Aberdeenshire Gold

Tap o' Noth Caledonian hillfort stands guard over Pictish power center at Rhynie's Barflat in Aberdeenshire

The bard was asked who of the kings of Prydein
is most generous of all
‘And I declared boldly
That it was Owain’
The Gorhoffedd, 12thC Brittonic heroic poem

It has always been our contention that Aberdeenshire gold mined at Rhynie in early-historic times which found its way into Pictish hoards (Traprain Law, Edinburgh) and later melted to form delicate tracery in the Crown Jewels of the King of Scots was one of the major reasons for Rhynie’s importance. After all, a Pictish sub-King who had gold mines on his doorstep and whose pre-Christian ancestors had built no fewer than 10 (Neolithic) stone circles within a radius of as many miles, descended from a great lineage which was responsible for maintaining important sacred traditions. Rhynie’s local mountain, Tap o’ Noth, with its supremely defensive Caledonian triple-ringed hillfort, can be seen for 30 miles in all directions. It is an Aberdeenshire landmark.

Craw Stane, single AD5thC Pictish carved stone left standing at Barflat, ©1856 Stuart drawing 'Symbol Stones of Scotland'

Below, in what is now a lost hinterland, the ancient township of Rhynie clusters on the banks of the Water of Bogie, its market square set within pre-Christian sacred surroundings, with a pre-Reformation churchyard, several stone circles, Neolithic causeways and carved Pictish stones — burgeoning evidence of its prehistoric importance.

It is gratifying, therefore, (but no surprise) to learn that this summer the Universities of Aberdeen and Chester have found definitive evidence of three fortified enclosures south of the town — a triple power center — in Rhynie’s ‘Royal Mile’ at Barflat, where an unprecedented total of eight Pictish (AD5th-6thCC) carved stones have been unearthed over the years, under the unseeing gaze of Caledonian Tap o’Noth.

It is speculated that the famous — and unique — Roman battle of Mons Graupius (AD83) was fought near here. The foothills of the Grampian mountains’ massif begin within two miles of the outskirts of the town.

A sponsored excavation was finally made possible this year after investigations begun in 2007 by Rhynie Environs Archaeological Project (REAP), in a collaboration between the two universities’ archaeological departments, led by Dr Gordon Noble (UA) and Dr Meggen Gondek (UC). Their interest was piqued by positive resistivity surveys taken in 2005 and 2006, but they were unable to raise sufficient backing to begin. They have discovered three giant enclosures standing close together, one of them a ‘Peel’, surrounded by a massive pallisaded wooden structure of spiked tree-trunks: the ultimate impenetrable fence.

2011 excavation by REAP uncovers large fortified Pictish Power Center at Rhynie. Famous Craw Stane marks south flank of a ceremonial entrance on the East of the pallisade

The dig’s leaders recently gave interviews to national press when it was discovered that, spread over a single summer in 2011, (with only 5% of the site unearthed) the artefacts found on-site ranked among the most important ever to be discovered in Britain.

Dr Gondek said: “Some of the material culture we uncovered is exceptional. It is one of the most significant finds of early medieval imported goods in north Britain.”

Finds include part of a Roman amphora — a large pottery vessel from the eastern Mediterranean used to hold wine or oil; a pair of amber ear-drops — clearly high-status objects — bronze pins, a fragment of 6thC blue glass drinking bowl, Roman pottery and other drinking vessels — all indicating strong links with other cultures well beyond the shores of mainland Britain.

Amber ear-drops, jewellery of status, found inside the Aberdeenshire power centre, courtesy REAP

Because these artefacts could be dated to the AD5-6thCC, this implies that the Pictish chieftains/sub-Kings –whose stronghold this was– were powerful enough to have a flourishing trade route direct to Rome and the Mediterranean.

It has been speculated many times before on prehistoric sites such as this that the Caledonian (Iron Age) fortress on Tap o’ Noth is itself named for an important prehistoric chieftain called Nocht. Etymology of the name is not a misspelling derived from the wind direction! Tap o’Noth overlooks a remarkably dense cluster of ancient sacred sites (Nether Wheedlemont, Upper Ord, Mill of Noth, Clatt, Percylieu to name a few) rivalling the Wiltshire heartland and Salisbury Plain. It has maintained anonymity because of its remote location in western Aberdeenshire, where high mountain routes to the grouse moors and Grampian hills are regularly cut off in winter.

This remote status may be about to change.

Rhynie Man, a six-foot Pictish caricature from the 6thC dug up in a field in 1978. It is presently housed in Council HQ, Aberdeen, but a Rhynie initiative to have it returned is underway

Choosing to focus their investigation in arable farmland around Rhynie’s last remaining (in situ) Pictish carved Craw Stane at Barflat, they made use of decades’ worth of aerial photography by past investigators who had not followed up on provocative evidence of large enclosed fortifications situated in the Barflat fields, alongside a continuous stream of discoveries of a remarkable eight Class I (5-6thCC) carved stones in the same location.

Even when the then farmer at Barflat, Gavin Alston, demanded ‘treasure trove’ payment from Grampian Regional Council (Archaeology) in 1978 in exchange for his freshly ploughed-up Pictish ‘Rhynie Man’ (presently housed in Aberdeenshire Council’s HQ at Woodhill House, Aberdeen), right, there was no follow-up to discover why so many Pictish stones had surfaced in a single 30-acre field. Now his son Kevin Alston crows: “This will put Rhynie on the Map.”

While the excavation revealed a number of structures and foundations associated with buildings at a shallow depth below the ploughing level, the relatively undisturbed context of both jewellery and drinking vessels imply a stronghold, even a ‘palacio’ which was more common in the 6-7-8thC Pictish capital of Forteviot in Strathearn. This is exciting because the Rhynie artefacts were found within the remains of what would have been an elaborate system of defensive enclosures, including two deep ditches and a massive timber palisade — alongside remains of extensive wooden structures and fortified buildings. Early power centres of the Picts are scantily documented. The Pictish Chronicle, whose Latin original is lost, and whose various 12thC copies have been ‘tampered with’ by Scots successors to Pictish wealth and culture, gives much detail of names and historic events, particularly in AD7-8thC. But Scots addenda and manipulation of text and some names has traditionally made historians unwilling to depend on it. The Rhynie revelation provides an exciting opportunity to find out more about how the kingdoms of powerful Pictish warlords were consolidated in the North.

Another of the 8 Pictish symbol stones found at Rhynie-Barflat; a fragment stands in the pre-Reformation kirkyard showiing (royal) dolphin, part of sword, top of mirror-comb symbolizing matrilineal succession, drawing courtesy RCAHMS

From historians like Bede, a contemporary of late7th-early8thC Pictish King Nechtan (ancestral lands in Fyvie, Gight, Derley, eastern Aberdeenshire, but ruling from Strathearn), it is known that the Picts established a direct connection with Rome, with the intention of Christianizing the remote North. A string of Pictish symbol stones stand in what may have been Pictish strongholds in locations such as Tyrie in Buchan, the ‘Kingdom’ of Forgue, Huntly in Strathbogie, Mortlach in Banffshire and Inveravon in Moray where such stone (‘white’) kirks were established by this evangelizing king and his Pictish successors. From contemporary Gaulish and Roman documents it is known that his distinct Christianizing influence throughout the northern kingdom in the following century was far in advance of the backward Scots culture on the West. It is often speculated that this very high-status powerful connection with Rome and with other cultures of the European mainland was the bait which fueled the very real jealousy and ambition of Kenneth MacAlpine and his Scots-Irish line in their takeover of the Pictish kingdom in AD843. It remained only for them to destroy all written evidence (historical, Chronicling, church archives) of the northern nation’s wealth and power for the Scots to obliterate a memory of Pictish law and customs in the minds of the people and their new kingdom of Scots was assured. It is ironic that present-day Scots Law still retains elements of Pictish Law known to have been drawn up alongside a version of Roman Law in the time of Nechtan (Bede).

Predecessor to Rhynie Man: ceremonial stone figure, Barflat#4, currently in the town's Market square

Dr Noble reiterates the old litany that ‘the Picts are a mysterious people’, but other scholars researching contemporary chronicles from other Brittonic tribes who held the Scots in low esteem — including Old Welsh archives (and the Gorhoffedd top) — suggest, as our sister site writes:

Pictish kings and sub-kings ruled a nation which grew from a loose confederation of tribal groups in the third century to become a major political and land-owning force at the time of their takeover by the Scots in the ninth

It is anticipated that further excavations in future years at Rhynie will prove this case conclusively. We welcome all results from the REAP project and also applaud the Rhynie community in its initiative to bring back to their own doorstep those Pictish stones and relics which were previoiusly removed without their permission.


©2011 MCYoungblood/Derilea/Devorguila