Tipsy and glugging heartily from a booze filled ox horn, eyes bulging and with a ‘hands-free’ approach to steering his mount, he’s a very merry pickled Pict on a rather despondent pony. 

Carved more than 1,000 years ago and discovered in a field in Invergowrie in the 1930s, the large Pictish stone with its quirky ‘drunk driver’ is one of a kind – amusing but also baffling. 

Now Pictish art enthusiasts and scholars are hoping to unravel some of the merry man’s secrets and figure out who he was, what on earth he was up to and why someone thought he should be immortalised in stone. 

Known as the Bullion Stone and measuring a hefty 6ft 2ins long and 2ft 5ins wide, the carved sculpture is kept at the National Museum of Scotland, where the considerably worse for wear rider and his weary mount feature on popular merchandising from hip flasks to goblets and bags. 

However, according to the Pictish Arts Society, while his image has become well-recognised and hugely popular, so far there has been little research into who he might have been and why he was in such a sloshed state. 

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It has gathered together a group of international experts spanning archaeology, art history and Pictish culture for a two day online conference next month which will explore theories, ignite debate and possible solve some of his mysteries. 

Professor Jane Geddes, President of the Pictish Arts Society and one of the speakers at the Society’s conference, says the distinctive carving showing the bald bearded warrior, complete with slight paunch and shield, is a particularly intriguing example of Pictish stonework.

“The image shows a Pictish warrior carrying his weapon, but he is not riding like a Pictish warrior,” she says. 

“They sit up straight and smart, but he is slumped in his saddle holding an enormous drinking horn full of alcohol. You can work out from the way he holds it that the contents will be slurping all over his face and you can see from his bulging eyeballs that he is probably hallucinating. 

“Over the top of the horn, is a bird’s beak. It’s looking right at him and he is looking back, thinking ‘what the heck is this in front of me?’

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“Normally Pictish horses are shown with their legs well up and treading very smartly, but this one is staggering - he is taking his master home without being steered with the reigns. 

“It’s completely unique in Pictland and goes against everything we associate with Pictish society.

“There was a strong drinking culture, but it would be done in a hall with their leader and was a way of male bonding - they sang, told stories and got drunk together. 

“To be alone and riding a horse is extraordinary. 

“Who would have wanted to make a picture of a drunk warrior all by himself being taken home by his horse?  We want to try to explain that.”

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One theory recently put forward to the Society has suggested the well-oiled warrior may have his roots in ancient Rome, and the classical god Silenus. He is often depicted in art as rather worse for wear, sitting on a donkey with a horn of drink in his hand as part of the entourage accompanying his pupil, the far more respectable Bacchus – or Dionysus.

“In Roman times, there was a great cult of Bacchus, the god of alcohol, fertility and happiness and joy,” says Prof. Geddes, whose talk will explore the possible links between Bullion Man, Silenus and the Roman classical stories of the gods.

“Silenus was his drunken teacher and in Roman art is often shown completely plastered, he’s a figure of fun and part of the entourage of the god of happiness and abundance. 

“But how on earth did Picts in Invergowrie in the 9th century know about Silenus from Roman times?”

The answer, she says, could lie in East Lothian, at Traprain Law where a huge treasure of Roman silver was discovered during excavations in 1919, and included some dishes showing images of Bucchus. 

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It’s suspected that similar silverware showing Bucchus and his large entourage, including the drunken Silenus, were also in circulation  and perhaps melted down by Picts and the silver repurposed - possibly providing inspiration for the Bullion Stone character.

“There are many fantastic Roman dishes that show both Bucchus and Silenus, and we know dishes were given to the Picts because of the silver found at Traprain Law,” she adds. 

“Most would have been melted down to make brooches, but someone in Angus must have known about the image of Silenus on a donkey.

“Even if they didn’t understand the story of Bucchus and Silenius, they could see a drunk man on a horse looking very funny. 

“They took off the toga and put him in Pictish clothes and we think that’s how he got to Angus.”

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Similar images of drunken figures riding a horse have also been found thousands of miles away including  in India, where he was depicted on a horse wearing Indian garland of marigold flowers around his neck. 

“He is like the archetypal drunk Uncle Jimmy that everyone seems to have, no matter if you’re in India, Persia or Dundee.”

The Roman link with Silenus and Bacchus was initially suggested by Victoria Whitworth, formerly Orkney College UHI and now a freelance writer and independent scholar in Edinburgh. That theory is said to have been groundbreaking, and one of the first efforts to unpick the story behind the Bullion Stone carving.

Her presentation at next month’s conference will use Biblical texts and commentaries, literature and iconography to explore the complex functions of alcohol in Late Iron Age society. It is one of a number of papers to be presented at the conference which will explore attitudes towards alcohol, its use and aspects of drinking culture across the Pictish timeframe. 

The Zoom conference will feature theories surrounding the style of the horseman’s drinking horn, his horsemanship and what it might reveal about extinct animal types and riding methods, and events that occurred in and around Invergowrie at the time it was produced, between 900 to 950. 

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The Bullion Stone was found at Invergowrie in 1934 during construction work on the Dundee ring-road. It was later given by Angus County Council to the National Museum of Scotland.

According to Prof. Geddes, a number of recent Pictish finds - including large carved stones - has led to rising interest in trying to unravel the stories and imagery of their carvings. 

“Pictish art has a keen following with so many people throwing up new ideas, while archaeologically there are new sites being found every summer. People now know what they are looking for and they are stumbling over new things,” she says. 

“People love to study Pictish life - there are no records, it’s never explained to us what they were up to and what their wonderful art means. 

“But the more we look at Pictish art, the more we find there were in full communication with other parts of the world; they knew what was going on on the Continent and were communicating with the Irish, Anglo Saxons and the Franks. 

“They were probably more similar to the rest of Europe than they were different.”

The Pictish Arts Society Conference is on 7-8 October, 13.30-18.00, via Zoom. Tickets £12.

Find out more at the Pictish Arts Society Annual Conference and by visiting the Pitcish Arts Society.