An Afternoon with David McGovern, Pictish Stone Carver
David McGovern first reached out to me in 2017, to let me know about his business, Monikie Rock Art, and invite me for a blether. This was back before I had decided to write a Pictish novel, but I was still very intrigued by the Picts. It took a couple of years but I finally made it a few weeks ago. The stars had finally aligned. I had access to a car, as I was still taking care of Luna in Aberdeenshire. And I needed to go to South Queensferry for a lunch with my Scottish Wanderlust admin team. So there I had it - transportation and an excuse to go through Angus. So I sent David a message and we were finally able to meet up. It was a Pictish miracle! I'm SO glad we finally did, and honestly I think it was a good thing it took awhile, as it gave me time to deepen my knowledge and intrigue about the Picts further. I was in a more informed place to be able to appreciate his knowledge and perspectives.
To use David's own words from his website, "I've always been a bit obsessed with Pictish Art. Here in Angus we are surrounded by fine examples of Pictish carvings, with the incomparable collections at St Vigeans, Meigle and Aberlemno just a short distance away. I started carving in stone around 2005. At first I tried to recreate the wonderful, graceful lines of the Pictish incised carvings then gradually moved onto more complex relief carvings. In 2015 I decided to make stone-carving my full-time career."
When I arrived, Luna bounded out of the car to greet David and his friend Michelle, who is now also MY friend Michelle! We all chatted for a bit about the Picts, traveling Scotland, and new beginnings. Michelle had to scoot off, but it was a delight to meet her. She is on her own journey which is definitely worth a follow, check her out on her Instagram account, "Finding Time in Angus." (Michelle you better be prepared to share an Angus adventure in the near future!)
I wasn't sure what to expect from my visit with David, and was delighted when he asked if I wanted to check out some of the local Pictish stones. He had a mission to show them to me from specific vantage points so I could gain an understanding of the role they played in the landscape and the culture of the people who erected them. David is instantly likeable (I mean, his work revolves around the Picts, so how could he not be...) We wasted no time with small talk and jumped straight into a hardcore Pictish nerd out session. (I did the same with Hamish from Pictavia Leather recently, its a habit I'm growing quite fond of! I'll write more about Hamish and his leather work later. ) We hopped in the car and went stravaiging (a Scottish word for wander.)
Our first stop was a walk (much to Luna's joy!) through the woods to the Hunter's Hill Stone on the road above Glamis (pronounced Glams). David took me here first to illustrate the role it must have played to the community, the message it sent. It would have been the first thing you saw, prominently on the road that was the old approach to Glamis before you descended into town. One one side is a cross, with a variety of figures carved around it. On the other side there are also multiple carvings, but most notable is a very clear snake. Our conversation around this snake in particular gave me some new things to think about.
The next stone was another Cross slab, in the front garden of the Glamis Manse, which lines up perfectly with the entrance to the old Kirk. Unfortunately the owner of the Manse has had some unpleasant experiences with tourists and has closed off access to the stone. (Please, please, please remember to respect local people and places as you wander around Scotland!) I only had my cell phone so the zoom wasn't great - but the stone was quite an impressive one. It had a cross on one side with various carvings around it and a large distinct salmon on the other as well as a snake and mirror.
Next to the manse is St Fergus Kirk, which states on its sign "Established 750 AD by St Fergus." We had a wander through the cemetery to check out the craftsmanship on the various stones and embellishments on the walls, one of which bore an uncanny resemblance to my new stone carving friend... Just kidding, David's jaw is more defined. I always love a graveyard wander, but it's even better with someone who can point out craftsmanship that is particularly noteworthy and explain the reasons why.
Behind the Kirk is a pathway down to the river and beside it, St Fergus Well. It is situated in a beautiful location. There is a bench to sit on (carved by David of course!) and take in the view of the river as the babbling sounds of the water peacefully serenade your ears. The laminated sign next to the well says, "The Kirk was officially dedicated to St Fergus in 1242. St Fergus conducted much of his ministry at Glamis and early Christians were baptized at the Well. He went to Rome as Bishop of Picts 721. He died at Glamis and is thought to be buried here. The Well was a gathering place - a church without a wall. St Fergus probably lived in the cave when at Glamis. The cave was originally much deeper but was filled in some years ago, when lead mining was instigated locally." It is easy to imagine the appeal of open air services in such a tranquil place.
After Glamis, we went on to Eassie Church, where I met a very intriguing character on the stone there. "Who are YOU??" I said out loud to the stone figure. We had a good chat about this mystery man, and the figures he shared the stone with. Where is he headed with such a purposeful stride? I have a feeling he will stride his way right into my novel! This stone is a perfect example of the tradeoff between protection and visibility of these stones. When they are put into glass they can become a challenge to view and photograph, which becomes harder over time as the glass gets scratched and clouded. But I am not going to complain about measures being taken to protect these priceless gems, both from the elements and vandals.
From here we went to the Meigle Museum, which was an exciting surprise! It houses an amazing collection of stones but I will save that for another day as it deserves its own post! But as a placeholder, here is a cat I met there. So. Much. SASS!
When we returned to the house, David asked if there was anything else I wanted to know. My head was spinning with new information and ideas swirling around, and I knew I'd have plenty of questions as time unfolded for me to process it all. But in that moment, I had one simple request - to watch him work. "Ah," he said with a smile, "you want to hear the sounds of the Pictish workshop." He picked up his tools and proceeded to go to work on Bridei, son of Derile, a piece he was in the middle of carving. (Bridei is an important figure in the novel, and it wasn't until I watched David carving him that this key detail fell into place.) I took a video of the demonstration, (there is a short clip below) so I can immerse myself in the sounds from time to time. If I close my eyes, I can be transported to another age and imagine my Picts in their workshop, and the story that is unfolding around them.
As I was preparing to leave, David asked, "Has this been helpful for you?" I hope that my "Yes!" was emphatic enough, because it truly was an enlightening afternoon. More details had fallen into place, I had settled on a specific time frame for the book, I'd received a fresh perspective on some very tired ideas, and most importantly was leaving with SO much more to think about than when I'd arrived. I suppose I had even more questions, but they were good questions. The kind that are fun to think about, that are deliciously frustrating.
David and I share the same attitude towards the "problem of the Picts." None of us were present in their time. It comes to a point when pondering the Picts, that we just have to accept what we don't know and form our own opinions about what their symbols mean to us. Nobody, no matter how much of an "expert" they are, can tell you that your thoughts are wrong - the Picts didn't leave us a manual. There is not handy guidebook to walk us through what their symbols mean. And for me, therein lies the maddening beauty of it all. I often ask people, would we truly be happier to know the answers? Because if we did, the mystery would be gone, and with it, the power of imagination. I'm content to accept it as it is - a tantalising mystery, the ultimate storytelling challenge.
Another interest David and I share is encouraging people to slow down and appreciate the things around them. Take your time to explore, to experience, to listen and to feel the nature and the history around you in Scotland's countless special places. I love the project he is working on currently, to create a Glamis and Meigle Pilgramage Trail. I'll let him tell you in his own words on this Facebook post.
As if being a talented stone carver isn't enough, David also works in bronze! He is available for commissioned work, both large scale and small, and he welcomes visitors to his workshop by appointment. He also teaches because he values passing on the skill to others and finds joy in seeing other craftsmen/women flourish. So I encourage you to find David on your platform of choice and give him a follow! And be sure to tell him the crazy lady who wants to write about the Picts sent you.
And if you find yourself near Forteviot, be sure to stop and admire his work, which I did a few days after I met him. (Click here to read the article about the stone.)
I'm looking forward to my next encounter with David, which will no doubt bring me more to think about and more locations to make me feel like a giddy schoolgirl. If you can't tell, I adore Scotland with everything in me, and I'm committed to faithfully following this call of the Picts, laid upon me when I first set foot in the fort on Mither Tap last year. Thank you, sincerely, to David for his generosity of spirit and time in helping me get one step closer to the novel.