There is something truly magical about Pictish symbol stones. In part this is down to the many mysteries that surround the Picts themselves. A society that dominated large parts of what is now Scotland for a number of centuries left no written records, only symbols carved in stone or formed in metalwork.
The sense of mystery is deepened by the lack of agreement amongst experts about what became of the Picts and why they seem to have disappeared from history so suddenly and completely. The truth may be a fairly mundane story of assimilation and rebranding, but as you stand in front of a something like the Shandwick Stone, you really do begin to feel a very tangible link with a distant and unknowable past.
The Shandwick Stone or Clach a' Charridh stands in a magnificent location overlooking the sea a little distance from a minor road that heads inland from the southern end of Shandwick, which itself forms a south-western extension of Balintore in Easter Ross. A pull-off area has been provided not far away, and a path had been built from the road to the glazed shelter that has been the stone's home since 1988. (Continues below image...)
The Shandwick Stone measures some 2.7m high by fractionally under a metre wide by 21cm thick. It is thought to date back to around 780. It entered the written record a thousand years later, in 1776, at which point it stood intact on a terrace overlooking the sea, possibly on its original site. In 1846 it blew down and broke into three pieces, subsequently being repaired.
In 1988 the stone was properly conserved and re-erected in the glazed shelter in which you see it today. Such shelters evoke mixed views, but this one does ensure that the stone can be enjoyed by generations to come, and it succeeds in protecting without excessively concealing through unwanted surface reflections. Visitors cannot normally enter the shelter, though contact details are given on the door for anyone who wants to arrange to do so.
The western or landward-facing face of the stone comprises five vertically-stacked panels. The two at the bottom are filled with intricate abstract patterns carved into the stone. The middle panel is the highlight of this side of the stone. It is covered with a complex hunting scene which includes two swordsmen fighting one another, and a man with a crossbow. The hunting panel has been recreated at some point, and the recreation is on show in the lower part of the glazed shelter.
Above the hunting scene is a panel that carries what seems to be a highly stylised depiction of an elephant. The top panel on this side is decorated with a damaged "double-disc", a Pictish symbol that is found on many stones.
The eastern side of the Shandwick Stone carries a highly ornate carving of a cross which has rectangular arms and curved re-entrants. The arms and shaft of the cross are decorated with a double row of raised bosses. The area around the cross carries depictions of angels, animals and serpents, while below the cross are two of an original four large circular bosses.