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

(first published in Literally Stories, March 12th 2023)

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 cherubs 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.

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