The Pictish Symbol Stone
The solitary symbol stone found on the Brough
o' Birsay, is probably the best-known piece of Pictish art found
Thought to date from the eighth century AD, the
Birsay stone paints a vivid and intriguing picture of the Pictish
nobility who lived in the area.
Originally over six feet tall, the Birsay stone
was found in fragments during the 1935 excavation of a later Christian
cemetery on the Brough.
How it met its demise is unclear, but it has been
suggested that marks on the rear of the stone could indicate that
it was deliberately smashed.
The original stone was removed to a museum in
Edinburgh, but a smaller replica stands on the Brough today.
Although the replica is now found within the graveyard,
at the head of a triple grave, this is nothing more than "artistic
licence" - the original stone was found in an area outside
the kirkyard wall and is unlikely to have had anything to do with
Carved into the stone's face are the fairly common
Pictish symbols of a mirror and a crescent and V-rod.
is the intriguing creature referred to as the "Pictish Beast"
as well as another fine example of the eagle symbol.
Then, at the base of the stone, is a relief depiction
of three fully armed Pictish warriors.
Clad in ankle length robes,
the three men in the procession carry decorated square shields and
massive war spears. Scabbarded around their waists are their swords.
The three men seem to be lined up in order of
rank or status - the bearded figure at the front is distinctly more
ornate and "regal" than his companions.
His cloak is grander,
decorated with what appears to be a fringed hem, and his shield
is larger and highly embellished. His long, shoulder-length hair
is elaborately curled and he may be wearing a head-dress or "crown".
The second man in the line is also bearded but
his possessions are nowhere near as grand as his leader. The final
warrior is a beardless youth. The impression from the carving is
that these two men are definitely subordinate to the lead figure.
What does the stone depict? In truth we will never
really know, although we can make suggestions.
It may be that the stone acts as a memorial, perhaps
to the warrior "king" shown at the head of the procession.
Or does it commemorate some ancient - and now forgotten - historical
event. Is it a marker stone, designating territory, or simply a
piece of decorative art portraying a once common but now lost element
of Pictish mythology or folklore.