The faded carvings on Martin's Stone include a cross, two horsemen, an unknown animal, and a symbol known as a z-rod, which some people see as a broken spear representing dead ancestors. Entwined within this particular symbol is a serpent, which may be responsible to starting the story attached to this stone.
A long time ago a man lived with his nine daughter at Pitempton Farm to the south-west of Strathmartine. One evening the farmer sent his eldest daughter (though some people say it was his youngest) to fetch a pitcher of water from a well. When she failed to return he sent the next eldest, then the others in turn, until it was growing dark and all nine sisters were missing. Their anxious father grabbed his fish spear and ran to the well. There he saw a huge, blood smeared dragon (or two intertwined snakes) resting after having devoured his daughters. He ran off and gathered several hundred neighbours to kill the monster.
The avengers were led by Martin the blacksmith, the lover of one of the girls. Quickly they came to the well (though one version insists that Martin delayed for a ritual period of nine days) and the creature fled north-west to Baldragon Moss, where it was 'draiglet' (soaked). Then the people drove the dragon north to Strathmartine and surrounded it. Martin, urged on by cried of 'Strike, Martin', clubbed the mighty worm. The dying creature managed to crawl away to the spot where the stone now stands. It was again surrounded and finally slain by the young hero. Its dying words were:
I was tempted at Pitempton,
draiglet at Baldragon,
stricken at Strike-Martin,
and killed at Martin's Stone.
The story appears to be a colourful explanation of local place-names. One local minister, however, dourly declared that the Nine Maidens had been eaten for the horrible crime of dancing on a Sunday. The fateful well was on the south side of the Dichty Burn, opposite the kirkyard, and commemorated as the Nine Maidens' Well.
Some 16th century writers mention what is seemingly earlier traditions concerning a St Donald (or Donevaldus) of Glen Ogilvy, which is a few miles to the north over the Sidlaw Hills (in the parish of Glamis). Donald is alleged to have lived in this glen in the 8th century, along with his nine daughters. After the missionary Donald died, the sisters became hermits until a Pictish king named Garnard invited them to retire to Abernethy. One tale said they lived here in a hollow oak. But they were granted a chapel, an oratory and some land, and were visited by Eugenius VII, King of the Scots.
John Bellenden's translation of the Angus-born historian Hector Boece's Chronicles of Scotland gives a mention of this saintly clan, but perversely states there were seven sister and not nine. The Victorian historian Andrew Jervise states that these Nine Maidens were remembered in the Nine Maidens' Well near the old doocot in the grounds of Glamis Castle, where there was also an adjacent chapel bearing their name. It is interesting that the cult of the Nine Maidens survived for centuries at Glamis, since the records of the kirk session record a 17th century attempt to prevent pilgrims travelling from Glamis to view the holy oak tree at Abernethy where the sisters resided.
Sadly, we only appear to have information about several of the sisters' names. The eldest was called Mazota (also known as St Maik or Mayota) and the second sister Fyncana (or St Fink); it is unclear whether the third named sister, Findoca, is a distinct person. The legend is severely muddled in various recensions of Boece's work, and it has to be admitted that Hector himself is not the most reliable of sources. Abernethy was an important early Christian Pictish site and was apparently dedicated to the Irish St Briget or St Bride. The 16th century Breviary of Aberdeen states that Brigit came across the Irish Sea with nine virgins to Abernethy, and that one of them was named St Mayoc (who is commemorated at Dalmaik in Aberdeenshire). But, whether Irish or Pictish, the daughters of St Donald are as fictitious as the sisters consumed by the dragon. The real Nine Maidens were pagan goddesses, who can be found in the 14th century Welsh poem Preiddeu Annwn, 'The Spoils of Annwn', wherein King Arthur journeys to the otherworld to retrieve a cauldron which could bring dead warriors back to life. Tellingly, the magical vessel was stirred into power by familiar beings: 'From the breath of nine maidens it was kindled'. The Glen Ogilvy stories look like an attempt to sanitise the overtly pagan legend of Strathmartine. The latter church was of course dedicated to St Martin.
In the Highlands the Nine Maidens remained the faithful companions of the saint-goddess Bride. One tale of Bride and her consort Angus is probably Pictish rather than Gaelic in origin and it closely parallels the Maidens' story at Strathmartine. It is also strongly connected to the ritual Celtic calendar. St Martin's Day, 11th November, is otherwise Samain, beginning of the Celtic year. On this day Bride was imprisoned under Ben Nevis by the Cailleach, the hag who symbolised the power of winter overcoming summer. The hero Angus freed Bride on St Bride's Day, 1st February, known as Imbolc. The Cailleach was finally slain fifty-one days later, on 25th March, named Lady Day or Auld Wives' Day. Finally, after another fifty-one days, summer was ushered in on Old Beltane, 25th March.
In the Strathmartine version, the Christian St Martin replaces Angus, and the Dragon is the Cailleach, force of destruction and darkness. Pertinently, when Bride emerged at Imbolc she was in the form of a Serpent Queen, not regaining her true form until the Cailelach died. The whole cycle is a rationalisation of the descent into winter and a celebration of spring's rebirth.
Nine Maidens' and Nine Wells are scattered throughout Scotland. At St Bride's Well in Sanquhar, Dumfries-shire, girls came each May Day and presented nine smooth white stones as an offering to the 'saint'. In Angus, the best known survival of 'Ninewells' as a place-name is the large hospital in the west of Dundee, named after an area close to the Tay. There was another Nine Wells at Cortachy and another on the hill above the old kirk of Finavon (where the long vanished old kirk was also dedicated to the Maidens). In some places north of Angus there are wispy traditions of the Nine Maidens being devoured either by a bear or a boar.
Confirmation that the Nine Maidens came to be venerated as water deities comes from Glen Esk, where the best loved piper in the Angus glens lived. One evening he was playing his pipes near the Dalbrack Bridge when nine green-robed fairies sailed down the River North Esk in a boat. They stepped onto the bank and touched the piper on his shoulder with a wand, compelling him to go with them. The boat sailed thrice around the pool called Pontskinnen Pot, then vanished upstream forever, with the piper still playing. His tune is still sometimes heard distantly on summer evenings here.
As for the dragon, could it be featured in disguise in a strange incident at St Vigeans, near Arbroath, as related in the Old Statistical Account (1793)? The village kirk was unused between 1669 and 1736 because no suitably qualified minister could be found. But when a minister was eventually installed and, as communion was about to be re-introduced, the parishioners succumbed to mass hysteria. A minister related:
A tradition has long prevailed here, that the water-kelpy... carried the stones for building the church; that the foundation of it was supported on large bars of iron; and that under the fabric there was a large lake of great depth. As the...sacrament had been so long delayed, the people brought themselves to believe, that the first time the ordinance should be dispensed, the church would sink and...people would be carried down and drowned in the lake...On the day the sacrament was administered, some hundreds of parishioners sat on an eminence about 100 yards distant from the church, expecting the dreaded catastrophe.
It was also believed that the kelpie had prophesied that the minister who dared to give communion would commit suicide. (One minister at the turn of the century did take his own life.)
But the church service took place and nothing happened. The 12th century kirk was built on the site of an extremely ancient church on top of a man-made mound. Reconstruction in 1871 revealed many fragments of Pictish stones, now housed in St Vigeans Museum. The kirk was certainly regarded as uncanny. Satan was said to have personally constructed it, moaning as he worked:
Sair back and sair banes,
carrying the kirk o' St Vigeans' stanes.
Surely the original builder was not the Devil or a kelpie, but a dragon. The pagan beast forced to carry the weight of the Christian Church is a prefect example of how folklore sometimes transmitted ancient information through the centuries.