Early Medieval Sculpture Collection


The stones in our Early Medieval sculpture exhibition tell us something of the story of Early Medieval Caithness from the 6th – 11th centuries AD.  The largest stones on display in this exhibition are from the Pictish culture which dominated this part of Scotland in the Early Middle Ages.  The Picts specialised in impressive stone slabs, carved with crosses, symbols and other images.  Most Pictish cross-slabs have a cross carved on one face only – the Skinnet Stone and the Ulbster Stone are very unusual in that they both have a cross on each face.  They are also carved with a wealth of complex images, drawn from near and far, showing how Caithness was integrated into the worlds of Pictland, Britain, and beyond.  Other stones from Caithness (Latheron and Ackergill, now in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh), were inscribed with Ogham, a form of writing that originated in Ireland and was brought to Pictland by Christian Gaels.  The smaller stones on display in our Early Medieval sculpture exhibition are from the period of Norse dominance, when Caithness was part of the Earldom of Orkney, which was ruled from distant Norway.  Two of these stones have memorial inscriptions carved in the runic alphabet, which was used widely for this purpose in Scandinavia and the Norse colonies.  Collectively, the stones make it clear that Caithness, with its key location on the northern sea-ways, was embedded in the rich cultural worlds of the Early and High Middle Ages.

Who Were The Picts?

The people whom we call Picts lived in most of Scotland but their cultural monuments largely survive east of the Highlands and north of the Firth of Forth, as far as Shetland.  It is likely that this region was divided into several Pictish kingdoms, ruled by kings and warrior aristocrats.  Theirs was the dominant culture from the 5th – 9th centuries AD, and from around 600 AD they were influenced by both Irish and Northumbrian Christianity.  Their language was probably most closely related to Welsh.  No confirmed Pictish manuscripts survive, but their sculpture provides plenty of evidence that they developed a literate and sophisticated Christian culture.  From the late 9th century AD onwards, the Picts lost political power to the Gaels coming in from the west and Scandinavians from the east and north.  The Pictish people were assimilated by these new cultures and their language disappeared.

The Watenan Stone

The Watenan Stone is the earliest stone on display in our Early Medieval sculpture exhibition, and may date to as early as the 6th century AD.  It is carved with a symbol known as the crescent and V-rod, one of the 40 or so enigmatic and beautiful patterns which are seen as marking out a particularly Pictish identity.  The earliest Pictish stones have the pattern incised into the stone, and they usually have one or more pairs of these symbols.  This suggests that what we have here may only be a fragment of the whole stone, since it bears just one symbol. No-one knows what these images mean, but it is thought likely that they represent names, perhaps the names of land-owners or of people commemorated by the stone.  The crescent and V-rod is one of the most common Pictish symbols. It also appears on the Skinnet Stone and the Ulbster Stone.  Although the outline of the symbol is the same, the detail of the patterning is very different from stone to stone. It is possible that the stones were originally painted, which would have emphasized the design.  Where paint has survived on Early Medieval sculpture, red is the most common colour.

This stone was found in two pieces on top of a small cairn (a man-made, intentionally-laid pile or stack of stones) in rough moorland near Groat’s Loch, Watenan near Wick.  It is possible that more fragments of the stone remain to be discovered.  The two pieces of the Watenan Stone are different colours as the smaller fragment of the stone has been burnt sometime in the past.  KK Art & Conservation were commissioned by Caithness Horizons in January 2014 to conserve the Watenan Stone. Conservator Karolina Allan has re-joined the two pieces of the stone.  She has also carved a new piece of stone in order to show what the crescent and V-rod symbol might have looked like before the stone was broken.

The Skinnet Stone

The Skinnet Stone takes its name from St. Thomas’s Chapel at Skinnet, near Halkirk.  The stone was excavated from the interior west wall of the ruined chapel by the Reverend T.S. Muir in 1861. It appears that the stone was intact when he discovered it.  By 1890, however, the stone had somehow been broken into six pieces.  It was later inexpertly restored back to a single slab.  The stone’s current state is the result of recent professional conservation treatment.  After the Pictish kingdoms converted to Christianity, from around 600 AD onwards, the custom of creating stone monuments decorated with symbols remained a hugely important statement of culture and identity.  They became more complex, carved on specially-shaped stones, with the decoration both incised and in relief.  The artistic repertoire now included crosses and elaborate scenes with human and animal figures.  The Skinnet Stone is usually dated to the 8th century AD, an age when towering stone monuments carved with crosses were being erected, in a wide variety of forms, throughout Britain and Ireland. 

Face A of the Skinnet Stone has the larger cross, densely packed with elaborate interlace.  The cross-head is surrounded by four decorated discs, a motif also often found on Italian cross-slabs of this period. The cross-shaft is flanked by sea-horses or hippocamps, one of the fantastic hybrid beasts, ultimately of Mediterranean origin, which Pictish artists found so fascinating.  In a detail unique to the Skinnet Stone, the jaws of the sea-horses mutate into interlace which forms part of the decorated head of the cross.  With their raised heads, they look as though they are adoring the cross, and perhaps the interlace represents praise or prayer issuing forth from their mouths.  At the foot of the cross, where the stone has been broken and repaired, there are the remains of a pair of horses harnessed to a light wagon or chariot (there is a parallel on Meigle 10, the lost stone from Meigle, Perth and Kinross).  Horses were not used as draught animals in farming at this period, so this carving is probably intended as a reference to an aristocratic lifestyle.  Despite the damage to the stone a pair of hands holding the reins of the carriage is just about visible.  This is an extremely rare depiction.  Apart from the lost Meigle 10 stone and the Skinnet Stone, there is just one other reference to a carriage, at Newtyle, Perthshire.  This means that there are just two or possibly three stones carved with an image of a Pictish horse-drawn vehicle, out of hundreds of stones.

ace A of the Skinnet Stone, on display in Caithness Horizons Museum

ace A of the Skinnet Stone, on display in Caithness Horizons Museum

Face B of the Skinnet Stone has another beautifully-decorated cross, a little smaller than the one on Face A, but it is also set on an elaborate base.  Below it are two symbols, the triple oval (rare outside Caithness) and the crescent and V-rod, looking as though they have been left as an offering at the foot of the cross.  It is very tempting to associate these with the aristocratic image of the horses on the other side, particularly given the likelihood that the symbols are associated with people’s names.  Did the symbols spell out the name of the person who may once have been in the chariot or wagon?  In Medieval art, the depiction of crosses on opposing faces of an object often refers to two aspects of the Christian Cross - the Cross of Christ’s Crucifixion, and the Jewelled Cross which would appear in the sky as a herald of the Second Coming of Christ, the Last Judgment and the End of Time. It is possible that such a reference is being made here.  Someone moving around the stone would thus be invited to meditate on the past (the Crucifixion) and the future (the Second Coming) and his or her own spiritual condition in the present.  The two crosses on the Skinnet Stone are unusual, but the stone’s really exceptional feature is more subtle.  One of the narrow sides is carved with long, fluid panels of knotwork interlace. In the top panel of interlace on the narrow edge the angles of the design actually form three little Greek crosses in their gaps.  The other narrow side has no evidence of any carving whatsoever.  Pictish cross-slabs have often been compared with pages of illuminated manuscripts such as the Lindisfarne Gospels. At Skinnet the stone appears to have become not a single page of a manuscript, but the whole book in gigantic form, its elaborately decorated spine and covers resembling the sumptuous treasure bindings which survive on some Early Medieval Gospel Books.

Face B of the Skinnet Stone, on display in Caithness Horizons Museum 

Face B of the Skinnet Stone, on display in Caithness Horizons Museum 

It has been suggested that the Skinnet Stone may have originally been covered with a thin skin of plaster and then painted, and also possibly decorated with metal fittings or glass jewels.  If this is the case it would have been a truly spectacular creation. Although it may have been associated with a particular individual, the design and production of such a stone shows that Skinnet was once the home of a learned and well-connected Christian community.

 The Ulbster Stone

The Ulbster Stone takes its name from the coastal village of Ulbster, south of Wick. Early references indicate that this stone was unearthed in 1770 in the graveyard at St. Martin’s Chapel, Ulbster. Some decades later, it was moved to stand on an artificial mound in front of Thurso Castle.  Unfortunately, this stone was defaced probably during the 19th century, when an inscription carved in Gothic script was added to Face A.  The Ulbster Stone was carved in the 8th century AD and (like the Skinnet Stone) is very unusual in that it has a cross on each face. In their general conception and layout, however, the two stones are quite distinct. Whereas the two crosses on the Skinnet Stone are broadly similar, the carvings on the two sides of the Ulbster Stone are very different.  

Face A of the Ulbster Stone has an elaborate Latin cross standing on a base and flanked by symbols and figural images, whereas Face B has an equal-armed cross apparently floating in mid-air, with pairs of symbols above and below it.   The Ulbster Stone is said to have more symbols than any other Pictish monument including the crescent and V-rod, a fish, a hippocamp, a double-disc, a step, paired crescents, a lion, a serpent, a flowering plant and the so-called Pictish beast.  The Ulbster Stone illustrates the difficulty of decoding Pictish art, forcing the viewer to ask when an animal is a Pictish symbol, when it is some other kind of symbol, and when it is just an animal. The lions on the Ulbster Stone are a good example of this.  On Face B the lion (which looks very like the lion symbols in contemporary Gospel Books such as The Book of Durrow) is paired with the crescent and V-rod, and so is presumably a symbol.  On Face A the beasts flanking the cross, their heads uplifted (compare the hippocamps on the Skinnet Stone), are also best read as lions.  Elsewhere in Pictish art we find the Old Testament figure of Daniel flanked by lions that recognise him and cannot harm him because he is protected by God. In Medieval animal lore the lion was thought to sleep with its eyes open and thus be a creature of particular insight. It was also a symbol of Christ. It is likely therefore that this pair of lions is showing the viewer the way to behave reverently in the presence of the cross.

Face A of the Ulbster Stone, on display in Caithness Horizons Museum

Face A of the Ulbster Stone, on display in Caithness Horizons Museum

The other creatures on Face A such as the horses and cattle are harder to decode, as is the kneeling human figure (now very badly damaged).  Perhaps the trickiest creature of all is the Pictish beast symbol on Face B, which has been interpreted as a dragon, an elephant and even a dolphin.  Although it is one of the most common Pictish symbols, its true nature will probably remain a mystery.  The lions connect the two faces of the Ulbster Stone, and so do the patterns. The decoration of the cross-arms on Face A is repeated over the entire equal-armed cross on Face B. This cross evokes images of lavish contemporary jewellery, one could easily imagine the same object done in gold filigree or multi-coloured enamel. This face also looks like a manuscript, but more like a legal document than a page from a Gospel Book. Perhaps it is indeed a legal document, erected to commemorate some important transaction between the individuals whom the symbols represent, with the blessing of the Church.

The Ulbster Stone is on loan to Caithness Horizons from Lord Thurso.

Face B of the Ulbster Stone, on display in Caithness Horizons Museum

Face B of the Ulbster Stone, on display in Caithness Horizons Museum

Cross-Slab From Canisbay

This cross-slab was found as part of a grave, at Canisbay, around 15 miles east of Thurso.  The grave had been lined with slabs, and this one was at the head end.  One of the other stones used to construct the grave had already been recycled from somewhere else, and it is possible that this, too, had been made for a different purpose. Elsewhere slabs like this were used at ground-level, lying flat on top of graves or standing upright.  This one has a very simple but clear and confident carving. If it was a gravestone, it might have marked the burial of a high-status local aristocrat, or perhaps the priest whose church stood on the site.  The cross-slab may be fairly early in date – probably made before 1000 AD.  Canisbay is not far from the excavated Norse site at Freswick Links, and perhaps there was a connection between the community there and the church at Canisbay?

The form of the Canisbay cross appears elsewhere in Scotland including on a cross-slab recently found at Dull, Perthshire.  The Dull cross-slab has an inscription which stylistically has been dated to around the first quarter of the 8th century AD.  The area of Perthshire around Dull has few Pictish sculptures but many more simple undecorated crosses of Scots origin.

The cross-slab was discovered in the summer of 1919 by John Nicolson during archaeological excavations on the site of a ruined chapel known locally as St. John’s Chapel. John Nicolson (1843–1934) was a Caithness farmer with a deep interest in history and a clear talent for painting and sculpture.  He was fascinated by the early history of Caithness and actively collected information and documents. With the arrival of Sir Francis Tress Barry (1825–1907) at Keiss Castle in 1890, Nicolson became involved in archaeology acting as foreman on Barry’s excavations.  He sketched and painted many of the objects recovered from the excavations, as well as preparing drawings of the actual excavations.

Canisbay cross

Canisbay cross

Hollowed Out Stone From Skinnet Chapel

Skinnet was clearly an important place in the Early and Central Middle Ages.  The Skinnet Stone attests to the presence of a wealthy and well-connected community in the Pictish period.  There is a second early stone still on site at Skinnet, with a richly decorated cross.   It is unknown what happened at Skinnet during the period of Scandinavian settlement from the 9th century AD, but when the parish system in Caithness was reorganised in the early 13th century AD Skinnet was a very rich church. The ruined church which is visible today is late 12th century AD in date.  This hollowed out stone from Skinnet may have been a holy water stoup in the church.  It would have stood inside the door, ready for worshippers to dip their fingers in the water and make the sign of the cross.

Who Were The Norsemen?

From the mid-9th century AD, much of Northern and Western Scotland including Caithness together with much of Northern England and Western Ireland, was settled by newcomers from Scandinavia.  At first worshippers of gods such as Odin and Thor (Thurso probably means Thor’s River in Old Norse), they had converted to Christianity by the end of the 10th century AD.  Caithness became part of the Earldom of Orkney, ruled from Norway, and its wealthy aristocrats had a mixed Gaelic-Scandinavian culture.  The large-scale fish-processing site excavated at Freswick Links may give us a clue as to how some of their wealth was generated.  Caithness remained at least partially Norse in outlook until the region finally became part of the Kingdom of Scotland in 1196 AD (and possibly long afterwards).  The Norn language, derived from Old Norse, may have been spoken in Caithness until the 16th century AD.

Ingόlfr Memorial Stone From St. Peter’s Church

This cruciform-shaped memorial stone was found near St. Peter’s Church, which stands on a headland where the Thurso River flows out into the Pentland Firth.  It was found in 1896, closely associated with two burials, an adult and a child.  Along the cross-shaft there is a runic inscription.  Runes are an ancient Germanic alphabet which had been in use for many hundreds of years by the time this memorial stone was made.  This alphabet was adopted by the Church and in the 12th – 13th centuries AD rune-inscribed stones are often carved with religious inscriptions.  Most of these are Scandinavia in origin, but a broken rune stone found in 2013 at Naversdale Farm, Orphir on Orkney is inscribed with a snippet of the Lord’s Prayer.  The runes carved on the memorial stone are the Scandinavian variety, and the language is Old Norse, as is the name, Ingólfr. The inscription reads:


...gerði yfirlag þetta aft Ingólf föður sinn

“...?made this overlay in memory of Ingólfr, his/her father”

There is a small cross cut into the centre of the cross-head of the memorial stone.  It is possible that the cross marks the end of the inscription.  The base of the cross has been broken off.  The shape of this memorial stone was probably an instruction to the reader to make the sign of the cross, invoking God’s mercy on the soul of Ingólfr.  It is hard to know exactly when this memorial stone was made.  The inscription looks most like inscriptions that date from the 11th century AD found elsewhere in the British Isles and Scandinavia.  The word “yfirlag” (overlay) is unique, and may refer to this particular stone, or perhaps to a grave-slab which this stone stood next to.  Certainly, this stone does not look big enough to have been intended to cover an adult male burial – although we should remember that one of the two burials found in 1896 was crouched.   A small thin flagstone memorial stone like this one would be very quickly lost in the grass if it were lying flat outside.  Could it originally have been located inside a church?

Ingόlfr   Memorial Stone From St. Peter’s Church

Ingόlfr Memorial Stone From St. Peter’s Church

Rune-Inscribed Memorial Stone From St. Peter’s Church

This badly weathered rune-inscribed memorial stone was found built into the outer west face of the tower of St. Peter’s Church, Thurso.  Like the Ingólfr memorial stone, it is very hard to date, but it probably dates from the 11th – 12th centuries AD.  There is some ambiguity in the translation of the name of the person that the memorial stone was made to commemorate. Some runologists translate the name as Gunnhildr while others read it as Unnhildr. The inscription is thought to read:


...?(G)unnhildi, konu sína...

“...?(G)unnhildr, his wife...”

Gunnhildr is a common name – the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo, Norway, has a spindle whorl in its Collection that bears the inscription “Gunnhildr made this spindle whorl”.  Unnhildr is, as far as we know, unrecorded.  That said it is not an impossible name as it is made out of existing elements, which could easily have been put together by some innovative parents.  This rune-inscribed memorial stone has part of an irregular-shaped cross carved on one of its faces. It is possible that this stone was once part of a larger monument, perhaps something like the Cille-bharra cross-slab from Kilbar on Barra.  The Cille-bharra cross-slab also commemorates a woman. The inscription on the Cille-bharra cross-slab probably reads: “This cross was raised in memory of Thorgerthr, Steinar’s daughter”.  Perhaps this memorial stone once had an inscription of similar length?  

The Ingólfr and Gunnhildr rune-inscribed memorial stones suggest that there may have been a church – or at least a Christian burial ground – here in Thurso before St. Peter’s Church was founded in the 12th century AD.