Between Brechin and Forfar in the north east of Scotland is the small village of Aberlemno. Once on the main road through the area, the village is now quiet but is the setting for some remarkable Pictish sculptured stones.
Parking is available at the village hall, adjacent to three of the stones which stand at the roadside. One is an unshaped and highly eroded sandstone boulder which bears faint traces of a curving symbol. Nearby is a much more imposing stone.
The cross slab known as "Aberlemno 3" is the latest of the roadside group and probably dates to around the 8th century AD. These later stones are termed "Class 2" to denote their finer, more detailed carving. Standing 2.8 metres high and a metre wide, it simply towers above the road. The face of the stone bears a cross, two angels and animal figures.....
...while the reverse has more typically Pictish carvings. The Crescent and V-rod, and the double disc and Z-rod are recurring themes of Pictish art - and while there are many theories their meaning remains elusive.
Below the symbols is a hunting scene with mounted hunters, deer and hounds, trumpeters and a man with a spear and shield. The lowest section carries biblical images including a lion.
This mix of Christian and Pictish symbolism is common on later Pictish stones, there seems to have been a flourishing of art in the time following the conversion of the Picts to Christianity.
A little way down the road is the oldest of this group of stones, dating from around 500AD and of the "Class 1" group of early, more simply carved stones. A leaning, unshaped boulder, it's carved with a mix of symbols including a serpent, double disc and Z-rod and another recurring theme, the mirror and comb. The rear of this stone bears prehistoric cup-and-ring marks and it's believed that it may be a standing stone re-used by the Picts - it had probably stood in the landscape for many centuries before the Picts carved their own symbols on it.
If Aberlemno had only these three stones by the roadside, it would be very well worth visiting - but nearby there's another stone which is of huge importance.
Aberlemno Church sits below the road in a sheltered spot. The churchyard has a number of interesting gravestones, but there really is no doubt why most visitors search out this place.
The cross-slab in front of the kirk is one of the most impressive of all Pictish stones. Believed to date from the late 8th to 9th centuries AD, it is a huge monolith of Old Red Sandstone. Even after the passage of over 11 centuries, the carving is stunningly beautiful and intricate. The workmanship involved in making this carving from a single boulder really does dispel any notion that the Picts were a primitive or uncultured people. That they left absolutely nothing in the way of written records through the 800 or so years that they were were the major power in the north of Scotland is, in a sense, irrelevant; the legacy they left in stone has endured.
The vertical arms of the cross bear three different knotwork designs, the horizontal arms have keywork designs. Either side of the cross are intertwined animals and mythical beasts. At some point a hole has been bored through the stone - it's thought that this was done in order to move or to re-position it in some way.
This stone is 2 metres high, 1.3 metres wide and about 30cm thick and is one of the finest of all surviving Pictish stones. It's known to archaeologists as "Aberlemno 2" but more commonly as the "Dunnichen Stone". For, despite the magnificence of the west-facing cross it is the other face which elevates the Dunnichen Stone in importance.
The eastern side, facing the kirk, is carved with the only battle narrative to be found in the Pictish stone record. The sculpture on this face can't match the intricacy of the cross, it's the story it tells which makes this sandstone slab especially important.
The Picts held most of northern Scotland and the Northern Isles, and had done for several centuries since the Romans withdrew - their lands marched with the Britons of Alt Clut (which later became known as the kingdom of Strathclyde) and with Dalriada - separated from both by the high ground of Druim Alban, the spine of the country.
In the 7th century they came under pressure from relative newcomers to the British Isles; the Angles of Northumbria. A huge power struggle in what would become England between the Northumbrians and Mercians had been won, and now the Northumbrians looked north. After invading the lands south of the Highland boundary, they ventured still further north and inflicted a defeat on a Pictish army in 672, capturing large areas of Pictish territory.
The Picts reorganised, and under their king Brude reasserted themselves. The Northumbrian King Ecgrith, marched north again in 685- against the advice of his council and of his trusted advisor St Cuthbert. The Pictish army allowed the Northumbrians to advance beyond the Forth and the Tay, to a site close to a body of water where they turned and attacked.
The Dunnichen stone is believed to tell the story of this battle. Some historians dispute the interpretation, pointing out that the stone was carved a hundred years after the battle. Dunnichen was, however, a truly pivotal point in history and the most significant battle the Picts had fought since a Pictish army was destroyed by the Agricola's legions in AD84 at Mons Graupius - it seems entirely plausible that this stone should commemorate such an important event.
A replica of the east face of the Dunnichen Stone has been placed in the Aberlemno Village Hall car park - in a photograph it's easier to make out the detail on this.
A surprising amount is known about the battle of Dunnichen; not from the Picts themselves but from contemporary chroniclers, most of them Northumbrian Angles including the monk-scholar Bede.
The fighting took place at around three o'clock in the afternoon of Saturday 20th May 685. The Northumbrians called the place "Nechtansmere" (Nechtan's Lake - Nechtan is a common Pictish name), others knew it as Dunnichen (Dun Nechtain - Nechtan's fort) and the Britons called it Linn Garan (Heron's Pool). Intriguingly, if the theory that the Pictish language was a P-Celtic (related to Welsh rather than Gaelic) is correct, "Linn Garan" is what the Picts themselves may have called the place.
The result was utterly decisive - the Northumbrian Angles weren't just defeated, they were destroyed. Ecgfrith and all his bodyguard were killed having fought to the last man; almost the entire Northumbrian army was killed during or after the battle.
The narrative on the stone starts at the top with Picthish symbols - the notched rectangle, Z-rod and triple disc. Below, the story is told in three "registers" somewhat like a cartoon strip.
The Picts appear on the left hand side of each register and are shown fighting both on foot and on horseback. They wear no helmets and have long straight hair - perhaps this appearance might hint at the meaning behind the combs and mirrors in Pictish symbology? They carry distinctive curved shields with prominent bosses and are shown using swords and spears. The more one looks at the figures, the more detail seems to come forward.
Pictish horses look to be small and nimble ponies with long tails - the Picts ride without saddles or stirrups and use a saddle cloth on their horses.
In contrast, the Northumbrians wear helmets with long noseguards and ride heavier, thickset horses with broad necks and cropped tails. They are all shown on horseback - at least initially.
The sculptor clearly knew about battles and tactics - the Pictish infantry in the middle register are shown in battle formation; the leading rank armed with shield and sword to withstand the shock of a charge and stab out from behind the shield. The middle rank have spears which would have projected beyond the front rank in a hedge of spearpoints while the rear rank stands with spear upright, ready to step forward.
Working down the registers, the story of the battle emerges. In the top row an Northumbrian is seen fleeing the field on a Pictish horse, his sword and his round shield cast aside - perhaps representing a headlong rout.
In the middle register a Northumbrian cavalry spearman attacks the ranks of Pictish infantry who stand in their battle formation to meet the charge.
In the bottom register, mounted warriors face each other, both spear-armed. The Northumbrian figure readies himself to throw a spear while the Pictish figure raises his shield to parry the blow. At bottom right is a dead Northumbrian, his shield lies beside him and a raven pecks at his throat. As a battle tale - it's a clear representation of a Pictish victory. Contemporary accounts say that Dunnichen was mainly a clash of foot-soldiers with limited cavalry, so perhaps the mounted figures on the stone represent Brude and Ecgfrith themselves.
Dunnichen proved a truly pivotal point in the story of the Picts. Brude's victorious army stormed southwards across the Tay, killing or enslaving any Angles who they came across and recapturing their former lands. The Angles were driven back to the shores of the Forth and never again ventured north in any significant way. In fact, it would be close to 500 years before the north of what had by that time become Scotland was invaded in force by the people who had become the English - when Edward I ("Longshanks") devastated the country.
Ecgfrith's body was identified and borne in honour from the battlefield by Pictish warriors. In a remarkable and unprecedented act, Brude had his fallen foe interred on the holy island of St Columba, Iona. No Anglian (English) king had been buried there previously and it was a powerful statement by the victorious Brude. He was seen to act with honour to a fellow king, and also to be able to dictate the final resting place of his enemy.
Brude consolidated his hold on the Pictish lands, recovering Orkney and ruling all the Pictish kingdoms as one "Pictland". He died peacefully in 693 - and was himself taken to Iona. He was buried by Abbot Adomnan in a simple wooden coffin in the earth of the monastic graveyard which already held the bones of Ecgfrith; two mighty warlords reunited in death.
There is so much to the Pictish stones, to the story of this remarkable and fascinating people. Aberlemno and its symbol stones, more than most, offer a glimpse of them.