The Picts inhabited the east of Scotland, north of the Firth of Forth, from around the 4th to the 9th century. They left no written records so we know very little about their culture. Archaeology continues to gradually uncover more information about how the Picts lived but one thing that we already know for certain is that they were master craftsmen, and they’re perhaps best remembered today as skilled stonemasons. Three hundred and fifty Pictish stones have been found across Scotland, and their function remains a matter of debate.
Instantly recognisable by their perfectly executed coils and geometric patterns, Pictish stones continue to intrigue researchers who are still speculating about their exact purpose and the meanings of their symbols. Some scholars suggest that the patterns represent the names of significant people or families, and, like Ogham stones, they may have been used to mark territorial boundaries. Others propose that they could be grave markers or signposts.
Almost fifty unique Pictish glyphs have been identified to date. These symbols are usually found in pairs, and many have been tentatively identified as everyday objects such as the mirror and comb, and also blacksmith’s tools: the anvil and hammer, and tongs and shears. Others bear descriptive names, such as z-rods, double discs, and crescents.
Carvings of both real and mythical creatures are a common occurrence on the stones. The shapes of the 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.
These symbols have also been found engraved on silver objects like the jewellery found in the Norrie’s Law hoard, and on small stone discs and bones. The carved creatures may well pre-date the stones and could have originated as designs for body decoration, used by the Picts to impart the symbol’s properties on the bearer – the word Pict itself means ‘painted’ or ‘tattooed people’.
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
The mystery surrounding the Pictish stones and the disagreements among those who study them is definitely part of their charm. 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, 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 that may seem, new stones are still being found, the most recent being discovered at an early Christian church site near Dingwall in 2019.