Case Study 11: Donside: early medieval carved stones in a landscape context

Iain Fraser and Strat Halliday

One of the reasons the RCAHMS chose Donside in Aberdeenshire for a detailed landscape survey (1995–2001) was the concentration of Pictish symbol stones along the banks of the lower Don, Urie and Gadie Burn. A rich vein of medieval documentation offered the possibility of reconstructing parts of the later landscape in detail and comparing this to the original findspots of 41 symbol stones, three Pictish cross-slabs and a number of early cross-incised stones. Issues of definition, dating and survival precluded analysing this pattern in relation to settlement evidence, including forts, or place-name evidence (RCAHMS 2007a; Fraser and Halliday 2011).

Before attempting to place the monuments in some kind of landscape setting, the stones, including several new discoveries, were meticulously drawn and photographed. Observations were then made about the topographical situation of their original location, where this could be established: with so few still in situ, this usually involved documentary research into the biographies of each stone. The final step was a comparison of the relationship of the first recorded locations to the reconstructed boundaries of the later medieval parishes as first introduced in the 12th-century, which appear to reflect earlier secular land divisions.

Many of the stones’ findspots were between 50–250 m OD. While topographic features varied, a recurring theme was that the stones had originally been erected along certain stretches of rivers and their lesser tributaries, which had subsequently been adopted as parish boundaries. This agrees with observations made elsewhere in north-east Scotland (Inglis 1987). With the notable exception of the concentration of stones at Rhynie, where a Pictish cult centre and cemetery have been identified through excavation (The Rhynie Stones: Case Study 23), it was difficult to establish what sorts of place the carved stones might be associated with, although it is notable how many of them were found at or near later church sites. A preliminary comparison of early medieval burial sites south of the Mounth in eastern Scotland, including both square-barrow cemeteries and long-cist cemeteries, suggests that many of these were placed in similar locations in the landscape.

The hypothesis is that Pictish symbol stones were deliberately sited on the edge of territories; this helps to explain the very selective reuse of earlier prehistoric standing stones. Accepting that the ogham inscriptions and, most likely, symbols represent names, the interpretation is that these stones were statements of identity sited at important places on boundaries where people would have crossed between territories, perhaps indicating places of hosting or assembly. Such an interpretation lends itself to the idea that the creation of these visibly distinctive landmarks signalled a dramatic social or political change in society, perhaps the arrival of Christianity.

It would be useful to now revisit this exercise taking into account the findings of Alasdair Ross’ 2015 work on dabhachs, which are likely to have their origins in earlier units of land assessment and secular power.

Two colour maps with locations of different sculpture stones highlighted by different symbols

Figure 1: Maps showing the distributions of Pictish symbol stones, cross-slabs, crosses and ogham inscriptions in Donside. Crown Copyright: Historic Environment Scotland

Return to Section 3.2: Theoretical perspectives

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