Saturday, 28 October 2017

The Drosten Stone and St Vigeans


It's not often that we get the privilege and pleasure of receiving a major monograph focused on a place in Angus, but a new academic study centred around the Pictish stones and significance of the early Christian site of St Vigeans answers that need magnificently.  Edited and largely written by Jane Geddes, currently of Aberdeen University, Hunting Picts: Medieval Sculpture at St Vigeans is published by Historic Environment Scotland.  Because of the complexity of the site and its physical remains, and also because its contains papers by various authors, there is no answer as to the exact meaning and significance of the site. Conclusions which I would take from the work include the following:  that St Vigeans was a site of religious significance from the Pictish era, linked possibly with the harassment of Irish monastic settlements by Vikings in Ireland.  Just as Columba's relics were transported deep into Pictland at Dunkeld in response to heathen desecration in Ireland, there may have been similar movement of other relics to the east, including at St Vigeans.

Fechin the saint is said to have died of the plague in 665 and it is reckoned that the spelling of the place-name reflects the Pictish version of his name, and therefore 9th century at the latest. Although Fechin's monastery of Fore in Ireland was recorded as being burnt in 750, this is too early for Viking incursions, which are more likely to have prompted movement of relics in the early 9th century.

     Also of particular interest in the work is the possibility of placing St Vigeans in the wider context of Angus and bringing Angus itself into a historical perspective with suggestions of possible events.  Near St Vigeans is Kinblethmont, site of an early Pictish stone, which may possibly be the site of one of a flurry of battles in the early 8th century which was conducted between four royal competitors.  According to the Annals of Tigernach, in the year 729:
The battle of Druimm-Derg- Blathung [took place] between Picts, namely Drust and Angus, the king of the Picts; and Drust was killed there, on the twelfth day of the month of August.
   This Angus is of course the renowned Angus (I) mac Fergus, who ruled until the year 761, and may be the person who gave his name to the county.  He was alleged to have belonged to an Irish kindred named the Eoghanachta Magh Geirginn, whose name perpetuates the province of Circinn, later Angus and the Mearns.

   Much in the comprehensive book fascinates, especially the analysis of church settlement in south and east Angus.  One can only hope that the other crucial Pictish clerical site at Meigle gets similar academic analysis before too long.  (Slightly off topic, my wished-for academic study would be a work on the place-names of the entire county.)

   The only extremely pedantic criticism which might be fairly levelled at the work is its physical production.  A single, hardback volume might have been preferred to two flimsy paperbacks, but then the cost might have been exorbitant.


                                                               The Drosten Stone




   One thing that the book does not definitively solve, or try to solve, is the meaning of the celebrated inscription low down on the side of the Drosten Stone. The inscription remains beguiling to the  extent that it cannot be agreed which language, or mix of languages, the inscription is written in.  Contained in the carving may be the names Drosten, Uuoret and Forcus, which would theoretically nicely equate with the saints Drostan and Fergus, supposed to have been resident for a time at Glen Esk and Glamis respectively.  One version of the inscription - favoured by the scholar Elisabeth Okasha - reads as follows:

                                      DROSTEN:
                                      IREUORET
                                      [E ]TTFOR
                                      CUS

   The third name is possibly Uurad, equated by some as one of the last reigning Picish kings in the 9th century.  This king, alternatively named Ferat or Feradach, son of Bargoit, reigned between 839 and 842.  He is notably mentioned in a note about the early Legend of St Andrews, which states there was a scribe named Thana son of Dudabrach in his reign, living at Meigle in his reign.  If it is this king mentioned on the stone it would be an extreme rarity as the only other monarch mentioned in an inscription is Caustantin son of Fergus.  If this king is associated with both Meigle and St Vigeans it would neatly identify his sphere of influence or core lordship as the territory later identified as Angus.

   What the various authors in the new book surprisingly do not go into any depth about the alleged presence of the churchmen Drostan and Fergus or any possible connection the two men had.  Fergus may possibly be equated with the Fergustus Pictus described as bishop of Scotia at a council in Rome in 721.  Cults to both Fergus and Drostan undoubtedly thrived for a considerable period after their deaths and one theory links the inscription to a translation of some relics associated with the clerics.  Both nothing about reading the stone is clear cut (pardon the pun). Thomas Owen Clancy speculates that the stone mixes Gaelic and Latin, indicating an early Irish influence within the east coast Church, which however was placed in a strongly native Pictish society.*  He concludes that the stone was erected at the behest of the ruler Uurad and that 'The two further names [Drostan, Fergus] may belong to either deceased and commemorated persons (abbots?), saints, or craftsmen.'  Another possibility, not mentioned, is that this Fergus and Drostan may be clerics named after, or monks who have adopted the names of, two highly venerated locally renowned saints.

   There is more surely to be found concerning the  Drosten's Stone and other monuments at St Vigeans.  Many of the stones, or fragments thereof, were incorporated into the structure of the kirk in the post medieval period and many may still be contained and hidden deep in the fabric, or otherwise buried on the mound on which the church stands.  A full archaeological investigation still awaits.  Meanwhile the fate of the Drosten Stone asserts itself in strange ways in the modern world.  I would love to know what particularly prompted the Washington D. C. brewer DC Brau to name one of its products after the monument.

Detail from the Drosten Stone showing Pictish crossbow man targeting a boar.

   Brau's Stone of Arbroath beer, launched in 2015, is a Scottish wee heavy, described as  having a 'nose... light but complex, led by a sweet malt character of toast, chocolate and caramel.  Dark stone fruit like plums follow, joined by a hint of banana ester.'   


   Another recent production is a book (which I have not read) by A. L. Kennedy, The Drosten's Curse, which draws the ancient monument enticingly into the universe of Doctor Who.


* 'The Drosten Stone:  a new reading,' Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 123 (1993),  pp. 345-53.

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