St Vigeans Pictish Stones Conserved With Laser Technology

By Caroline Lewis | 15 February 2008
photo of a stone carved with a cross decorated with Celtic patterns

New research on the stones suggests that St Vigeans was an important monastic site. Courtesy Historic Scotland

Pictish treasures from a village in Angus are being treated with the latest laser technology to record and conserve them.

The carved stones, which date back to the decades before the nation of Scotland was born in the 9th century, depict ornate Christian crosses and fantastic beasts and bear both Latin and Pictish writing (the latter now indecipherable).

Further study of the stones, from St Vigeans near Arbroath, are being carried out while the village’s museum undergoes a major upgrade. It’s an excellent opportunity to clean them and let experts have a fresh look at the 38 stones and fragments in Edinburgh, explained Stephen Gordon, Historic Scotland senior conservator.

“This included using special laser techniques that are superb for removing dirt, or other unwanted materials, without affecting the stones themselves. These works are painstaking, but ultimately very satisfying.”

photo of a carved stone depicting animals and patterns

The Picts were known for their mysterious and rich language of symbols, and their name comes from the Latin for 'painted people'. Courtesy Historic Scotland

The new research strongly suggests that the small village of St Vigeans was once home to an important royal monastery, and has also cast new light on the religious beliefs of the Picts.

The stones are a great early Christian treasure of Angus. They include the Drosten Stone, a cross slab with ornate cross and fantastic beasts, plus a rare Latin and Pictish inscription which might have commemorated King Uoret who died around 842AD. In 843AD, the Pictish kingdom was united with Gaelic Dalriada under a single monarch – leading to the birth of Scotland.

photo of an ornately carved cross in stone

The Picts were Christian converts, with their own saints such as Drostan appearing to have a wide following. Courtesy Historic Scotland

“The stones are among the last and very finest expressions of Pictish art, which makes them tremendously important,” said Peter Yeoman, Historic Scotland senior archaeologist.

“These large stone crosses would originally have been set up as monuments, boundary markers and gravestones on the church hill at St Vigeans. We have known for some time the area was an important royal centre, but the latest thinking is that the high-quality carvings, with scriptural images, indicate that there was not just a church but an important monastery under royal patronage at St Vigeans.”

“It may also have been a significant pilgrimage centre, perhaps due to the presence of relics of the Irish St Fechin, from who the village took its name,” added Peter.

Back in the 9th century Arbroath was a small port serving the needs of the more important settlement at St Vigeans.

photo of a long single storey building

The museum at St Vigeans will provide much better access for visitors from 2009. Courtesy Historic Scotland

The human detail in the carvings, telling us about how the Picts lived, also make the collection special. There are rare details like St Paul (not the apostle) and St Antony breaking bread in the desert. Both saints were Desert Fathers who sought a life of purity and worship away from the sinfulness and temptation of ordinary society.

The ideals and practices of these saints were brought from Egypt to Ireland where they had a profound effect on early monasticism. These ideas were then brought to what we now know as Scotland by Irish monks who came to convert the Picts.

It is hoped the stones will be returned by the end of this year with the new-look museum re-opening in time for Easter 2009.

“It’s great to have the chance to modernise the museum so visitors can get the most from the collection,” said Graeme Bell, Historic Scotland district architect. “The refurbishment will provide more space and mean that people can move round the stones and look at them from every angle.”

In contrast to the museum before the upgrade, when keys to it had to be collected from Arbroath Abbey before visiting, a member of staff will always be on hand at the museum in future.

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