Strathearn's Pictish Trail

Strathearn’s Pictish Trail

Strathearn the ancient Pictish Kingdom of Fortren or Fortriu still retains much of its mysterious Pictish past . A past which may not be instantly discernible to the visitor or indeed the resident of our beautiful part of Perthshire.


A first clue to the former locations of our Pictish ancestors lies in place names
Picts spoke “ P- Gaelic “ unlike the Scots Gaelic spoken today. It was more akin to Welsh , Breton and Cornish. It used the OGHAM alphabet as seen on many of the inscribed standing stones around the Strath . Place names indicating a Pictish presence mostly start with “ Pit “or “ Pett “. This means a parcel of land and is not generally found south of Antonine’s Wall which bisects Scotland from the Clyde to the Forth .

In Strathearn these names still abound Names such as Pittentian, Pittacher, Pett Farm at Muthill , Pitkellony all indicate an earlier Pictish presence ! Other prefixes which again show an early Pictish settlement and are derived from the “ P- Celtic “ language are Carden, Lanerc , Pert, Pevr and Aber .

Standing Stones
As you wander around the Strath and stravaig the quieter back roads and rolling hills you inevitably come across single standing stones and circles . These stone circles and alignments are pre Pictish and belong to the third millennium ie 3000 BC This was a time of change when communal burial replaced by individual burial and new types of pottery and metal working introduced. first copper then bronze. The communal burial took place in a stone chambered cairns or barrows. Stone circles or henges ceremonial and often recorded celestial movement. Single stones possibly tribal boundary markers. My good friend Andrew Finlayson of Comrie has produced a splendid book on these stones You can read more on the Blog

As we have noted in earlier Blogs , the Pictish period can be dated approximately from 100 AD through to about 850 AD . The Pictish inhabitants of Fortren/Fortriu have left a clear marker of their presence in their symbol stones .

Pictish Symbol Stones and Cross

These date from the mid 6th century until about the 8th century. They are divided into three classes .

Class l : The designs are incised not carved in relief onto boulders or on roughly dressed stones. No Christian crosses or other recognised attributes are found . Dating is uncertain, and designs are “ crescent and V- rod “ , the notched rectangle and Z-rod and the arch and horse shoe. You also find animal forms like serpents , bulls and boars.One example in Strathearn is some two and a quarter miles SW of Auchterarder (NN 924 097 )It is located in a field near to the road .Is incised with a bird - probably a goose , with its head turned back .Also a rectangular double edged comb. Other Class 1 stones are found eastwards of Strathearn in Angus . There two outstanding examples are the Aberlemno Stone( pictured above ) and the Dunnichen Stone . The latter is housed in the Meffan Institute in Forfar with a replica located at Dunnichen Churchyard .

Class ll :These date from 9th century and differ from the earlier Class 1 in that they clearly show the Christian influence particularly with the crosses. The older symbols have become less pronounced and they are carved in relief on one side. They are dated to the 9th and 10th century and the Christian symbols , the cross and various allegorical forms often show an elaborate decorative interlace . The delightful village of Fowlis Wester (NN 927 240) has two fine examples of Class ll stones . ( pic at head of page ) The first was until comparatively recently located in the small square leading up to the church . With the damaging pollutants in our atmosphere beginning to reek havoc with the soft sandstone , it was removed for renovation to the National Museum in Edinburgh . On its return it found safe sanctuary within the walls of the attractive little Kirk of St Beans built on a site in the centre of the village which has ecclesiastical connections dating back to the 10 the century . The stone shows a man leading a cow with a bell and two horsemen in two tiers with a beast between them. One horseman has a hawk. Perhaps a man being devoured by a beast. The second stone was found during restoration in the 1930s. It could be Jonah and the whale although debate still persists . The two Saints are possibly St Paul and St Anthony.

The 1837 Statistical account for the Parish of Fowlis Wester refers to the existence of “ Druids “ referring to the stone circle above the village. To quote what was written at the time :

“ Fowlis appears to have a favourite seat of the Druids. Several of their clachans have been demolished but there are still four large Druidic stones standing west from the village one of which is a croleach or alter stone, in which there is an artificial cavity where the blood and oil of the sacrifices flowed. On the summit of the hill due north from the same place there is a Druidic circle of stones and a double concentric circle. This is believed to have been the temple of an arch Druid which when erected was probably in the midst of a forest in which were the oak and consecrated grove, the favourite objects of their superstition. The circle consists of sixteen stones between which and the double circle there is a large stone incumbent where the arch druid stood and addressed himself to those around him. The outer precinct of the concentric circle is 18 yards in circumference in which there are 40 stones. Three yards north from it there is a large standing stone which is probably monumental of some illustrious dead as they were then interred around those places, where they worshipped the Supreme Being. To the west of this temple there is a Siun which signifies in Gaelic a mount of peace, near which is a fairy hillock where urns have been found. and which s believed to have been inhabited by an inferior kind of genii called fairies. On the Siuns , the Druids held assizes when it was customary to kindle a large bonfire called Samhin or the fire of peace. On Hallows Eve , a druidical festival , these fires are still lighted up in this district and retain the same name.

The same Account later on mentions the cross and states that there were once chains where culprits were attached to and exposed to punishment like a pillory. There is a story that up until the turn of the century the old cross was smeared in grease to ward off evil spirits.

The Royal Palace of Strathearn and the Dupplin Cross

We have in earlier Blogs discussed briefly the royal Palace of Forteviot and its importance in the rise to power of the kings of Fortren . Archaeologists believe Forteviot was the chief residence of the Kings of Starthearn as far back as the 7th century and a s such was recognised as the capital of Fortren by Pinkerton in 1789 . Despite this, there is no documentary evidence to confirm Forteviot’s royal associations before the 9th century . This of course is in all probability due to the poor survival of Pictish sources from that early period .

We read that Kenneth mac Alpin (or to give him his Pictish name Cinead Mac Alpin ) moved from Dalriata or Dalriada in the west to Forteviot in the 9th century . This was a time that saw the culmination of a long period of cultural , linguistic and political integration between the Scots in the West and the Picts here in Strathearn . The complexity of the King lists can be followed from the sources the Scottish Chronicle and the Chronicle of the Kings of Alba ( Scotland ) . These are indeed transcriptions of earlier versions now lost in the mists of time but which are well authenticated over the years . The reason mac Alpin moved east was in all probability o the risks of Viking raids in Argyll . Mac Alpin is now recognised a s being more Pictish than Scots and his immediate successors after he died at Forteviot were Pictish and not Scottish Kings . The names Alpin and Kenneth ( Cinaed ) are Pictish as opposed to Gaelic . The Prophesy of Bercan states

Seventeen years , heights of valour
In the high –kingship of Alba
After slaughtering Picts , after harassing Vikings
He dies on the banks of the Earn .

The digs and investigations at Forteviot have undoubtedly increased or knowledge of our somewhat mysterious Pictish antecedents . The control of the kingdom was based on dominance . The Pictish kings would have travelled around their kingdom and stayed in places of strength which were well fortified such as Dundurn at St Fillans .

What then happened to Forteviot that only the archaeological digs of Nick Aitchison and his colleagues can really determine ? It is clear that the Palace was swept away by the power of the Water of May as it changed course on numerous occasions over the years . , that powerful river that joins the Earn at Forteviot . It was in the mud of the river the magnificent sculpted arch way from the Palace was recovered - the only remnant to have so far been recovered from its destruction in the 12th century . To quote Aitchison : “ One item stands out amongst this evidence . This is the magnificent arch , carved from a single block of sandstone and decorated with men and beasts in an enigmatic and unique scene that has eluded interpretation since its discovery over 170 years ago . The Forteviot Arch is a masterpiece of early medieval sculpture and provides the most tangible evidence of the royal centre of Forteviot , a direct link with a distant and forgotten past and its inhabitants “ ( pictured at the head of this Blog )

We cannot discuss Forteviot without mentioning the two crosses associate with it . The first , the Dupplin Cross now resides in St Serf’s Church in Dunning having been moved there after renovation Edinburgh about 1998 . It is a Pictish high cross standing nearly 9’ high and was originally in a field looking towards Forteviot .A badly weathered Roman inscription was detected in 1990 on the west face of the cross . This is one of only four Latin inscriptions found on a Pictish sculpture . It would appear that the stone relates to Causantin son of Uurguist who was King of the Picts between 789 and 820 . By linking the cross to a named individual , this inscription enables the cross to be dated more closely . The Dupplin Cross was a public and monumental expression of Royal power .

The Invermay Cross stood south of Forteviot but suffered considerable damage when broken up by the farmer on whose ground it stood in the 19th century Much of the carving that has been found on the remnants of the cross closely resembles that of the Dupplin Cross .


Popular posts from this blog

Comrie of Old

Methven : Some Historical Tales including a defeat for Robert the Bruce . Methven the cradle of the Stewart Dynasty