The tiny settlement of Aberlemno straddles the B9134 about midway between Forfar and Brechin and a little over five miles from each. A hundred yards south of the main road, and accessible by a minor road from it, is Aberlemno Kirk.
There are three reasons to make this short detour from the main road to the kirk. Aberlemno Kirk itself is an interesting church whose current form largely dates back to the early 1700s. The kirkyard that surrounds it dates back considerably further, and there are some fascinating gravestones. But perhaps most of all, it is worth going to Aberlemno Kirk to view the magnificent Pictish cross slab that stands in the kirkyard, towering over the gravestones which surround it.
Aberlemno is famous for its Pictish stones, six of which have been found in or around the village. Today you find three of them standing on the verge on the south east side of the B9134 near the village hall. These are the subject of a separate feature. A fourth stands in the kirkyard. If you are intending to visit it is worth noting that all the Aberlemno stones, including the one in the kirkyard, are protected from winter weather by having wooden boxes erected around them from October to April. The eventual plan seems to be to move the stones to proper shelter in a building to be erected near the village hall.
The Pictish cross slab in the kirkyard is known as "Aberlemno 2" and is just under 2m high by 1.3m wide and 0.3m thick. One of the finest of all Pictish stones to have survived, and a masterpiece of Pictish art, it is called a "cross-slab" because one side of it, in this case the side facing west, has the pattern of a cross carved onto it. The cross stands out a long way from the surrounding stonework. The entire surface of the cross is covered by elaborate decorative interlaced carving. The upper portions of the stone outside the area of the cross itself carry depictions of beasts and serpents, while the larger areas beneath the arms of the cross carry patterns formed by magnificently entwined beasts, serpents and sea horses. A hole drilled through the stone is a later addition, possibly made when the stone was moved to the kirkyard.
The rear of the stone, facing east towards the kirk, is completely different to the front, and is given over almost entirely to an unusual theme for a Pictish stone, a battle scene. You can think of it a little like the Bayeux Tapestry, though while that was embroidered as a single strip, on the stone there are three rows placed one above the other. What is shown is probably a depiction of the Battle of Dunnichen or Nechtansmere. This is usually believed to have taken place at Dunnichen, four miles south of Aberlemno, on 20 May 685. The battle was fought between the invading army of King Ecgfrith of Northumbria and Pictish defenders under King Bridei III. The battle was a decisive victory for the Picts, and Northumbrian casualties, which included King Ecgfrith himself, were extremely heavy. Northumbrian ascendancy in Pictland was halted once and for all, and many feel that had the battle gone the other way, there would never have been a separate nation called Scotland in the northern part of this island.
The stone depicts two sets of warriors in combat. One set, occupying the left side of each of the three rows of figures, seem to be bare-headed and sporting mane-like hair. The opposing army occupies the right side of each of the three rows and are wearing helmets with prominent nose-pieces. The army on the left is winning and is presumably therefore the Pictish army. On the top row, a Pictish cavalryman has routed a Northumbrian cavalryman, who is fleeing the stone having cast aside his sword and shield. On the bottom row, a Northumbrian is shown dead, and being pecked by a raven, the symbol of death in battle. As this figure is - arguably - larger than the rest, it has been suggested that he represents King Ecgfrith of Northumbria in death.
The cross slab is certainly the most magnificent stone on view in Aberlemno Kirkyard, but it is by no means the only one worth looking at. As you wander around the kirkyard, there are many stones from the 1700s and more recently which, in their own way, contain carvings as impressive and intriguing as that on the cross slab. It is good to see that Aberlemno's old gravestones have been cared for and remain on view, in stark contrast to what has happened in some Scottish kirkyards. The wall to the east of the kirk is especially rich in old gravestones, including one carrying a remarkable carving of a cartoon-like figure with a smile, apparently carrying an axe.
The first written record of a church at Aberlemno was in 1242. It is possible that the church here at that time was a renaming of an earlier church, Egglespether, which is recorded in 1161 as belonging to Restenneth Priory. If so, there may have been a church on this site from as early as 710, when King Nechtan of the Picts imported masons from Northumbria to build Restenneth Priory and other stone churches, including Egglespether.
The church you see today largely dates back to a major rebuilding of an earlier rectangular structure which took place in 1722. What emerged was a T-plan kirk of the type that became so popular across post-Reformation Scotland. A bell was added in 1728, and the galleries in 1856. More minor changes took place in the second half of the 1900s. The interior of the church carries a number of reminders of its history. These include what seems to be an extremely old font, and a series of three memorials, to the three generations of the Mitchell family who served as ministers here throughout the 126 years from 1715 to 1841.