The Saint Martin Pictish Stone at Ulbster
A NEW PICTISH STONE APPEARS IN CAITHNESS
New Pictish stones keep being discovered. Important contributions to the corpus of Pictish Art in recent years have been the Conan Stone in 2020 and the new Aberlemno stone in March 2022. Now a new Pictish stone has emerged from the same burial ground in Caithness in which the Ulbster Stone was found in 1770. This stone was found by a local resident with an interest in Family History, is being managed now by Yarrows Heritage, and will be offered to Thurso museum (North Coast Visitor Centre) to sit alongside the original Ulbster Stone. To distinguish the two, it will be called by the name of the burial ground: St Martin’s Stone.
The Finding of the Stone
Fiona Begg Wade now lives in Thurso but was brought up in the village of Ulbster on the coast just south of Wick. With her background in Family History, and her love of the burial ground near where she used to play as a child, she started to record the memorial inscriptions of the burial markers in the old St Martin’s Burial Ground at Ulbster. Separated from the village by a low hill, the burial ground near Ulbster Mains farm used to surround an old chapel, of which no trace now exists. In the early 18th century, a mausoleum for the Sinclair family was built in the burial ground, perhaps on the site of the former old chapel. It bears the inscription 1700 on the weathervane. The burial ground bears the name of St Martin, probably the saint name of the chapel
In early September 2022 Fiona was in the burial ground cleaning turf and soil off some of the burial markers, better to see the inscriptions. This is her description of the finding of the stone:
“On one visit to Ulbster Burial Ground I felt something underfoot, and after removing a little of the soil I uncovered a flat gravestone. This gravestone had an inscription for someone who belonged to my family tree. I continued to remove more soil and uncovered more stones. Not all the flat stones had inscriptions, half of them were blank. There were two ladies who had recorded most of the cemeteries in Caithness over thirty years ago. I use their books all the time. These gravestones were not visible at that time, so they had not recorded them. I wanted to photograph and record them. I was working along the row of stones that I had uncovered when I came to a flat stone that was mostly under the soil. While brushing away the soil I noticed some wavy lines, my first thought was that this one had an inscription. Once it was fully uncovered the pattern stood out, it looked amazing. I knew that it was a Pictish stone.”
Fiona involved her daughter’s partner, Hamish Lamley of Pictavia Leather in Perth, who has experience of Pictish markings, and he confirmed that the markings were Pictish. He knew Professor Gordon Noble of Aberdeen University, who then came up to have a look at the stone. Professor Noble confirmed that this was a Pictish stone. So, another Pictish stone has been uncovered in St Martin’s Burial Ground at Ulbster, matching the one previously found there in 1770, which is now on display in the North Coast Visitor Centre (previously Caithness Horizons) in Thurso.
The first Ulbster Stone
Quoting from Highland Council’s Historic Environment Record, this first Ulbster Stone “once stood in the ancient burial ground attached to the ruined church of St Martin at Ulbster and was subsequently placed over a grave there which assisted in the defacement of one side. At some other unknown date, it was removed and placed upright on an artificial mound in the grounds of Thurso Castle where its exposed position (especially front face turned to Castle and sea) led to further defacement of the sculpture; the front has also been mutilated in the upper third with modern inscription in Gothic letters 'The Ulbster Stone' by which name it is also known”. This fine Class II decorated Pictish Stone is now housed within the Thurso Visitor Centre.
The early history of this newly discovered second stone from the same burial ground is unknown. The decoration is simpler, suggesting that it is earlier, between the 5th & 7th centuries. In the jargon of Pictish stones this would be a Class I stone, ie containing Pictish symbols but not a Christian cross or iconography. Presumably it stood erect somewhere, before it was laid alongside other re-arranged burial markers on the east side of the Burial Ground. We don’t know whether the stone was originally erected as a Pictish stone at this site, or whether it was one of several upright stones within the curtilage of the hallowed space, or whether it was brought from elsewhere. From its position, packed tightly in a row of other large stones, and its lack of inscription, it may be that it was never used as a burial marker. This contrasts with the Conan Stone, found in similar circumstances in a burial ground in Conon Bridge, Easter Ross in 2020, which had been re-used as a grave marker and bears the names of two individuals who died in 1797. ©
As with all Pictish stones, we still can only guess what message was in the symbols. Despite much research, we really don’t know what the repeated Pictish symbols meant.
The Stone itself
Much of the detail that follows comes from a report provided by Professor Gordon Noble of Aberdeen University who visited the stone and its environs on 28th September.
“The stone lies as a grave marker in a row of gravestones on the east side of the 18* century Sinclair mausoleum (Canmore ID 9031) which stands at the centre of the St Martin’s Burial Ground at ND 33579 41859. The stone is max 1.83m high, 0.7m wide and 0.16m deep. The upper surface is partly delaminated”, meaning that much of the fine detail of the carving is lost. The symbols on the upper surface of the stone have been much weathered and have now lost the crispness still seen on the first Ulbster symbol stone. However, by using certain photographic techniques the symbols can be highlighted.
“The symbols are an elaborate double disc and Z-rod at the top of the stone, and a mirror further down the face. The double disc is damaged with the lower part of the Z-rod missing. The upper part of the Z-rod has a very well-formed termination, in the form of an elaborate 'U'. The handle of the mirror is deeply incised, but the round face of the mirror is only traceable in certain lights. Other symbols (and perhaps a comb) could have been present on parts of the stone now delaminated.”
The four images below show the results of various photo-manipulations designed to enhance the inscriptions, with a final line drawing of the symbols, courtesy of Professor Noble and Douglas Ledingham.
This is what John Borland, immediate past President of the Pictish Arts Society, says of the stone:
“Caithness is home to significantly fewer Pictish symbol stones than neighbouring Sutherland. This may in part be due to the acquisitive habits of successive Dukes of Sutherland who actively sought and collected Pictish sculpture in Sutherland. Therefore, a new symbol stone from Caithness is a significant discovery and an important addition to that county's corpus.
Its location, St Martin's Chapel, Ulbster is also notable. The Ulbster Stone, a Pictish cross slab was discovered there in 1770. The correlation of an incised symbol stone and a symbol-bearing cross slab from the same location arguably reinforces the theory that Pictish Christian chapels were often deliberately established on existing pre-Christian ritual sites. This discovery will keep archaeologists and art historians busy for some time to come.”
Present and Intended Management of the Stone
The stone has weathered considerably in its current position in the burial ground, facing upwards. Also, once its identity and location become known, there is the potential for further un-solicited excavation and disturbance. This Pictish stone is a national art treasure that needs to be preserved for future generations. For all those reasons the professional archaeologists involved in its discovery – Professor Noble (Aberdeen University, Kirsty Cameron (Highland Council Archaeologist) and John Borland (previous President Pictish Arts Society) – agree that it should be lifted from the burial ground, stored in a safe place, cleaned and conserved by professional stone conservators and then displayed in a public place.
The stone was lifted from its site in the Burial Ground on 5th November and is now resting and drying out in a covered workshop, pending conservation. The stone has not yet been turned over, so the under-side has not been seen. We await that view with some excitement.
Yarrows Heritage SCIO was asked to manage the process described above. We said yes, although we do not yet have the money to do all the work needed for the stone. We are therefore embarking on a fund-raising campaign.
Donations to our Paypal account can be made here:
Yarrows Heritage SCIO
Thrumster House, Thrumster, Caithness