Searching for a lost people in northern Scotland

The Picts are a fascinating but archaeologically elusive people who thrived in parts of Scotland in the 4th to 10th centuries AD. What has recent research added to this often obscure picture? Gordon Noble reports.

Excavation taking place on a clifftop
Over the last eight years, archaeological work by the University of Aberdeen – including some intrepid excavations at Dunnicaer – has revealed major new insights into the Picts.

The Picts are a ‘lost people of Europe’ who continue to be a subject of enduring public fascination. First mentioned in late Roman sources as a collective name for troublesome, barbaric peoples living north of the Roman frontier, the Picts went on to dominate a large part of Scotland until the late 1st millennium AD. The emergence of the Pictish over-kingdom, the precursor of the kingdom of the Scots, was part of broader changes in northern Europe that laid the foundations for the modern states of Europe. Other than their enigmatic symbol stones, though, the archaeological and historical record for this region in c.AD 300-900 is diffuse and difficult – famously dubbed the ‘Problem of the Picts’.

The main Pictish powerbases were long-assumed to lie in central Scotland, but, in a seminal work of 2006, historian Alex Woolf located Fortriu – the most-cited and most-powerful Pictish kingdom – further north in the Moray Firth region. Further research has shed more light on this: in 2012, the Northern Picts Project was established at the University of Aberdeen to investigate an area stretching from Aberdeenshire to Easter Ross, covering the probable extent of Fortriu and a territory of Pictland known as Ce. Funded by a donation to the University of Aberdeen Development Trust, we have taken up the challenge of finding new archaeological features in a period with few identified sites, either in the written sources or the material record.

The main study area of the Northern Picts Project: the key sites mentioned in the text are (1) Burghead, (2) Kinneddar, (3) Rhynie/Tap O’ Noth/Cairnmore, (4) Mither Tap/Bennachie, and (5) Dunnicaer.

This unprecedented focus on the Picts was enhanced in 2017 by the Comparative Kingship project (funded by the Leverhulme Trust), and to-date the University of Aberdeen has investigated a whole series of Pictish sites in northern Scotland through large-scale excavation, survey, and targeted fieldwork. There have been some spectacular successes, not least the (re)discovery of a Pictish-period silver hoard at Gaulcross, Aberdeenshire, led by Aberdeen and the National Museum Scotland. In this article we will focus on two key elements: Pictish symbol stones and power centres.


Symbol stones are perhaps the most-celebrated element of Pictish archaeology. There are more than 200 stone monuments with symbols known from eastern and northern Scotland, and repeated attempts to decipher their meaning have been made since the 19th century. Current consensus is that this was a system that expressed names or identities of some kind, and that it was an elite form of expression found in both settlement and burial situations; providing better contexts and dating for this tradition has been a key aspect of our work.

Sketches of Pictish symbol stones
A number of Pictish symbol stones were discovered at Dunnicaer – the remains of a Pictish promontory fort perched on a sea stack south of Aberdeen – in the 19th century. [Image: Historic Environment Scotland]

From 2015 to 2017, the Northern Picts Project’s fieldwork targeted Dunnicaer, a towering sea stack just to the south of Aberdeen, where a series of Pictish stones were found in the 19th century. It has been suggested that their relatively simple designs (also seen in other contexts, including caves) might represent the earliest examples of the symbol system, but there has been little in the way of absolute dating.

A reconstruction of the settlement at Dunnicaer.

The first stones were discovered during the gathering of building material at the site, and more examples were identified in 1832 when a group of youths found a low stone wall on the stack and threw a number of its stones into the sea. Since then, few people have visited Dunnicaer, as the site is cut off at high tide and surrounded by sheer cliff-faces – but, with the support of a professional climber, the Northern Picts team carried out three seasons
of (rather intrepid) fieldwork on the stack. This work revealed the remains of a promontory fort, with a timber-laced rampart enclosing a series of buildings (see CA 304 and 307). Much of the settlement had been lost to severe coastal erosion, but it still yielded an exciting range of finds, including Roman pottery and glass – rare imports this far north of the frontier – along with burnishing stones for metalworking.

Even more surprisingly, radio- carbon dating of samples from the fort suggests that its use began c.AD 105-225 and ended c.AD 350-450. Fort-building is rarely attested in the Roman Iron Age in Scotland, but Dunnicaer clearly flourished at this time, reaching its height in the same period as the first Roman reference tothe Picts (AD 297). While it remains impossible to directly date the symbol stones, the youths of 1832 described finding them in a wall surrounding the site, and the rampart around the southern edge of the stack which best fits that description was constructed c.AD 245-380. If the symbol stones are from this timeframe, they are much earlier than many scholars had countenanced for this tradition.

Black and white image of the Rhynie Man carving
‘Rhynie Man’ adorns a carved stone found at the elite Pictish centre of Rhynie, Aberdeenshire. A miniature axe resembling the one shown on the stone was found during excavations at the site. [Image: Aberdeenshire Council Archaeology Service]

Another key focus of our project has been the Aberdeenshire village of Rhynie. Its name includes a form of the Celtic word for ‘king’, *rīg, and our work at the site suggests the surrounding valley was an elite Pictish centre from the 4th to 6th centuries AD (see CA 289). Rhynie has long been known for its notable concentration of Class I Pictish stones, and in March 1978 a particularly spectacular example was ploughed up by a local farmer at Barflat farm, just to the south of the modern village. Known as ‘Rhynie Man’, it depicts a bearded figure – possibly a pagan deity – carrying a distinctive axe that may be associated with animal sacrifice.

The field where Rhynie Man was found is home to another Pictish stone, the Craw Stane, which still stands in situ. In 1978, council archaeologist Ian Shepherd captured aerial photographs showing a series of enclosures surrounding the monument, and more than three decades later our project returned to the site to explore these features. Between 2011 and 2017, excavations by the universities of Aberdeen and Chester established that the Craw Stane stood towards the entranceway of the enclosure complex which, in an early phase, comprised ditches (and presumably banks) surrounding a low glacial knoll. A later phase saw the construction of an elaborate timber wall of oak posts and planks, inside which we found the footprints of a series of buildings and a rich array of finds hinting at a community with far-reaching connections.

Plan of the site with images of the stones inset
This plan shows features and finds at Barfl at farm’s enclosure complex, and the location of the Craw Stane. Inset: Rhynie’s remarkable symbol stones, with the Craw Stane – carved with a fish – shown top left. [Image: Historic Environment Scotland]

As well as sherds of Late Roman wine amphorae imported from the eastern Mediterranean, there were fragments of glass drinking beakers from France, and one of the largest assemblages of metalworking production evidence known from early medieval Britain – from moulds and crucibles for making pins, to brooches and even tiny animal figurines that resemble the animals carved on Pictish stones. One of the most-remarkable finds was an iron pin shaped like the axe carried by Rhynie Man – tangible links between objects from the site and the iconography of the stones.

A few hundred metres to the north, where another of Rhynie’s carved stones (depicting a warrior) is recorded to have been recovered from a cairn, we have also found traces of a contemporary barrow cemetery. One of these mounds contained the partially preserved remains of a woman, and it is thought that two square enclosures located nearby may have been shrines or places for conducting ceremonies associated with veneration of the dead.

This is an extract of an article that appeared in CA 364. Read on in the magazine. Click here to subscribe

One Comment

  1. billcor2014
    June 12, 2020 @ 5:30 am

    the double round symbols on the carved stones look a lot like welsh chariots of the same age. (just sayin)


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