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On the lookout for the Picts, \”A Missing Link in Ancient Scottish History,\” Scotland Vacations, The Guardian.

Photo by Z S on Unsplash

Beatles on the radio, stones on their mind, the masons are on their way to work. Got to Get You Into My Life finds an answering fanfare from daffodils on the verges as the van growls past.

They park by Aberlemno village hall. There is a job to be done. The Pictish monoliths for which this nook in Angusis known spend winter in wooden shelters, protected against frost. Now, Historic Environment Scotland stonemasons are uncovering them for spring.

Three at the roadside, a fourth in the churchyard, the stones have stood here or hereabouts for up to 1,500 years, and now – after quick work with screwdrivers and stepladders – their faces are exposed to another season in the light.

As the sun climbs, shadows retreat and the carvings are revealed: a serpent, a centaur, and symbols of unknown meaning that experts call Z-rods and V-rods. The most impressive stone depicts a battle: a stone crow feasts on the corpse of a slain king while, in trees overhanging Aberlemno’s churchyard, its living descendants rattle and caw.

A journey in Pictish Scotland offers an opportunity to do just that. The trip begins in Edinburgh at the National Museum of Scotland, where I meet Greig.

We go downstairs and stand within a circle of beasts. It’s a display of stones from around Scotland, each bearing inscribed animals: a bull from Burghead, a boar from Dores, a goose and fish from Easterton-of-Roseisle.

“Exciting, isn’t it,” Greig says. “You can’t help but stand in front of a stone – that you don’t know the meaning of – and feel that you might be in contact with the great and vast and wise mystery of ancient peoples. I love the romanticism of that. I also think it’s bollocks, but I do love it.”

Pictish stones are more-ish. I crave seeing them in the place where they were made. I drive up the A9, passing hills and fields. A hare jinks between hay bales. A Little Chef, abandoned and decaying, offers an Ozymandias touch.

The village of Fowlis Wester is not far west of Perth. A red telephone box, by the path to the church, has been repurposed 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 back, hunters and warriors.

“Power and beauty,” says Hamish Lamley when asked what he feels about the slab. “These monumental stones ooze power.”

Hamish is a 31-year-old leatherworker with dreadlocks and a coppery beard curving from his chin like a talon. He is covered, neck to foot, with tattoos of Pictish designs – snakes and stags, spirals and crescents – taken from stones around the country. Pictland on one man’s body.

In his nearby workshop, Lamley – who trades as Pictavia Leather – makes clothing and accessories based on archaeological finds and representations on stones. He feels a connection with these mysterious people – a kinship of the hands, working the same patterns with tools of wood, antler and bone. “I carve the symbols daily and there is nothing else like them on Earth,” he said. “Pictish craftsmanship was phenomenal. But they are a missing link in Scottish history. That’s what draws me in.”

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From Perthshire, I carried on north to Burghead. This village is on a stubby finger of land poking into the Moray Firth. The promontory is roughly the same shape as Manhattan, and like Manhattan, the streets are arranged as a grid. There the resemblance ends. Curlews and fighter jets fly overhead. Fishing boats bob in the harbour. Sea and sky feel enormous.

This was a Pictish fort from at least the sixth century. The present village was built on top, with scavenged stone, in the early 19th century, but it is still possible to get a sense of the massive scale of the ramparts. Was it from here that Fortriu was ruled? The fort was destroyed by fire in the late ninth or early 10th century, probably through Viking attack. During construction of the village and harbour, many stones carved with bulls were found. Six survive. Two are in the Burghead visitor centre, two in 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 accompanies me to the visitor centre. He is known in Burghead as the Clavie King: the leading figure in an annual fire ritual in which a burning tar barrel is carried through the streets and set properly ablaze on what were once the ramparts of the fort. It is one of the great sights of Scotland and may have been one of the great sights of Pictland. Ralph, who is 74, believes that it has its roots in some ceremony of the long-ago folk of this place. The Picts may seem strange to us, but for the Clavie King they are simply his ancestors.

“I’m very proud,” he says, “to have as my homeland a place of distant heritage. It makes me feel a strong sense of identity. Oh aye.”

Kilmorie House, a handsome Victorian villa in Elgin, has four B&B rooms (doubles from £86). A former carriage house in the grounds offers additional accommodation, which can be self-catering (£135 for two guests, £140 for three, £150 for four), or guests can take breakfast in the main house. Furnishings are appropriate to the age and character of the house: longcase clocks, stag antlers, real fires, old paintings and maps. Elgin Museum, where two of the Burghead bulls can be seen, is a short walk away. Burghead is about 20 minutes by car.

Bootleggers Bar & Grill, built from recycled shipping containers, looks out over the Moray Firth from West Beach caravan park in the seaside village of Hopeman, so some people are lucky enough to spot a pod of bottlenose dolphins as they eat their chips. Seafood is a speciality, much of it sourced locally. A sister restaurant, The Bothy Bistro, is a short drive away in Burghead itself and has a fine reputation.

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