Pictish standing stones
The Picts emerge in the historic record in the late 3rd century AD as a new group of peoples, one of many new groups to emerge outside the boundaries of the Roman Empire. They are the descendants of people who already lived in northern Scotland, but it is in this period that they have a new name for themselves and begin to exert pressure on territory controlled by Rome.
More than 300 carved stones have been found in the northeast of Scotland, mainly in the lowland regions along the coast. The earliest carvings date from the 5th century AD and the latest from the 9th century when the Pictish kingdom came to an end. Some carvings were made on existing stones, erected by earlier peoples, but most stones were specifically cut and prepared. The stones range in size, with the majority being around 2 metres in height; one striking example is more than 6 metres tall.
What were the stones for?
The purpose of the stones is a matter of debate. Some historians think that those which include Christian symbols may be standing crosses or grave slabs, but the non-Christian examples are even harder to interpret. The geometric patterns such as crescents, v-shapes, z-shapes (called v-rods and z-rods) and double discs recur frequently and seem to be a system of communication, but their meaning cannot be established. It is thought that the carved animals may represent the identity of a social grouping. Several carvings of bulls have, for example, been found in the area around Burghead, suggesting that it may have been controlled by one family or tribe. Where two animals occur together, the stone could perhaps be a territorial boundary marker: the stone on which the Ardross wolf appeared may also have depicted a deer’s head, which was found on a fragment of stone nearby.
The animals may have lent a spiritual dimension to these political and territorial claims. It is possible that the Picts, who were largely pagan at this time, used animals as totems which protected them and whose characteristics they identified with. One would have to imagine that the people around Ardross believed themselves like wolves: fierce, protective of family, collaborative and keen hunters.
Diversity and change
It is not agreed how Christianity first made inroads among the Picts. After founding a monastery on Iona, one of the Western Isles, in AD 563, St Columba continued his mission in eastern Scotland and certainly by AD 620 an Ionan monastery had become established at Portmahomack, in the heart of Pictland. Some historians trace the beginnings of Pictish Christianity back earlier, to St Ninian in the early 5th century. We do know, however, that in AD 717, the Pictish king Nechtan took the advice of the archbishop of Anglo-Saxon Northumbria, expelled the Ionans and promoted the Northumbrian practice of Christianity. At just this time, there is a change in the carvings on the stones and Christian symbols begin to appear, suggesting a renewed impetus towards Christianisation. That Christian symbols appear alongside the pagan symbols indicates that Christianity could accommodate the older values and meanings. In addition, the continued production of non-Christian stones suggests that communities with differing religious beliefs co-existed for some time.
A different driver of change for the Picts began towards the end of the eighth century when Viking raids began around the coasts of Britain. Conflict with the Vikings continued through the ninth century, leading eventually to the merging of the Pictish kingdom with that of Gaelic Dál Riata and the creation of the kingdom of Alba, the first united Scotland.
The Ardross wolf
More on the Ardross wolf on the Archaeology for the Communities of the Highlands website.
Pictish bull carving
A Pictish bull on the British Museum website with BSL description.
An indispensable website about Pictish stones from Historic Scotland.
Early Carved Stones
Resources for teachers from Historic Scotland with very useful information about the stones and teaching ideas.
Wolf and Deer carvings
Highland Historic Environment Record page for the Wolf and Deer with downloadable PDF catalogue of stones held at Inverness Museum and Art Gallery.
Scots and Picts
BBC Scotland web page with background about the Picts, Scots and Northumbrians.
British Museum themed tour about people's relationship to animals and the depiction of animals through the ages and around the world.