Beatles on the radio, stones in the head, the builders are going to work. Got to Get You Into My Life finds an answering fanfare from the daffodils on the edges as the van growls.
They park near the Aberlemno Town Hall. There is work to be done. The Pictish monoliths for which this corner of Angusis is known spend the winter in wooden shelters, protected from frost. Now, the stonemasons of Historic Environment Scotland are uncovering them for spring.
Three by the roadside, a fourth in the churchyard, the stones have stood here or around for up to 1,500 years and now – after a quick job with screwdrivers and ladders – their faces are exposed to another season of light.
As the sun rises, the shadows recede and the carvings are revealed: a serpent, a centaur, and symbols of unknown meaning that experts refer to as the Z-rod and V-rod. The most impressive stone depicts a battle: a stone crow feasts on the corpse of a slain king while, in the trees overhanging the Aberlemno cemetery, his living descendants caw and caw.
Who sculpted these wonders? The people of what is now north-east Scotland, whose culture emerged in the late third century and disappeared in the tenth. Pictish land began roughly north of the Forth estuary and had a center of power at Fortriu, a territory around the Moray Firth. The Picts are mysterious. Their language, believed to be similar to Welsh, has been lost. Other languages, other eyes, give them to us. The name comes from the Latin – Picti, means “painted people”, apparently referring to the tattooed warriors the Romans encountered on their empire’s northern frontier.
“Whether it’s Bede or the Romans, everyone writes From the Pitts”, is as playwright David Greig puts it, “but we have nothing from their point of view. So, you almost feel a historical duty to try to imagine yourself in their position.
A trip to Pictish Scotland offers the opportunity to do just that. The journey begins in Edinburgh at the National Museum of Scotland, where I meet Greig.
We go downstairs and find ourselves in a circle of beasts. It’s a display of stones from all over Scotland, each engraved with animals: a Burghead bull, Dores boar, Easterton-of-Roseisle goose and fish.
“Exciting, right?” Greig says. “You cannot help but stand in front of a stone – of which you do not know the meaning – and feel that you may be in contact with the great and vast and wise mystery of ancient peoples. I love the romance of this. I also think it’s bullshit, but I love it.
Pictish stones are more similar. I long to see them in the place where they were made. I travel along the A9, passing hills and fields. A hare hops among the hay bales. A Little Chef, abandoned and decaying, offers a touch of Ozymandias.
The village of Fowlis Wester is not far west of Perth. A red telephone booth, along the path leading to the church, has been used for the sale of eggs. The church itself contains a more impressive treasure: a three-metre sandstone slab carved with a Christian cross and, on the reverse, hunters and warriors.
You feel in touch with the vast mystery of ancient peoples. I love the romance of this. I think it’s bullshit too
“Power and beauty,” says Hamish Lamley when asked what he thinks of the slab. “These monumental stones exude power.”
Hamish is a 31-year-old leatherworker with dreadlocks and an auburn beard that curves out from his chin like a claw. He is covered from neck to toe in tattoos of Pictish designs – snakes and deer, spirals and crescents – taken from stones all over the country. Pittland on the body of a man.
In his nearby workshop, Lamley – which trades as Pictavia Leather – makes clothing and accessories based on archaeological finds and representations on stones. She feels a connection to these mysterious people: a kinship of the hands, working the same patterns with tools of wood, horn and bone. “I etch the symbols every day and there’s nothing else like them on Earth,” she said. “The Pitti craftsmanship was phenomenal. But I’m a missing link in Scottish history. This is what attracts me.
From Perthshire, I continued north to Burghead. This village sits on a squat finger of land that sinks into the Moray Firth. The headland is roughly the same shape as Manhattan, and like Manhattan, the streets are laid out in a grid pattern. There the similarity ends. Curlews and fighter jets fly overhead. Fishing boats dock in the port. The sea and the sky look huge.
Related: Walking with Norwegians on Orkney’s St Magnus Way
This was a Pictish fort from at least the 6th century. The present village was built on top, with hewn stones, in the early 19th century, but you can still get a sense of the massive scale of the ramparts. Was it from here that Fortriu was governed? The fort was destroyed by fire in the late 9th or early 10th century, possibly as a result of a Viking attack. Many stones carved with bulls were found during the construction of the village and the port. Six survive. Two are in the Burghead visitor centre, two in the Elgin Museum and one in the National Museum of Scotland. The best is in the British Museum, a long way from the herd.
Dan Ralph takes me to the visitor center. He is known in Burghead as King Clavie: the principal figure in an annual fire ritual in which a burning barrel of tar is carried through the streets and set ablaze on what were once the fort’s ramparts. It is one of Scotland’s great attractions and may have been one of the great attractions of the Pictish region. Ralph, who is 74, believes he has his roots in some local ceremony a long time ago. The Picts may seem strange to us, but for King Clavie they are simply his ancestors.
“I am very proud,” he says, “of having a place of distant heritage as my homeland. It makes me feel a strong sense of identity. Oh yes.
Kilmorie House, a handsome Victorian mansion in Elgin, has four B&B rooms (doubles from £86). A former coach house in the grounds offers additional accommodation, which can be self-catering (£135 for two, £140 for three, £150 for four), or guests can have breakfast in the main house. The furnishings are appropriate to the age and character of the house: longcase clocks, stag antlers, real fires, old paintings and maps. The Elgin Museum, where two of the Burghead bulls can be seen, is a short walk away. Burghead is about 20 minutes by car.
Where to eat
Smugglers Bar & Grill, built from recycled shipping containers, overlooks the Moray Firth from the West Beach trailer park in the coastal village of Hopeman, so some people are lucky enough to spot a pod of bottlenose dolphins while eating their chips. Fish is a speciality, much of which is locally sourced. A sister restaurant, The Bothy Bistroit is located a short drive away in Burghead itself and has an excellent reputation.
Many thanks to Professor Gordon Noble for help with this story. His book Pitti: Scourge of Rome, Sovereigns of the Northconscript with Nicola EvansAND published by Birlinn (£22)