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Observations placeholder

Sacred geography – Picts – Souterrains or Step wells 02



Type of Spiritual Experience


Twenty rock-cut steps lead down to a small chamber with rounded corners, measuring 5m by 5m and 4m high. In its centre is a pool


A description of the experience


Burghead fort [and step well]

In search of the Picts – Elizabeth Sutherland
At one time records show that there were twenty--five to thirty carvings of bulls in Burghead. There may have been many more. Only six remain.  These were found during the destruction of the fortress in preparation for the building of the village and the harbour. One is in the British Museum, one in Scotland's Royal Museum in Edinburgh, two in Elgin Museum, and two in Burghead Library.

They are masterpieces. Similar to each other but not identical, with swishing tails, heads lowered to charge, and solid muscular bodies, they are among the most realistic of all the animal symbols. ......

The fortress was immense, three times as large as any other building of the period. Sailors approaching the headland would first have seen a great wall of stone and earth stretched across the neck of the promontory. Behind were two further immense ramparts. The mighty entrance that led into the fort was lined with bull-stones.  Within this royal fortress for four hundred years lived the Bull kings, their warriors, priests, craftsmen and servants. It is thought to have been destroyed by fire by Norse invaders in the early ninth century.


On the other hand the bull may not have been used as a lineage symbol but as a votive tablet for some annual festival. Bull sacrifice may have been practised by the Picts as a spring fertility festival. It was also practised as late as the seventeenth century on Isle Maree when one was slaughtered by four sons to cure their mad mother.

Traces of a  winter fire festival can be found in a rite still performed in Burghead annually on 11th January and known as 'The Burning of the Clavie'. The history of this fire festival is said to go back fifteen hundred years to the time when the bull-stones were being carved.

The word 'clavie' is thought to be connected with cliabh (pronounced'cleeav'), the Gaelic name for basket. This is made of a tar-barrel and a herring-barrel and filled with wood saturated with tar.  It is lit by a live peat by the Clavie king and carried by the Clavie-Bearer and his team throughout the village, then placed on the Doorie, a stone column on a mound, and allowed to blaze for a while. In the old days it was thrown down the slope of the mound and the burning fragments were eagerly collected as charms to bring good luck to fisherfolk for the subsequent year. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it was banned by the Church as idolatrous and sinful, but it has survived to the present day.

At one time most of the Moray coastal fishing villages had similar fire festivals.

The Burghead well discovered in 1809 lies inside the fort, a mysterious ancient place whose history is not known. Carved out of solid rock, it consists of a flight of steps that lead down to a dark chamber into which is sunk a rectangular tank fed by springs.

The source of the experience


Concepts, symbols and science items



Activities and commonsteps