Society and Culture

The symbols



The Picts are probably best known for the carvings of symbols on their stones. This one aspect of their culture continues to intrigue scholars and the public, however, our understanding of the symbols has advanced greatly in recent years.

We do not know where the symbols first appeared. A few have been found on small domestic objects carved on bone; they may also have been used on clothing or perhaps even tattoos. But we do know that symbols were carved into stone – on cave walls, or more often on upright stones – for at least 300 years and probably longer.

Double disc and z-rod; serpent and z-rod; and mirror on the Picardy stone, Aberdeenshire.

      A notched rectangle and Z-rod and a triple-disc on the stone at Aberlemno churchyard       The busy reverse of stone number 4 at Meigle includes a Pictish beast with a crescent and V-rod on the left
Double disc and z-rod;
serpent and z-rod; and
mirror  on the Picardy
stone, Aberdeenshire.
A notched rectangle and
Z-rod and a triple-disc on
the stone at Aberlemno
churchyard.
The busy reverse of stone
number 4
at Meigle includes
a Pictish beast
with a crescent
and V-rod on the left
.

Several theories have been advanced to explain the meaning and function of the symbols. In the absence of written Pictish records, any interpretation is speculative. Nonetheless one theory has emerged as the most plausible and coherent. It is thought that certain combinations of the symbols – which usually appear in pairs – probably represent the names of individual people or families.

What are the symbols?


On the 350 or so Pictish stones so far discovered, around 40 different symbols have been identified, falling into three distinct groups.

The first group of symbols are perhaps the most distinctive aspect of Pictish culture. These are the abstract, or geometric designs: extraordinary, recurrent and consistent. They are stylised in many different ways, but remain remarkably consistent over time and distance. Though they are not representational, some have been named after recognisable objects, such as the ‘tuning fork’ or ‘mirror case’. Others are known only by descriptive names, the most common being the ‘crescent and V-rod’ and the ‘double-disc and Z-rod’.

The Pictish beast depicted on one of the Christian grave-markers at Meigle.       Hammer and anvil alongside tongs at the foot of the Dunfallandy stone, Pitlochry.       The reverse of the cross-slab at Elgin Cathedral features double-disc and Z-rod, and crescent and V-rod, above a hunting scene.
The Pictish beast depicted
on one of the Christian
grave-markers at Meigle.
Hammer and anvil
alongside tongs at the foot
of the Dunfallandy stone,
Pitlochry.
The reverse of the cross-slab at
Elgin Cathedral features double-disc
and Z-rod, and crescent and V-rod,
above a hunting scene.

The second group consists of creatures, real or mythical. The real creatures are those which have at least in the past been indigenous to Scotland, such as snakes, eagles, wolves and bears. But the most common animal symbol is a curious creature with a pointed snout, curling antennae and curved, fin-like limbs. Known as the ‘Pictish beast’, it is sometimes likened to a dolphin or an elephant, but is clearly a hybrid born of the imagination. It is completely unique to the Picts.

The third group represents mundane ‘real life’ objects, often in pairs – mirror and comb; hammer and anvil; tongs and shears. These symbols often appear towards the foot of a stone. It is thought they may qualify the meaning of any symbols carved above.

What do they mean?


Main Hilton of Cadboll stone in situ in Pictish stones gallery of the National Museum of Antiquities, pre-1996.    The symbols occur on stones the length and breadth of Pictland, from the Forth to Shetland. This implies that they were understood by all Picts, and in some way were a common visual language. They are usually combined in pairs – abstract with abstract or abstract with animal. Abstract symbols are more common; and as a rule animal symbols usually only appear in the company of abstract ones.

Some stones appear to be designed as grave-markers, although archaeological evidence for their direct association with burials is usually lacking. Partly based on this, it is now believed that certain pairings of symbols identify the person or family they commemorate. However, any names represented in this way would have belonged to the privileged few, the uppermost echelons of Pictish society.

Hilton of Cadboll Pictish stone.

It has been suggested that individual animal symbols refer to specific tribes or regional groups. But some of them occur throughout Pictish lands, and are not confined to regions. The stronghold site at Burghead yielded a number of panels, each carved with a single bull. This figure may represent the fort itself, the people of that region or the local ruler. But bull symbols do occasionally appear outwith this area.

A 'tuning-fork' symbol and part of a crescent and V-rod on the Pictish stone attached to the Abernethy round tower, near Perth.

   A 'tuning-fork' symbol and part of a crescent and V-rod on the Pictish stone attached to the Abernethy round tower, near Perth.

One of the carved bulls found at the site of Burghead fort.    The location of carved stones on the boundary between arable land and upland leads some experts to conclude that they were probably erected to mark ownership of land.

Another approach is to see the symbols linguistically, as actual elements of names.
One of the carved bulls found at the site of Burghead fort.