History in a glass box

William M. Dowd photo

FORRES, Scotland -- Some people like their history neatly placed in a box, rather than being scattered around and requiring some assembly.

For them, Sueno's Stone is perfect.

The 21-foot high stone is classified as a Picto-Scottish Class III standing stone, perched on a slight rise on the northeastern edge of town. It is the largest such stone in the British Isles.

I must confess it felt less than historic when I first saw it, wrapped in glass and steel as it is and perched within a stone's throw of private homes. But closer examination began unwrapping its art and mysteries for me.

As with many ancient monuments, the stone's precise history is unknown. However, some records indicate it is the remaining part of a two-stone installation.

Sueno's Stone, which is quite weathered, is covered in typical Pictish style of interwoven vine symbols on the edge panels. It is carved from Old Red sandstone. The western face has a carved Celtic cross with interlaced decoration and a badly worn scene set in a panel below the cross. The east face has four panels depicting a large battle scene. The base panel shows the victorious army leaving the battlefield.

The stone has been kept behind armored glass since the early 1990s to prevent further erosion and to protect against graffiti. Radio carbon dating at the site has produced dates of charcoal fragments to between AD 600 and 1000. Researchers generally agree that the stone dates to between the 9th and 10th centuries.

One interpretation of the carvings is that they depict the battle, parade and decapitation scenes of the victorious army of Kenneth MacAlpin (in Gaelic, Cináed mac Ailpín), who held authority over northern Pictland. There are several others, including that the carvings are meant to memorialize the final triumph of the Christian Gaels of Dál Riata over their "heathen" Pictish enemies.

The name Sueno's Stone seems to refer to its discoverer since the name translates to "Sven's stone."

Local legend says the stone stands at the crossroads where Shakespeare's "Macbeth"Macbeth originally met the three witches. In the legend, they were eventually imprisoned inside the stone where they would stay unless the stone was broken.

One wonders what, if that should happen, the witches would be able to do with the glass box itself.
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