Second Pictish stone discovered near Ulbster

It probably dates to between the 5th and 7th centuries AD, before the Picts were converted to Christianity.

A Pictish stone was recently identified in the old St Martin’s Burial Ground at Ulbster in Caithness, adding to the growing number of such finds over the past few years, including the Conan Stone in 2019 (see CA 357 and 373) and the Aberlemno Stone earlier this year (see CA 386), following several decades without major additions to this field.

IMAGE: Gordon Noble

This new find is the second Pictish stone from the St Martin’s cemetery: the first, known as the Ulbster Stone, had been laid over a grave before it was recognised in 1770 and moved to the grounds of Thurso Castle, where it was placed upright on an artificial mound. This Class II stone – heavily decorated with both Pictish and Christian symbols – has since been saved from further erosion, recorded, and conserved, and is now housed in the North Coast Visitor Centre in Thurso (previously Caithness Horizons).

Ulbster’s second stone was discovered by Fiona Begg Wade this past September. While she was cleaning turf and soil off a row of flat burial-markers, she realised that they had not been recorded during a previous survey of the burial ground 30 years before. The first few stones had more modern inscriptions or no apparent markings at all, but one bore a pattern that she immediately recognised as Pictish.

Professor Gordon Noble from the University of Aberdeen then visited the site, where he confirmed that this was a Pictish stone. In contrast to the original Ulbster Stone, though, this example is a Class I stone, as the symbols do not include a Christian cross or other iconography. It therefore probably dates to between the 5th and 7th centuries AD, before the Picts were converted to this religion.

As the stone is heavily eroded, the full extent of the carvings can only be appreciated using various photographic manipulations (pictured). These have revealed an elaborate double disc and Z-rod decoration at the top of the stone, while further down is the round face of a mirror pattern. The reverse side of the stone has yet to be seen, so more carvings may well be revealed in due course.

The stone was lifted from the site in the beginning of November and is currently drying out in a covered workshop awaiting conservation, which is being overseen by Yarrows Heritage SCIO. It is hoped that following this process, it will join the Ulbster Stone on display at the North Coast Visitor Centre.