The Pictish stronghold of Duffus near Elgin had its own stone Peterkirk in Nechtan's time

The Pictish stronghold of Duffus near Elgin had its own stone Peterkirk in Nechtan's time

If Pictish sagas were unearthed from oblivion into which they descended after AD843 ‘union’ with the Scots, Nechtan highking of Picts, last in the Heroic Age of Pictish warriors, anointed leader of his people, evangelizing monarch, would top the bill.

In a reign of  less than 30 years (706-729) he brought deliverance to his land from Dark Age beliefs, dissolved petty rivalries and united his nation through church, wealth and powerful alliances. He was one of few Pictish royals to die in his bed (732).

Just south of the border with Pictland, Anglian church historian Bede wrote a contemporary account during Nechtan’s reign. He died within three years of the great king. Contemporaneous Annals written at Iona are particularly detailed at this time too; so accurate sources are not lacking. Bede was a meticulous researcher, especially in ecclesiastical matters, and Nechtan was considered both spiritually and socially enlightened by the Anglian church.

Class II Monymusk cross-slab Pictish carved stone of 8thCentury

Class II Monymusk cross-slab Pictish carved stone of 8thCentury

In the last quarter of the previous century, prior to Nechtan’s modernizing ways, two of the most powerful northern nations fought a battle which was to be a cultural watershed: Nechtansmere (AD685) was fought on Pictish soil at Dunnichen Moss near Forfar in southern Pictish heartland; a Pictish victory and death in battle of Anglian king Ecgfrith put an end to Northumbrian interference in Pictish affairs. The only small outpost of Anglian religious education at Abercorn-on-Forth closed and its monks retreated to Northumbria. The two nations returned to relatively amicable relations until the end of the century.

Six years later Nechtan was to take the throne.

He came from impeccable matrilineal succession of the Royal house. He was connected to Bridei son of Beli (c.672-93) who had fought ‘for the inheritance of his (maternal) grandfather’ at Dunnichen when Nechtan was an impressionable child at court.  So the cataclysmic turnaround of affairs which resulted, of great Northumbria having to hand back part of conquered Pictland to the Picts, must have made a deep impression on him.

When he came to the throne in 706, following his brother Bridei son of Derile (697-706), Nechtan son of Derile was well-versed in power, knew ecclesiastical ropes and how to wield them and understood the importance of allying himself with Rome.  By contrast, the rustic, colonial Celtic church of Columba centred on Iona was fumbling along traditional lines, unaware of major changes happening with its powerful neighbor. In addition to works of its celebrated founder, Iona was famous for one other historical gem, without which we would all be lost in the Dark Ages. Iona kept a series of remarkable Chronicles.  

For the most part these were written contemporary accounts of major incidents and alliances of the great nations which made up ancient Britain: from Cornwall in the south, through ancient Wales, Man, Anglesey, Dunbritton (Dumbarton), Strathclyde, Anglia (Northumberland) and Prydein (Pictland).  Many copies were made and originals are now lost. It is accepted within historial circles that each ‘nation’ had its own chronicle and  an original Pictish Chronicle existed as a separate series of documents held at Pictish church centres like Deer, St Andrews and in the Pictish capital, Forteviot.  None survives.

While not available to us until recopied in the 12th century, the ancient origin legend of the kingdom of the Picts is preserved in an Irish quatrain:

‘Morsheimer do Cruithne clainn raindset Albain i secht raind; Cait, Cé, Cirig, cétach clann Fib Fidach, Fotla, Fortrenn Ocus is o ainm gach fir dib fil for a fearand.’

‘Seven of Cruithne’s children divided Alba into seven divisions; the portion of Cat, of Cé, of Cirig a warlike clan, the kingdoms of Fife, Fidach, Fotla and Fortriu; and the name of each of them remains upon his land.’

Stone arch from royal Pictish palace at Forteviot

Stone arch from royal Pictish palace at Forteviot

These were sub-kingdoms of Nechtan’s great realm.  In the north, Cat (Caithness), Cé (Mar and Buchan) and Fidach (Moray and inland Banff); south of the Mounth: Cirig became Magh Circenn, the plain of the Mearns; Fib (Fife), Fotla (Atholl) and centre of the court, Fortriu (Forteviot). By contemporary standards, it was a massive kingdom to administer and rule.  
Nechtan’s childhood included education at court by monks from the highest monasteries of the day. He was fluent in all northern British dialects and learned Gaelic on visits to Iona, which he maintained through contact with a Columban familia of monks who attended his brother Bridei’s court. An enclave persisted from the time Anglian Abercorn mission returned south of what became the permanent border. In spite of Abercorn’s closure, good relations were maintained with the Anglian church through contact with Northumbrian Jarrow. This was a clever device allowing the Pictish court to be fully informed on church doctrine via both outlets: Iona created a ‘celtic’ connection with the Irish church; Northumberland provided a direct line to Rome.

Within five years of his accession, Nechtan decided to ask his powerful Northumbrian neighbours – descendants of those who fought and lost in 685 – for advice on how to go about building stone churches throughout his kingdom, along the lines of those already spreading in Anglia, ‘in the manner of Rome’.

He was aware of the strategic nature of his request.  As a powerful ally, not only would his wish be fulfilled, but by spiritually kneeling before Rome, he was joining a European alliance of other wealthy and powerful nations.

Bede’s superior, Abbot Ceolfrith of the Jarrow monastery, responded volubly, subsequently sending architects to Nechtan to assist in his nationwide reform.  They helped build the first Peterkirks, revolutionary buildings in stone named, like the citadel in Rome, after the first apostle of the Roman Christian mission.  They served to create another schism with Iona, whose missions were rustic, country constructions of earth and rubble.

These stone structures were to become the first network of Peterkirks throughout Pictland, many of which survive at least in name: from St Peter’s at Restenneth in Forfarshire through the Mearns (Meigle, Tealing); over the Mounth (dividing mountain range between present Kincardine and Aberdeenshire) into Mar and Buchan, foundations to Peter were placed at Glenbuchat, Peterculter, Aberdeen (Spittal), Fyvie, Peterugie (Peterhead), Deer, Rathven-in-Enzie (now Buckie), Bellie, Essil-Dipple, Duffus, Drumdelgie and Inveravon.

Because they were made of stone, in contrast with earlier turf cells, they were in the later vernacular called ‘fite kirks’ (white, as in gleaming stone) and two of these survive – albeit altered – at Tyrie in Buchan and Rayne in the Garioch.

Along with his request for physical assistance, Nechtan asked for guidance in the correct calculation and maintenance of Easter tables. This question had been a matter of stigma among northern kings since the religious controversy at the 664 Synod (gathering) in Whitby (present Yorkshire) nearly 50 years before. Columban Iona maintained calculations by an antiquated calendar, a lumbering process which sometimes had east and west celebrating on wildly differing dates; Anglian Northumbria was more modern, calculating according to tables approved by popes in Rome.

Essentially papal calendars were never going to celebrate alongside the Jews: Easter had to be after spring equinox, but separate from Passover. Easter for the Picts was obviously a festival which was going to catch on, accustomed as they were to sacred seasonal celebrations. A wave of new religion spread like wildfire through a nation only recently converted in pockets by wandering monks.

The North did not have to wait long for Iona. It ‘converted’ officially in 716. By then Nechtan was already in full progress: Roman tables were in use, stone churches were being built nationwide in the name of Peter; Pictish monks now wore the ‘Roman’ tonsure; all the Pictish king had left to do was to thank his southern neighbours politely for assistance and, equally politely, ask the Columban monks at court to leave.

In his first decade as king he consolidated a strong alliance, formed the matrix of a new religion for all his peoples, and, because with religion came learning, initiated a process to educate at least the Pictish upper classes, thus making his kingdom a superior Christian power. If he had retained the Columban familia at court, its monastic simplicity would have continued to relate religious matters to ‘conversations with God’. By introducing a building programme, Latin instruction via the church and the correct way to celebrate the highest festival of that religious body, he elevated his nation into the light, but a light which he as supreme ruler controlled.

It was a brilliant concept by a northern king to spread religion by secular means.

Significantly, 175 years later, when Scots ruling dynasty was struggling with an essentially Pictish concept it had inherited in its takeover – that of power of ‘lord over church’, king Giric (c.889) made history by ‘liberating’ the Church which was ‘under servitude up to that time, after the fashion of the Picts’.

Later Cistercian monastery at Deer in Buchan built on Pictish foundations

Later Cistercian monastery at Deer in Buchan built on Pictish foundations

Nechtan’s new wave relied heavily on his nobility for its introduction: in his large but scattered nation wherever there was a lordly stronghold, there would be a private chapel; if no foundation already existed dedicated to British holy men of the previous century’s wave of wanderers, a stone church would appear in Peter’s name – the new fashion.

Copying out Easter tables and sacred Latin texts became the norm in schools for the educated. A Latin Pictish chronicle appeared. Previously the sole domain of Irish and Welsh monasteries, it contained a Pictish king-list celebrating and chronicling Nechtan's royal line which Anglian, Welsh and Irish chroniclers were quick to copy. But, with the new wave came something which Picts across the land understood. The message was carved in stone.

Class II cross-slabs date from Nechtan’s reform: either mounted warriors conversing with angels, or the cross carefully fused with pre-Christian symbols which were familiar, the message was clear: landed Pictish aristocrats are following in the ways of Christian heroes – and you can too!

In Nechtan’s second decade as king, centres for carving the sophisticated new imagery sprang up everywhere: in Angus there is a cluster of class II stones (Meigle, Aberlemno, Brechin); the new religion took hold at centres around the Moray Firth: at Rosemarkie – a former Peterkirk – and at Kineddar-Spynie near the great Elgin stronghold of Duffus which also had its own Peterkirk. There at least 26 fragmentary slabs have been found. An equal number were found at Tarbat-on-Beauly within monastic walls.

Conservative Cé, the Aberdeenshire provinces of Mar and Buchan, seem to have held out the longest: with only the merest scattering of cross slabs within a huge proliferation of (class I pre-Christian) symbol stones.

Exceptionally, it was at Deer in Buchan within that conservative culture that monks produced the exquisite calf-vellum sacred pocket gospel called the Book of Deer, now in an English museum.

A number of Pictish holy men play a rôle in Nechtan’s great plan. After all, Latin was not exactly a language the countryman was going to pick up spontaneously. Bede says Nechtan promised to introduce Latin usage for his people ‘insofar as their remoteness from the Roman language would allow.’ So it was essential his bishops – already fluent in Latin – were completely familiar with Pictish patterns of speech.

St Fergus's 'teaching' cross-slab at Chapel of St.Fergus,Dyce in Pictish Cé, present Aberdeen

St Fergus's 'teaching' cross-slab at Chapel of St.Fergus,Dyce in Pictish Cé, present Aberdeen

Gone were the days before 585 when Irish Columba had needed an interpreter to speak to king Bridei son of Maelcon at the Pictish court in Inverness. Nechtan used Picts to speak to Picts.

One of them, Bishop Fergus, attended Rome in 721 to sign decrees, presumably on his king’s behalf. This saint features both south and north of the Mounth: as patron of Glamis at the centre of cross slab carving in Forfarshire; but, as we know him, patron of Moy in Moray, St Fergus in Buchan and, most significantly, Dyce which has one of the few magnificent cross slabs in Aberdeenshire. CÈ was conservative, not pagan. The simple cross was already understood.

Nechtan’s Golden Age had begun and it looked as if it might continue forever.


Pictish legacy in museum case

Pictish legacy in museum case

 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.

Trajan's Column in the Forum, Rome

Trajan's Column in the Forum, Rome

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.

Carnyx or battle horn of the Picts found at Deskford, Banffshire

Carnyx or battle horn of the Picts found at Deskford, Banffshire

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.

Pictish church boundary stone marked with a cross, Afforsk, Inverurie

Pictish church boundary stone marked with a cross, Afforsk, Inverurie

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.

Pictish ogham inscription on the back of a late 8th century carved stone

Pictish ogham inscription on the back of a late 8th century carved stone

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)

Further reading:

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