When I found a branch of a wild rose growing through a stone wall it made me ponder the history and mystery of endurance. I had just left the Groam House Museum in Rosemarkie, Scotland, which contains Pictish carved stones dating back to the 6th century AD after the Picts converted to Christianity.
The Picts are mysterious, thought by some to have been fierce warriors who painted or tattooed themselves. After carving beautiful, intricate patterns and designs that included Christian crosses, the Picts simply disappeared from history in the 9th century, leaving behind place names like Pitlochry, Pittenweem, and Pitsligo, and enigmatic standing stones which—lacking a written Pict language—have never been interpreted.
The recently discovered Pictish monastery in Portmahomack proves that at least some of the Picts were educated and capable of great art and architecture. Amazingly, the monastery, which housed 150 monks and workers, was built to the proportions of “The Golden Section,” or “Divine Proportion.” This 1.618 to one ration of dimension is found in spiral seashells and was used to construct the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, the Acropolis in Athens, and the Egyptian Pyramids. Along with the single-line carvings of wolves, salmon, and eagles, a piece of broken stone was found at Portmahomack with the Latin inscription: “This is the cross of Christ in…”
Scotland thrives on history and mystery. As enduring as the rose growing through the rock wall are the Highland Travellers, also called Gypsy/Travellers. Descendants of ancient Roma, they date back to the 12th Century and up until the 1950s, Travellers continued to traverse the Highlands in their brightly painted horse-pulled carts, supporting themselves with metal working and seasonal labor. Plastic replaced tin, motorized vehicles replaced horses, and the Travellers gave up Gaelic as their first language, replaced horses with motor homes and travel trailers, and learned new trades. Their nomadic way of life is a part of their ethnic and cultural identity. Unlike the Picts, they have not vanished into the pages of history—but their numbers continue to decline.
In his book “Highland Folk Tales,” Bob Pegg credits Travellers for keeping Scotland’s rich resource of folklore alive. Alec Williamson was born to Gaelic-speaking parents and knew only three English words when he started school. He and his parents traveled through Ross-shire—where the Groam House Museum stands—by horse and cart and lived in tents. His father taught the art of storytelling to Alec.
One of Alec’s stories involves Roddy from the “wee glen” of Glutan who left his wife and family to go to America. He never returned, never wrote, never sent money. The eldest son went looking for his dad. Passing a bar, he heard a familiar Gaelic song. Thus, he found his father and sent him home by ship. The father never strayed from home again.
Then there was a young man who went to Aonghas Donn (Gaelic, Brown-haired Angus) for a horse. He walked through the hills looking for the horse, and was approached by what he thought was a stray dog. The dog caught him by the arm. His only weapon was a wee penknife. He sunk the knife into the dog’s neck and twisted it until the dog let go of his arm, sank down to the ground, and died. His arm was so badly mangled that he couldn’t catch the horse. He used his shirt for a sling and went back home to tell everyone about the tiger-striped dog that had attacked him. He continued telling the story years later because, as he explained, “I’d never seen a dog that color before—tiger striped. You’d be surprised at what you might see or meet in the hills even yet.”
History, mystery, endurance. The rose in the wall brings me back to Picts. As a Christian, it’s comforting to know that Christianity was so strong in the Black Isle of Scotland as far back as the 6th century that Picts carved their faith in stones. We still carve our faith today. Stones not needed. We carve the same message of God’s love in our hearts.