found in the wider landscape at nodal church sites. Some of the stones remain in the landscape but many have been collected into museums, such as the exceptional collection at Meigle (MPK7). was probably both a royal and ecclesiastical centre, from at least the 8th century; given the concentration of recumbent monuments, it was apparently the location of royal/high-status burials as well as having been a monastic centre for some time. (Henderson 1982; Hall 2014; Whitworth 2020). The collection includes massive elaborate cross-slabs, Meigle 1 and 2, which in the later medieval period were re-positioned to flank the burial ground entrance and the approach to Vanora’s mound (Ritchie 1995; Hall 2014). Notable examples of cross-slabs have also been found at St Madoes (MPK8540; Perth Museum 1992.815), Logierait (MPK1676 and MPK5378), Dunfallandy (MPK1631; originally near Killiecrankie (MPK1775), Rossie Priory (MPK6660), Tullibole (MPK1842; NMS X.IB 99), Fowlis Wester (MPK1535 and MPK5375), Crieff (MPK894; Perth Museum 1999.75; Hall et al 2000), Murthly (MPK2260; Calder 1950-1), and Kettins (MPK4744). Beyond Meigle, there are also significant sculptural groups or clusters at Forteviot, Dull and Fortingall.

Display of Christian Pictish stones from Meigle ©️ HES

These generally later monuments encompass a range of forms and functions between the 7th–10th centuries. Their overtly Christian design repertoire encompasses crosses carved in relief, dominating one or both sides of the stone. They are decorated with intricate key pattern knotwork and accompanied by space-filling stories or myths, hunting scenes, rulers and warriors, fabulous beasts and Pictish symbols. The Perth and Kinross corpus also includes significant evidence for inscriptions, in both ogham and the Roman alphabet. The key ogham inscriptions are on the Inchyra stone, discussed above, and a more fragmentary but well-executed panel of relief sculpture at Abernethy (MPK3078; NMS X.IB 98). Equally difficult to read and somewhat more damaged are the Roman letter inscriptions. The ‘Becli’ inscription from Dull is mentioned above. On the Crieff Burgh cross-slab an inscription panel survives but only one or two letters remain legible (Forsyth and Trench-Jellicoe in Hall et al 2000, 166–8). It was probably contemporary with the better surviving but still limited inscription on the spectacular free-standing Dupplin Cross (MPK1916). The inscription was identified by Forsyth, and shown to be linked to the early 9th-century king of Pictland and Dál Riata, Constantine/Custantin (Forsyth 1995).

Inchyra carved stone with ogham inscriptions ©️ HES
Dupplin cross stone ©️ HES

Amongst the cross-slabs there is other evidence for architectural sculpture which may relate to tomb-shrines, altars or other internal church furnishings. These mainly consist of oblong panels of stone carved on one side, of which there is a complete instance from Murthly (MPK2285; NMS X.IB 101) and a fragment of a second from nearby Pittensorn (MPK7011; Hall et al 1998). Amongst the many carved stones from monasteries there are fragments of similar panels at Dull (NMS X.IB 58) and a lost stone depicting a chariot from Meigle (Henderson and Henderson 2004, 219–20). Other sculpture from Meigle suggests a complicated mix of indoor and outdoor commemorative monuments, including a possible lintel (Meigle 22) suggesting a lost stone church. Possible candidates for carved panels include the ogham-inscribed fragment from Abernethy mentioned above, as well as a possibly unfinished stone depicting a horse rider with a drinking horn from Dunkeld (MPK5440). Along with the monolithic Forteviot Arch (MPK6385; NMS X.IB 36), these architectural fragments suggest there is high potential for discovering the remains of a stone-built church from the Perth and Kinross area.

Carved slab from Murthly ©️ NMS
Portion of the Forteviot Arch showing ‘Agnus Dei’ and figures of men ©️ NMS