Rare 1,200-year-old Pictish stone found near Dingwall
A stone carved by Picts 1,200 years ago has been discovered in the Highlands.
Archaeologists said the find is of national importance because it is one of only about 50 complete Pictish cross-slabs known to exist.
Decorated with a number of symbols, the stone was uncovered at an early Christian church site near Dingwall.
It was used as a grave marker in the 1790s and discovered hidden in vegetation by Anne MacInnes of North of Scotland Archaeological Society.
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The Picts created cross-slabs - 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.
Archaeologists believe the newly-found stone would have originally measured more than two metres (6ft) tall. Just over a metre of it survives.
It is decorated with a number of Pictish designs including several mythical beasts, oxen, an animal headed warrior with sword and shield, and symbols called a double disc and a z rod.
Experts said the carvings appeared to have more in common with Pictish stones found in Perthshire than those previously found in Easter Ross.
Details of the carvings on the reverse side have still to be revealed by specialists, but archaeologists said based on examples from similar stones they are likely to include a large ornate Christian cross.
Ms MacInnes was carrying out a survey of the church site when she found the stone.
She said "I was clearing vegetation when I spotted the carving. I really couldn't believe what I was seeing."
Highland Council and Historic Environment Scotland archaeologist have since examined the stone and on Thursday it was carefully removed from the site by specialist conservators.
It will now be professionally conserved with a view to eventually putting it on permanent public display at a Highlands museum or other suitable venue.
John Borland, of Historic Environment Scotland and president of the Pictish Arts Society, said: "The discovery of the top half of a large cross slab with Pictish symbols is of national importance.
"The find spot - an early Christian site in Easter Ross - is a new location for such sculpture so adds significant information to our knowledge of the Pictish church and its distribution,
"This new discovery will continue to stimulate debate and new research."
Highland Council archaeologist Kirsty Cameron said it was a "once-in-a-lifetime find".
She added: "All credit goes to the local archaeologists for immediately recognising the importance of the stone and putting plans in place for securing its future."