For a nation proud of its heritage, its oral tradition and roots – supported by faithful descendants in all corners of the globe – we Northeast Scots are remarkably careless with it.
In part this stems from a history of being conquered. But suppressed belief and myth have a way of being treasured: a precious relic to be hidden from secular eyes.
While great historical documents may have been lost in centuries of ‘acquisition’ or political manipulation by other cultures, there is an element of keeping knowledge of the Dark Age dark – maintaining in recesses of the mind secrets rehearsed in saga and song known – at least in the historical Pictish era – to all.
This was a people glad to be left behind in AD410 when the Romans walked out, left to themselves in a rich land with its own ancient culture.
Picture a Roman legion – battle invaders some time in the mists of Iron Age forays into the north – pitched overnight in the Banffshire plain of Deskford below the Hills of Durn and the Bin; picture them waking to find raging Picts tearing downhill towards them, men and women screaming, hair flying, blowing their great boar-headed battle-horn, the carnyx, to terrorise and disperse the invading army. No record tells of this battle in Roman annals, but the carnyx, itself immortalised in Roman pictorial carvings, like Trajan’s column in the forum at Rome, is a symbol of what the civilized world had to deal with on these colonial jaunts, and survives to tell a tale.
Presently housed in Edinburgh’s Museum of Scotland, this carnyx is the only one of its kind, found in 1839 by the Burn of Deskford three miles inland from the Moray Firth (the North Coast) nearly 2000 years after it last sounded in battle.
By 368, just thirty years before Roman withdrawal from Britain, Ammianus Marcellinus describes tribes of the Priteni [Picts] split into two by the Mounth: northern Dicalydones and Verturiones in the south. To Roman authors, Priteni-Britanni were linguistically just another people of Prydein. By the post-Roman Dark Age, Caledonians had re-possessed their northern forests, the Fortriu people rich lands of Perth and Fife.
Swab tests for DNA were compiled in 2001 for a BBC programme on the influence in Northeast Scotland of Scandinavian genes. This is almost like testing in Huntly for a Roman gene. Apart from the line of one or two Cruden Buchan descendants and, possibly a fortunate ‘Dane’ who may have survived the 1004 battle of the bloody pits on Gamrie More, Buchan and Mar are singularly free from the after-effects of viking summer warriors.
It is said our coastline, unlike the unfortunate West, was less conducive to lying offshore because its flat plain offers no concealment to ships and its appearance is extremely un-fjord-like.
Although still untaught in schools, few deny knowing that Kenneth mac Alpin, c.AD843, united the kingdoms of Picts and Scots. Fewer seem aware that his dynasty – so bold and so desperate for fertile plains – carefully perpetuated the title of those he deposed, calling themselves Kings of Picts for another sixty years.
Alongside Pictish lands they annexed Pictish Law – a remarkable piece of diplomacy which survives in the basis of Scots law today.
Between the fifth and seventh centuries, the great forests of the Northeast were the domain of kings – Stocket, Kintore, Deer – a resource which ensured royal entertainment [the boar hunt] and feasts [deer and lesser animals] for warriors and entire communities, as well as wealth of timber and grain.
While none but the lordly burned wood in the fireplace of the great hall – most people cast peat for fuel – bounty of the forest [as kindling] was available to all. This convention remains today in the understanding between tenant farmer and landowner/laird that while he may not cut down trees, all windfall is his.
At least two royal strongholds survive.
These are not small domains like those confirmed in later medieval charters to royal burghs, but whole estates crowned by forests, nourished by rivers and centred round the ‘castle-hill’ [Brit.caer] of a noble family: in the south the Kingdom of Fife points to the king’s mound – Cinrimonaid [St.Andrews] made famous by Constantin king of Picts [789-820]; in the north the Kingdom of Forgue with its Place of Ferendracht – ‘place’ in old Scots indicating a ‘peel’ or fortified mound of the heroic age.
There are others.
Inland our earliest placenames give fairly good timelines, where the castle-hill [Brit/Pict. caer, castell] usually denotes early-historic occupation of the pre-Scotic ‘Pictish period’, e.g. Kintore, Inverurie, with attendant royal chapels [Lat. capella, Welsh/Brit. eglys]- in the Northeast often seen in the telltale ‘chapelton’ within ancient church boundaries but separate from the later parish church. Compare rath/roth element, e.g. Rathmurriel, Rothney in Insch, which derive from 12th century settlements, as of Flemings [Flinders] at Leslie.
Second early element Brit. eglys, easily identified south of the Mounth like Ecclesgreig in Mearns, ‘church of Giric’, is more elusive farther north but does occur. There is one on the Banff coast – conveniently close to Pictish stronghold Dundarg – Strahanglis Point, ‘point of the valley of the church’.
Another clue to Pictish Christian foundations is the presence of a circular enclosed burial ground, like the one at Deskford within the precinct of the medieval laird’s Tower; at Fordyce on the North Coast where the remains of a Pictish tower dedicated to St. Talorcan stands there is another; and at Tullich in Aboyne one remains where the former church was dedicated to St. Nathalan [died 679].
There are delightfully archaic, short, stubby single-syllable names in the language too, to satisfy our yearning for earliest beginnings.
It helps to remember that the parish system, discarded by modern mapmakers, usually transmits a clear layout of medieval churchlands, themselves descended from earlier chapels attached to Pictish strongholds.
By the seventh century Pictish kings were fully Christian, educated from youth in the cultural milieu of a monastery. In the centuries before gaelic became a court language, it was the language of the Irish Scot [Americans have a convenient term for these Ulstermen: Scots-Irish]. More significantly, it was the language of Irish monastics, keepers of annals, copiers of sacred texts, educators of the nobility.
It is no accident that Iona came into prominence following the ministry of saints like Columba [d.597] and Adamnán [d.704].
It was common ground for education of young nobles of all ‘four’ peoples of Britain, according to Northumbrian cleric Bede writing at the end of the seventh century – Angles, Britons, Picts and Scots. By 690, there was a long tradition of wandering British monks, educated in the Irish church, returning to convert the peoples of their homeland.
Patrick, interestingly, is one of the few Britons who took the Christian message to Ireland [mid-fifth century].
British Ninian, d. c.432, supposed founder of Whithorn in Galloway, is credited with inspiring several Pictish clerics of Northeast tradition. Drostan, Medan and Colm are sixth century saints, giving their names to foundations at Deer/Insch, Pitmedden/Fintray and St.Coombs respectively.
Finnian and Brendan, both mid-sixth-century travellers, spread the word and their names to churches planted throughout Pictland; Brendan, known as the wanderer, did his conversions by sea; his name in Banffshire is Brandan or Brangan where his dedications run along the North Coast.
Ethernan patron of Rathen in Buchan died, according to Irish annals, in 669 ‘among the Picts’. He is arguably the patron of Banchory-Ternan [contra Brev.Ab where he is called St.Ternanus] and of Kinnernie.
A contemporary Briton celebrated in southern Pictavia was St. Serf whose dedication at Culsalmond is rare north of the Mounth. St.Sair’s Fair was held here near Colpy until well after the Reformation. His other foundation was Monkeigy [Keithhall], near Inverurie.
Marnan, 7thC patron of Aberchirder-Marnoch and Leochel, Lumphanan was celebrated long after his death with Marnoch Fair.
Adamnán, ninth abbot of Iona and friend of High Kings, visited Forglen and Aboyne.
Recent research suggests that portable crosses – roughly circular stones like pillows carved with a simple cross and pre-dating the eighth century [class II] Pictish cross slabs – were the hallmark of these holy men. Their reach was far indeed. These compact Christian amulets surface in Aberdeenshire, temptingly close to early foundations: cross-inscribed stones [with no other ornament] appear at Aboyne, Afforsk, Banchory, Barra, Botriphnie, Bourtie, Clatt, Crathes, Culsalmond, Deer, Dyce, Ellon, Fintray, Inverurie, Kinnernie, Logie-Coldstone, Logie-Elphinstone, Monymusk, Ruthven and Tullich. A saint’s well to baptise converts, invariably lies close to such foundations. After they died, their relics – ranging from pillows of stone to crozier and bell – were treasured by the community.
A Fintray legend persists that St. Medan’s head was kept, wrapped in beaten silver, until melted down to make a communion cup for the reformed kirk. The head of the saint was kept at Banchory where t’Ernan’s bell, the ‘Ronnecht’ did not survive the Reformation; t’Ernan was patron of Findon, Arbuthnot and Slains.
One further legacy is the former pagan alphabet – ogham – carved in stone, reintroduced by early pilgrims as means of explaining Christian doctrine to the illiterate. Some of the few examples in the north [Newton, Dyce, illus.] have a clear fish-tail shape which had meaning to a populace venerating the salmon, carved liberally on pre-Christian Pictish [class I] symbol stones, yet denoting the fish symbol of Christ, Gk. Ikthos. It served as stopgap until the art of [class II] cross slabs in the next century heralded nationwide conversion under King Nechtan who was to drag his kingdom out of the Dark Age and shine a light in early medieval Europe. ©Marian Youngblood
Brev.Ab = Breviarium Aberdonense (Edinburgh 1510; reprint Spalding & Maitland 1854)
Farmer, D.H. [ed] & Sherley-Price, L [trans] (1990)
Bede: Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Penguin-Universal) Macquarrie A. (1997) The Saints of Scotland: essays in Scottish Church History AD450-1093 Edinburgh Sharpe, R. [ed] (1995)
Adamnán: Life of Columba London
Smyth, A.P. (1984) Warlords and Holy Men: Scotland AD80-1000 Edinburgh