On a dreich, wet day in June of last year, my mother and I discovered the Meigle Museum. Tucked away in a small town of the same name lying northwest of Dundee, the museum itself is tiny, but contains a trove of treasures.
Everything inside the museum is stone–stone slabs, stone crosses, chunks, lumps, and fragments–and together they form what has got to be one of the most intriguing collections of sculpture in Britain. These pieces are one of the few remaining testaments to the culture of the Picts, a Christian Celtic people who ruled lowland Scotland from around the 6th to the 10th century, and about whom scholars know very little.
This mystery and fascination are powerfully present among the stones of the Meigle Museum. A few of the pieces are large and elaborately carved, with scenes of hunting intermingled with symbols–mirrors, salmon–and crosses. Others are much smaller, perhaps beginning life as church decorations. All come from a small area around the modern town, indicating that the region was a centre of Pictish art, and perhaps, of political power.
Unsurprisingly, a number of people over the years have attempted to decipher the stones. Some have suggested that the stable group of symbols that appear repeatedly in the Pictish stones could be ‘read’, if only a second Rosetta Stone were to come along. A more popular explanation is that groupings of symbols represent names–of clans or individuals–but do not make up an entire written script.
Art historians have also called attention to the centaur, the angel-figure, and the manticore which allude to an awareness of artistic trends in other parts of Europe. Even local legend has weighed in–the stone known as Meigle 2 shows a robed figure surrounded by 4 lions. The traditional interpretation of the scene is that of David in the Lion’s Den, but some maintain that it is Guinevere, Arthur’s bride, being punished for her infidelity.
These carvings, at once so engaging and alien, make the Meigle Museum a truly captivating place. If you are unable to make it to the museum itself, however, you can still have an encounter with the Pictish carvings. Historic Scotland’s website on the Pictish Stones has not only maps, information, and pictures, but also a set of 3-D rotating scans of the most famous stones for you to explore. Whether you see them online, or in person, the stones of Pictish Scotland are sure to intrigue.