Yesterday, my sister had an incredible marine mammal encounter. In the liminal space between two fishing villages, with the Isle of May shrouded in mist on the horizon, she saw a dark shape circling in the water. Nearby a seal cut across the North Sea, but this other creature took a more circuitous path, possibly tracking the same fish that had attracted the seal. Every now and then, a dorsal fin emerged from the water, but the rest of its form remained murky. As she told us when she got home, if she had seen the creature hundreds of years ago in the Middle Ages, who’s to say what sorts of conclusions she may have drawn…
In honour of her fantastic experience, I’d like to highlight a beast that has haunted the imaginations of people along the east coast of Scotland for over a thousand years. Known as the Pictish Beast, this enigmatic creature appears on dozens of Pictish symbol stones. The Picts formed a kingdom in the late seventh century that brought together many smaller groups under a single united kingship based in northeast Scotland. They remain the most elusive of Britain’s medieval kingdoms, with almost no written records in their own language. Instead, they left the landscape littered with impressive stone monuments bearing inscrutable designs that have puzzled their descendants for centuries. These Pictish “symbols” include geometric and abstract symbols as well as animals. Cut from imposing slabs of rock, the stones probably served as boundary markers for ecclesiastical and secular territories. The animal designs are finely detailed and often very naturalistic, but among the most common of these is an unrecognisable animal known as the Pictish Beast.
Although the Pictish Beast has been compared to many animals, including elephants and horses, I have always favoured the theory that its form is inspired by that of a dolphin. The long snout bears an uncanny resemblance to a dolphin’s, and the curled appendage that sticks out of the head has always put me in mind of a stylized stream of water being spouted from a blowhole. The theory that’s currently in vogue among scholars is that the beast’s form is actually derivative of a dragonesque brooch, a type of high-status jewellery that was popular in Britain a few hundred years before Pictish stones were produced. While hares and not dolphins are thought to be the inspiration for dragonesque brooches, it’s quite possible that in the hundreds of years between the time of dragonesque brooches and the Pictish Beast, marine mammal anatomy influenced artistic depictions of this creature. Whatever ideology and beliefs motivated the continued popularity of the Pictish Beast and its distinctly aquatic transformation are lost to history.
The Picts certainly had their fair share of underwater beasts that could have lent the stony Pictish Beast some of its symbolic power. Adomnán, the ninth abbot of Iona, recorded an infamous example in his Life of Columba, written at the very end of the seventh century. When crossing the River Ness during a journey amongst the Picts, Columba witnessed the burial of a man who had been killed by a “water beast”. Hoping to trap the beast and end its reign of terror, Columba ordered a young monk called Luigne moccu Min to act as bait.
Luigne moccu Min obeyed without hesitation. He took off his clothes except for a tunic and dived into the water. But the beast was lying low on the riverbed, its appetite not so much sated as whetted for prey. It could sense that the water above was stirred by the swimmer, and suddenly swam up to the surface, rushing open-mouthed with a great roar towards the man as he was swimming midstream. All the bystanders, both the heathen and the brethren, froze in terror, but the blessed man looking on raised his holy hand and made the sign of the cross in the air, and invoking the name of God, he commanded the fierce beast, saying: “Go no further. Do not touch the man. Go back at once.” At the sound of the saint’s voice, the beast fled in terror so fast one might have thought it was pulled back with ropes.
The dark waters of Scotland’s lochs and the North Sea have yielded many a myth about the marine mammals that dwell there. While the exact meaning of the Pictish Beast will always be a mystery, its resemblance to a dolphin has forever lodged it into this rich body of folklore. Like the cetacean my sister saw yesterday, it offers us only a furtive glimpse at its full story, which lurks untold beneath the surface.