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


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