Monday, 14 July 2014

Pictish Charm-Stones

This article was published in SPIN 68 Summer 2014

One of my favourite pastimes in Orkney is beachcombing; I search for things which appeal to me because they are attractive or unusual or because they may be useful.  I usually waddle home with pockets bulging with sandy treasures!

A while ago I attended a fieldtrip with Orkney Archaeology Society to look for flints at the Pool of Cletts (a beach on South Ronaldsay – one of the linked south isles).  Flint does not occur naturally in Orkney, so any used in prehistory would either have been imported or must have been washed up on the various beaches.  We were instructed in flint identification by a geologist and our aim was to  investigate whether there might have been sufficient flint being washed up to explain the quantities of flint found in excavation (because if there wasn’t, it was a possible indicator that the flint would have had to have been imported, and hence traded, in prehistory).

I didn’t find any flint!  What I found were some iridescent shells, a lump of red sandstone in the shape of a romantic heart, and lots of lucky stones with natural holes in them.  Everyone else, without exception, found flint.  I stood smiling to excuse my eccentric collection ... the geologist even took pity on me and let me have some of his flint as a consolation prize ... it was one of my more Moomintroll moments.

As a fully paid up Pagan, my home is full of crystals and rocks all quietly buzzing away ... they bring me luck and keep me safe and look pretty.   These beliefs are old beliefs and I’m sure my magpie-tendencies would have been recognised by our ancestors because I have noted that white quartzite stones turn up at all manner of prehistoric sites – there seems to have been an almost archetypal attraction for them, most famously perhaps on the facade at Newgrange, Ireland. 

The class of artefact called charm-stones, or cold-stones, are especially interesting.  Charm-stones are found in northern Scotland and the northern islands, and date from the first millennium AD, (commonly referred to as the Pictish period which lies between when the Iron Age finishes c.300AD and the Viking period begins c.800AD).  They are made from quartzite pebbles about 20mm by 55mm in size.  About 20 examples are known and several have been found in Orkney, particularly from the site of Buckquoy in Birsay (and on display in the Orkney Museum, Tankerness House, Broad Street, Kirkwall).  All known charm-stones have been painted with simple designs using a pigment which now presents as dark brown in colour.  The motifs include dots, wavy lines, small circles, pentacles, crescents, and triangles; hence, they are also known simply as “painted pebbles”.

It is generally believed that these charm-stones had a magical nature.  Perhaps they were lucky sling-stones or stones used for healing?  There is a long and rich tradition of curing-stones that could be used to heal and such beliefs are documented throughout the Highlands and Islands of Scotland in the medieval period.  This tradition has subsequently been immortalised in folklore and even referenced as being practiced within living memory.  In Orkney, several of my “indigenous” friends tell me they used to collect “lucky” white quartz stones from the beach when they were bairns. 

These are the Pictish Charm-Stones on display in the Orkney Museum

Often the curative qualities of the stones are associated with early Christian saints.  For example St Columba was said to have cured King Bridei of Pictland with a white stone pebble in 565AD.  There are also the Curing-Stones of St Fillan (Perthshire) and St Molio (Arran), and the “Blessed Stones” of the Isle of Bute.   The treatment was made effective either through the stone(s) being carried or more often by the stone(s) being placed or boiled in water or milk and the resultant liquid being used to treat the patient or drunk as a potion.

Although the pigment used to decorate these stones has not been accurately analysed, it is possible that the dye used would have been a natural one such as haematite.  I have experimented with making my own copies using powdered haematite mixed with a natural fixative (the latter in the form of beaten egg).  The results are quite true to the original and the pigment has stayed on the stones even after several years.  Powdered haematite can be purchased from art shops – although you’ll probably have to order it in as it mainly has a specialist use in icon painting today.
My own copies of Pictish Charm-Stones
I’m going to carry on placing my faith in lucky stones, because they seem to have worked so far in my life and it is a fine tradition with an impeccable lineage.  And I refuse to curb my inner Moomintroll which insists on taking a childish delight in wild things found at random.  At Iona earlier this year, I sought and brought back several lovely examples of Iona marble, a natural serpentine mixed with quartz which makes a very attractive white and green stone, often polished by the sea.  You have to walk right to the south of Iona to find it, as it only washes up on Columba’s Bay, so the journey becomes a bit of a pilgrimage as this is an ancient pathway and a bit treacherous in places.  It is said that if you carry a piece of Iona marble you will never drown ... I gifted a piece to one of my more cynical friends who assured me that the magic was working as he had had several baths since and hadn’t drowned once!