St Vigeans is a sleepy small village on the side of the Brothock Burn on northern edge of Arbroath. It is at the end of the road and is an attractive settlement of single storey red sandstone cottages on the side of the road below the church. There is an old stone bridge across the burn and plenty of parking by the village hall near it.
This was a thriving Christian settlement here between 700-1000AD, when Irish monks settled in the area and began converting the Picts to Christianity. It is thought that bones of St Féchín, an Irish saint, may have been buried in a monastery here. It was an important centre of pilgrimage before the centre of religious power moved to Arbroath Abbey.
The church is built on top of a steep mound and is surrounded by a walled graveyard. It is usually kept locked unless a prior arrangement has been made with the vicar. The museum is also supposed to have a key. The square tower is the oldest part of the church with 11/12thC small square windows. The rest of the church was heavily restored in the 19thC when fragments of Pictish stones were found in the church walls and around the site. These have been carefully preserved and are on view in two cottages in the village. Don’t turn up on spec, as the museum is only open by prior arrangement with Arbroath Abbey and this depends on them having someone available.
I rang several weeks before our planned visit and fixed a time to visit and then rang a couple of days before to make sure there were no problems. Foolishly I didn’t bother to ask if we could take photos in the museum. I automatically assumed this would be possible. It isn’t, on grounds of ‘health and safety’. Taking this up with Historic Scotland afterwards, they told me this was in case people were so engrossed in taking a picture they might fall over the stones.
Space is restricted in the museum and lighting isn’t that good, however it does seem a rather over the top ruling. We were told that they do have a CD with pictures of all the stones which we could purchase. This begins to sound as thought ‘income generation’ is the real reason, rather than H&S.
It is possible to approach Historic Scotland photo unit to apply for a “photographic licence… to ensure you have a specific date and time in which to undertake the photography and are able to do so uninterrupted.” It was a pity I wasn’t told this when I first rang the Abbey to make a date to view.
If I’d known of the restriction earlier, I would probably have given St Vigean’s a miss and just visited nearby Meigle Sculptured Stones Museum which has an equally good collection of stones and photography is allowed (although without flash).
The custodian gave us a brief run down of the history of the area and brief information about some of the stones. There were display boards on the walls.
The earlier stones were unshapen with designs carved by incision on the surface. These predate the arrival of Christianity and just have Pictish symbols. Later stones were carefully shaped before carving and are carved in relief as well as incision. The Christian cross is the dominant motif on the front and the backs are covered with Pictish symbols.
The stones include cross slabs and recumbent burial markers, as well as fragments of stones. All have the characteristic Pictish symbols carved on then with mounted horsemen, hunting scenes, figures, animals, double discs with a Z-rod across then, crescents with a V-rod, mirror and comb.
The crosses often have a strong Celtic influence and are covered with interlaced, spiral or geometric designs. Many often have carvings of monks or saints on the sides of the cross. One has a representation of St Paul and St Anthony at the top being brought bread by a raven. Many of the cross slab stones stood 6-10’ high.
The DROSDEN STONE is the only stone given a name. The rest are just numbers. It is carved from stone brought from Forfar, about 15miles away, as this was harder and gave a better result than the local red sandstone. This dates from 8/9thC and all four sides are carved. The front has a cross standing out in relief with interlacing along the shaft and part of the arm and head. (the rest has been lost). The animals carved down the sides of the shaft appear squashed. This is interpreted as an indication they were subservient to the cross. The back is covered with Pictish symbols. There is a hunting dog chasing a stag, a doe suckling her fawn, a bird of prey (possibly an osprey) which has caught a salmon, a bear and a goat with a very large head. As well as these there is a crescent, double disc with a Z-rod and a mirror and comb, all beautifully presented in relief. The stone is unusual as it has part of a Latin inscription on the base of the stone which can only be read by people on their knees. It commemorates three people; Drosten, Uoret and Forcus. The first two are Pictish names. Forcus is Gaelic. Only part of the inscription remains and there are differing interpretations.
The other ‘treasure’ is part of the stone surrounding the shrine of St St Féchín. This has triangular carvings along the top and would have protected a small reliquary containing fragmets of clothing or a few bones from the saint.
Overall we were disappointed by the museum. A lot of the stones were small fragments, although many did have good carvings on them. We didn’t feel it delivered in the way the similar museum at Meigle did. This is one for the Pictish nuts prepared to prebook. If you are planning a visit do ask about a photographic permit….
Entry is £4.50 or £3.60 for concessions which we felt was expensive for what is on display, especially as you are not allowed to take photographs. Meigle Has a better collection of stones for the same price.