The Wemyss Caves: Ancient Pictish History and the Writing on the Walls
The Ancient Picts were amongst the most enigmatic inhabitants of ancient British Isles. Still a big puzzle to scholars around the world, the Pictish culture was filled to the brim with unique aspects that don’t appear to be connected to the culture of their neighbors. Who were these peoples that were so fierce and warlike that they stopped the Romans dead in their tracks? How odd and ferocious could these tribesmen have been to warrant the construction of the impassable Hadrian’s Wall ? Most of what remains of the Picts are their mysterious carvings, religious and mythical symbols that remain a big enigma to all. However, the Wemyss Caves on the coast of Fife in Scotland could provide an answer. Dotted with ancient and modern carvings, these illustrious caverns are a critical glimpse into the history of the Picts in the region. But that is just the tip of the iceberg. Over the centuries the caves have been the refuge of hermits, lairds, Jacobites, and refugees. And all of them left their mark.
Since 2013, the East Wemyss community has been applying digital technology, such as laser scanning and aerial photography, to create 3D models of the Wemyss Caves, thanks to funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, Historic Environment Scotland and Fife Council. ( Wemyss Caves 4D / The Scape Trust)
What Do We Need to Know About the Wemyss Caves?
The Wemyss is a civil parish in Fife, more precisely on its south coast, and lies directly on the Firth of Forth. Although Wemyss measures only 6 miles (9.65 km) from northeast to southwest, it still has a lot of unique character and historic importance. Its name comes from the Gaelic word Uaimheis, which translates to “Place of the Caves” or “Cave Place”. As a parish Wemyss has a very long history, and was crucial in some turning events in both Scottish and English history.
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Home to the Scottish Clans of Wemyss and McDuff, the coastline boasts impressive historic places, such as the McDuff Castle ruins and the grandiose Wemyss Castle, which is still a pristine residence. However, the Wemyss area is most well known for the caves dotting the coastline. There are nine extant caves in the area, and five of them have a multitude of carvings on their walls, many of which are Pictish in origin.
X-ray view showing the location of the Wemyss Caves. ( The Scape Trust )
Most geologists agree that the caves are a natural product of nature, created by the sea activity over some 8,000 years. In their earliest period of existence, the caverns were most likely subject to intense flooding and were mostly inaccessible. But with the withdrawal of the water levels and the establishing of a large beachhead, the caverns became the site of a variety of visitors, most likely beginning with the Ancient Picts .
Out of all the recorded carvings, the Pictish symbols are the most numerous. This tells us that the caves were the location of ritual activity, which can be further established by the evidences gathered from archaeological research. Originally, twelve caves were documented on the site, but only nine remain today. This loss is the direct result of continued sea activity as the sandstone is prone to erosion. Today these caves are under threat of disappearance. The increasingly rising sea levels are threatening to flood the caves permanently. Due to their significance for the history of Scotland, the Wemyss Caves were declared a Scheduled Monument of particular historical importance. The race is now on to gather as much information as possible before nature claims them forever. Join us as we learn more about the key caves that survive today.
Court Cave is one of the best preserved of the Wemyss Caves. Legend has it that it was used as a court by one of the McDuff lairds. One of its walls, filled with Pictish symbols, can be seen here during excavations. ( The Scape Trust )
Court Cave: Site of Unique Pictish Carvings
The Court Cave is one of the best preserved and most famous of the remaining nine caves. Local folklore states that the cave gets its name because it was used as a court during the medieval period, presumably by a resident laird of the once active McDuff’s Castle above it. Plenty of other legends are ascribed to it. One such story is of the young James IV of Scotland, who was present in it in disguise, but was forced to reveal his identity to a band of gypsies after getting drunk and quarrelling with them.
While Court Cave remains its most common name, in the past it was also known as the Piper’s Cave, due to a legend of a piper who marched into it and never came out again, or Bark Cove, due to the practice of the local fishermen who steeped their nets in oak bark preservative inside.
This cave is well known for the ten extant carvings of Pictish origin . Present on the walls is the usual Pictish symbol of the double disc with the floriated rod, as well as V-rods, mythical beasts, human figures, and brooch shapes, all typical for these ancient tribes. One of the more unique carvings is the supposed depiction of the Norse God Thor, hammer aloft and his goat beside him.
The Doo Cave, unique amongst the Wemyss Caves, was used as a dove cot during medieval times. Today visitors can view the carved niches used as pigeon nests. ( Scotland Off The Beaten Track )
Doo Cave: Historic Dove Cot
The Doo Cave, better translated from Scots as the Dove Cave, is a much simpler affair on the first glance. However, once you learn more about its history, it is clear that it too held great importance. It is known as the Dove Cave for a simple reason: during the medieval period it was used as a doocot, or a dove cot. Nowadays, all that remains of this history are a series of carved little niches, which were used as pigeon nests.
Once, this small cavern was linked by a passage to its western portion, the West Doo Cave. The latter was filled with Pictish carvings , seventeen of them, but it sadly collapsed in 1914 due to a heavy gun emplacement being positioned on top of it. Recorded in it was a pristine carving of a double disc with a Z-rod, beasts, birds, S-shapes, and simpler double discs.
The Well Cave, the most popular of the Wemyss Caves, has suffered due to this popularity. (Rob Burke / CC BY-SA 2.0 )
Well Cave: The Most Popular of the Wemyss Caves
Well Cave remains one of the most popular and well explored of the Wemyss Caves, although that popularity has come with a cost. Its walls are now covered with hundreds of modern signatures, left behind over the centuries by eager visitors. Most of the signatures are by those who wished to witness the so-called Holy Well in this cove. Up to the end of the 19 th century, it was a local tradition for young people to visit the Well Cave on the first Monday after January 12 th, in order to drink from the bubbling St. Margaret’s Well.
The St. Margaret’s Well still stands in the back of the cave. However, due to increased mining activity, the spring line shifted, and water does not bubble up here anymore, which caused the custom to die out. There is no doubt that the tradition of visiting the Holy Well is a very ancient practice, predating perhaps even the Picts, and has survived to the late 19 th century. It is likely that the well existed in ancient times too and that the cave was highly important due to its difficult entranceway and its silent and ominous ambience. Sadly, there are no surviving Pictish symbols in it, although there are a multitude of modern signatures and graffiti.
Group of students on a visit to Jonathan’s Cave, the most iconic of the Wemyss Caves due to it being home to some of the best preserved Pictish carvings. ( The Scape Trust )
The Iconic Jonathan’s Cave
This is the most iconic of all Wemyss Caves, and rightly so. With its wide, imposing opening and a sharp down sloping entrance, the Jonathan’s Cave looks like a natural shelter. In the region it was also known as the Cat Cave or the Factors Cave. It came into the limelight and attained a wider audience in 1865 when the antiquarian James Young Simpson first recognized the carvings and their connection with the Picts. These were later subject to much research.
In this cave are some of the best preserved Pictish carvings, amongst which is a very interesting carving of a 5-oar, 6-man boat; a carving of a leaping salmon, of swans, a multitude of Greek crosses, and of course, a variety of Pictish symbols such as the double discs and rods. Amongst them are also a few 20th century carvings, which luckily stand out easily. Also, due to the multitude of early Christian crosses depicted, it is speculated that the Jonathan’s Cave was a local site of early pilgrimage, perhaps acting as a makeshift church.
Image of Jonathan’s Cave, a 3D point cloud image. ( The Scape Trust )
Sliding Cave: Excavations Reveal Evidence of Ritual Activity
The Sliding Cave, also known as the Sloping Cave, is one of the smallest of the bunch, and the least decorated. But this does not mean that it isn’t of interest for researchers. Recent archaeological excavations of the floor of the cavern revealed a layer of trampled, beaten ground, about one meter (3.28 feet) below the present cavern floor. Also discovered at this point were charred remains of barley grains. After tests, it was concluded that the layer dates to sometime between 200 and 400 AD, roughly coinciding with the Pictish period.
These remains could very well be the proof of the authors of these carvings, even though there are only three in this small cavern. One of these is a prominent and large Pictish double disc near the base of a side wall, while the other two are rectangular shapes, of which one features a double disc. Also in this cave are a few holdfasts, a feature found in almost all the Wemyss Caves, whose purpose is not clear. These perforations through the ledges could have acted as a place for storing candles or lamps for those exploring, seeking refuge, or carving symbols.
The Wemyss Caves are known especially for the Pictish carvings that can be found on their walls. In this image we can see a bird figure being captured during the creation of the Wemyss Caves 4D project. ( The Scape Trust )
When Excavations Give Only Partial Answers
Besides the thorough excavations and research of the caverns themselves, plenty of excavations conducted in the area outside of their entrances and along the surrounding beaches. These digs were a major reveal of prehistoric, medieval, Iron Age, and above all, Pictish activity in this area. One of the interesting finds were the remnants of a Late Neolithic or Bronze Age orthostat, better known as a standing stone. No parts of it remained above ground, but evidence suggest that it was once a “dressed” stone, and later perhaps used as a grave marker.
Also, interesting finds of medieval burials were discovered, most notably outside of Jonathan’s Cave. One burial housed an adult male skeleton, its arms crossed and the body positioned with its head to the west. The skeleton was dated to roughly 970 to 1120 AD. Some five meters (16.4 feet) to its side was another burial, of an adult female this time, with head also oriented to the West. Some scholars suggested that these burials serve as evidence of a small early Christian community, which can be connected to some of the symbols and crosses found in the caves. If we imply that at least one of the caves served as a primitive church, then these could have been the burials “in the church yard.”
In regards to medieval and post-medieval ages, when the Picts were all but gone as a distinct cultural group, some very interesting finds were made. When archaeologists were excavating Jonathan’s cave, which oddly has the largest amount of Pictish carvings, they discovered some very unique medieval discoveries. Local folklore states that the cave is named after a certain Jonathan, a nail maker who lived in the cavern, presumably a very long time ago. This local legend is partially confirmed, thanks to the discovery of numerous nail fragments and related debris at a certain depth. Furthermore, many cat bones were also discovered, which is related to the cave’s other name: Cat Cave. It is assumed that there was a large number of cats living and dying at this place.
Preserving the Pictish Heritage
Sadly, most of the Wemyss Caves display signs of thorough clearing, almost certainly due to the workings of the sea. This leaves a lot of their history consigned to the vast waters that lie just in front. Who knows how much history has been washed away?
The general history and the purpose of Wemyss Caves remains largely a mystery. A repeated Pictish presence is clear, and there are plenty of clues that indicate that these caves might have had a ritual or religious purpose. It could be that it was simply the place of local folklore, myth, and legend for the local Picts, and the Neolithic inhabitants that preceded them. The researchers of the famed Time Team group visited these caves and conducted thorough research, all in the hopes of piecing together the puzzling story of the Wemyss Caves.
Top image: The Wemyss Caves, on the coast of Scotland, are a must see for those interested in the history of the Picts. In the image we can see students in front of Doo Cave during a solar eclipse. Source: The Scape Trust
Gibson, C. 2004. East Wemyss Caves . Canmore. Available at: https://canmore.org.uk/event/845177
Stevens, C. and Gibson, C. 2007. Iron Age and Pictish activity at Wemyss Caves, Fife . Tayside and Fife Archaeological Journal vol. 13.
Unknown. Wemyss Caves. Wemyss4D. Available at: http://4dwemysscaves.org