he Picts lived in the east of Scotland, north of the Firth of Forth, from around the 4th to the 9th century. Archaeology continues to gradually uncover more information about how the Picts lived, but we do know for certain that they were master craftsmen, and in this day and age they’re probably best known as skilled stone masons. Approximately three hundred and fifty Pictish stones have been found throughout Scotland, mostly in the north east of the country in lowland areas, and they continue to intrigue researchers who are still speculating about their exact purpose. Some scholars suggest that the symbols carved into the stones represent the names of significant people or families, and these stones, like Ogham stones, may have been territorial or memorial markers.
Around fifty unique Pictish symbols have been identified to date. Abstract geometric shapes can be found on the oldest of the stones and are perhaps the most identifiably Pictish of all the carvings. Some of these symbols have been named after everyday objects and are usually found in pairs, like the mirror and comb, anvil and hammer, and tongs and shears, whilst others have been given descriptive names, such as z-rods, double discs, and crescents.
Carvings of both real and mythical creatures were a common occurrence. The shapes of the carved animal figures, with their simple lines and scroll markings, are reminiscent of those found in the Book of Kells, leading to speculation that the Picts were involved in its creation. The most commonly carved animal symbol depicts an odd creature resembling a seahorse. Known as the Pictish Beast, it has been suggested that this is the Each Uisge of Scottish myth.
It’s thought that all of these carved symbols pre-date the Pictish stones and were originally designs for body decoration, used by the Picts to impart the symbol’s properties on the bearer. The symbols have also been found on silver objects, like the jewellery found in the Norrie’s Law hoard, and on small stone discs and bones. Examples of the early geometric Pictish symbols can be found carved on the walls of coastal caves in Fife and Moray.
There have been countless meanings applied to the symbols and you’ll find a different explanation for each one depending on which book you read. For example, with regards to the z-rod:
“It is possible that it represents a sudden loud noise produced by the banging together of two discs: the clashing of cymbals. It is also possible that it represents a flash of lightning between two thunderclouds.”
—from The Picts And Their Symbols, by W.A. Cummins
“Perhaps it represents the two worlds: the here-and-now and the otherworld; life and death.”
—from A Wee Guide To The Picts, by Duncan Jones
“Often associated with the Druidic duality of the sun which lights this world by day and the Otherworld by night. The sun’s two faces, benign in summer, malevolent in winter.”
—from A Guide To The Pictish Stones, by Elizabeth Sutherland
If the Pictish symbols were ever completely deciphered they would give a unique view into early Scottish history, but Paul Bouissac, one of the world’s leading experts on signs and symbols, has said that to decode them, “….we will have to wait for the discovery of what would be the Pictish equivalent of the Rosetta Stone.” Unlikely though it seems, new stones are still being found, the most recent being the Dandaleith Stone, discovered in a field on Moray in 2013.