In the film ‘No Country for Old Men’, there’s a famous opening scene at the site of a drugs shoot-out. Everyone’s dead when the local Sheriff and his deputy arrive and start wandering through the bodies as though they were in a Spaghetti Western.

The Deputy stays silent for a long time, then says excitedly, “Ain’t this a mess, Sheriff!”. Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) looks askance at his junior and replies, as only Tommy Lee Jones can, “Well, if it’s not a mess, it’ll do till a real mess comes along…’

As you can tell, I think the scene is priceless. It somehow ‘enables’ the rest of what is, otherwise, a very dark movie–but brilliantly told.

I seldom revisit it, but sometimes, if I do something stupid enough, I can hear Sheriff Bell’s words in my head…

As I began to recount the story of the Silent Eye’s ‘Pictish Trail’ weekends, I found the episodes were so full of detail that I had slipped over my target 1000-1300 words. When you write often, you can gauge, almost immediately, when you’ve overcooked something – and you are asking an unreasonable degree of reading from those wonderful souls who follow you.

After the third post, I had already written the next two. When I examined them, they were each twice as long as my new target of approximately 1000 words.

So I cut them in half…

That meant I had four posts lined up in the WordPress firing chamber.

And this is where, as Gerard Hoffnung once said, in his famous and hilarious Bricklayer’s Story, ‘I may have lost my presence of mind…’

Last Thursday, forgetting I’d halved them, I published the post of our triumphant arrival at Rosemarkie, on the Black Isle, and missed out the post that should have preceded it.

So, by way of recompense, here it is…

It’s a fine mess, but hopefully, it’ll do till a real mess comes along...

The Shandwick and Nigg Pictish Crosses

I suspect there’s a certain amount of suspicion – quite justified as it turns out – about how smoothly our workshops go. A sense of ‘they couldn’t possibly have fitted all that into one day, for heavens sake…’

But, so far, on the Saturday of this Pictish Trial weekend, we had.

We’d had the pleasure of seeing the Hilton of Cadboll stone, which time had not permitted on the prep visit, the previous year. Now, the amazed look on the faces of the visitors as we arrived at the glass-housed beauty that is the Shadwick Stone said it all…

Clach a’Charrridh (Shandwick stone) means stone of the grave plots, and was named so after the area was used as a burial-ground during the 1832 cholera epidermic. It’s on the Fearn Peninsula, about a mile from the Hilton Cadboll site, and sits on the crest of the ridge, visible from the sea.

The cross slab has stood majestically overlooking the Moray Firth for over 1000 years. Its present site is where it has always been. There is something wonderful about standing there and knowing that.

Here, I met the first problem: the smoked glass. For me, there is a joy in bringing back images that I know will generate interest. But, at Shandwick, every time I took a shot, all I could see was the reflection of me and the landscape in the glass.

(Above: the spine of the Tarbat and Fearn peninsula is the location for these famous Pictish stones)

I took myself off to one side to try with the editing tools to see if what I had taken was salvageable. As long as I could live with a little colour distortion they would be fine. I returned to snapping…

The thick glass serves a purpose, and it’s wonderful to see these precious artefacts so well protected. The glass and steel housing is locked. You can go inside, but only by appointment with a key holder. And not in the year of Covid-19.

The landward side of the slab is set out in eight panels. They contain a range of symbols. The top panel once had a finely decorated Pictish double disc on it. The central panel contains a hectic scene of Pictish life, with birds, beasts and human figures.

A Christian cross has been carved on the seaward face of the slab. Some of the other motifs on this side may also be religious symbols. Immediately below the arms of the cross are angels with outspread wings. They are placed above animals which could be interpreted as David’s lions. Then there are snakes or serpents. The designers of this and the other stones in the area were certainly not working alone. They must have known of the Christian decorated manuscripts of Lindisfarne and Iona as well as the metalwork and sculpture of Northumbria and Ireland.

This Pictish sculptured stone was carved and erected about 1200 years ago. The stone was presumably quarried from the local cliffs in about 780 A.D. It was moved here using ropes, timber rollers and levers, or possibly a cart. The blocks of pattern were marked out and carved using a hammer and iron chisel.

Such a complicated design using a single motif is unusual. Yet it also occurs as a panel on the Hilton of Cadboll stone and fragments from Tarbat. It is speculated there was a school of sculpture in the area specialising in this style.

(Above: the sides are decorated, too)

(Above: the ‘trinity’ symbol in a Pictish form. The often recurring ‘three as one’ glyph will be familiar to many, and shows the depth of spiritual thought possessed by the Picts)

Our afternoon was passing, fast. Our next stop, the small town of Nigg, is famous for its connection to the North Sea Oil business, which is now diminishing. Back up the hill from the oil terminals is a lovely old church which houses the famous Nigg Stone. It’s run by volunteers, but the website, checked that morning on my phone, said it would be open.

The Nigg Stone is displayed inside Nigg old church in a specially created exhibition area. Admired and studied by scholars from all over the world, its ornamental cross resembles a manuscript page. The fantastic intricacy of the carving, the whorls and spirals, and the heaped up knot of snakes, with tails and tongues endlessly intertwining, is said to be paralleled only in the illuminations of the Great Gospel book of Kells.

Unfortunately, when we got to the door, it was locked…

(Above: Nigg’s ancient and beautiful church… sadly closed)

However…. Sue Vincent is celebrated on the Silent Eye weekends for fearlessly reaching up on tip-toes and sticking her camera lens up against the glass, then pressing away, merrily, to see what she can capture. I thought of her as I jammed my iPhone as close as I dared and took a few exploratory shots. When the results looked interesting, I wiped a tissue on the grass to wet it, cleaned the promising spot on the windows and hit the shutter again.

(Above: the ‘stolen shot’ of the Nigg Stone. It’s long way from perfect, but, given the church was closed, it’s a lot better than nothing… The metal bracket is not vandalism, it was custom-made to fit into an eroded gap in the stone (see below), and also to hold the slab-cross in place in its tiny museum)

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is nigg-stone-colour.jpg

(Above: One we took earlier, thankfully! The high quality image of the Nigg Stone at the Tarbat Discovery Centre partly makes up for Nigg Church being closed)

The carvings include a unique illustration of a miracle: the first monks, Paul and Anthony, receiving bread in the desert from a raven sent by God, and David: King and Psalmist saving a sheep from the lion, his harp beside his shoulder.

We had completed our Tarbat Peninsula visits. We dashed down to the shore to show our visitors the dramatic Cromarty Firth, then headed off to the final assignment of the day – Rosemarkie, where one of the most wonderful surprises awaited…


Above: the ferocious Cromarty Firth. Majestic and fearsome. Across this, but not literally (as the ferry wasn’t running!) lies The Black Isle, our final destination for the Saturday, before returning to Inverness.

To be continued…

Other posts in this series:

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, This is Part Six, Part Seven (Rosemarkie)

©Stephen Tanham, 2020.

7 Comments on ““Ain’t this a mess, Sheriff!”

  1. As one who has made a career out of making mistakes, I stick to that old adage, “to err is human, to forgive, divine…”
    As for making do with a mess until a better one comes along, I really wish you hadn’t said that!

    Liked by 1 person

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