Pictish Diet: A Biohistorian’s Perspective

This latest guest blog is by Dr Shirley Curtis-Summers who is a bio-archaeologist at the University of Liverpool. I first heard her deliver a lecture on her research at a packed and very positively-received public event in Portmahomack in 2014. Dr Curtis-Summers also presented at the ‘Firths and Fjords’ conference. Regarding that, one attendee highlighted the ‘excellent presentation by Shirley Curtis-Summers – didn’t think isotopic research would be my thing’ while others considered hers in the top three or four of the lectures they had heard at the event [David].

Day One of the ‘Firths and Fjords’ conference and I find myself seated within the splendour of Dornoch Cathedral. The Keynote lecture, presented by Professor John Gillis, inspired me to think about ‘ecotones’, more specifically, the transitions between land and sea and between freshwater and saltwater ecosystems. Professor Gillis also stressed the importance of interdisciplinary research to understand coastal histories or indeed a ‘New Coastal History’, a term introduced by Professor Isaac Land who reminded us that “…many people are already doing coastal history without knowing it”. This made me think about my research, which is multidisciplinary, using archaeology, bioarchaeology and historical approaches to reconstruct past lifeways in medieval Britain and, more pertinent to this post, the lives of those from Portmahomack.

I imagined I would be an outsider at the ‘Firths and Fjords’ conference; a bioarchaeologist amidst a sea of historians. I thought of myself as somebody who did not actually ‘do’ coastal history much, yet the words of Professor’s Gillis and Land made me think otherwise. Hearing the many wonderful papers at this conference reaffirmed my opinion that coastal communities such as those from medieval Portmahomack were not liminal, remote or insular; they were outward-looking, innovative, creative and artistic. The wealth of archaeological finds from Portmahomack, which was eloquently presented by Professor Martin Carver at the conference, clearly demonstrates this.

Day Two and, with my ‘coastal’ hat on, I presented some results from my recent PhD research on the Portmahomack human skeletal collection. My research focused on reconstructing lifeways of Pictish lay and monastic communities and of the later medieval parish church community, using human osteology and stable carbon and nitrogen isotope techniques. The aim of my talk was to inspire dialogue on whether we can identify a link between the diet of the Pictish communities and the iconography on the Pictish cross-slabs, especially ‘watery’ symbols. I have been pondering this line of enquiry since my Masters research back in 2009 when my pilot study on the Portmahomack collection revealed interesting dietary results.[1] The isotope results from my research on Portmahomack diet suggest no fish was consumed by the Pictish monks and layfolk, yet large amounts were consumed in the mid-later medieval phases; a dietary pattern that is seen across Scotland during this time.[2] Very little has been done to combine evidence from bioarchaeology and the material culture to answer questions about Pictish lifeways and their interconnectivity between land and sea. New research is however emerging, which will combat this lacuna, such as that by Dr Kate Britton at the University of Aberdeen. However, can bioarchaeological evidence help elucidate the meaning of certain symbols on Pictish stones? There are various interpretations of the placement of Pictish stones and their symbols, which include links to rivers [3]; agricultural land [4], status or monastic boundary markers [5], and currently the most popular theory of some form of script or writing system.[6]


Fig.1. The Craw Stane, Rhynie (www.flickr.com)

The salmon and the Pictish beast symbols appear together on numerous Pictish stones including St Viegan’s, Golspie, Ulbster, Meigle, and the Craw Stane (Fig.1). Based on the isotope evidence, these symbols do not appear to represent a dietary link, although others may do, for example scenes of deer and wild boar being hunted on the St Viegan’s and Shandwick stones. The Pictish beast is still commonly described as a dolphin, an animal which has often been linked to Pagan representations of fertility, birth, reincarnation and the life force. However, some experts oppose the dolphin theory and are more inclined to refer to it as a composite marine figure (Isabel Henderson, pers.comm.).[7] Interestingly, Alistair Mack [8] noted that the Pictish beast (or elephant as he refers to it) is “as standard in pattern as the Burghead bulls” and that it must represent something very specific, but what? Did symbols such as the salmon represent superstitions that rendered the consumption of such watery animals taboo and do tales such as The Salmon of Knowledge in The Boyhood Deeds of Finn mac Cumhaill derive from these earlier Pagan beliefs? The short answer is we may never know (I know, infuriating), but by providing a multidisciplinary approach to these questions, we can gain greater insights into the interconnectivity between coastal communities, their landscapes and waterscapes. The coastal dwellers at Portmahomack (Fig.2) would have had some knowledge of fishing yet they chose to live off the land and were by no means dependent on the seas or rivers for sustenance. They did however consider aquatic animals and beasts important enough to depict on their stones and, in time, with the growth of the new Christian religion, fish were no longer taboo but became the chosen food, partly to reflect religious adherence on fast days. My talk at the conference received shared interest and agreement on the continued need for a multidisciplinary approach, but it also highlighted the shared frustration of the unknown, which is often the case where the enigmatic Picts are concerned; that’s what makes it all the sweeter a topic to discuss.

Fig.2. Portmahomack beach looking over to Dornoch (photo: author’s own)

The conference ended with Professor Martin Carver as our intrepid guide on a group excursion to the Tarbat Discovery Centre and the Pictish stones at Shandwick and Hilton of Cadboll. I’m sure many of you have been to these sites but if not, I hope this beautiful poem will inspire you. It was written by Jenny Pestridge [9] who visited the Tarbat Discovery Centre on April 20th 2016:

Peace hangs like a netted shroud,
Anchored from mountain top to monastery,
Woven by centuries of ancient bones,
Which once through faith,
Fired this holy space with the Glory of God.
Peace weights the clouds,
Covering the layered anguish of souls,
Whose cries are caught by the fishers of men,
In nets which once burst with joy and praise.
God, in the breaths between history, is still found,
Not entwined nor buried,
But alive in the living stones,
Whose prayers are heard eternally in the wind,
In this holy place.

Those who engage in multidisciplinary research often have many hats and titles and may now too realise that they ‘do’ coastal history. I have gladly added the role of ‘coastal biohistorian’ to my multidisciplinary sphere; hence I shall dwell within the liminal space and look to land and sea, bones and stones, words and wisdom. Rarely has a conference left me so invigorated and inspired; the people, the place (and the whisky) all contributed to a wonderful experience. It was very informative, fruitful and engaging, and the community involvement was a joy to behold. Many thanks to Dr David Worthington, the UHI’s ‘Firths and Fjords’ team, and the people of Dornoch. Here’s to the next one!


[1] S. Curtis-Summers, J. Montgomery and M.O.H. Carver, ‘Stable Isotope Evidence for Dietary Contrast between Pictish and Medieval Populations at Portmahomack, Scotland.’ Medieval Archaeology, 58, (2014), pp. 21-43.

[2] e.g. M. Jay and M.P. Richards, ‘British Iron Age Diet: Stable Isotopes and Other Evidence.’ Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, 73, (2007), pp.169-190.

[3] C.A. Gordon, ‘The Pictish Animals Observed’, Proceedings of the Societies of Antiquaries of Scotland, 98, (1966), pp. 215-224.

[4] E. Alcock, ‘Pictish Stones Class I: Where and Why?’ Glasgow Archaeological Journal, 15, (1989), pp.1-21.

[5] M.O.H. Carver, ‘An Iona of the East: The Early-Medieval Monastery at Portmahomack, Tarbat Ness,’ Medieval Archaeology, 48, (2004), pp.1-30.

[6] K. Forsyth, ‘Some Thoughts on Pictish Symbols as a Formal Writing System’, in I. Henderson and D. Henry, (eds.), The Worm, the Germ and the Thorn: Pictish and Related Studies Presented to Isabel Henderson, (Balgavies, 1996), ch. 9, pp. 85-98.

[7] Grateful thanks to Isabel Henderson for her advice on Pictish symbols.

[8] A. Mack, Field Guide to the Pictish Symbol Stones, (Balgavies, 1997).

[9] Many thanks to Jenny Pestridge for permission to share her poem.






3 thoughts on “Pictish Diet: A Biohistorian’s Perspective

  1. Excellent post – thanks Shirley! It’s especially welcome since I was at the other session during the conference despite the fact I really wanted to hear about your research. I agree completely with your feelings about the event – David and UHI did an astonishing job in bringing together so many excellent speakers and organising each day to allow so much great discussion to take place. This event really showed what an exciting place the UHI history department is, as well as how much historical attention is being turned to coasts (and how many diverse and innovative ways there are to do that). I do hope this doesn’t end up a one-off event, and hope to see you at the next one!


    1. Thanks David. It certainly was a great experience and the UHI ‘Firths and Fjords’ team did an amazing job by involving the whole community and by attracting a multidisciplinary audience. A huge success in my mind and hopefully more to come.


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