Friday, 28 September 2012


   When I first moved to Europe, I used to look up at big French cathedrals and wonder if the people who grew up with old statues of monsters walking down the walls towards them had some small, but fundamental difference about them.  Though I paint and etch very small things, I am fascinated by big art, by gigantic art that has a place in the everyday lives of a community or a city.  Even the most basic street art has a little thrill... that they managed to get their tag across the whole train(!), that this morning is a little bit unlike all the other mornings in the Métro, because now we are all swallowed up inside a pink belly and spat out at work, rather than just being jostled into a dirty and smelly, grey train car moving through a dark tunnel.

    In Aberdeen, there is not too much art spontaneously appearing on the streets.  We are filmed at every turn here and sometimes even voice recorded.  But, there are the lovely, old, sculpted, grey granite buildings and there's the monochromatic unity of the city, which certainly has an impact.  And in the countryside too, there are old sculpted stones that have been standing in place for longer than memory.

   A few weeks back, on one of our mushroom-hunting expeditions, we went a little further down the road to see a Pictish standing stone called the Maiden Stone.  This is a well-known sculpted stone in this part of Scotland and for a long time we'd been wanting to stop by and have a look, but sometimes not having a car does have some downsides.  These days, the stone is in a small, fenced enclosure by the roadside, but it still inspires awe.  Over a thousand years standing at the foot of a mountain and it stands firmly in the imagination of the people of this area as well.

   This stone is one of many Pictish stones in Scotland's northeast.  The front is carved with a depiction of a man standing between two fish, which may be a representation of Jonah.  Below this is a Celtic cross, and at the bottom of the stone there is an elaborate circular knot-work design.  Going down the back of the stone are centaurs and a dog, a z-rod, a Pictish beast which looks like a stylized dolphin, and then a mirror and comb.  These symbols are found on other Pictish stones, and it is possible to learn some things from them.  For example, the beast could be related to dragons found on brooches that were imported from far away lands, and we can see also that Christianity was coming into the picture and mixing with the pagan symbols.  But no one really knows what any of it meant, or why this stone was erected.  It could have been a boundary marker, maybe.

   And while the mysterious origins of this stone are very intriguing, equally interesting are the stories that have grown up about the stone.  If you listen to the the local legends, there is another origin for the Maiden Stone:  A beautiful young woman was changed into this stone as she tried to escape marriage to the Devil.  Some stories claim it was God that transformed her, more stories say it was the Devil himself, but all stories seem to agree that the cleft in the stone was made as the Devil grabbed at the woman's shoulder as she ran away.  Rather than giving summaries, two wonderful stories about it can be heard told by Stanley Robertson here and a shorter version told by Lucy Stewart here, and there are many more on that site (which has songs and stories recorded from all around Scotland). There are of course other versions on the tongues of people still living around here.

   It seems clear that art attracts more art.  I am so thankful that there are stones like this one standing out in the rain for people with sticks in their hair and dirt on their hands to look at and dream about on the way homeward.  And I wonder what ideas we will leave behind us for people to think on in a thousand years... stories, painted walls, songs, statues...


  1. I love carved stones, this one is interesting with the notch in the side. Looks beautifully detailed. Someday I want to go on a pilgrimage to visit all the different standing stones of my ancestors. I wonder what the stick-haired and dirty handed folks do when the return home? I imagine that in the olden days, before the light died, they'd carve or spin or weave or spin and sing tales... now, TV, no doubt, and what a pitty.

  2. Oh, on closer observation, I see that that notch is probably not intentional, but broken off.

  3. I love the ancient stones, cave paintings and pteroglyps etc. left by the peoples of so very long ago. It's wonderful that so many of the stones are still standing, still honouring the old stories and inspiring new. I envy that you live so close to them. Then again, in the New World there are petroglyphs and pictographs. I've seen a few of the ones done by the west coast First Nations and have felt the thrill of them.

  4. What a wonderful monument. With me all things seem to lean Meso so of course it reminds me of the Mayan stele. The carvings are so strange, the dolphin appears Roman, as does the comb and mirror; yet the swirling ornament does remind one of Celtish knots. You are lucky to have such treasures, luckier still to manage without a car, I haven't yet dared!

  5. what a beautiful post! it is so strange to see these solid works of art that have been standing so long and have to guess at what caused them to come to be... they are so mysterious!
    bizarre to know you are being voice-recorded! creepy, even...
    and i agree, i'm always astonished when i see one of the more artfully covered trains--full of color and character, and *how* did they manage it??