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Pictish stones give up secrets of centuries old puzzle

Date: 5 April 1999
Our ref: 415

A major new discovery by a researcher from the University of Aberdeen has unlocked the secret of writing on standing stones which has baffled scholars for hundred of years.

Dr Richard Cox, a lecturer in the University’s Department of Celtic has discovered that the inscriptions on the Pictish symbol stones characteristic of some parts of Scotland are written in Old Norse, the Scandinavian language of the Vikings’ descendants.

His landmark discovery, published for the first time today, is set to send shock waves though the research community which has long believed the inscriptions to be an ancient form of Gaelic or a long forgotten Pictish language.  The discovery finally puts paid to any mystery surrounding the Pictish language.

Dr Cox explained:  “The inscriptions are written in ogam, a writing system using a series of straight slashes on, through or below a central stem line.  We think it was developed in 4th century Ireland and later brought to Scotland.  While the system was used to write Gaelic in Ireland, no one has been able to make sense of the inscription in Scotland.

“But using Old Norse, the inscriptions can be translated meaningfully.  Many are memorials, recording who carved the stone and in whose memory it was erected”.

Carved between 1050 and 1225, the 19 stones which Dr Cox studied include about half the ogam inscriptions found across Scotland from Orkney to Arran and Lochgoilhead to Aberdeen.

“This discovery is of major significance for our understanding of the early history of Scotland and Scandinavia.  There is plenty of evidence, through place names for example, of Scandinavian influence in some parts of Scotland but these stones provide clear evidence of strong links between Scotland and Norway in areas where other evidence is absent,” said Dr Cox.

“In Scandinavia, memorial inscriptions like these would be carved in runes not ogam.  The question is why are these stones carved in Old Norse but using a system of writing developed in the Gaelic speaking world?  The evidence suggests strong links in language and learning and in religious custom between Norse and Gaelic-speaking communities.”

The full title of Dr Cox’s book is The Language of the Ogam Inscriptions of Scotland:  Contributions to the Study of Ogam, Runic and Roman Alphabet Inscriptions in Scotland.  The publication retails at £12.50 + p&p and is available from the Department of Celtic, University of Aberdeen, Aberdeen AB24 3UB or can also be ordered via the web:


Further information

Please contact Alison Ramsay on telephone +44 (0)1224-273778 or email