The Pictish Stones of Raasay

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The high-resolution photo of the standing stone taken during the 1914 survey

Above North Bay, you may have noticed the secluded alcove of trees just off the road that holds the recognisable and somewhat mysterious standing stone. With its picturesque location and weathered appearance you would be forgiven to think of it having stood there since time In Memoriam and placed by, we might imagine, the peoples who created and revered it. However, this is not the case.

 

In the early 20th century, widespread concerns over the possible destruction of important landmarks and monuments were being increasingly raised. As a result of this, The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments and Constructions of Scotland (RCAHMS) was established to survey and record such historical artifacts and first arrived on Raasay in 1914 to conduct a painstaking survey of all historical monuments on the island. In their survey they described the stone as such:

“…a dressed slab of stone 4 feet 8 inches long, I foot 9 inches broad, and 6 inches thick, bearing on the upper part of one face a cross of the same type as the example at the pier (No. 581) with the tuning fork and crescent with divergent floriated rod Symbols below. This stone originally stood near the pier.

We know now that the standing stone is an example of a Class II Pictish stone, which are defined by their relatively rectangle shape, the presence of a Christian cross as well as possible Pictish or Christian symbols and motifs. Although we can’t be sure of an exact date, Class II stones tend to date from the 8th to the 9th century.

The slab is said to have been found when James MacLeod of Raasay (1761-1823) was building the road from the “landing-place” (The Old Pier) to Raasay House. The stone was in actual fact only discovered meters away from a cross stone carving by the Battery at the Old Pier. Upon discovery, James MacLeod had the stone erected in the conifer plantation where it still stands to this day. It’s generally accepted to be a depiction of the Chi-Ro, an early Christian symbol that combined the first two letters from the Greek word for “Christ” (ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ). It’s one of the earliest examples of this monogram, called a Christogramm and is found in different forms on many Pictish stones. There also appears to be a “tuning fork” and a “crescent-and-V-rod symbol” depicted below the squared chi-ro symbol. There is also evidence of significant flaking and chipping, which seem to have occurred both before and after carving 

A Series of Stones?

The Rock with the Chi-Rho carving clearly visible
The Rock with the Chi-Rho carving clearly visible

While the solitary stone is now a famous landmark on Raasay, it is not the only one of its kind. The area around the old pier where it was found is home to several other examples of Pictish symbols, all from apparently the same time. Although now faded and worn though the passage of time, the most prominent and visible of these is the aforementioned “Cross Incised Rock”, carved into the natural outcrop that forms part of The Battery. Ironically, it was this carving that was the more well known and studied inscription, though now it is relatively unknown compared to the more prominent standing stone. On his visit to the Island in the 1700s, Boswell describes the rock as such:

“On one of the rocks just where we landed, which are not high ones, there is a rudely drawn a square with a crusifix in the middle, where it is said theLaird of Raasay in old times used to offer up his devotions. I could not but kneel upon the spot and gratefully remember the death of Christ, uttering a short prayer. This I did the morning I left Raasay, while the family accompanied us to the shore; but nobody could imagine that I was doing anything more than attentivley satisfying my curiosity”

The Chi-Rho cross on the rock Boswell saw.
The carved Chi-Rho cross that Boswell saw.

Boswell later made two attempts to draw this cross in his diary, but one was blotted and the other scored out. While the similarities between the two carvings are clear, there has been debate as to the dating of each of the stones.  To quote the RCAHMS:

 “Crosses of this type are dated by Curle (C L Curle 1940) to the second half of the 7th century, but see Radford (C R Radford 1942) and Stevenson who criticise this paper, and Galbraith (1933) who gives a second half of the 6th century date on the suggestion that it is connected with St. Moluag’s mission to Raasay”

This is referring to St Moluags, the nearby chapel that was also mentioned in Boswell’s tour of Raasay along with the cross. Boswell mentions that the cross specifically was the place where the Macleods of Raasay once practiced their devotions and was noted by him as one of the “St. Maol-luags” sanctuary markers. The standing stone itself was found some 90 meters away from this cross inscription as the road for the landing pier was being built.

Finally, there is an intriguing reference to a second standing stone that was uncovered and removed from where it was found. Much like the standing stone placed in the plantation near Temptation Hill, two sources make reference to a “Sculptured Stone” or “Standing Stone” found in the late 19th century:  “Immediately South of Torr Iain Ghairbh [Historical site of Raasay House], a sculptured stone was found in 1846, which is presently placed in an upright position near the East end of Raasay House. This rough granite slab bears on one side in relief what appears to commemorate one of the stages of the Passion of Christ, and is possibly one of the eight crosses referred to by Boswell as St Maol-luag’s chapel sanctuary markers“. The stone is said to have been removed from where it was ‘set up’ sometime between 1877 and 1904. Since then, it’s neither been accounted for nor sighted and all inquiries have turned up negative. Interesting to think of a giant stone simply disappearing, though it could have suffered from simply breaking during transit to sadly being broken down, possibly mistaken for worthless stone. Either way, it’s a real shame to think such an amazing piece of history going missing in such a way.

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A sketch of the standing stone, showing the visible area and features. Note the damage to the left side.

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