Rare Pictish symbol stone recycled as headstone

Archaeologists have discovered a rare Pictish symbol stone that was reused as a headstone in the 18th century. It was found during a survey of an early Christian church site near Dingwall in the Scottish Highlands. It had been identified as a likely cross slab dating to the late 8th century. An inscription squeezed in on the top left of the front face reads: “Hugh McAulay Alexander McAulay January 2 1796.”

Cross slabs are named for a design element — an intricately carved cross — found on at least one side. There are around 350 recorded and documented Pictish symbol stones. There are only around 50 carved Pictish cross slabs known. There is no cross on the front of the newly discovered stone (which technically makes it the back, or reverse of the stone; the cross side is the obverse). When the back of the slab is cleaned and if the carvings are sufficiently extant, experts will be able to confirm whether this is a cross slab.

Only about half of the height of the stone survives. Archaeologists think it was originally over six feet tall; there’s just over a meter (3.2 feet) left, likely from the top part. There are carvings on both sides — archaeologists saw as much when the stone was lifted, but the coating of soil obscured the imagery.

John Borland, of Historic Environment Scotland and president of the Pictish Arts Society, said: “The discovery of the top half of a large cross slab with Pictish symbols is of national importance.

“The find spot – an early Christian site in Easter Ross – is a new location for such sculpture so adds significant information to our knowledge of the Pictish church and its distribution,

“This new discovery will continue to stimulate debate and new research.”

Recycled Pictish stones have been found before. They were reused as boundary stones and lintels, in portals and as headstones. This one has some characteristic Pictish abstract designs including the Z-rod and Double Disc, but it has Celtic interlace motifs as well. This is typical of later symbol stones which syncretized the decorative traditions and included carved pictorial references to Biblical characters, see the Nigg Church Pictish cross-slab, for example.

The stone was raised on Thursday and will be cleaned and conserved. Eventually it will be exhibited in a museum, ideally in the Highlands.

4 thoughts on “Rare Pictish symbol stone recycled as headstone

  1. I thought initially that this was being used as a small headstone, but then I saw the picture of it being lifted and was surprised by how big it is!

  2. This raises a couple of questions:

    for millennia there were ‘standing stones’ (for all kinds of purposes), by some point in time, some of them are considered ‘Pictish’, and a little later ‘Christian Pictish’, and some of those (where someone put a cross on them) are referred to as ‘cross slab’.

    What exactly is meant by ‘headstone’, and are some of those headstones tombstones (originally or reused)? Is the ‘early Christian church’ dating to the late 8th century? Were Non-christian tombstones reused as Pictish Christian ones, and re-reused as Non-pictish Christian ones? :confused:

    To give an example: Over here, there were three standing stones, very archaic ‘picture stones’ to be precise, found in a river. They seem to have been tombstones and were dumped. In case they are medieval, they must be very early medieval, and there are ‘spatha’ swords.

  3. I believe this is my headstone I have a picture that matches it exactly but I can’t find a place to post the picture here in this comment box. The picture was given to me by a friend who’s friend gave it to her, and when it was given to me my friend told me the octopus was me, and a couple weeks prior to that another friend told me I was the bird, I really wish I could post the pic on here.

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