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Pictish Treasures In Capital For TLC

14 February 2008

The latest laser technology has been used to record and conserve one of the finest collections of Pictish carved stones. Historic Scotland has been carrying out a major care and conservation programme on the St Vigeans Stones during a major upgrade of their museum, near Arbroath.

Fresh academic research into the 38 stones and fragments strongly suggests that the small village of St Vigeans was once home to an important royal monastery. It has also cast fresh light on the religious beliefs of the Picts – to fill gaps in our understanding of their culture and ideas.

Stephen Gordon, Historic Scotland senior conservator, said: “The improvements to the museum gave us an excellent opportunity to bring the stones to Edinburgh where we have the specialist staff and equipment to undertake some thorough conservation treatment and prepare new mounts.

“This has included using special laser techniques that are superb for removing dirt, or other unwanted materials, without affecting the stones themselves.

“Earlier efforts at conservation, dating back to the 1960s, carried out using the best techniques of the time have now reached the end of their life.

“This project gives us the opportunity to remove these earlier repairs and use more modern and appropriate treatments and mounting methods.

“These works are painstaking but ultimately very satisfying.”

The stones are a great early Christian treasure of Angus and it is hoped that enlarging and improving museum will make them more accessible to visitors. The academic research will be used to provide visitors with new insights into the collection.

It includes the Drosten Stone, a cross slab with ornate cross and fantastic beasts, plus a rare Latin and Pictish inscription which might have commemorated King Uoret who died around 842 AD. The stones date from the decades before 843 AD when the Pictish kingdom was united with Gaelic Dalriada under a single monarch – leading to the birth of Scotland.

Peter Yeoman, Historic Scotland senior archaeologist, said: “The stones are among the last and very finest expressions of Pictish art, which makes them tremendously important.

“These large stone crosses would originally have been set up as monuments, boundary markers and gravestones on the church hill at St Vigeans.

“We have known for some time that the area was an important royal centre, but the latest thinking is that the high quality carvings, with scriptural images, indicate that there was not just a church but an important monastery under royal patronage at St Vigeans.

“It may also have been a significant pilgrimage centre, perhaps due to the presence of relics of the Irish St Fechin, from who the village took its name.”

Back in the 9th century Arbroath was a small port serving the needs of the more important settlement at St Vigeans. It is hoped the stones will be returned by the end of this year with the new-look museum reopening in time for Easter 2009.

Graeme Bell, Historic Scotland district architect, said: “It’s great to have the chance to modernise the museum so visitors can get the most from the collection.

“The refurbishment will provide more space and mean that people can move round the stones and look at them from every angle.

“We are also creating new facilities so a member of staff can be based at the museum.

“This means it can be open for regular hours as visitors will no longer have to collect the keys from Arbroath Abbey.

“It will also be a great help for the public to have someone available to give assistance and answer general questions.”

The museum will be open on a seasonal basis and, in common with other staffed Historic Scotland sites, an entry fee will be charged to help cover costs.

Notes for editors
  • The stones rank in importance alongside the early Medieval carved stone collections at Meigle, St Andrews, Whithorn and Iona, all in the care of Historic Scotland.
  • The museum, now closed for refurbishment, is in the village of St Vigeans, one mile from Arbroath off the A92.
  • Among the reasons the collection is so special is that it includes a lot of human detail, telling us about how the Picts lived. There are also rare details like St Paul (not the apostle) and St Antony breaking bread in the desert. Both saints were Desert Fathers who sought a life of purity and worship away from the sinfulness and temptation of ordinary society. The ideals and practices of these saints were brought from Egypt to Ireland where they had a profound effect on early monasticism. These ideas were then brought to what we now know as Scotland by Irish monks who came to convert the Picts.
  • Over the last seven years Historic Scotland has commissioned research into the collection from renowned experts. This ranges from geological analysis to art historical and placename research. The research establishes St Vigeans as a cult centre of the Irish saint, St Féchin (who died around 664 AD), whose name was changed in Vigean in the local tongue

For further information

Matthew Shelley
Historic Scotland
Marketing and Media
0131 668 8734