The Erchless Pendant

The Strathglass Heritage Association logo was designed and drawn by local artist, the late Pat Cairney, and is based on the ERCHLESS PENDANT now in the care of Inverness Museum & Art Gallery.

The Erchless Pendant is an outstanding example of Pictish artwork. Small and slender, just 69mm long 37mm wide and 6.5mm thick, the pendant is unique as it is the only decorated Pictish pendant of its type that has ever been found. Jet-like in appearance, it is believed to have been made from the cannel-coal found at Brora. The design for our logo is taken from the decoration on the reverse face of the pendant. The dominant motif is an intertwined serpent whose jaws seem to be biting part of its body.

However, the decoration is worn in places and it is possible that the motif is of two intertwined serpents. There are two smaller motifs below the main decoration which take up less than a quarter of the length of the pendant. To the left there is a simple cross with arms of equal length , and to the right a single untwined serpent. The front face of the pendant shows an elaborately decorated Celtic cross surrounded by four decorated panels, too complex to incorporate in the logo design.

The pendant was found ‘at the back of Breakacy’ during the 19th century some time before 1877. The finder, of whom we have no information, gave it to Roderick Chisholm of Chisholm and it was kept at Erchless Castle until 1937 when the estate was sold. It then came into the possession of Captain William Mackay who subsequently presented it to Inverness Museum & Art Gallery.

We have no way of knowing the history of the pendant or who owned it but we can tell from the material from which it was made and the quality of the art-work that it was not an everyday commonplace object. The Erchless Pendant would have been a high status possession commissioned by a person of wealth and importance in Pictish Society.

The pendant may have been a highly fashionable object in its time but we should not think of it simply as a fashion object for its decoration was intended to convey a symbolic meaning. Thus the intertwined snake of our logo would have had a significance that could be identified by those who saw it, in much the same way as we can identify the lion rampant as a symbol of Scotland today. Unfortunately we do not understand the meaning of Pictish symbols like our snake and all we can safely say about it is that is likely to have had a meaning that it was associated with its owner.

Like the Picts, however, we can recognise the decorated cross on the front of the object as a Christian symbol. Dr Isobel Henderson, the leading expert on Pictish art history, believes that the pendant served principally as a devotional object special designed to be held in the palm of a believer. Art historians can also tell us that the style of decoration at the centre of the cross and in its surrounding panels provides a significant clue for dating the pendant. The interlace pattern that is used in this decoration features for the first time in Pictish art in the early 8th century.

It would seem that the adoption of this new style in Pictish decoration followed the decision by King Nechtan in 701AD to modernise the Pictish church. There is no doubt that the Northumbrian church greatly influenced the consequent programme of reform in the Pictish church and inspired Pictish sculptors to apply a pattern which was being used in the decoration of the magnificent illuminated manuscripts produced by the religious houses of Northumbria. Interestingly, place name evidence would suggest that Struy, which lies very close to Erchless, was associated with the cult of St Curadán who was sent by King Nechtan to Rosemarkie in 714AD to bring about the reform of the pictish church in this area.

In the light of this, it is intriguing to speculate whether it is altogether coincidental that the cannel-coal used to create the Erchless Pendant is very similar in appearance to jet, jet being found at Whitby where in 644AD the decision was made to introduce into Northumbria the sort of changes that Curadán later sought to promote. If this is not a coincidence then the pendant might be regarded as a local expression of what was most modern and prestigious at a time when the Northumbrian style was culturally significant and identification with the reformed church had an ehanced spiritual value.

More research is required but it is interesting to note that Dr Fraser Hunter of the National Museum Scotland has indicated that there is definately a tradition of devotional use of jet elsewhere in the early historic period. But whatever the outcome of further research there is no doubt that the Erchless Pendant is a very special object and we are delighted to have it as our logo.


SHA wish to thank the following for their assistance in the research and writing of this article:-

David L Selkirk, Patricia Weeks, Dr Isabel Henderson, Dr Fraser Hunter, Mary Macdonald, Susan Seright and Groam House Museum.

Further Reading