8.4.2 Early inscribed stones

An important series of standing stones inscribed in Latin dated from the 5th to 7th centuries marks the first archaeological evidence of Christian Britons in the study area. Katherine Forsyth (2005) has identified twelve of these inscribed stones from Scotland, all south of the Forth-Clyde isthmus, and half of which are in the SESARF region. The earliest are the Catstane (or Cat Stane), now on the site of Edinburgh Airport, and the Latinus Stone from Whithorn, both dating from the mid-5th century. While the Latinus stone directly invokes the Christian God, the Cat Stane is a Bronze Age megalith reused as a simple memorial to Vetta son/daughter of Victricius (Cowie 1978). Both were found in close association with cemeteries of long cists, suggesting at least some link between this phenomenon and the earliest Christians (SESARF 8.4.3 Burial Traditions). As the stone remained upstanding and legible, it is likely it continued to serve as a prominent and memorable landmark (SESARF 8.2.5 Territorial Organisation).

Photograph of an excavation site. Smaller stone structures have been dug out.
View of Cat Stane excavation by T Cowie, courtesy of HES

The remaining examples in the study area are all from the Scottish Borders region. The 6th-century stones from Brox, Yarrow and Manor Water form a coherent group in that their inscriptions are laid out vertically, a feature of many of the Latin-inscribed stones of Wales, and perhaps a sign of influence from Irish ogham inscriptions. The commemorands on these three stones have a mix of Celtic and Latin names. While the Latinus named on the Whithorn stone was descended from the Celtic-named Barroadus, the opposite is seen on the Yarrow stone. The Celtic-named ‘princes’ Nudus and Dumnogenus are said to be the sons of Liberalis, who bore a Latin name.

Black and white photograph of a carved stone which reads "Conine"
Manor Water early Christian stone, which reads ‘Coninie’ © HES

Unlike the contemporary Latin-inscribed monuments from Kirkmadrine and Low Curghie in the Rhins of Galloway, which bear crosses and reference clerics and bishops, the Borders inscriptions instead seem to be marking territorial boundaries. At Yarrow the stone was found near a long cist cemetery, one grave of which has recently been radiocarbon-dated to the 6th century (Knight and Maldonado, 2022). These three stones are joined by an enigmatic carving at Over Kirkhope of a nude figure who may be in an orans pose seen in early Christian art, but is otherwise difficult to date (NMS X.IB 100). A rare but significant ogham-inscribed stone from Selkirk remains unpublished and undated (Forsyth 2005, 122). A rare outlier of the Pictish symbol stone tradition from Princes Street Gardens, Edinburgh, can be considered part of this early series of inscribed stones (NMS X.IB 1; I Fraser 2008).

Photograph of a standing stone in the grass,
The Yarrow Stone from Scotland’s Rock Art Project © HES
Ink tracing of the inscriptions of Yarrow Stone.
Ink trace of Yarrow Stone inscription © HES

At Cross Kirk, Peebles, a lost inscription was said to commemorate a Bishop Nicholas, and the form of the Latin suggests it was a genuine member of this early group. From later in the 7th century, a second kite-shaped cross-slab from Peebles commemorates a bishop or priest named Neitan. Unlike the rest of this group which continued the use of late Roman capitals for their texts, this is inscribed in half-uncial, a book-script used in the earliest surviving Christian manuscripts. Along with its carved cross and the commemoration of a member of the clergy, this stone seems to mark the transition to an era in which monumentality was dominated by monasteries, of which Peebles may be one of the earliest.

Black and white photograph of a carved stone being held up by glass
Early Christian stone from Cross Kirk, Peebles © HES