Below the slopes of Tap o' Noth and its summit hillfort lies the village of Rhynie. A quiet and unassuming place, archaeologists believe that at one time Rhynie was a major centre of Pictish power. A glance at the map shows the amount of standing stones and stone circles in the surrounding area, most of which pre-date the Picts, but in 2011 a dig near to the spot where the "Rhynie Man" was found revealed the traces of a substantial fortified settlement. Some of the artefacts recovered were of Roman origin and alongside other research has led to the suggestion that Rhynie was a royal Pictish site.
The Picts have proved elusive for historians; the word most often used when referring to them is "enigmatic". Believed to have been both ethnically and linguistically a Celtic people, they controlled much of the north and east of what is now Scotland for at least 600 years. Despite this prominence, comparatively little is known about them. They left no chronicles or written records and much of what is known of them comes from Roman, Gaelic and Norse sources; peoples they were in conflict with. The Pictish language remains only in echoes down the centuries, in personal names such as Kenneth and Alpin, and in identifiably Pictish place name roots such as "Pit" or "Peth" (as in Pitmedden and Perth), "Aber" (as in Aberdeen) and "Lhan" (as in Lhanbryde).
The most tangible remains aside from fortified sites such as Tap o' Noth and Burghead are undoubtedly the several hundred Symbol Stones discovered across what was once Pictland. Carved with great skill and artistry, most feature a range of uniquely Pictish motifs, often abstract or animistic and sometimes with representations of domestic objects. "Enigmatic" to the modern mind, the fact that the symbols occur on stones across the whole of Pictland from Shetland to the Forth implies that they would have been understood by all Picts. A great resource for discovering more about the stones themselves and the Picts as a people is Historic Scotland's "Pictish Stones" website.
Rhynie has a good collection of symbol stones (aside from the Rhynie Man which, incongrously, is located in Aberdeen city council's HQ). There are three stones in a shelter near to the present day churchyard, with a fourth in a nearby field.
The light wasn't so good for photography when I visited on a grey November afternoon. This, the largest stone, is 1.3 metres tall and carved with a "beast" possibly representing a seal or an otter combined with two typically Pictish abstract symbols- the double disc and Z-rod and a mirror and comb.
An information board nearby has clear representations of the carvings; the one in my photograph is at the lower left.
The fact that the meanings behind the symbols are uncertain adds to the experience of visiting the stones; I find Pictish sites fascinating and hope to explore more in the coming months.