Thursday, 11 September 2014

Pictish Strathearn and a lost or misplaced Kingdom !




In March and April 2012 , some two and a half years ago, I blogged in some  detail about the Pictish heritage  of Strathearn and its ancient capital  located at Forteviot . The Kingdom of the Picts occupying the lands of Menteith and Strathearn has been generally known as Fortren or Fortriu .

Historians perhaps  have the fault  of attempting  to compartmentalise great  wads of  history under convenient labels . We  have , it seems , made  some errors  or  basic assumptions  that stand  to be corrected . These refer specifically to Fortren or Fortriu and in the interests of exactitude let us start at the beginning !

A handful of Irish annals refer to a Pictish Kingdom or region called  Fortriu . Historians  for many years  have equated this with Strathearn and its  neighbour  to the west , the district of Menteith .We can trace  this back to the 19th century and the writings of  a respected scholar William Forbes Skene . Skene wrote  a scholarly tome in three volumes entitled Celtic Scotland . In this  he placed the Kingdom of Fortriu in the lands between the Rivers Forth and Tay which were  to become in later years the Earldoms of Strathearn and Menteith .

There were according  to legend in Scottish and Irish texts , seven Pictish provinces or Kingdoms based  on the tale of Cruithne , legendary ancestor of the Picts . Amongst these  were Fib – modern Fife, Fotla or Atholl and Cat which corresponds  with modern Caithness in the  far north east of Scotland . It was however Fortriu or Fortren which seems  to have  caused the problems ! Let  me quote from the erudite  writings  of  modern historian Tim Clarkson :

The name Fortiu derives  from , or is closely related to , the latin name Verturiones which the Roman writer Ammianus  Marcellinus  applied to one of two divisions of the Picts in the late Fourth Century . The other division , the Dicalydones , was plainly a manifestation of the Caledones or Caledonians who had  resisted Rome’s first invasion of Scotland three hundred  years earlier The place names Dunkeld, Rohallion and Schiehallion all contain a Gaelic form of the root term “ Caledon “ and show that the heart land of the Caledonian Picts lay in Perthshire along the Tay valley. A perception that the Verturiones , the Picts of Fortriu , dwelt south of this area in a region between the Forth and the Tay became part of the bedrock of Scottish medieval studies throughout the 20th century . Few people paused to wonder if Skene and his contemporaries were wrong in placing Fortriu south of the Caledonian heartlands . Few questioned the wisdom or necessity of trying to match the seven provinces in the Cruithne legend to the seven territories described  in 12th century writings ( De Situ Albanie ) . Guesses and unsupported assertions  went unchallenged   for more than a century .

In 2006 , a book  written by historian Alex Woolf and entitled “ Dun Nechtain , Fortriu  and the geography of the Picts ” became , to  certain extent , the revised gospel ! What it  stated and backed up with factual information which stated :
1.     The Battle of Dun Nechtain in AD 685 was not fought at Dunnichen in  Perthshire but at Dunachton in Badenoch , much further north .
2.    Fortriu and the Verturiones were  not based in Perthshire  but indeed in Moray to the east of Inverness .
Woolf makes  references  to the Venerable Bede whose learned  prognostications are still regarded as authoritative in most circles. Bede belief  was that the Picts were divided into two parts , a northern  and a southern , separated  by the Grampian Mountains .   This  ties  in with the Roman  writings some 300 years earlier . The people  dwelling  south of the Grampians were the Dicalydones  or the Caledonian Picts of Perthshire . Those  living north of the Grampians were  the Verturiones , the ancestors of the Picts of Fortriu .

This  perhaps  clarifies a  wrong assumption as to where  the Kingdom of Fortriu lay . It does  not in any way remove the strong Pictish heritage  that is found here in Strathearn . We have  at St Fillans ,the ancient Pictish fort of Dundurn which is described in the Canmore – the site of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland :

 Dundurn fort occupies an isolated rocky knoll and consists of a series of ruined walls which form defended compounds and courtyards all over the flanks of the knoll, the uppermost measuring about 70ft in diameter, while the total area covered is 325 yards by 180 yards. This fort is presumed to be the place mentioned in the Annals of Ulster as being under siege in 683, and to have been a principal Pictish stronghold; it may have originated in the Iron Age.

Limited excavations were undertaken in 1976 by the Dept of Archaeology, Glasgow University to establish the date and origin of Dundurn. At least two periods were recognised in the fortifications of the citadel and the uppermost terraces. The defences, revealed by the tumbled stone of their walls, are in the form of a citadel-like boss of rock surrounded by enclosures on two levels. No wall faces could be detected in the tumble. Excavation was carried out in two areas:
1.     (NN 7081 2324) on the S slope of the summit and on part of the summit area. The latter had been levelled in two phases but no structures were detected in the excavated area. On the slope there was evidence for an approximately 4.0 m wide rubble and timber-laced rampart. This rampart overlay a layer of burnt stone and charcoal which probably represented an earlier timber-laced rampart. From the evidence gained, an oval citadel may be inferred, measuring 20.0m by 15.0m internally, defended by a rubble wall 4.0m thick laced with nailed timbers.

2.    (NN 7080 2325) One cut was placed where a supposed hut circle appeared to butt against the western rampart of the upper terrace enclosure but no trace of a house was revealed. A second cut was sited on fairly level ground at the eastern end of the upper terrace (NN 7086 2327) where nettles and black soil suggested human occupation; an extensive pit found here yielded only charcoal and burnt bone. Datable finds, among them a glass ornament and a silver strap fastener, were few, but they point to an Early Historic - probably 7th century - Pictish occupation.

Recent excavations at Forteviot have  confirmed  much about the later Pictish period here in the Strath .The first acknowledged King of Scotland - Kenneth macalpin – constructed a timber palace some 1200 years ago .The structure  was believed  to have been about 100 feet long and  30 feet high . Close by archaeologists have discovered a Pictish “ barrow “ which they believe contains the graves of early Scottish nobility.

Perhaps  the most famous  of our Pictish relics is the Dupplin Cross which  stood on a hillside overlooking Forteviot for many decades It is now  housed in St Serf’s Church  in nearby Dunning and has a fascinating history .




The extraordinarily rare and impressive Dupplin Cross was carved around AD 800. It is now on display in St Serf’s Church, Dunning, but once stood near the palace of the Pictish kings at Forteviot, 3 miles (5km) away.

It was made for King Constantine, son of Fergus, who reigned from c.789 to 820. We know this because a panel on the rear west face of the has been translated from the original Latin. It was during Constantine’s reign that the kingdoms of the Picts and the Scots began to merge, before finally uniting under King Kenneth around 843.

Symbol of power
Free-standing crosses were more commonly erected in Ireland, western Scotland and Northumbria than in eastern Scotland. In fact, the Dupplin Cross is the only complete example to survive in Pictish territory.

Its style and content would have shouted important messages to its Pictish viewers. They would have been left in no doubt that King Constantine wanted his political authority and association with the church to be recognised.

In the carvings, images of contemporary royal authority are skilfully juxtaposed with those of the biblical King David. The Picts clearly saw David – the psalmist and protector of his flock from wild adversaries – as a warrior king and saviour of his people. The proud horseman carrying a sword or sceptre, depicted on the front (east) face, is almost certainly Constantine, surrounded by his warriors.

A rare work of art
The 3m-high cross, carved from local sandstone, is richly decorated on all four faces. Its form and content derive from a combination of the Pictish sculptor’s innovations and external sources of inspiration. The head of the cross, with its prominent central boss and vine-scroll filling the arms, is inspired by Northumbrian art. But the double-curve of the arms was probably influenced by Iona.

The figures, though, are purely Pictish. King Constantine, astride his horse, has a prominent head and moustache to show his authority. The four young warriors below him have plain clothing and no moustaches. The hunting dogs in full chase are common on Pictish sculptures.

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