A visit to Groam House museum (http://www.groamhouse.org.uk/ ) is a rewarding experience if you have an interest in insular art or just a curiosity about local pre-history in the north of Scotland. Groam House Museum Ltd is a small independent, award-winning museum in the Black Isle village of Rosmarkie, fifteen miles north-east of Inverness in the UK. It displays an internationally important collection of Pictish sculptured art. Of no small interest is the architecture of Groam House itself, a late 18th/early 19th century, 2 story, Grade ‘B’ listed structure (Historic Scotland Building ID: 31848). With its gable facing onto the street, a centre door flanked by 12-pane sash and case windows at ground and first floor levels and the exterior walls covered in traditional whitewashed lime-harl under a slate roof this is a gloriously typical example of a respectable Scottish tradespersons house which, after extensive restoration following a fire in 1978 has found a new use as a heritage hub at the centre of its community. The centrepiece of the museum’s exhibition on its ground floor is the Rosemarkie Stone, carved around the year 800 AD and there are fourteen other fascinating examples of this kind of insular art in their display, all mainly from the 7th to the 9th century.
The Rosmarkie Stone is unusual in that the side of the slab with a well-formed Celtic cross on it is also covered with very fine ornamented patterns, a regular interlace on the upper half and arrangements of animal ornament on the lower (image top left). On the reverse (image top right) in the middle of the slab is a panel containing a cross with equal arms – which is quite unique. The top of the slab has been lost but originally on the reverse side it is supposed to have had three crescent symbols and their associated V-shaped rods, only two of these now remain. There are other symbols, the “Double Disk and Z Rod” and the “Mirror” and the “Comb” and rather than the traditional hunting scene which is common in Pictish slabs of this type there is a Christian cross. Parallels have been drawn with Northumbrian illuminated manuscripts and it seems likely that this particular devotional or memorial art-work was produced in an ecclesiastical setting where the governance was episcopal rather than aristocratic hence the absence of a hunting scene. Like a number of the other cross slabs on display at Groam House the Rosemarkie Stone has recessed panels on its face at the crossing of the crucifix which are edged with a border, and similar, shallower cavities at the centre of each arm. These depressions may have contained decorative glass or stone inlays and may have given the appearance of metalwork crosses in jewellery of the period. Because of the low degree of weathering of the stone surface on this 1200 year old artefact it is likely that for much of its life it was indoors, possibly within a church, and if so it could have formed a reredos at the back of an altar or had a position in the centre of the nave in front of the sanctuary. Despite the large number of ecclesiastical Pictish stone carvings found in and around Rosmarkie there is as yet no sign of the monastic buildings or church compound with which they may have been associated, however it was likely that there was one and that it was part of the Columban federation of churches whose main bases were on Iona on the west coast and Lindisfarne on the east coast. It is possible that the site of Rosemarkie’s church or monastery has long since been covered by the later village. The first systematic account of the slab is in John Stuart’s Sculptured Stones of Scotland published in 1856. Stuart published a handsome, if somewhat inaccurate, double-page spread depicting the front and back of the slab. Prof. Isabel Henderson in her “Art and Function of Rosmemarkie’s Pictish Monuments” (1990) states that she believes “There is a strong probability that the cross-slab stood originally somewhere within the confines of the modern graveyard.” It is therefore possible that further evidence of the presence of a Celtic ecclesiastical establishment exists beneath the present church and its grounds.
Overall the collection at Groam House is distinguished by its generally high standard of artistic representation and inventiveness. Its sources are of some architectural interest. The art of carving in relief appears to have been lost in Northern England after the departure of the Roman army from the British Isles in the 5th century. In order to construct masonry churches in Northumbria masons had to be brought from Gaul in the 7th century AD because there remained only a tradition of timber building in the north. The beautifully decorated jambs on the doorway at Monkwearmouth built in 674 AD are of a Germanic type which may reflect this introduction. An impressive cross marked slab at Monkwearmouth dedicated to one Herebericht is dated to the early 8th century and it’s at just this time that the Pictish king Nechtan, son of Derile was in communication with Bede’s abbot Ceolfrith of Jarrow and “…asked for builders to be sent to build a church of stone…promising that it would be dedicated in honour of the blessed chief of the apostles [St. Peter].” It’s likely this church was eventually built at Restenneth near Forfar in the early 8th century and if introduction of masons led to stone church building in Pictland then it’s likely Northumbrian artistic decoration (including monumental sculpture) came with it, leading within a generation or two to a diffusion of this artistic tradition within the pre-existing Pictish arts. Evidence to support this view is that Restenneth is close to Aberlemno which has an outstanding concentration of Pictish sculpture. The early cross-slab (Aberlemno 2) in the Aberlemno Churchyard has the same proportion (height to width) as the Herebericht slab and has carved designs very similar to those found in the Lindisfarne Gospels which date to circa 700 AD. The stone is reputed to show scenes of the Battle of Dunnichen or Nechtansmere. This is usually believed to have taken place at Dunnichen, four miles south of Aberlemno, on 20 May 685. The battle was fought between the invading army of King Ecgfrith of Northumbria and Pictish defenders under King Bridei III. The battle was a decisive victory for the Picts.
The Rosemarkie cross slab which is 144 miles north of Restenneth, has more slender proportions which indicate that it is later than Aberlemno 2 which would conform to a view of initial northward propagation of Northumbrian-Celtic sculptural tradition from 700-800AD, and very probably the architecture of church building in stone progressed in the same way at the same time as well. This was not a one way traffic, there was widespread communication between Pictland the rest of Britain, Ireland and the continent. Within this context Prof. Isabel Henderson sums up the wider importance of the Rosemarkie stone and others like it thus; “Because the Irish and the English sent missionaries to Germany in the eighth century, Insular Art was known on the Continent and interacted with the art produced at the court of Charlemagne. The Rosemarkie slab in spite of its array of uniquely Pictish symbols is a Christian monument decorated in an international art style…it would not have seemed alien or barbaric to a visitor from Canterbury or Ravenna in the ninth century.” This international dimension to the understanding of later Pictish sculpture like the Rosmarkie stone highlights a vitally important role regional museums like Groam House play in preserving and explaining the rich creative, cultural legacy early British art and architecture has within a wider European context.