Standing Stone: OS Grid Reference – NO 27332 39760
Also Known as:
- Canmore ID 30545
- High Keillor
- Symbol Stone
Take the minor road that runs from the small town of Newtyle (in Angus) westwards to Kettins (in Perthshire). Less than a mile on, go up the first turn-off on your left to Kinpurnie Castle and continue (past the castle) for less than a mile. Keep your eyes peeled on the right-hand side of the road, opposite the drive to High Keillor – and you can’t really miss it!
Archaeology & History
A fascinating site in an excellent setting. Here we have a 6-7 foot tall standing stone living upon a what is most probably a Bronze Age tumulus (possibly neolithic, but we aint sure), on whose south-face were carved a series of Pictish symbols many many centuries ago. In the surrounding district there is a vast wealth of similar sites (and many destroyed, like the lost Hill of Ballunie stone circle only a few hundred yards along the road), highlighting that this region was very important indeed to the prehistoric peoples of Strathmore and the Sidlaw Hills.
The Keillor stone was described and illustrated by several of the giant Scottish antiquarians. When James Skene visited the site in the 1830s, the tumulus upon which the stone stands was still pretty complete, as his old drawing from 1832 clearly shows. Since then the track beside the monument has widened and the road took away half of the burial mound. But the place has lost little of its majesty.
Another 19th century historian, William Oliphant (1875), when describing the beauty and history of the Sidlaw Hills, below whose edges the old hamlet of Keillor stands, told of this,
“old and striking monument, making the spot on which it stands historical, though no syllable of the history has come down to us. It is, one writer says, “one of those remarkable sculptured monuments of the ancient inhabitants of Scotland, embellished, in this instance, with the rude outline of the boar.” Another writer says, “at Baldowrie there is an erect Danish monument six feet high. It contains some figures, but they are almost entirely defaced.”
In John Stuart’s (1856) superb magnum opus he told that this carved pillar with “a boar” on it, standing on an ancient “tumulus of earth and stones” was found to have evidence of several burials inside when a dig at the site occurred which, he told, “I was present (at) in the autumn of 1854.” He described the site as follows:
“The Stone at Keillor is placed on a tumulus on the north slope of the Hill of Keillor, in the Parish of Newtyle, and Shire of Forfar. It is a rough stone, formed of gneiss, convex in front, and rugged behind. The tumulus on which it is placed is formed of earth and stones, and several cists containing bones have been found in it. Ancient sepulchral remains have also been dug up in various parts of the adjoining field.
“The stone was broken across some years ago about a foot above the ground, but the parts have recently been clasped together, and the stone replaced in its original site by orders of Lord Wharncliffe. The present drawing was made with much care by Dr. Wise, and is more perfect than the copy in Mr. Chalmers’ volume. The surface of the stone is so rough, that it is sometimes with difficulty that the incised lines can be satisfactorily distinguished from natural fissures, but having examined the stone in a variety of lights, and compared Dr. Wise’s sketch with the original, I am inclined to think that the drawing is as satisfactory as can now be obtained. There is a rough sketch of the stone among Dr. Hibbcrt’s papers, with a supposed Gaelic inscription at the top, meaning “the burying place of the slain,” furnished to Dr. Hibbert by the late Mr. Donald Gregory. Of such inscription 1 could see no trace.”
And as far as I am aware, this Gaelic inscription has not subsequently been recorded. But considering the position of the stone in the landscape, it’s understandable if some of the carvings have eroded away by simple weathering. Indeed, when Paul Hornby and I visited here only a couple of weeks ago, despite the weather conditions being excellent, the carvings were difficult to make out. Modern interpretations differ between the topmost animal carving being either a wolf or a boar. Below this we see the more common Pictish symbol described as a double disc and Z-rod symbol, for which academia still struggles to afford cogent explanations.
Whilst the prehistoric age of the tumulus on which this stone stands is not in doubt, we don’t know exactly when this stone was first erected here. Whilst some of the early accounts—including the Ordnance Survey team who first visited here in 1860—describe it in an upright position, when A.J. Warden (1880) wrote about it in his massive survey of the region, he noted that wasn’t always the case:
“On the north slope of the Hill of Keillor, in the parish of Newtyle, there is a rough stone composed of gneiss, somewhat convex in front but rugged behind. It is placed on a tumulus formed of earth and stones, and several cists containing bones were found in it; while, in the adjoining field, ancient sepulchral remains have also been found. The stone was broken across about a foot from the ground, but the parts have been again united and the stone replaced on its original site. On the stone there is the figure of an animal, below which are the spectacle and other symbols, all incised.”
The stone presently stands on a modern plinth to protect it from the elements and such things. It was erroneously described in the Royal Commission’s 1999 survey of Pictish monuments as being just “1.4m in height”, whereas it is in fact some 6½ feet tall, or around 1.98m.
The view from here, east, north and west is superb. The high rolling hills of Angus stretch into the north and eastern skies; whilst more westerly are the grand olde mountain ridges into deepest Perthshire. And looking northwestwards from our old standing stone, one shapely mountain in particular is notable, standing out upon the ridge of distant hills: a great pyramid which I initially thought may have been Ben Vorlich. But thanks to the help of several local people, have found that it is in fact Schiehallion – the great Mountain of the Fairy Folk, about 50 miles away! Some folk think that it may have had relevance in the animistic formula of this monument—and I’ll hazard that it did too…
…to be continued…
- Allen, J. Romilly, Early Christian Monuments of Scotland, 1903.
- Coutts, Herbert, Ancient Monuments of Tayside, Dundee Museum 1970.
- Guthrie, James C., The Vale of Strathmore – Its Scenes and Legends, William Peterson: Edinburgh 1875.
- Jervise, Andrew, Epitaphs and Inscriptions from Burial Grounds and Old Buildings in the North-East of Scotland – volume 1, Edmonston & Douglas: Edinburgh 1875.
- Mack, Alastair L., Field guide to the Pictish symbol stones, Pinkfoot Press 1997.
- MacPherson, J.G., Strathmore: Past and Present, S. Cowan: Perth 1885.
- Marshall, William, Historic Scenes of Forfarshire, William Oliphant: Edinburgh 1875.
- Royal Commission on the Ancient & Historical Monuments of Scotland, South-East Perth: An Archaeological Landscape, HMSO: Edinburgh 1994.
- Royal Commission on the Ancient & Historical Monuments of Scotland, Pictish Symbol Stones: A Gazetteer, Edinburgh 1999.
- Stuart, John, Sculptured Stones of Scotland – volume 1, Spalding Club: Aberdeen & Edinburgh 1856.
- Sutherland, Elizabeth, A Guide to Pictish Stones, Birlinn: Edinburgh 1997.
- Warden, Alex J., Angus or Forfarshire: The Land and People – Descriptive and Historical – volumes 1, Charles Alexander: Dundee 1880.
© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian