The countryside of Scotland, formed originally by the joining together of a number of smaller kingdoms – such as those of the Picts, Dalriada, Strathclyde and others.

Archaeologists in Scotland investigate the mystery of the Rhynie Man

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In 1978 a farmer ploughing his fields discovered a 6 foot (1.8 meter) high carved stone depicting a man carrying an axe. The monumental carving turned out to be an ancient Pictish artifact which was given the name ‘the Rhynie Man’ by local people after the name of the village nearby. However, since the discovery of the stone, archaeologists have largely remained mystified about its origins and history.

The six–foot boulder depicts the a man clad in a sleeved garment. He seems to be walking and carrying an axe. The art is believed to date back to about 700 AD.

The six–foot boulder depicts the a man clad in a sleeved garment. He seems to be walking and carrying an axe. The art is believed to date back to about 700 AD. Credit: Rhynie Community Facilities Development Charitable Trust

Detail, The Rhynie Man stone.

Detail, The Rhynie Man stone. Credit: University of Aberdeen

Fortunately, a team of archaeologists from the University of Aberdeen is leading a dig to discover more about the stone in the area where it was originally found, at Barflat. Near the site is the Craw Stane, another Pictish standing stone.

The "Craw Stane", a Pictish symbol stone depicting a salmon and an unknown animal.

The "Craw Stane", a Pictish symbol stone depicting a salmon and an unknown animal. ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )

It’s believed that the stone dates from the fifth or sixth century. The figure depicted on the Rhynie Man stone is bearded, has a large pointed nose and wears a headdress.

“We did significant work at Rhynie in 2011/12 and identified that the area was a high-status and possibly even royal Pictish site” said Dr Gordon Noble, a Senior Lecturer in archaeology at the university. “We found many long distance connections such as pottery from the Mediterranean, glass from France and Anglo-Saxon metal work with evidence to suggest that intricate metalwork was produced on site. Over the years many theories have been put forward about the Rhynie Man. However, we don’t have a huge amount of archaeology to back any of these up so we want to explore the area in which he was found in much greater detail to yield clues about how and why he was created, and what the carved imagery might mean.”

Some people think that the Rhynie Man may have been a depiction of Esus, a Celtic god associated with trees and forestry . Some of the Pictish stones in the area also have ogham inscriptions on them. Later stones, dating from the sixth to ninth centuries were carved as Celtic crosses, remnants of the time when the Picts converted to Christianity.

Image of Esus, a Gaulish/Celtic god, on the Pillar of the Boatmen.

Image of Esus, a Gaulish/Celtic god, on the  Pillar of the Boatmen . ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The Picts themselves were a mysterious people about whom not much is known, despite occasional references in works by classical scholars. They have gained a popular reputation as savage and wild warriors, but when the Norse peoples occupied the northern regions including what is now Scotland, the Picts had already long passed into mythology as part of Celtic ‘fairy’ lore. As with another mysterious indigenous group, the Druids, the Picts never wrote anything down, which means there are no written records to assist archaeologists involved in investigating them.

However, the Roman orator Eumenius wrote that the Britons regarded the Picts, alongside the Irish (the Picti and Hiberni), as enemies and that they went into battle semi-naked. It is more likely that the word Pict derives from a blanket term applied by the Romans. Its literal meaning is ‘painted people’ on account of the Pictish tradition of tattooing their bodies or painting themselves with blue woad warpaint.

A Pict looking out to sea as depicted in a 19th century book

A Pict looking out to sea as depicted in a 19 th century book ( Wikimedia Commons )

Pictland was never a unified region but was more likely formed from a series of kingdoms or federations, each with its own ruler.

The team of archaeologists have been excavating the site since August 20 and will present previous finds at a public open day on August 29, as well as discuss some of their initial ideas about the site. The Rhynie Man may have stood at the entrance to the fort but the archaeologists want to try and identify the exact location in the hope it will provide some insights into what exactly the role of the stone was.


Justbod's picture

Love the Rhynie Man carving - the Pictish culture is fascinating. Any new research is exciting and it will be interesting to see how these develops.

Thanks for the article :)


Sculptures, carvings & artwork inspired by a love of history & nature:



angieblackmon's picture

I am always amazed at the craftsmanship of these carvings. I feel like regular people don’t have these skills anymore at all. It’s kinda sad.


love, light and blessings


The author is mistaken when he claims that the Druids were another indigenous group like the Picts. Druids were a caste, not a separate tribal people like the Picts. Like Brahmans in India, Druids were high-ranking officials and the penalty for killing one was death.

That being cleared up, the article is interesting but slight in research.

Robin Whitlock's picture

Okay, yes you’re right, however there appears to be some confusion about what I meant by that, so I’ll clarify. I wasn’t suggesting the Druids were an indigenous group in themselves, what I was meaning was that the Druids were another mysterious group existing within the indigenous population(s) of the island at that time.


Thank you for providing a close up of the Rhynie Man's face. It seems to make a point of exaggerating the brow, nose, & ears of the figure along with serrated teeth. It could be a territorial warning of watchful Pict warriors or even a general warning of 'Thar Be Giants!' Who knows.

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