The Newton stone inscription – a marker of Scoto-Norman history

An enigmatic stone from Aberdeenshire, Scotland caused a scientific debate that lasts for almost two centuries. Scholars identify it as a tombstone/headstone, meaning that its text is an epitaph. But what exactly does it say remains a mystery to this day. There are two types of writing on this stone. One is definitely an early medieval Ogham, written in the series of lines and cuts. As for the other, the theories range from Phoenician, Gaelic, Latin, Grek, Gnostic to Brahmi, Scythian, Runic and various others.

The usual dating of the Newton stone is between late antiquity and the ninth century, but there are some who consider it a more recent forgery.

Different readings of the markings

As I do not have access to the Newton stone I had to rely on the published sources. In general, most of these sources share similar prints of the alphabet, but there are small differences. But sometimes these small details make a world of difference for decoding of the individual letters. Here are the two most common versions:

Transliteration of the Newton stone inscription

Now that we have the basics, we can start decoding. My approach is very simple. Considering the usual dating of the stone, I started with the Latin alphabet. However, I quickly realized that a few letters look rather Greek than Roman. Indeed, the Greco-Roman theory already exists among scholars. But as we will soon see, my reading is quite unique.

Those who follow the Greco-Roman approach usually offer the transliteration that sounds like this:

ETTE EUAGAINNIAS CIGONOVOCOI, UR (Filfot) RELISI MAQQI NOVIOGRUTR (By Donal B. Buchanan) or
ETTE | EVAGAINNIAS | CIGONOVOCANI | URAELISI | MAQQI | NOVIOGRUTA (By an unsigned author, here)

Following these ideas, I added transliteration on both previous images. You can see that the small differences do mater.

Reading of the Newton stone inscription

The reason that most of the researchers see the word MAQQI is because this word comes from OI “maqi/mac” meaning “son of”. This word is common on many other similar tombstones and there is no reason to question it. But this is also the only word that I have in common with other researchers.

My real breakthrough started with the word REGISI, on the right of the swastika symbol. I got it by simply reading the first and the third letter as “R” and “G” in the Greek alphabet (“Р” and “Г”). Indeed, the Latin word “regis” is a genitive singular of “rēx” – king. Furthermore, on one of the two images, there is a dot between the letters “S” and “I”. In that case, we get REGIS I, or REGIS the first.

Searching for the name of this king I looked to the left of the swastika. One of the images states WIL, the other just WL. (Again, the “L” is Grek, “Л”) To my surprise, this was a very good match for Wiliam the conqueror. And as we can see on the following image – his coins of the later period have both, the Latin title REX I, and the cross instead of a swastika.

As we saw, the rest of the text contains the word MAQQI – son of. William had two sons, but the important one was William II – Rufus, his successor. The nickname “Rufus” comes from Latin “red” and refers to his red hair. Amazingly, on one of the two images, the last line reads something like LOYOYRUFIS.

The first part LOYOY is impossible to translate. But as we saw, other scholars read this line as NOVIOGRUTA, or NOVIOGRUTR. And the starting letter “N” is clear on the second image I posted. The word “novo/novos/novio” is a common IE word and means “new, young”.

Therefore, I believe that the second half of the text reads:

WIL REGIS I MAQQI NOVOI RUFUS – or William the first (and his) son, young Rufus.

This discovery would firmly fix the inscription to the late 11th century AD. In other words, it comes from the time when young William II Rufus took over the crown, but William I was still alive, just like on the coin above.

Who was buried under the Newton stone?

The most common reading for the first word of the epitaph is ETTE. As this word does not have any parallels in the Indo-European languages, most researchers see it as the personal name. In this view, Ette is a variant of the name Edward, Ed, Aeth, Etha and similar. One of the theories suggests that this was the tombstone of the Pictish king Aed (Edus). However, he lived in the late 9th century, so the timeline is not matching.

But there is another person who fits better this timeline. His name was Edgar Ætheling. In this case, the word ETTE could be an abbreviation of Edgar, as well as Aetheling. Edgar was a descendant of the Hungarian royal bloodline. During the reign of William the first, he fought both for and against him. He was declared a king of England but never crowned. It is precisely in Scotland that he spent the last years of his life. He passed away around the year 1025/1026, but the location of his grave is unknown.

And finally, this could be just any noble person, named Aed, Edgar or even Aetha, female. In this case, the mention of the kings would be just a marker for the general timeline in which they lived. (in place of the year which is absent)

The rest of the inscription

There are only two more lines left, and I left them for the end as they are the most problematic. Тhe most common reading is EVAGAINNIAS/EUAGAINNIAS. The theories I read take it for another personal name. Indeed, there is a similar Gaelic name – Eógan. It comes from ancient Greek and means “noble-born”. At first glance, the literal translation “noble-born” is more appropriate. But this would mean that we need to include Greek words among Gaelic and Latin and that is a bit of a stretch. Alternatively, this is the name of a parent or spouse of the deceased – a template that exists in other inscriptions.

And finally, we have the word CIGONOVOCANI / SIGONOVOCANI and even CIGONOVOCOI. I am not sure what to make of this one, but the part NOVO could mean “young” once again, referring to an offspring. (Dedicated by wife and children). In that case, CIGO / SIGO would refer to another personal name, as other authors suggest.

In fact, in this line, I would expect to see words like “placed this tombstone”, in context of the first line of the text, or “who lived during the rule of”, referring to the second half. But being very limited in my knowledge of Gaelic I decided to leave this part open to interpretation.

Conclusion

The text of the Newton stone probably dates to the late 11th century. The scribe was probably not very experienced and he used a mix of Greco-Roman letters. Some of the letters are clear, but some a bit strangely shaped. These were the two main challenges, and the cause of all the incredible theories of the past centuries.

Without a doubt, the tombstone belonged to the individual that had certain elements of nobility. But the inexperienced scribe probably hints to local nobility, not someone who wore a crown. In any case, the Newton stone is an important monument from a very turbulent period of Scottish history. It marks the very moment when the first Norman kings challenged the great old Caledonia.

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