Short Fiction

Sunday Whatever – An essay by Michel Bloor

A Strange Stone with a Strange History. An Essay by Michael Bloor

One of the most striking exhibits in the National Museum of Scotland is an eight foot, two ton, twelve hundred year-old, intricately carved slab of sandstone – the Hilton of Cadboll Stone, a Pictish standing stone originally from Easter Ross, in the north of Scotland. The Picts left many such standing stones dotted across Scotland and, despite generations of scholarship, they remain in many respects a mysterious people.

The Pictish script has never been more than very tentatively translated, a mixture of abstract ideograms and pictograms (an accidental pun – called them imojis, if that’s your preference). Their language has long since died out, though there are faint indications in some Scottish place-names; it has been conjectured that Pictish may have been similar to Old Welsh. MacBeth and his adopted son, Lulach, were the last Pictish kings.

The interpretations of the rich carvings of the Hilton of Cadboll stone are likewise a matter of conjecture. The central carved figure, mounted side-saddle on a horse, has fine detailing on the hair, robes, and a large brooch. This is perhaps a representation of a poweful Pictish matriarch: some have suggested that Pictish society was matrilineal, not patrilineal, with inheritance passing through the female line. Alternatively, the central figure could be the Virgin Mary or Jesus himself, who was sometimes represented as riding side-saddle. The stone also shows two smaller mounted figures pursuing a deer with their hunting dogs. These could be members of a Pictish warrior elite at their leisure. Or the scene could also be an allegorical representation of Christian conversion and the salvation of the soul: some of these stones may have served to mark places of outdoor preaching, during the conversion of the Picts to Christianity.The carved borders of the stone are equally mysterious: contained within the intricate vine scrollwork are strange winged creatures.

Though the origins of the stone are uncertain, its more recent history is quite instructive. At some point, the stone had toppled, and the broken base is lost. But in 1676 the eight-foot upper portion was  was reused as a gravemarker. The Christian cross that formed one side of the stone was chipped away, and the cleared slab became the grave marker of a local man, Alexander Duff and his three wives (it is presumed that the wives were sequential, rather than contemporaneous). The side of the slab with the Pictish carvings was now laid facedown, in the earth of the graveyard. The stone remained there for nearly two hundred years, until the 1860s, when the local laird re-erected the stone as an ornament in the garden of his mansion.

Alexander Duff’s behaviour is understandable. In the seventeenth century, antiquarianism was in its infancy in the British Isles. And Scotland was a Presbyterian country, following the teachings of Calvin and John Knox, which grounded Christian worship and belief firmly in the Bible, as the Word of God. Duff would have had no truck with statuary, associating them with ‘Popery.’ Since this reuse of the stone also had the incidental benefit of preserving the carvings from two hundred years of weather, he and his executors may be excused.

Not so the behaviour of the laird. He and his gardener should have stuck to cerubs and gnomes. There’s perhaps some satisfaction to be had from the knowledge that his mansion house is long demolished and, while his garden ornament is splendidly preserved in Edinburgh, his garden ground has become part of yet another golf course.

Michael Bloor

Image: The original uploader was Deacon of Pndapetzim at English Wikipedia., CC BY-SA 2.5 <;, via Wikimedia Commons

Banner Image: Image by moni08 from Pixabay 

14 thoughts on “Sunday Whatever – An essay by Michel Bloor”

  1. Michael
    This article is interesting and entertaining. The oldest hand made things we have in the America Northwest are Native carvings, but almost nothing in stone. “Old” settler graves date to the 1880’s. But the Natives do operate casinos and golf courses.
    Your land is ancient by the human standard, and has placed “Jesus Christ riding sidesaddle” into my blasphemous sayings.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Leila. Glad you enjoyed it. Years ago, I had to go to Vancouver for work and dodged off one day to visit the UBC Museum of Anthropology, with all the magnificent carven totem poles, intricate beaded moccasins, etc. Learned a few fragments about the rich ancient culture of the Pacific North West – we could do with some of those potlachs in Scotland!
      Thanks also to DD for the header image – a reproduction of the original stone, paid for by local people.
      Also a correction: I wrote that the base of the stone was lost, but a recent archaeological dig has found it.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. A mysterious story….Sounds a bit like a clothed Lady Godiva transformed to the Virgin Mary on that horse…. a mix of the pagan and the Christian… that was very fortunate the slab was placed face-down by A. Duff’s descendants, I would likely have been like the laird, stood that stone in my garden, and touched it with my palm up to absorb the wisdom and history of the Picts. (he he) like they did with the knowledge stone in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Harrison. Your Lady Godiva comment might not be far off the mark. Beside the side-saddle rider is a carving of a hand-mirror (you can see it on the header image). The mirror pictogram occurs on some other pictish stones and is thought to be the pictogram for a woman. So an aristocratic lady might be closer to the mark than the Virgin Mary or Jesus.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks David, glad it tickled your interest. Anyone wishing to see Pictish standing stones could find an intriguing collection of them in Meigle Village Hall, a few miles north of Perth. Also the alleged grave of Queen Guinevere!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Michael

      Around here a little misspelling is nothing compared to how I hear Puyallup, Clallam and about a hundred and fifty other native words pronounced. Sometimes I think the tribes somehow channeled the ancient Gaelic and Welsh.
      Great work today,


      1. Tualatin, Tuality. One cool thing – I don’t know if this is as common in WA as OR – is the prefix “ne” meaning place of, sort of like “stan” suffix in Pakistan. “Neahkhanie” (Prolly misspelled) place of the / a god.

        Somebody needs to find a Rosetta Stone for Pictish. Were there other tribes in Scotand cotemporaneous with Picts? So many questions.

        Question for Mick – I think that Britain was originally inhabited during the time of an ice age land bridge or lowered ocean. Do you know is there, studies of when and from where Picts and the other tribes of Britain, originated? The appearance of the Saxon is well known.


    1. Thanks Doug. It would be bad manners on my part not to (very feebly) attempt to answer your questions. (a) There were three other main tribes in Scotland besides the Picts: the Angles in the SE, the Strathclyde Britons in the SW, and the Dalriada Scots in the W. Later on, there were Norwegian settlers. (b) The Celts were Indo-Europeans, settled in Central Europe by the Bronze Age. It used to be thought there were four main branches (the Goidels, the Picts, the Brythons, and the Belgae) that migrated west at different periods.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Mick,
    Excellent article and I do like the idea of jesus riding side-saddle.
    I wonder if he sat down to pee as well??
    Hope all is well with you and yours my fine friend.


      1. Hi Mick,
        ‘Thriving’ and ‘Ayrshire’ is a contradiction in terms!!
        I think there are now over a hundred empty shops in Ayr.
        The council has just opened a garden / open area where Woolworths used to be. I’m just waiting for the first report on how many used needles are found!
        All the very best my fine friend.


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