Case Study 23: Rhynie Woman and community engagement

Gordon Noble

Pictish carved stones are among the most iconic images we have from early Scotland. At Rhynie, Aberdeenshire, the University of Aberdeen in collaboration with the University of Chester and University of Glasgow have been working with the local community to understand the context of a series of Pictish Class I symbol stones found around the modern village. The most dramatic of the Rhynie images is the so-called Rhynie Man found by farmer Kevin Alston in 1978. Since 2011, excavations have shown that the findspot of the Rhynie Man is the location of a high-status enclosure complex and settlement dating to AD 450–550 with evidence of Mediterranean and continental imports, high-status metalwork and buildings within a complex series of boundary features.

In 2013, a local community group, ‘Rhynie Woman’, was formed supported by the Huntly Cultural Fund and Creative Scotland. The original impetus came from local artists Daisy Williamson and Debbi Beeson who ran a Pictish pop-up museum and café alongside the excavations that year. Rhynie Woman became a constituted community engagement group and received HLF support for a community dig in 2014 and since then has worked on a variety of community and artistic projects. The imagery of the Rhynie stones has been a constant source of inspiration for Rhynie Woman, and they have attracted thousands of people to events associated with the group. Their work, part of a King’s Museum exhibition on the Northern Picts in 2015, was seen by over 3000 people. One of the most spectacular Rhynie Woman events was an equinox celebration in March 2015 when they organized a reimagining of the Pictish centre at Rhynie and a walk up nearby Tap O’Noth hillfort along with artists and musicians. Rhynie Man was the centrepiece, recreated in lights on a metal framework, his image displayed at night against the dramatic backdrop of Tap O’Noth.  

The local community have long campaigned for the return of Rhynie Man, who is currently housed at Aberdeenshire Council headquarters. There remains a desire to see Rhynie Man and the other symbols stones better represented in the community, but Rhynie Woman has also explored other ways of bringing the stones and their images alive. This has included working with Glasgow School of Art to create 3D/RTI records of some of the symbol stones. More recently the University of Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire Council and Rhynie Woman have also been working with Revolv3D, a local 3D printing company, to use photogrammetry and 3D print the results. Local artist Anne Murray has also run various projects, including working with school children to write Valentine’s Day cards to Rhynie Man, and setting up Twitter and Facebook feeds for him, as well as creating a film surrounding his discovery and his role in village life in the past and present. Through initiatives of this kind, the community at Rhynie preserves these monuments as an active part of their contemporary lives and ensures the images retain a vibrant role within modern life. 

A colour photo of a landscape at dusk with dark hills in front of a colourful sunset. A figure of a man carrying an axe is created in the foreground using small lights

Figure 1: Rhynie Man recreated in lights on Tap O’Noth hillfort in 2015. © Gordon Noble

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