Highlands & Islands

Scotland's carved Pictish stones re-imagined in colour

Image copyright Historic Environment Record
Image caption An illustration of Inverness' Knocknagael Boar Stone

Archaeologists have been uncovering ornately decorated Pictish stones across northern Scotland for many years.

For many, the sculptures' mysterious carvings of animals and symbols are impressive as they are.

But some scholars suggest their ancient creators may also have painted the stones, bringing out in vivid colours their carved salmon, ravens, wolves, boars and even a battle scene.

Pictish stone found on Orkney Image copyright UHI Archaeology Institute
Image caption Pictish stones continue to be discovered including this one on Orkney

Working with experts, Historic Environment Scotland (HES) has created new interpretation panels for some of the best-known Pictish stones.

Archaeologists and historians have long debated the origins and activities of the Picts, HES says the idea they painted their carved stones is speculative.

Many academics agree the Picts were descended from indigenous Iron Age people of northern Scotland, and the term "Picti" was likely to have been a nickname the Romans used to describe communities north of Hadrian's Wall.

Illustration of a painted Pictish stone Image copyright Historic Environment Scotland
Image caption Aberlemno's battle stone

The Picts created intricately decorated standing stones and also constructed impressive hill forts to defend themselves against rival tribes and invaders.

They battled against the Romans, Angles and the Vikings.

To add colour to their carved stones they would have used minerals and plants to make their paints, says HES.

Dandaleith Stone Image copyright ACAS
Image caption Another example of a new-found Pictish carved stone

But sculptures found so far have stood outside for more than 1,000 years so any pigment is likely to have been "scrubbed away" by long exposure to the effects of the sun, rain and wind.

However, there is evidence the Picts used colour on other objects, including metalwork.

Pigment has also survived on other relics elsewhere at the time of the Picts.

These include on stonework from Northumbria and Mercia, while colour is a strong a feature of early Christian manuscripts such as the Book of Durrow and the Book of Kells.

Bannocks challenge

Added to that were the Romans, who used colour on their sculptures and were a "significant cultural influence" on the Picts.

"The hypothesis is supported by many Pictish scholars as probable or the very at least possible," said HES.

"We drew on their advice throughout this project."

Illustration of a painted Pictish stone Image copyright Historic Environment Record
Image caption An illustration of how The Maiden Stone in Aberdeenshire may have looked with colour

Stones with the new interpretation panels include one at Aberlemno in Angus.

It is believed to show the Battle of Dun Nechtain, in or around 685AD, which saw a Pictish army defeat invaders from Northumbria.

Also, the Dunfallandy Stone in Pitlochry, Perthshire.

Interpretation panel Image copyright Historic Environment Scotland
Image caption One of the new interpretation panels created by HES

Another is the Maiden Stone in Aberdeenshire. It was carved more than 1,200 years ago.

Legends attached to the stone include one that purports the stone is actually a woman who was turned stone after losing a wager with the Devil that she could bake bannocks faster than he could build a road to Mither Tap, a summit on the hill Bennachie near Inverurie.

Dragon-like carving

Inverness' Knocknagael Boar Stone was carved more than 1,400 years ago.

It has been in the care of Highland Council for many years after it was damaged by bad weather and vandals.

It is on display at the local authority's headquarters in Inverness.

Pictish stones are still being uncovered today, including one with a dragon-like carving in Orkney and another near Craigellachie in Moray.

Illustration of a painted Pictish stone Image copyright Historic Environment Scotland
Image caption The Dunfallandy Stone stands near Pitlochry in Highland Perthshire

All images are copyrighted.

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