Pictish Stones and Tölting Horses

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I admit, I love ancient monuments and archeological sites. One favourite of mine are the Pictish stones. First of all, their design is superb. It’s clear they were produced by a culture that appreciated a good crafter, though it feels a bit silly to say so. Are there cultures that do not? Secondly, those Pictish stones that are still out there in the open, especially those that are still in their original site, are often interestingly situated in the landscape. You can find them in the middle of a field, right on the roadside, on the church yard, on some ones private yard. Just like standing stones, they just are there like unmoving poles around which the landscape turns as time passes by. Thirdly, they are puzzling. Who were the Picts that made them? Why were they erected? What do the symbols mean? How were their sites chosen?

Last summer we planned our journey so that we could see the Pictish stones around Angus, Scotland. Though many stones remain in their original setting, many have been moved to various museums. The Meigle Sculptured Stone Museum has, like Historic Scotland’s webpage says, an impressive collection: 26 stones altogether. It’s a bit tricky to find the museum as it is a rather like a chappel in the middle of a residential area and behind a church. Just follow the signposts as you arrive to Meigle, but slow down or you’ll drive right past it, but it is worth the trouble! Oh, and it’s chilly in side.

I drew few sketches of the horses, of course. They are not that detailed, partly because of erosion, and they are formal but the best ones are really a live with movement and intention. As I drew and thought about the Picts and their mysteries, I realised that the carved horses were familiar. Then it hit me: they are very similar to the carved horses on Viking rune stones! I had seen some less that two months before in Sweden on a trip for students of art history in our university. It’s not an exact match, not at least to the ones I sketched, but made me think about the horses’ gait. The Pictish horses seem to be moving in tölt which is one of the five gaits of the Icelandic horse (see here for info and pictures). Nowadays Icelandic horses are a breed of horses native to Iceland, but could their ancestors have been the common breed of horses during the Pictish era (in Scotland until ca. 860 AD) in the northern coastal regions in Europe? What kind of contact did the Picts and the Vikings have with each other? The Vikings occupied Scotland and a large part of the British Isles at one point, but what was there before that?

If there’s a book about it, I want to read it.

A View from the Top

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The hill fortifications on the White and Brown Cathertun near Brechin, Angus, were our first walk on our trip to Scotland last summer. We had the most beautiful weather that day, blue skies and rolling cumuli. It did rain the day before and it did rain the day after, so the memory is even more delightful. The view was magnificent, we could even see the sea.

The Brown and the White Caterthun are two hills sitting shoulder to shoulder between rolling fields and uncultivated higher ground. The hill fort on the Brown Caterthun consists of five or six concentric earthen banks but is not easy to pick them out as the hill is covered by heath, hence its name. The structure was build between 3000BC and 500BC possibly for ritual use. We had the classic experience of almost stepping on grouse chicks while on top.

The White Caterthun is the southern one of the two. It’s slightly higher, but what makes is more noticeable is the forth on top of it. The fallen ramparts remain uncovered by vegetation and their pale coloured stones form what looks something like a cap on the hill from the distance. You can still easily make out the layout of the forth once you get up there. The forth was probably built by Picts during the first centuries AD by which time the neighboring forth on the Brown was no longer in use. There is a cup marked stone on the westerly side of the fallen ramparts, but it’s not easy to find. I felt like Indiana Jones as we tried to locate it, and we did!

All aboard!

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Oh dear.

I’ve gone and done it and now I should, I suppose, write something on it.

The thing is, I think the world is a magnificent place. It is filled with things to discover, with things of wonder. I want to hold on to the ability to marvel, to literally stand in awe in the world. This is my journey through the universe and I wish to show you my cabinet of curiosities.

– Kaisa

Evan Thompson

Professor of Philosophy, University of British Columbia

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