Sueno's Stone - an astonishing Pictish monument to battle at Forres in Moray, Scotland
I recently visited North East Scotland; in particular the area around Inverness, north towards Dornoch and east towards Lossiemouth. This part of Scotland has rich history; in particular Pictish monuments which have a unique and powerful allure. One such is Sueno’s Stone at Forres in Moray, probably the finest surviving Pictish cross, standing some 20 feet tall; possibly higher.
History of Sueno's Stone
Sueno’s Stone is thought to date from c.900. Carved from sandstone, the monument is richly decorated on its two main sides: the obverse featuring an ornately executed Christian cross and the reverse appearing to document a sequence of military events.
Its name appears to derive from the sixteenth century Scottish historian Hector Boece, who attributed the stone to Sueno. Descriptions of the stone, written over the centuries suggest not only that it has always stood where it stands today but that there was also another, similarly impressive, stone which has long since disappeared.
Sueno's Stone - a monument to battle?
The whole edifice appears to be a monument to victory although it is difficult to be precise. If what is depicted on the reverse of the cross is sequential, it appears to show – from the top - the advance of wealthy lords on horseback accompanied by dismounted warriors.
The second panel shows two armies fighting each other while a third panel shows a brutal scene of beheadings outside a conical building which may represent a broch. It is possible this scene represents a siege of an important settlement because the battle continues below as cavalry, (possibly) archers and warriors advance. This latter scene has also been interpreted as cavalry fleeing infantry.
A fourth panel shows further fighting, and beheadings, in the shadow of a strange curved structure which may represent a bridge. The final panel, at the base may show the routing of soldiers; those on the right bear shields while those on the left face away and appear to have abandoned theirs.
The front of the stone, featuring a richly decorated Christian cross with fine Celtic knotwork, is a dramatic statement, below which is a scene suggestive of a coronation. The sides of the stone, though narrow, are also richly decorated, including human forms.
Possibilities of interpretation for Sueno's Stone
Historic Scotland has suggested that one possible interpretation of the stone is that it relates to events in the mid-800s when Scotland was under pressure from Norse invaders and “when Gaelic-speaking kings seem to have taken over lordship of the Pictish peoples”.
If the battle shown on the cross is evidence of an actual event, it may be the victory of Cinaed mac Ailpin (Kenneth MacAlpin) or a reference to his successor Domnall. If the latter, it is thought that the scene shown on the front of the cross – a possible inauguration – may represent the authority of either of these kings.
Types of Pictish monuments
Using the categorisation of Pictish monuments defined – and still largely accepted – by Joseph Anderson and J Romilly Allen, Sueno’s Stone is “Class III”: a Pictish Christian monument with none of the typical Pictish carvings (such as animals or symbols).
Class I monuments typically are rough and irregular shaped stones incised with Pictish carvings, while Class II are dressed stone slabs carved with crosses or other Christian images, as well as Pictish symbols. The Craw Stane in Aberdeenshire is indicative of a Class I monument, featuring an incised salmon and a Pictish beast, possibly a dolphin or whale.
I have produced two linocut prints of Pictish monuments: the Craw Stane itself, and an abstract of the famous warriors of Birsay. Both of these are available through the Mythical Britain online shop (limited stock available).
Challenges of preservation for Sueno's Stone
Sueno’s Stone highlights the challenges faced in preserving monuments of such quality and substance. Sandstone, confronted by nature, suffers tremendously from erosion; it is for this reason that Sueno’s stone is now contained within a glass and steel box.
Yet the impact of such a structure is twofold: it takes away the evocative nature of the monument itself and its assertion in the landscape; it also makes the monument difficult to “read” because glass becomes dirty and scratched over time.
Although there is a door into the glass box, this appears to be kept locked so the monument is divorced from human contact and emotional experience. As can be seen from my photographs, it is difficult to take reasonable pictures of what stands.
Yet, crucially, the stone stands in its original location, so clearly to move it elsewhere and make its quality more accessible is not an option. Perhaps in the future a happier way of presenting the monument can be found.
Preservation of such an impressive stone, however, must remain paramount, even if our experience of the monument is somewhat reduced.
Further information about Sueno's Stone
Historic Scotland listing for Sueno's Stone - more here
Scotland's Places listing for Sueno's Stone (including how it looked before the box) - more here
Historic Scotland page entry for Sueno's Stone - more here
About the author
Michael Smith read history and later mediaeval literature and languages at the University of York. He is an historian, printmaker and translator of fourteenth century Middle English poetry.
His illustrated translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was published by Unbound in 2018. His translation of the Alliterative Morte Arthure, a poem written during the time of Richard II and Henry Bolingbroke, published in February 2021. He is currently translating the 14th Century romance William and the Werewolf; if you would like to be a named patron of this book, please click here.
Selected images of Sueno's Stone
The images below include more detailed photographs of the stone; one photograph shows the different battle sequences the stone depicts.