Early Christian crossesDecember 16, 2009
From Headquarters of the Church of Scotland at 121 George Street in Edinburgh, the state religion of the country controls most of the land previously gifted by generous lairds and landowners to the Church, a practice dating from the twelfth century. In recent years church buildings themselves have gone under the hammer, turning from sacred places of worship to private homes with the arbitrary wave of 121’s magisterial wand.
Aberdeenshire is traditionally famed for its Pictish symbol stones, thought to date from at least the 5th century, the earliest found in profusion on fertile farmland of busy agricultural communities. These were often saved from destruction by gunpowder or the plough by deep-seated superstition.
In an oral culture handed down from ancestral times, it didn’t do to harm the stones.
They were, after all, one of few remnants of country (‘pagan’ from Latin paganus, countryman) tradition which predated Christianity; a tradition of which the ancestors spoke. You could ‘set your clock by the stones’.
Unlike its neighbour to the south, Northeast Scotland has a strong oral tradition and holds with a belief in respect for one’s forebears, more common in other early matrilineal cultures like the Native American, Maya and Zulu. In that sense, Pictish culture is strong here, regardless of modern influences; remarkable in the last thirty years in particular, with the absorption of Oil Culture.
Part of the Pictish soul, perhaps, is its ability by a people accustomed to infiltration, conquered status and absorption, to hold firm to the land, the original nurturing Mother, and get on with the business of living.
Matrilineal Picts were first absorbed in 843 by patriachal Scots, but Pictish Law held true and became adopted as the legal system of the conquerors. Scots Law to this day is guided by essential elements of its Pictish origins.
Pictish family systems are often likened to the Clan system of the West, but in a Pictish Northeast mindset, it is once again a different concept. Whereas within the Pictish family the female concepts of gratitude, hospitality, respect and negotiation are fostered, as we children claim an unspoken bond with country and ancestors, the Scots clan system is ruled by a Clan Chieftain, usually (but not always) male.
As with assimilation of Pictish Law, the countryman allowed nomenclature, yet persisted in the Old Way of doing things.
Scots in turn were absorbed by the English and, while it may be averred that west-coast or Central Belt Scots ‘hate’ their conquerors, the northeast Pict has no such feeling; it is irrelevant.
A Pictish mindset allows an appearance of conformity, while keeping his/her own counsel.Interestingly, this quality of individual opinion is implicit in what happened in Northeast Scotland in the years 1560 – 1660, at the time of the Reformation.
Northeast parishes of Aberdeenshire, Banffshire and Moray followed the instruction of the Reformed Church to the letter – while at the same time managing to guard handed-down veneration of ancestral sacred places.
Because of this apparent anomaly, around 600 Neolithic recumbent stone circles survive in the northeast triangle, and, though separated by 3500 years, roughly 100 Pictish symbol stones have been preserved for posterity.
Pictish stones are divided into Class I, incised (approximately AD500 onwards); Class II, relief-carved cross-slabs (8thC – 9thC); Class III relief with horsemen, kings, hierarchical designs (9thC -10thC); and Class IV, (8thC transitional) cross-stones with no other ornamentation (illus. top). The earliest Class I and Class II stones are invariably found in association with pre-Christian sacred sites.
Bourtie is blessed to be among those which retain their original Pictish carved stones.
Here, when the pre-Reformation kirk was restored and rebuilt in 1806, not only was the pre-Reform belfry recycled, but the ancient Pictish stone with its incised carvings was built into the top right course of the south kirk wall. While now difficult to view, It bears Pictish Class I symbols of crescent-and-V-rod, double-disc-and-Z-rod and mirror-and-comb. It probably served as the original sacred boundary marker for this early pre-Christian Pictish place; it dates to the fifth century. It will have remained as a sacred boundary marker for 300 years before King Nechtan’s Christianizing campaign in the 8thC introduced cross-carved stones.
Throughout the early years of Christianity in this far-northern corner of the former Pictish kingdom, therefore, sacred sites were in no immediate danger.
In 596 Pope Gregory I sent Augustine to England with the following instruction:
“By no means destroy the temples
of the idols belonging to the British, but only the idols which are found in them; inasmuch as they are well-constructed, it is necessary that they should be converted from the dowership of demons to the true God.”
A century after Augustine, however, more extreme measures were called for: in Theodore’s Penitential, AD690, also related to South Britain:
“idolatry, worship of demons, cult of the dead, worship of nature, Pagan calendar customs and festivals, witchcraft and sorcery, augury and divination and astrology”
were banned. Yet the old ways persisted.
Megalithic structures such as the Aberdeenshire recumbent stone circles survive in every parish where continuity was perpetuated in Pictish church reform. The Pictish Christian cross or cross-stone invariably appears within sight of a stone circle. Bourtie has two stone circles, one to the west of the kirk; the other to the east.
They too, however, became endangered in the 18th and 19th centuries when farmhouses were being built in stone and work proceeded apace in the landscape to clear stones and boulders in farming improvement. The drystane dykes which were common boundaries of farmland until the 21st century date from this 18thC improvement.
Stone circles invariably survived. In the words of one 18th-century Northeast clergyman:
“superstition spares them though stones are so scarce”
Class I stones
Beautiful examples of these Pictish pre-Christian sacred markers, carved with incised animal and geometric symbols in a style standardized throughout the Kingdom, stand within kirk precincts today at Banffshire churches of Mortlach, Marnoch and Ruthven, in Moray at Advie, Birnie, Inverallan, Inveravon, and Knockando, and in Aberdeenshire at Clatt, Rhynie, Tyrie, Fetterangus, Dyce, Deer, Fyvie, Kinellar, Kintore, Bourtie and Inverurie. They are usually rough-hewn from boulders or glacial outcrops.
Five known Class I stones in Aberdeenshire still stand on their original sites:
Ardlair, Kennethmont; Nether Corskie, Dunecht; the Insch Picardy Stone at Whitemyres Farm; Brandsbutt in a housing estate in Inverurie (re-constituted after 19thC dynamite blasting) and the Rhynie Craw Stane.
Moray Class I stones thought to be in situ stand at Congash and Upper Manbeen.
The rest, totalling an unknown figure (32 recorded), abound in museums in the Northeast, in Edinburgh and London or are “lost”.
Class II Stones
Local lairds also had their fair share of the spoils. In the rush to comply with post-Reformation instruction to build new churches, often on pagan sites, stones were broken up for building, reused in threshing floors or as millstones, or taken to form a decorative feature at the laird’s house.National Trust for Scotland’s Leith Hall and Brodie Castle are custodians of three, open to the public. Others, at Newton House, Arndilly, Keith Hall, Castle Forbes, Park House, Logie House, Mounie Castle, Craigmyle House, Tillypronie Lodge, Knockespock House, Blackhills House, Whitestones House and Whitehills are in private ownership and are not accessible to visit, except by appointment.
The Maiden Stone is the only so-called Class III Pictish stone in Aberdeenshire.
The list of Class IV cross-incised stones dating from Nechtan’s improvement years is as yet incomplete.
The largest in situ is the boundary stone in the illustration (top) which remains in the Afforsk landscape exactly on the parish boundary between church lands of Chapel of Garioch, Inverurie and Monymusk. Its immovable size suggests that it was carved to serve in the original Pictish tradition of marking a sacred precinct, rather than for later use as a portable ‘pillow’.
Recent research suggests that portable crosses – roughly circular stones like pillows carved with a simple cross and pre-dating the eighth century [class II] Pictish cross slabs – were the hallmark of early travelling holy men. If they were sent from Nechtan’s headquarters in the Pictish capital at Forteviot or from his northern fortress at Fyvie, their reach was far indeed.
Several compact Christian amulets of this type surface in Aberdeenshire, temptingly close to early foundations: cross-inscribed stones [with no other ornament] appear at Aboyne, Afforsk, Banchory, Barra, Botriphnie, Bourtie, Clatt, Crathes, Culsalmond, Deer, Dyce, Ellon, Fintray, Inverurie, Kinnernie, Logie-Coldstone, Logie-Elphinstone, Monymusk, Ruthven and Tullich. A saint’s well to baptise converts invariably lies close to such foundations. After they died, their relics – ranging from pillows of stone to crozier and bell – were treasured by the community. Monymusk’s greatest treasure, the Monymusk reliquary, a gold and jewel-encrusted shrine made to house the little finger bone of its patron, is in Edinburgh’s Museum of Scotland.
While Dyce, Fintray, Botriphnie and Aboyne are known to have such relics, like Banchory Ternan’s ‘Ronan bell’, Bourtie has neither well nor saint recorded. Neighboring parish, Bethelny, once linked by minister-on-horseback to Bourtie, now has no church either. Foundations remain in the grass on the farm there, but its saint (Nachlan), its parishioners and its parish have become, like Bourtie, absorbed into Meldrum.
Maintenance and continuity within these ancient places by the Edinburgh behemoth is laudable. There are some discrepancies, however. Alternative episcopal religion slighted at the Reformation in favour of John Knox’s simpler dogma survives in the Scottish Episcopalian Church. It receives no grants for ground or building maintenance by the state; meanwhile the ‘reformed’ religion has full Council back-up in support and maintenance of graveyards. This sadly means that in summer months monstrous mowing machinery slices its way over grass, fallen masonry, private floral tributes, 18th century table stones, unique 16th century grave markers, relentlessly obliterating the past in its efforts to keep the present ‘neat’. Not only is the kirkyard pristine in its ‘neat and tidyness’, but it is losing its antiquities at a great rate to the weighty modern machine.
The Calvinist camp may think enlightenment has been achieved. But for antiquities, it is a Pyrrhic victory.