Abernethy Round Tower & Symbol Stone

Cover art and photos by Mawie Barrett

“May Brigid bless the house wherein you dwell. Bless every fireside, every wall and door. Bless every heart that beats beneath its roof. Bless every hand that toils to bring it joy. Bless every foot that walks its portals through. May Brigid bless the house that shelters you.”

Gaelic blessing

The Picts were a Celtic tribe that lived to the north of the rivers Forth and Clyde in Scotland during the late Bronze Age early Medieval Age. They had their own language culture, governance and society. They had very close links with the Irish kingdom of the Dál Riata and both societies merged around 900AD and had “wide connections and parallels” with neighbouring communities. Pict is said to mean ‘painted or tattooed people’ and we know from what illustrated Pictish Stones that have survived, that they were very skilled and artistic as a people. The Irish annals record that there were 7 Pictish kingdoms with their centre or capital being in Abernethy in Perth and Kinross. I find them fascinating because it is thought that they practised matrilineal kingship succession. The Picts were farmers, lived in cluster communities and had huge associations with sea pirating.

I was drawn to Abernethy because of the roofless round tower that stands there one of the two remaining in Scotland and one of only four round towers which exist outside of Ireland. There is also an intriguing Pictish Symbol Stone that drew me there, two for the price of one so to speak. I was not disappointed. Standing in the grounds of Kirk Bride – Kirk means Church and Bride is from St Brigid the Irish saint. The church is said to have been founded by Darlugdach, second abbess of Kildare and dedicated to Brigid. The tower stands 74 ft (23 m) high, being built in two stages and said to date from the 11th or 12th century. It has been remodelled as a clock tower which was inserted in the late 1800’s and at its base it a carved Pictish Stone.

Irish poets portrayed their Pictish counterparts as very much like themselves and many of their standing stones have Ogham script. So for a stone mad woman Druid scribe, there are obvious links and things about their sites that would draw me to them. They stem from a polytheistic culture that evolved into Christianity and traditions place Saint Palladius in Pictland after he left Ireland, and link Abernethy with Saint Brigid of Kildare. Pictish art appears on stones, metalwork and small objects of stone and bone. It is La Tène style in style with the Christian symbols being of the Insular Art tradition. The symbols and patterns consist of animals including the Pictish Beast, the “rectangle”, the “mirror and comb”, “double-disc and Z-rod” and the “crescent and V-rod.” In the 8th and 9th centuries, after Christianization, the Pictish elite adopted a particular form of the Celtic brooch from Ireland (similar to the Tara Brooch) and in my mind’s eye I see them fastening their cloaks with same.

It is a quaint little town with many beguiling charms, the least of which is the round tower. The location “Afarnach’s Hall” referred to in the earliest mediaeval Arthurian literature is usually identified as Abernethy. The town has a long and eventful history. There are remains of a petrified hill fort on the outskirts of the village as well as remains of a Pictish fort. The site of a Roman camp is nearby in the river valley. In the 7th century Irish missionaries bringing Columba’s and Brigid’s message from Iona and Kildare settled in Abernethy before Scone became the centre of religious life in the area with its monasteries and religious houses. It was here too that Malcolm III of Scotland paid homage to William the Conqueror after the Battle of Hastings. So it is a place steeped in history and clearly a geographically significant site. Such places fascinate me and I am compelled to dig deeper to peel away the layers to see what is revealed.

So what of this ancient Gaelic named place. “Aber” derives from mouth or fort and the Nethy Burn flows down from the Ochil Hills past the present village. Clearly it means “Fort of the River Nethy” The Monastic Kirk or church was founded by an Irish Abbess closely linked to the Irish St. Brigid of Kildare. Brigid shares her name and feast day (Feb. 1) with a Celtic goddess. It is thought that she was the last high priestess of the goddess Brigid, both Brigid’s are identified as one deity. We know that she was raised by Druids at a time when Christianity was taking hold in Ireland and was ordained a Bishop by St. Mel, Bishop of Ardagh such was her standing. Her monastic settlement in Kildare was a double monastery and welcomed both women and men and was a noted refuge for women. Darlughdach served as Brigid’s ambassador to the Pictish King Nechtan. She was also her “Anam Cara” or soul friend. The two women were so close that they slept in the same bed.

After Brigid turned 70, she warned Darlughdach that she expected to die soon. Her younger soulmate begged to die at the same time. Brigid wanted her to live so she could succeed her as abbess. Brigid died of natural causes on Feb. 1, 525. The bond between the women was so close that Darlughdach followed her soulmate in death some years later on Feb 1st. Nechtan Morbet the Pictish king was said to have reigned for twenty-four years. In the third year of his reign, Darlugdach, abbess of Kildare, came as an exile to Britain for the sake of Christ. The second year after her arrival Nechtan dedicated Abernethy to St. Brigid, and Darlugdach, who was present, shouted Alleluia in respect of that offering. Nechtan had been driven to Ireland during the reign of his brother Drust, and, having sought St. Brigid, she prayed God for him, and promised that if he returned to his country he would possess the kingdom of the Picts in peace. ’ It was for this reason that the king established a church in her honour. We must remember these chronicles and annals were transcribed by Christian Monks and thus are severely biased so we have to see through another layer here. Darlugdach name means “daughter of Lugh” (Lugh being a Celtic deity, making it likely that Darlughdach, like Brigid, was originally a Celtic Goddess who was later “translated” into a Christian nun).

The Pictish Stone present at Abernethy, is a fragment of a stone which measures H 0.84m, W 0.56m and is granite. It sits at the base of the round tower with a stone for a cap which protects it from the elements. It is incised with the tuning fork symbol, flanked by a hafted hammer and an anvil, and below there is the upper left part of a crescent and V-rod with an internal double-spiral design and is said to date from the 7th century. There are about fifty major Pictish picture-symbols. Some are easily identified as animals or mythical creatures; others are completely mysterious, such as the ‘crescent and V-rod’ and the “double disk” emblems.

Bottom line, the symbols have not been deciphered, and their meaning has perplexed researchers for centuries. I have some ideas though that might float,, fascinated as I am by symbols. The ‘crescent and v-rod’ is an extremely common symbol, the ‘tuning fork’ less so. The ‘tuning fork’ is a particularly enigmatic. A tuning fork is a double pronged piece of steel usually, that resonates at a certain pitch. Musicians would use these to tune their instruments in the past, and if the same tuning fork was used to tune all of the instruments, then they would all be perfectly tuned together. They would have been used in prayer and meditation. I am sure there was or is a God frequency in sound. As a symbol it was also used in cultures like the Picts, to show that a particular site was part of the sacred geometry of the area activated by sound as opposed to sunlight. The hammer and the anvil are symbols of the god Goibniu, (Goban) and symbolise the union between male and female. They are also a symbol of Brigid who is associated with blacksmiths. Marriages ceremonies are carried out at Gretna Green over an anvil, but it is not entirely clear what the origins of these are.The V-rod appears to be a bent arrow superimposed on a crescent; it is assumed to be a symbol of death: In astronomical terms, this is clearly representing something related to the moon. Precisely what remains unclear. The stone predates the tower by about 400 years, dating to about the year 600 A.D and possibly dates from the foundation of this church. Here is something fascinating though; Brigid is associated with smiting, so the hammer and the anvil could be a nod to her.

In Irish mythology Brigid appears as a member of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the daughter of the Dagda and wife of Bres, with whom she had a son named Ruadán. She is associated with the spring season, fertility, healing, and poetry and smith craft. She is known as a woman of smith’s work, and it was she first made the whistle for calling one to another through the night. It is perhaps a mighty leap, but sure someone has to make it. I like how it fits though.

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