The Picts were an ancient people who lived in what is now eastern and north-eastern Scotland from Caithness to Fife from around the 3rd to the 10th century. Much of what we know about them has been deduced from the Pictish stones that survived from that era. Above is a plate from John Stuart's 1856 publication 'Sculptured Stones of Scotland' - a seminal work that sparked great interest in Scotland's Pictish stones. The image was created at the firm of Keith & Gibb, Royal Lithographers and Engravers. It shows in detail the symbols carved into the Pictish stone which is now much deteriorated and resides in a shelter to the right as you enter Largo Kirk churchyard through its west gateway.
Sometimes referred to as the 'Largo Cross' or the 'Largo Stone', the upright cross-slab of red sandstone is shaped to a rectangle with a rounded top. It is carved in relief on both sides. On one side is a ringed cross that fills the full dimensions of the slab. The head of the cross is equal-armed with rectangular terminals. The shaft of the cross is set into a rectangular base. To the right of the shaft is a pair of entwined sea-horses and to the left is a large human figure. Indistinct traces remain of ornamentation on the ring and of a flat circular boss at the intersection. The cross arms once had an interlaced pattern and a spiral or interlaced design once covered the shaft.
The opposite face depicts a hunting scene in the upper half, with three horsemen and at least two hounds, all facing to the left. There are traces of some creature behind the lower rider. In front of the two lower riders is a double disc and Z-rod symbol set vertically. Below all of that is a Pictish beast facing left and further below a deer looking back at another deer. Below are two alternative illustrations of the stone, which measures 6 feet 6 inches by 2 feet 6 inches and is 5 ½ inches thick. The upper one, in sepia, is from an 1840 book by J.M. Leighton called 'History of the County of Fife. The lower illustration is from 'Early Christian Monuments of Scotland' by J.R. Allen and J. Anderson (1903).
The stone dates back to the 8th or 9th century but little is known about its early history. At some point it was moved from its original (unknown) site, broken in two and forgotten about. Its rediscovery happened around 1838. The story goes that one piece was discovered during quarrying on the north side of Norrie’s Law. The other part, roughly equal in size, turned up almost a kilometre away, having been used as a drain cover. A variation of the story is told in the extract from Stuart's 1856 'Sculptured Stones of Scotland' (see above) - where it is stated that it was "taken from a wall forming part of or contiguous to old Largo House". Either way, the 1830s discovery involved General James Durham. The two pieces reunited, they were cemented together and erected in the grounds of Largo House on a plinth inscribed with the year 1839, when it was fully restored and re-erected. The 1854 map below shows the 'monumental stone' situated on the right of the west entrance to Largo House. General Durham died in 1840 - the year after the stone's restoration.
At some later point, possibly when Lilias Dundas Calderwood Durham sold the Largo estate and moved to Polton House, near Dalkeith in 1868, the stone was moved. It was positioned in the kitchen garden at Polton, in among the greenhouses and growing produce. A painting dating from 1840 of Polton House is shown above. The pair of detailed maps below from around 1912 show the stone still in place at Polton and, on the other map of Largo, a note stating 'sculptured stone (site of)' indicating that the stone was no longer in its former spot at Largo. This relocating of the stone created an anomaly - a Pictish stone standing beyond the south boundary of where the Picts had ever been, as they were never south of the Forth.
The timing of the stones return to Largo (at its new site at the Kirk) is a little unclear. Historic Environment Scotland states that "by 1933 it had been taken back to Largo" however a 1938 map shows it still in the grounds of Polton House. The latter could however be an error, given that the 1938 map series has a footnote stating that these were "surveyed by rapid methods as an emergency measure". Perhaps an assumption was made the the stone was still there. After all it would have been a rare occurrence for Pictish stone to be moved. Further investigation shows that the 1933 date relates to a report published that year - 'The Royal Commission on Ancient and Historic Monuments and Constructions in Scotland Eleventh Report'. Within that it states that the stone at Largo was actually visited in August 1925, when it had apparently "recently been returned".
Pictish stones are classified into three groups. Class I stones are the simplest and oldest, with symbols cut into the stone. These date to the 6th, 7th and 8th centuries and do not include Celtic crosses. Class II stones have both Pictish symbols and Celtic ornamentation. These 8th and 9th century stones are dressed, so that the imagery stands out in relief. Class III stones also date to the 8th and 9th centuries but have none of the original types of Pictish symbols. These are typically decorated with crosses and scenes involving people and animals.
The stone at Largo is a Class II stone and is a complex blend of a cross, a hunting scene and some of the earlier Pictish symbols such as the pictish beast and the double disc and Z-rod symbol. It is a cross-slab rather than a free-standing cross and incorporates both Christian and pre-Christian symbolism. After a millennium and having been uprooted from its standing place more than once, Largo's Pictish stone understandably looks a little worse for wear now. Yet it is worth a visit to see this remarkable piece of history in its roofed and grilled enclosure at Largo Kirk.