Work to save Pictish carvings at Wemyss Caves intensifies

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Work to save “unique” Pictish-era carvings at a network of coastal caves in Fife has intensified after vandals repeatedly attacked the historic site.

Members of the Save Wemyss Ancient Caves Society (SWACS) are due to be trained by conservators at Historic Environment Scotland to safely remove graffiti from the caves that were used by Picts in the 6th and 7th Centuries.

Inside Jonathan's Cave with a Pictish carving clearly on show. The gate is no longer in place. 

PIC PHIL WILKINSON / TSPL.

Inside Jonathan's Cave with a Pictish carving clearly on show. The gate is no longer in place. PIC PHIL WILKINSON / TSPL.

Evidence of earlier Bronze Age occupation has also been found.

READ MORE: The forgotten cave dwellers of Scotland’s far north

A series of informal Pictish drawings can be found in five of nine of the recorded caves near East Wemyss with later Christian symbols, likely left by pilgrims and hermits, charting the evolution of how the caves were used.

They later provided a gambling hideaway for local miners and a resting place for fisherwomen.

One of the cave carvings which date to around the 7th Century. PIC: Phil Wilkinson/TSPL.

One of the cave carvings which date to around the 7th Century. PIC: Phil Wilkinson/TSPL.

Today, the caves - classed as a scheduled monument of national importance - are increasingly at risk from coastal erosion and antisocial behaviour.

READ MORE: The coastal cave littered with human remains

SWACS are working to keep the caves fully open to the public while protecting their historic value.

Mike Arrowsmith, chairman of SWACS, said: “Without the carvings we don’t have a heritage site. The protection of the carvings always has to be our number one priority.”

Another Pictish-era symbol in Jonathan's Cave. PIC: Phil Wilkinson/TSPL.

Another Pictish-era symbol in Jonathan's Cave. PIC: Phil Wilkinson/TSPL.

Jonathan’s Cave holds the most varied collection of Pictish symbols and is perhaps most at risk given the ease of public access to the site.

Pictish beasts, birds, animals and fish, together with a boat with high prow and stern, rudder and five oars can be found on its walls and date from the 6th to 8th Century.

At Court Cave, a human figure holding a club in the left hand - which is possibly standing next to an animal - can be found.

Mr Arrowsmith said: “The carvings are under threat from a number of sources. There is coastal erosion as well as the fact this was once a heavily industrialised area. Then there are the graffiti attacks. We suffered a very bad one earlier this summer.”

Graffiti left at the mouth of Jonathan's Cave last summer. PIC: Contributed

Graffiti left at the mouth of Jonathan's Cave last summer. PIC: Contributed

Then, a Pictish-era fish carving was narrowly missed by paint with a more modern fish depiction daubed over. A Christian-era Trident cross was also vandalised.

Mr Arrowsmith said the hope was not to have to barricade off the caves to the public.

One option could be to have Perspex panels over the drawings to protect them.

A similar network of caves in England are open during the day but gated off at night, he added.

“We really do want to make it a place for everybody to use and really expand the things that are there. We want a visitor centre at the site, for example, and draw more people to this stretch of the Fife Coastal Path.

“The caves are a place that people locally are very fond and 99 per cent of people who go there respect what is there.”

Illustrations from West Doo Cave by antiquarian  JY Simpson in 1886. PIC:  Contributed.

Illustrations from West Doo Cave by antiquarian JY Simpson in 1886. PIC: Contributed.

Mr Arrowsmith said the cave symbols were possibly among some of the earliest Pictish-era drawings in Scotland.

Picts are believed to have farmed the land that once lay infront of the caves which has now been eroded in part with a stretch of shingle now formed.

He added: “Most Pictish carvings are found on monumental stones or in the National Museum of Scotland. Almost all of them are moved from where they were originally. They are out of context.

“At the Wemyss Caves, we know exactly where these carvings were made.

“The origins of the Picts are still very contested in this area and the cave drawings are this really important resource.

“The fact that these drawings appear less complex could mean a number of different things. They are likely to have been battered by the salt and the wind, plus the soft sandstone is not great for their preservation.

“The other explanation could be that they are very early drawings of the era and were done before the style settled down.

“If that is the case, the drawings become even more significant.”

Vandalism at the site has long powered the efforts to save the caves with the group first formed in the late 80s when someone drove a car into Jonathan’s Cave and set it on fire. A number of drawings were destroyed as a result.

A fire in the basement of nearby Macduff’s Castle, which is now largely a ruin, also left considerable damage. The remains of the property were being used as a den with a two-seater sofa moved into the site.

Outreach work and educational projects continue in the community, Mr Sullivan added.

The Wemyss Caves Conservation Management Plan was signed by several bodies - including the volunteer group, Historic Environment Scotland, Fife Council and cave owners Wemyss Estates - to protect and manage the site for the future.

The training in how to remove graffiti will allow the action group to respond immediately to fresh vandalism.

Mr Arrowsmith added: “It is a race against time in the sense that the longer the caves go unprotected against the elements and people the more the caves will deteriorate.

“It’s astonishing what we still have these Pictish carvings after 1,500 years. We have an obligation to protect them.”

Horse and cart on track between Court Cave and Doo Cave. PIC: SWACS archive.

Horse and cart on track between Court Cave and Doo Cave. PIC: SWACS archive.

Fisherwomen take a rest by the entrance of Court Cave. PIC:  SWACS.

Fisherwomen take a rest by the entrance of Court Cave. PIC: SWACS.

Miners gather in one of the caves for an illicit gamble. PIC: SWACS archive.

Miners gather in one of the caves for an illicit gamble. PIC: SWACS archive.