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The Pagan Symbols of the Picts

STUART McHARDY

Luath Press Limited EDINBURGH www.luath.co.uk


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First published 2012 isbn: 978-1-908373-14-4 The paper used in this book is sourced from renewable forestry

and is fsc credited material Printed and bound by mpg Books Ltd., Cornwall Typeset in 11 point Sabon by 3btype.com The author’s right to be identified as author of this book under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 has been asserted. Text and Line Drawings © Stuart McHardy Pictish Photo Art © Nick Simpson


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Contents Preface

7

Introduction

9

Map

12

chapter one

Who Were the Picts?

15

chapter two

Pictish Symbolism

39

chapter three

Dating

49

chapter four

Symbolism

51

chapter five

Before Literature

55

chapter six

The Symbol Stones

57

Animals Bear Boar/Sow Cattle Deer Dog Eagle Goose Horse Salmon Serpent Serpent and Z-rod The ‘Beastie’

59 60 67 73 82 84 88 89 92 95 98 98

Geometric Shapes Cauldron Circles Crescent and V-rod Double Crescent Double Disc Mirror and Comb/Mirror and Comb Case

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102 106 107 109 110 112


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the pagan symbols of the picts

Notched Rectangle Circular Disc and Rectangle Spiral Z-rod chapter seven

114 115 117 119

Pre-Christian Religion in Scotland

123

A Decayed Goddess Basses

124 139

Pictish Photo Art by Nick Simpson

143

Conclusion

165

Coda

169

Appendix A

171

Appendix B

175

Appendix C

177

Bibliography

179

Time Line

187

List of Symbols

190

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Preface given the length of time since they were created and the lack of direct written evidence concerning the Pictish symbols, some of their meanings are more opaque than others. My interpretations in some cases have extensive support within early texts while in other instances much of what I suggest is almost completely speculative and perhaps incapable of any real extent of proof. Hopefully, with the increasing sophistication of archaeological methodologies and the development of new techniques, our understanding will be improved. However, I hope the approach adopted here can lead to a clearer vision of what the symbols may mean, and thus may help us gain a clearer understanding of the inhabitants of 1st millennium Scotland and earlier. The ideas presented in this book have developed over nearly 40 years of study and contemplation and thus any mistakes are mine alone. Where I have quoted others, this is in support of my contentions and it should not be assumed that those quoted agree with all, or even any, of what is presented herein. Having taken a university degree in history, I am aware that most of what is called history has been written at the behest of what can only be called ‘elites’. Because of this, much of what passes for human history, and indeed archaeology, is overly concerned with earlier elites, even where there is no hard evidence that they existed. Most history books until relatively recently paid little attention to anyone other than elite groups of males between their late teens and middle age. Women generally are only noticed in detail when they are fulfilling a role normally assumed to be a masculine one and there are few, if any, mentions of other women, children, healers, poets, musicians, farmers, fisherfolk, craftspeople and many other groups in society.

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Historians have long been obsessed with what they perceive as elite behaviour, though the growth of social history over the past half century is beginning to give us a more rounded picture of what the past was like. In this work I draw heavily upon material that initially survived through oral transmission and was thus not subject to the control of religious, military or economic elites, as written history has always been. In A New History of the Picts, I have gone so far as to suggest that in tribal Britain the modern concept of the elite would have been anachronistic and is unhelpful in trying to understand our common past. At least some of my ancestors were Picts – the name McHardy seems to have originated in what was the Pictish province of Mar – but some were Irish and, according to family tradition, there are Norse antecedents in there too. However, I make no claim to being a Pict, or even a Celt, a term that has no ethnic significance whatsoever. I am a Scot who believes that the past of my country has been badly interpreted and considerably misunderstood and it is in pursuit of a greater understanding of that past that I have developed the ideas here presented. Thanks, as ever, are due to the Luath crew for teasing this work into print. Additionally thanks to Nick Simpson and Davie Moir for help with illustrations and stimulating discussions. Stuart McHardy

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Introduction Methodology due to the lack of early written Scottish sources it has been necessary for commentators on our past to look elsewhere for historical sources. In the main, this has in effect been the Roman Empire, England and Ireland, simply because there are surviving early sources from all three. It is ironic that so many have used English sources considering the role played by Edward i and later Cromwellian troops in destroying what did exist of early documentation in Scotland. Although the material emanating from the early Irish annals is of considerable importance, it is my contention that far too much attention has been paid to the supposed influence of Ireland on Scotland. In his article ‘Were The Scots Irish?’ (2000) Ewan Campbell of Glasgow University has, I believe, totally debunked the notion that Dalriada, the Scottish society based around the Kilmartin valley in the 1st Millennium, was founded by invaders from Ulster c.500ce. He points out that there is no contemporary historical, archaeological or linguistic evidence that supports the contention that the Scots arrived from Ireland, and goes so far as to suggest that there was in fact considerable cultural and political influence in the opposite direction. Further, I would suggest that the many references in histories of the period to the Kingdoms of Dalriada and Pictland is, for reasons that will become clear, unhelpful in understanding how those societies functioned, and for much of the 1st Millennium is simply inaccurate. The Romans describe tribal societies. As late as the 18th century tribal society still flourished in much of the Scottish mainland. Are we to believe it disappeared and then returned? This is unheard of in the human story. Therefore we must surely accept that in some

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ways the tribal societies of late Medieval Scotland developed over time from those earlier tribal societies described by the Romans. From what we can tell, those societies were exclusively non-literate when the Romans arrived and it was only with the introduction of Christianity that the written word appeared amongst the native peoples. And for long enough after that, reading and writing was the sole prerogative of churchmen; churchmen who, from the Synod of Whitby in 664, owed their allegiance to an organisation centred in far off Rome, and whose writings are unashamedly propagandistic. God was, after all, on their side. It is one of the major mistakes of historians to assume that once literature is introduced into society, oral tradition either disappears or is discredited. For many millennia such societies as did exist in what we now call Scotland were held together by myths and legends, stories and tales, that could only pass from lip to ear. Evidence from Australia illustrates that oral transmission can carry accurate information over tens of thousands of years (Isaacs 1991), but here I would mention the case of Troy. Troy was found not by professional archaeologists or historians but by a German industrialist Heinrich Schliemann who, despite the objections of the professionals, had decided that the tales Homer spun into the Iliad were based on fact. To the academic establishment of his day, Homer’s sources were ‘just stories’. That is a fair description of much of the material that I have used to try to tease out meaning from the symbols of the Picts, and it is worth remembering that we too have at least one Pictish instance of the viability of traditional tales. Norrie’s Law was long said to be the burial site of a warrior, traditionally a Danish rather than a Pictish warrior, who was buried in a suit of silver armour. The veracity of this can be checked by looking at the remnants of the silver found in the tumulus, now on show in the Museum of Scotland. History is limited by the tyranny of the written word. As Campbell (supra) and others have shown, the written word is often little more than propaganda. We have to be critical in our approach to the written word and this applies just as much to words written

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introduction

down that were once spoken as story. Wherever possible I have considered a variety of sources, temporal and geographic, in suggesting possible direct links to what we can only call pagan belief. The general meaning of pagan here is pre-Christian, and where I go further to suggest specific possibilities and relationships, I should re-emphasise that this is derived from my own thinking. According to the Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) the term pagan originally had the sense of ... villager, rustic‌ indicating the fact that the ancient idolatry lingered on in the rural villages and hamlets after Christianity had been generally accepted in the towns and cities of the Roman Empire 1979, p.2052 Given that Scotland had very few towns or cities until well into the medieval period this seems particularly apt. By analysing material that emanated from the traditional stories, myths and legends of Wales, Ireland and Scandinavia I hope I can show that we can put together a model for understanding something of what the symbols may have meant to the people who created them. One of the reasons for investigating the pre-Christian Picts is to develop a picture that archaeologists can perhaps use to pose questions about sites from pagan times. In order to develop such a picture I have spent considerable effort trying to understand not only how relevant information can be transmitted through the oral tradition, but also in analysing the Scottish landscape in the light of putative pagan belief. Through a combination of approaches, I have come up with an interpretation of the Pictish past which, correct or not, has the advantage of being cohesive and as such might well fill the role of stimulating further discussion and hopefully begin to provide a framework that might allow the development of a specifically Scottish archaeological approach to the Picts.

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Map of sites mentioned in the text

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1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36

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Abernethy Achnabreck Ardross Bennachie Burghead Collessie Congash Clynemilton Drimmies Dull Dumbarton Dunachton Dunadd Dunrobin Easterton of Roseisle Eday Eildon Hills Grantown Glamis Inverurie Kintore Kintradwell Knocknagael Latheron Lindores Logie Elphinstone Meigle Moy Newton North Berwick Law Paps of Fife Paps of Jura Rhynie St Vigean’s Sandside Strathpeffer

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chapter one

Who were the Picts? the question of who the Picts were has been the cause of much controversy over the years. The lack of early written material from Scotland has meant we have virtually no direct historical evidence regarding the Picts. This vacuum has served to create a situation where a whole range of theories have arisen regarding the origin of the Picts. Short of any evidence pointing to a major population influx in Scottish pre-history, and to date this has not been presented, it seems to me that the most sensible approach is to consider the Picts as the descendants of the original inhabitants of this part of the world (McHardy 2010). Given that we now know that stories can pass down provable facts over millennia (Isaacs 1991), there may in fact be a hint as to their origin in the far past. The tradition given by Bede, a monk writing in Jarrow monastery in the 9th century, is that the Picts came from Scythia. In the 1st Millennium and into the Early Medieval period, Scythia referred, not to the area north of the Black Sea, but to the southern area of Scandinavia, modern Denmark and the adjoining areas. For a considerable period after the close of the last Ice Age, much of the area that is now the North Sea was dry land and it seems likely that people travelled east from Denmark and the Low Countries to Britain as well as coming into what is now England from the south. The idea that people only came into Scotland after having come first into England has no specific evidence to support it. While some people probably did come by this route, early settlers were just as likely to have come in across the land bridge from the Continent. The geneticist Stephen Oppenheimer states that according to genetic analysis there was an influx of people from northern Norway as early as 4000bce (2006, p.190) Given that Isaacs (1991, passim) 15


Pagan Symbols of the Picts