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As we walked through fields of prayer

Just west of Aberdeen, a forgotten megalithic landscape could contain written evidence of an ancient Mediterranean connection. But it definitely contains memories of a once sacred landscape, which became the Pictish heartland.

Philip Coppens


The River Don flows through the hilly landscape of Aberdeenshire, emptying its waters in the North Sea at Aberdeen. Its main tributary, the River Urie, joins at the appropriately named Inverurie. That popular tourist town is surrounded by an extra-ordinary concentration of megalithic remains, including a specific type of stone circle found only in this region.
The question is: why here? Perhaps it is because of the sanctity of the river. The river was recorded as early as the 2nd century AD by Ptolemy of Alexandria. He wrote the name down as “Devona”, meaning “goddess”, an indication that the river was seen as sacred. Where the Urie meets the Don, just south of Inverurie, sits the circular henge of Broomend. The henge, with entrances to the north and south, once had an avenue on the south. Also known as “The Druidsfield”, the avenue still existed at the end of the 19th century, totalling 72 stones. Today, all but three avenue stones and a skeletal stone sitting within the Druidsfield enclosure have been destroyed in successive development of rail, road, industry and, more recently, gravel extraction and a business park.

To the north of the town, amidst a modern estate, sits the Bransbutt Symbol Stone, a Pictish stone in the middle of a modern housing estate. Next to it, marked by a thin gravel circle in the grass, is the outline of what was once a stone circle, which has now completely disappeared.
To really appreciate Aberdeen’s megalithic heritage, you can – perhaps should – bypass these two circles and instead opt for the most popular circle of the region: Easter Aquhorthies. In Gaelic, Aquhorthies means “Field of Prayer”, though others believe it may mean “field of pillar stone” (achadh choirthe). Built in ca. 3000 BC, it is unlikely that is its original name. But what we do know with certainty is that the circle fits within the local template of nine standing stones in a circle, with a large recumbent stone flanked by two erect stones. It is also known that the recumbent stones were set to frame the moonset against a distant horizon at particular times of the year. Indeed, every 18 years, the moon would dip down towards the recumbent stone. It makes recumbent stone circles astronomical, specifically, lunar sanctuaries – conforming to the overall pattern that megalithic circles have astronomical alignments incorporated into their design.
As to the stones themselves: the recumbent stone is reddish granite, which came from around Bennachie, a majestic hill (over 1500 feet high) that can be seen to rise over the nearby crest of the hill. Most of the other stones are porphyry, a pinkish rock, others are jasper. The stones appear to have been placed in opposing pairs, with a single, lowest one in the NNE. It is at the SSW “end” of the circle that the axis is aligned to the southern moonset.

Loanhead of Daviot

Another popular stone circle is that of Loanhead of Daviot. The circle adheres to the same template, though the recumbent stone has been fractured by the frost. It is known that a fire of willow, perhaps a funeral pyre, was created on the land before the stones were erected.
The circle’s diameter is 20.7 metres. Alexander Thom theorised that all megalithic monuments were built using a standard unit of length, which he measured as 0.83 metres, and which he labelled “the megalithic yard”. This circle’s dimensions seemed to underline his conclusions, for the diameter of the circle is 25 MY (megalithic yards). The ring cairn next to it, used for cremations, measures twenty MY. Unknown to Thom, the stone circle’s central space has a diameter of precisely 5 MY.
Like Easter Aquhorthies, the circle is aligned to the major southern moonset, though the presence of cup marks on one stone has made some experts suspect further astronomical alignments are incorporated into its design, namely a possible orientation towards the midwinter sunrise.

Easter Aquhorthies and Loanhoad share a similar design, and a similar alignment – devotion – to the moon. But both are equally distant from the river Don or Urie; their relevance to the sacredness of the river is not easy to explain. If there is anything that binds them together, it seems to be the peak of Bennachie. At Loanhead, it is at first difficult to see Bennachie, as trees are obscuring the view. But like Easter Aquhorthies, it is clear that the precise implantation of the site was not solely to do with alignments to the moon’s risings and settings over distant horizons; there was also line of sight to Bennachie.
To underline this argument: Balquhain stone circle, which sits just off the A96 and can be seen from the main road. It too is aligned to the most southerly rising of the moon, with the western end of the recumbent stone marking its setting. But even from your car on the A96, you can see that it is tucked on the slope of the hill in such a precise location that it creates a line of sight to Bennachie.

Bennachie. Bennachie is the most north-easterly mountain in Aberdeenshire, tucked in between the River Don and the River Urie. It has several summits (nine), the highest of which, Oxen Craig, has a height of 528 m (1733 feet). But it is the most prominent peak, Mither Tap (518 m, 1699 feet), that seems to be important for these stone circles. Why? Because from these sites, the mountain looks like a pyramid – a natural pyramid.
Others have described the hill’s appearance as shaped like a female breast and some even argue that Mither Tap originally was known as Mither Pap – i.e. Breast. Others suggest that Bennachie signifies Beinn-na-chiche, the Mountain of the Breasts. Though the mountain does look like a pair of breasts, it does not do so from an eastern vantage point. To see the hill as a pair of breasts rising to the sky, one needs to move northwards, to sites such as the Picardy Symbol Stone.

Bennachie

And this brings us back to the Symbol Stones. The Symbol Stones are linked with the Picts, a nation and era that largely remains an enigma. We first learn of the Picts in 297 AD, when the Roman Eumenius wrote that the Britons fought “their half naked enemies - the Picts and the Irish”. In the century before, Ptolemy called the local people Caledonii and Maeatae and it is believed that by the end of the third century, these Celtic tribes had to unite to fight off the Romans. The new unity was known as “Picti”: the painted ones. The Irish called them Cruithni: the people of the designs. Whereas the latter could be interpreted in a number of ways, the Roman description seems to imply that the Picts were people who painted or tattooed their bodies.
No document at all exists from Pictland, even though it is known that Pictish monasteries, like the Gaelic ones, had scriptoriums and produced written documents. They were a literate people. What happened to their documents? “Unknown” is all that historians can say on that question.
In the absence of written documentation, there is little known about these Symbol Stones, with archaeologists noting that “their message must have been widely understood, but their decipherment is now a matter of informed guesswork. They are likely to have functioned as memorial stones, perhaps also marking territorial boundaries.”

One Symbol Stone has created more controversy than his peers: the Newton Stone. The Newton Stone originally stood in a plantation near Shevack toll-bar, on the slope of a hill above Shevack Burn. Its inscriptions were first noticed in ca. 1803, when a new road had been opened in the vicinity. It was moved to a site behind Newton House in ca. 1837, and was placed in its present position in 1873 – on private property. Less known is that the Newton Stone has a twin, The Serpent Stone, which now (as originally) stands beside the Newton Stone.
The Newton Stone was dated earlier this century to roughly 400 BC by Professor L.A. Waddell, a Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute of London and an archaeologist who had spent much of his career in India. The stone carries an inscription, in Ogham, which contains the name Eddarnon, which some commentators suggest might be a reference to Adomnan, a saint and abbot of Iona, who died in 704 AD. But it also has another inscription, in an alphabet that has as yet defied all attempts to decipher it. Waddell controversially translated it as: “This Sun-Cross was raised to Bil (Bel) by the Kassi… of Kast of the Siluyr (sub-clan) of the Kilani (Hittite palace-dweller), the Phoenician (named) Ikar of Cilicia, the Prwt. (Briton).” Waddell thus argued that the Picts, rather than descendents from the native Celts, seemed to be Phoenician immigrants!
As outlandish as this claim is for official historians, Nennius in his “Historia Brittonum”, stated that the Picts originated from Scythia, near the Black Sea, and that they obtained wives from among the Irish. Nennius also said that the Picts settled first in the Orkneys, from where they then occupied the northern half of Britain. Though not accepted by orthodoxy, there is therefore a historical framework into which Waddell’s translation would fit. In 1924, Waddell published “The Phoenician Origin of the Britons, Scots, and Anglo-Saxons”, arguing that the Phoenicians were the original Aryans and that they were located in the Shetland Isles and Northern Scotland. For Waddell, the River Urie was linked with Ur, as in Ur of the Chaldees, thus linking those “Babylonians” by play of words to the Caledonians and the Culdees, the name used by the early Christian priests.

The other Pictish Symbol Stones may be less controversial, but may also provide us with more insight into Pictish history. The earliest stones – apart from Waddell’s controversial Newton Stone dating – are from the 6th century AD. They were often carved on Neolithic and Bronze Age standing stones. It is possible that some of the designs were the same as those earlier painted on wood, clothing and skin – perhaps as tattoos. Though it is said that “some” have Ogham inscriptions, in fact, only two stones have Ogham inscriptions.
In a next phase, these stones developed into cross slabs carved in relief with the cross and interlaced patterns, figures and animals – becoming altogether more Christian in design. These date from the early 8th century, but still include traditional Pictish symbols. Soon afterwards, the Picts disappeared, the kingdom apparently falling victim to the Irish, the Scots and the Vikings.

Maiden Stone

To learn more about the Picts and the importance of Bennachie, we need to turn to the local legends and tales. One story goes that long “before King Robert rang”, two giants inhabited these mountains. These two sons of Anak appear to have lived on pretty friendly terms, and a series of jovial contests and tricks became the stuff of legends. They are the heroes of two ballads: “John O’Benachie” and “John O’Rhynie, or Jock O’Noth”, named after Tap O’Noth, a similar hill fort to that on top of Mither Tap.
A far more interesting tale is told about another Symbol Stone, the Maiden Stone, which is placed in a line of sight to Bennachie – a connection the story underlines. The Maiden Stone is linked with the legend of a woman who was about to be married: the Maiden of Drumdurno. While preparing the food for her wedding, she saw a man at the kitchen window, with which she made a wager, only to realise he was the devil in disguise. Aware her soul was condemned, she fled towards the Pittodrie woods, praying for salvation, but the devil caught up with her. As he was about to grab her by the waist, she became transformed into this stone pillar. Though she was turned into stone, at least she was spared the prospect of eternal damnation in Hell.
The connection with Bennachie is that after her bet with the devil, she saw a brand new road up Bennachie, all the way to Mither Tap, which made her realise the man she had been speaking too was the devil; the “new road” seems to have been her Highway to Hell.

One man inspired by Waddell was British journalist Comyns Beaumont, most famous for his claim that Jerusalem had actually been Edinburgh. Despite this and other eccentric claims, he focused on another Symbol Stone, the Golspie Stone, and argued that it contained astronomical information. Each symbol represented a constellation and reading the Golspie Stone from top to bottom, he identified the Square of Heaven, Cetus, Taurus, Orion, Pisces and Aquarius (depicted as a bottle). Then, Beaumont ran into trouble. What comes next are what some have described as “spectacles”. It appears on no less than 36 out of 150 reproduced by Spalding Club’s Sculptured Stones and thus seems a central message contained on these stones. But it does not map easily to the sky and hence Beaumont, like others before and since, described it as “in effect twin circles representing a twin comet or one subdivided in two parts”. The other symbol that is normally described as a “zig-zags”, was, to him, “the lightning pursuing them.” Beaumont believed these patterns were inscribed to relay the message of the Deluge occurring in 1322 BC. But why that should be so important to portray on all of these stones, is a good question. Finally, at the bottom of the stone, the entwined serpents were linked with the constellation Eridanus, “in flames”.

It is clear that the Neolithic stones in this region had astronomical connotations. It is possible that the Picts, millennia later, still shared this astronomical doctrine and inscribed it onto the megaliths. But there is unfortunately too little research and too few stones to conclusively prove an astronomical connection. Nevertheless, let us try and see where we end up.
Orion is frequently depicted as crushing the serpent with his foot. This is in fact a well-known symbol, including in the Middle East, and ancient Egypt, which was incorporated into the “Strong Arm” symbol, in which the Pharaoh was depicted as “smiting the enemy”. The Pharaoh was seen as the symbol of order, with any potential invader cast in the role of chaos, symbolised by the serpent, that animal that upset the careful balance of, for example, the Garden of Eden.
That the symbol of a man with his arm(s) raised, sometimes holding an artefact in one arm (like a club), depicted in the vicinity of a serpent (normally below him) may indeed be a symbol of kingship and rule is mirrored in tales that belong to several stones. Let us also note that in Christian iconography, it is linked with St Michael and St George slaying the dragon. In myths, take for example St Martin’s Stane near Dundee, which is speaks of Martin slaying the dragon (serpent) that caused havoc in the area. The position of the stone marked the location where the beast was slain and buried.
Noting that standing stones were often boundary markers and that archaeologists are open to the suggestion that the Symbol Stones were border markers, these symbols may indeed be warnings – border posts, intended to provide information to any would-be invader or visitors, perhaps even functioning as a magical talisman that underlined that the Pictish king ruled over the serpents of chaos. “Beware, divine kingship ahead.”

Chaos, it seems, did eventually invade and succumb the Pictish heartland, though it had previously withstood the powers of the Roman Empire and Christianity well and for a long time. Equally, their Symbol Stones and stone circles have withstood the test of time quite well. In fact, when walking through Easter Aquhorthies or Loanhead, or standing in front of the Picardy Symbol Stone, you wonder whether all it takes for this ancient landscape to reignite is merely throwing some switch somewhere. Or would the key be praying?