"The Last of the Druids" by Iain W.G. Forbes takes a refreshingly different view of one of the great remaining mysteries of Scottish archaeology and history, The Picts were the least known and most enigmatic of the residents of what has since become Scotland between the 500s and the 800s. While the origin and the eventual fate of the Picts remain topics of heated debate, and while they left no written records, they did leave a great deal of other evidence of their presence.
The Picts' most enduring legacy arises from the way they left their mark, quite literally, on the landscape of Scotland in the form of large numbers of Pictish symbol stones. Many of these have been gathered together and displayed in various Scottish museums, while others can still be found standing in the locations in which they were originally erected by the artists who created them, some twelve to fifteen centuries ago. Much of the fascination of the symbol stones comes from the fact that the recurring symbols that were carved on them have defied interpretation. We simply have no idea what Pictish symbol stones were for, or what they meant.
Yet the sheer effort and care that must have gone into making them suggests they must have had a purpose. Iain W.G. Forbes' theory, set out in detail in this fascinating book, is that many of the symbols were astronomical in nature, and that some of the figurative scenes were depictions of constellations in the night sky rather than real events witnessed by the artists. Taking this as his starting point, the author goes on to develop the idea that the symbology of the Picts could have had an astrological significance, which helped foretell whether the celestial portents on a particular day were auspicious or inauspicious.
This can all sound highly fanciful to modern readers: but does that make it wrong? The Romans, that most pragmatic and practical of races, were also highly superstitious, leaving offerings to a plethora of gods. Why should the Picts not also have sought to come to terms with their world by reference to something beyond it? And, in an age before the night sky was largely obliterated by light pollution, what more compelling greatness was available to our ancestors than the wider universe? This is a book that should be read by anyone who has ever wondered about the meaning of Pictish symbol stones. The author's reasoning is clearly set out in a level of detail that makes following his arguments straightforward, and why not all may agree with his conclusions, he has certainly opened up some novel and thought provoking possibilities en route to reaching them.