The Journal Of Antiquities

Ancient Sites In Great Britain & Southern Ireland

The Wirksworth Stone, St Mary’s Church, Wirksworth, Derbyshire

The Wirksworth Stone, Derbyshire (Drawing by J. Romilly Allen, c 1889).

The Wirksworth Stone, Derbyshire (Drawing by J. Romilly Allen, c 1889).

   OS grid reference: SK 2874 5394. Near to the centre of the town of Wirksworth, Derbyshire, along St Mary’s Gate stands the ancient parish church of St Mary the Virgin, and housed within is the Anglo-Saxon ‘Wirksworth Stone’, a richly carved sculptured stone with biblical scenes and figures, which is said to date from the 7th-9th century AD; and there is also a stone with a ‘rare’ example of an Anglo-Saxon lead-miner carved onto it, dating from the 8th century? The ancient parish church of St Mary, dating largerly from the 13-14th centuries, is located some 25 metres  south of the B5035 (Wirksworth Moor road) on St Mary’s Gate, close to the centre of the town. The villages of Cromford and Bonsall lie a couple of miles to the north on the B5036 road.

   The Wirksworth Stone is built into the north wall of the nave and is oblong-shaped and chunky; it measures 5 feet x 3 feet but is probably not as long as it originally was (as can be seen at the western edge) – due to damage over the centuries. This richly sculptured stone-slab, which is in fact a coffin lid [from a sarcophagus], is adorned with scenes and figures from the Bible, most of which depict the ‘Life of Christ’. There are numerous angels, apostles, disciples and members of the holy family. Yet these figures look ‘almost’ as if they had been carved yesterday! They were probably carved in 800 AD. The stone was discovered lying upside-down beneath the chancel floor, quite close to the altar, in 1820. The first church on this site was apparently founded by the Northumbrian monk and missionary, St Betti, in c 653 AD. So, could the sculptured stone be from his tomb?

   In Simon Jenkins great tome ‘England’s Thousand Best Churches’ we are ‘enthusiastically’ informed about the contents of St Mary’s church: “The contents of Wirksworth include one of the finest Saxon coffin lids extant…..its relief carving portraying eight scenes from the life of Christ. We can discern Christ washing the disciples’ feet, the Entombment and, on the lower tier, the Ascension. This lid is among the most evocative images of Dark Ages art. Its inspiration is similar to the ‘Byzantine’ carvings at Breedon (Leics) to the south. The figures could hardly be more primitive, moor aloof from the Saxon tradition, yet they radiate life.”

   The author Derek Bryce in his antiquarian book ‘Symbolism of the Celtic Cross’ says that: “In Britain there is a unique instance of the Lamb of God on a cross, on a sculptured slab in Wirksworth Church, Derbyshire.” The said ‘Lamb of God’ is depicted on a rather thick cross on the top tier of the slab – with three creatures and a human figure surrounding it.

Carving of lead miner, St Mary's, Wirksworth, Derbys.

Carving of lead miner, St Mary’s, Wirksworth, Derbys.

   Also inside St Mary’s, in the wall of the south transept, is a fragment of stone from maybe the 8th century AD, which has a carving of a lead-miner upon it. This little figure is locally called T’owd Man of Bonsall or just ‘Owd Man’ and is thought to have come from Bonsall church near Cromford in 1876 – the two Derbyshire villages lie a few miles north of Wirksworth. The area around here has always been known for its lead mines, indeed the Romans are ‘said’ to have mined the stuff. In the early 19th century lead had then become such a sellable commodity that a “moot” hall was established in Wirksworth.

   The author Frank Rodgers in his very interesting book ‘Curiosities of Derbyshire And The Peak District’ says of the ancient stones inside St Mary’s: “………other fragments of ancient carving are built into the walls, one in the south transept depicting a lead miner with his tools, a reminder that not far from the north gate of the churchyard is the Moot Hall in Chapel Lane.”


Bryce, Derek., Symbolism Of The Celtic Cross, Llanerch Enterprises, Felinfach, Lampeter, Dyfed, Wales, 1989.

Jenkins, Simon., England’s Thousand Best Churches, Penguin Books Ltd., London, 2000.

Rodgers, Frank., Curiosities of Derbyshire And The Peak District, Derbyshire Countryside Ltd., Derby, 2000. 

Romilly Allen J., Christian Symbolism in Great Britain and Ireland before the 13th Century, 1889.


Sueno’s Stone, Forres, Moray, Scotland

1861 drawing of the stone

Sueno’s Stone 1861 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

OS grid reference NJ 0465 5953. At the east side of the village of Forres before reaching the B9011 road turn left into Findhorn road and on the opposite side of the road in a field stands the famous Sueno’s Stone, a very tall class III Pictish stone/cross-slab, which since the 1990s has rather unfortunately been housed within a horrid glass, protective cage – although it is now stopping any further erosion to the beautiful Pictish carvings, so that has to be a good thing. It used to stand inside iron railings. The stone is said to weigh over 7 tonnes. According to authoress, Elizabeth Sutherland, in her delightful book The Pictish Guide, 1997, of the stone she says: “It is undoubtedly one of the finest examples of Dark Age sculpture in Europe and should not be missed”. The town of Nairn is 10 miles to the west on the A96 and the town of Elgin is 11 miles to the east also on the A96.

Sueno’s Stone (Swein’s Stone) is a ‘highly sculptured’ Old Red Sandstone pillar standing on a low, stepped base at between 21-23 feet high (6-7 meters) that is thought to commemorate a battle or battles that took place in the mid 9th century AD, according to the legend. Many of the decorative scenes depict Dark Age battles which took place in Scotland, but there are is also a strong Christian theme running through much of the ornamentation, and very beautiful it all is too. There are, however, no Pictish symbols on class III stones. The general thinking is that the battle scenes depict King Kenneth MacAlpin and his victories over the Picts circa AD 842, or could they in fact be earlier in date or, indeed, slightly more recent? We don’t even know for certain who “Sueno” was. The authors Janet & Colin Bord in their book Ancient Mysteries of Britain, 1991, suggest that “Sueno for whom it is named may have been a Norse king defeated near this spot by the Picts”. It seems ‘quite’ likely that the stone was moved to it’s current position from somewhere nearby having apparently lain buried in the ground for some considerable time; the very first reference to the stone came in the early 18th century.

English: Sueno's Stone. This is a historic sho...

Sueno’s Stone. (Photo credit: Anne Burgess, Geograph)

On the front side of the pillar there are 11 panels with ‘many’ horsemen riding into battle and numerous human characters, probably Pictish warriors, but also characters not involved in any battle but, which could possibly recall the coronation of Kenneth MacAlpin, in particular the two tall figures bending over a seated figure – now echoed by a few leading experts in the field. The best part is quite obviously the very large wheel-headed cross with it’s long shaft on a rectangular base in the centre of this face; this being the part that seems to draw our full attention and, was probably meant to do just that because it takes up most of the face; there is also the more familiar knotwork interlacing both on the shaft and on the sides.

The opposite side (back) is quite literally covered in upto 100 figures, elite warriors and horsemen all in 4 panels. The general concensus by historians on Pictish history with regard to this side of the stone is that the carvings say out loudly: ‘the Pictish kingdom is finished and the Scots are “victorious” and here to stay – make no mistake about that’. King Kenneth MacAlpin is now in charge. In panel 1 there is a row of figures holding swords and standing above eight warriors on horseback (in three rows facing left); another row of warriors in panel 2 – the middle figure wearing a kilt could be King Kenneth MacAlpin? Another row has eight figures with the two in the centre, fighting and, a third row has six severed heads with a bell and next to that six corpses without their heads, while a warrior is about to behead a seventh figure; beneath that two couples are fighting with their hands. The fourth row has more mounted warriors fighting (in three columns) and making their escape from warriors on foot.

In the third panel there are yet more warriors in pairs and, in the centre what is perhaps a bridge, tent or a broch with corpses and severed heads beneath it, while below that two pairs of figures orating the battle scene. Panel 4 shows two rows of warriors facing left with the four front figures unharmed and chained and their victors with sheilds and swords following them. The edge of the stone (right) is carved with leaves and plants and the heads of beasts linked and intertwining, while below that two human heads; the left edge shows more beasts, interlacing and men with fish tails interlaced to form figures of eight; three more heads can be seen beneath this. It is thought the stone was actually set up by the victorious Kenneth MacAlpin who had now become king of the Scots – thus ending the rule of the Picts in Scotland. The Picts now had to accept the ‘inevitable outcome’. MacAlpin died in AD 858 or 859 – having ruled as king of the Picts and, later of the Scots from circa 834 AD. He died at Forteviot in Perthshire and was buried on the Isle of Iona.


Sutherland, Elizabeth., The Pictish Guide, Birrlin Limited, Edinburgh, 1997.

Bord, Janet & Colin., Ancient Mysteries of Britain, Diamond Books (Harper Collins Publishers Ltd), 1991.

Jackson, Anthony., The Pictish Trail, The Orkney Press Ltd., St Ola, Kirkwall, Orkney, 1989.

St Orland’s Stone, Cossans, Angus, Scotland

English: St Orlands Stone. Details of the symb...

(Photo: Wallace Shackleton Wikipedia)

OS grid ref: NO 4008 5002. Roughly half-way between Kirriemuir and Forfar in a farmer’s field near the ruined Cossans farm stands the 8th century Pictish symbol stone known as St Orland’s Stone, but also called Cossans Stone and Glamis Manse No 3. Now fenced off the stone looks rather forlorn on the borderline of two fields, but originally a chapel stood on this site that was associated with the un-known Pictish saint called Orland, and also a number of cist-type graves from the Dark Ages or earlier were excavated here in 1855. The stone may have marked the burial place of St Orland himself? Originally the stone and chapel would have stood on a raised area of land surrounded by marshland. Today the stone is more or less in the middle of nowhere!

There are a number of footpaths and tracks heading off from the A928 and A926 roads towards the stone, but by following the path of the disused railway line from the A928 for just over a mile to the hamlet of Cossans is just as good because you can see the monument in the field to the east. Glamis is 2 miles to the south-west, whilst the town of Forfar is 4½ miles to the east along the A94.

The red sandstone slab is a Pictish Class II monument and stands to a height of 7 feet 10 inches high by 2 foot 4 inches wide, but it has had to be clamped around it’s edges by iron bars that look rather unsightly, though if that’s what it takes rather than the monument collapsing, so be it, because there are some large cracks and a small hole in the stone at the edge. It is sculptured on both sides with some extraordinary Early Christian carvings and Pictish symbols, dating probably from about the 8th century AD. The stone slab is one of four Pictish antiquities that make up the Glamis Manse collection; two others (Nos 1 & 2) being within half a mile of Glamis village, the other stone (No 4) being in the Meffan Institute at Forfar.

The front face has a well-sculptured ringed-cross (in high relief) that runs from top to bottom with faint interlacing (in low relief) formed by spirals and other strange pattern-work in and around the cross, while the reverse side has a hunting scene with men riding on horses, six men in a boat, other human figures, two hounds, serpents, and two animals (bulls) attacking each other at the bottom. In the boat at the far right is what could be Christ with his four evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The two serpents with fish-like tails take up much of the reverse side – their jaws holding what could be a human head? Also, the well-known Pictish symbols of crescent and V-rod and double disc and Z-rod.


Sutherland, Elizabeth., The Pictish Guide, Birlinn Limited, Edinburgh, 1997.

Childe, Gordon, V., Ancient Monuments Vol VI SCOTLAND Illustrated Guide, H.M.S.O., Edinburgh, 1959.