Last weekend, my husband and I attended the 2014 Pictish Arts Society Conference in Thurso: Northern Picts, Northern Neighbours.
Pictish Art, archaeology and stones are my husband’s interests and I was sceptical when he told me that we could rendezvous with the group in Sutherland at 2 pm. We live in Newcastle upon Tyne and it seemed a very long way to travel in a morning. However, the road north is much faster than I remembered. We left at 7.15 am and would have been on time had we not made a small detour to see The Rosemarkie Stone at the Groam House Museum in Rosemarkie. We arrived at the rendezvous point – Dunrobin Castle at Golspie at 2.15 pm, in order to see the Earl of Sutherland’s own collection of Pictish stones.
Many family holidays were spent during my childhood and youth, touring Scotland with the family, and as my husband and I drove north last weekend it was like visiting a potted history of my life.
The first milestone in Scotland was Edinburgh where I was born and grew up. Then there was crossing the Firth of Forth which always marked the start of holidays when I was a child. Over the river we came to Perthshire where my mother’s family hailed from.
Then on to Pitlochry and Kingussie where we spent many family holidays over the years. During those years, we often stayed in the Spey valley at a small village called Insh. We saw the valley in drought, in flood, and I think even with snow one time. We also saw a plague of miniature toads on the moors there one year.
A host of memories of carefree childhood times spent mostly out of doors, playing on the moors, bubbled up. Here’s a shot of me with my mum and dad and the two dogs that were around for the longest time when I was growing up. This photo was taken at a holiday cottage in Perthshire.
And as we drove even further north last weekend we came to Sutherland, a wild part of Scotland, where we had also spent a family holiday at Tongue.
There weren’t windmills like this when I was a child, but the landscape hasn’t changed much in the past 40 years. And looking across the boggy Caithness moorland towards the mountains rising on the horizon in the west, the landscape also reminds me of the isles of Lewis and Harris in the Outer Hebrides. My husband and I went there to see the Callanish stones on our honeymoon. Lewis was flat moorland and looking across to Harris you could see the rocky mountains rising majestically on the horizon.
My father (like my husband) was interested in the Picts. He used to tell us we were descended from the Picts – a colourful picture to paint for your children of wild men in bogs with woad painted on their faces. In fact when my brother took a DNA test for the Scottish DNA research project, he discovered that my father’s bloodline is in fact very strongly ancient Irish so we are more likely descended from Gaels. This is going back millenia of course and it all feels a bit distant to me. Whatever our ancient origins, the journey to the north of Scotland last weekend brought home to me how much I still feel rooted in Scotland, despite having lived in northern England for half my life.
The landscape of Caithness is wild and empty today, but during the middle ages, the north of Scotland was the centre of a power struggle between the Norse and the Picts.I learned this at the conference from Dr Barbara Crawford‘s talk on Norse power centres in the Caithness Earldom and listening to her talk I found myself excited to learn more about Sutherland and Caithness in Saga Time – the Jarls and the Freskyns.
Looking across the Pentland Firth to Orkney from the mainland
So the Pictish Arts Society conference wasn’t just about stones. It was about history and the area of Caithness. It wasn’t the ususal sort of conference that I have attended in recent years – it wasn’t a writing conference with writers talking about writing books – but almost everyone presenting at the conference and many people in the audience had written a book or a number of books. There was Dr Crawford’s book on The Northern Earldoms: Orkney and Caithness from AD 870 to 1470. Then there was Anna Ritchie who has written a number of books on Vikings, Picts and Stones. There was Victoria Whitworth who has written a couple of medieval thrillers – The Bone Thief and The Traitors’ Pit – which are both now on my ‘to be read’ list! Then there was Dr Ragnhild Ljosland who talked about the different runic languages in existence and the medieval graffiti and fake runic inscriptions that have been found. She has written a book called Chrissies Bodle: Discovering Orkney’s Forgotten Writer Christina M Costie. And then there were the artists. There was Marianna Lines who has a studio in Fife and creates beautiful tapestries and pictures inspired by Pictish artwork. There was also David McGovern, a stone carver from Angus whose website Monikie Rock Art displays his wonderful Pictish inspired rock carvings. I haven’t covered everybody that I met but I think that gives a flavour of the very rich quality of the weekend.
One aspect of the weekend which has stayed with me is that, apart from the relative metropolis of Thurso, there are only a few towns that you pass through in Sutherland and Caithness as you travel north on the A9. There is Dornoch, Golspie, Helmsdale and Brora in Sutherland and Latheron and Dunbeath in Caithness. Rural petrol stations have closed down and the further north you go, the more houses you see for sale – sometimes whole rows of them by the side of the road. Dounereay, the nuclear power station built in Caithness in the 1950s which boosted the region’s population and business, is now in process of being dismantled and by 2029 will be gone. One of the presenters at the conference – Iain MacLean – described himself as a fourth generation atom baby. His grandfather was one of the people involved in constructing and setting up the power station in the 1950s, and Iain is now involved in dismantling it. Looking to the future, he has set up something called the broch project. Brochs are prehistoric circular stone towers, sometimes known as Pictish towers, and the north of Scotland is full of them although many have not yet been uncovered.
This is Carn Liath broch just north of Golspie in Sutherland. It is close to the A9 and well worth a look if you are passing. You can walk inside it and up the steps to the wall around it. This broch isn’t very tall but it is still outstanding. The broch project in the long term hopes to reconstruct a broch and iron age settlement in Caithness as a piece of living history. So watch this space http://www.thebrochproject.co.uk/
During the day of talks, we also learned from Graeme Cavers about an archaeological surveying technique called Lidar, which allows much more initial research to be done these days by sitting at a desk and analysing photographs of the landscape.
By the end of Saturday my head was spinning with ideas and a rediscovered enthusiasm for Scotland and its history, but we still had a field trip on Sunday to look forward to as a large part of the conference was the opportunity to see up close stones which were not normally accessible to the public.
But on Sunday we went in a minibus to Sandside House to see a symbol stone which was found in the mid 19th century by the owner of Sandside house near to an as yet unexcavated early settlement by the shore.
We also walked to the remains of St Thomas’ Church at Skinnet from the Skinnet farm to see a cross slab with traces of cross’s interlace carved on it.
We were a colourful band crossing the farmland to the ruined church and, not surprisingly, drew some curiousity from a rather fine highland bull on the farm.
Luckily there was a fence between us!
And after the conference on our way back south (you know you are very far north when you start to think of Inverness as being a hundred miles south), we stopped on the Black Isle at Nigg Old Church to see the Nigg stone. This is a beautiful stone and well worth a visit.
We’ve only been home a few days but I’m missing the north already and thinking about when we can go back.