A future set in stone?

It is just a fragmented and crudely etched chunk of stone, but it is one of national archaeological importance. Dating from the seventh century, the Ballachly Stone is a relic of an ancient, and possibly powerful, Christian foundation at Dunbeath, Caithness, only previously hinted at in local lore and in the writing of Dunbeath’s most famous son, the novelist Neil Gunn.

Now the stone is at the heart of a unique heritage centre, whose founders are anxiously waiting to hear whether they will be allowed to keep this rough-hewn treasure at a time the area’s little-investigated archaeology is just starting to attract attention. The decision could have repercussions for similar cases throughout Scotland.

The Ballachly Stone, part of a Pictish cross-slab and bearing the upper part of an engraved Christian cross, was rudely incorporated into the building of a croft at Dunbeath at the beginning of the 19th century and unearthed six years ago, during the cottage’s demolition. The site was near Chapel Hill, the "Hill of Peace" which recurs in Gunn’s novels, such as The Silver Darlings and Highland River.

The Treasure Trove Panel, which pronounces on what happens to such discoveries, made a decision on the Ballachly Stone last week. Members of Dunbeath Preservation Trust, who embarked on an ambitious revamping of the heritage centre partly with a view to retaining the stone, are hoping desperately that it can remain there, but await the final say, from an official who goes by the archaic title of the Queen’s and Lord Treasurer’s Remembrancer.

There have been controversies in the past between local communities and the national museums in Edinburgh and London over the siting of artefacts such as the Dupplin Cross, the Lindisfarne Gospels or the Lewis chessmen.

Nestling in an often overlooked area beyond the Highlands, Dunbeath Strath’s place names bear witness to the Picts, Gaels and Norsemen who left their mark here, but its many brochs and other remains go right back into prehistory, and Dr Iain Banks, depute director of Glasgow University Research Department (GUARD), describes the area’s archaeology as "seriously sexy". GUARD, which will carry out further work at Dunbeath next month, has identified hundreds of sites in the strath, many of which have been scheduled by Historic Scotland as being of national importance.

Banks suggests that Dunbeath could have been a manufacturing centre for such stones, while the markings on the stone suggest important Irish influences in Pictland. He adds that the proximity of Chapel Hill to Dunbeath Broch means that the area may have been an important political, as well as religious, centre.

Banks can see arguments for and against Dunbeath retaining the Ballachly Stone: "Because it’s of national importance, there is the argument that you put it down south where most people can see it. But I would counter that with the thought that it makes more sense if it remains in its locality, that, having seen the stone, you can go out and look at where it came from. Also, anything which encourages people to go to Caithness and stop it from being this neglected corner ... Because if you look at the number of brochs in Caithness as a whole, it was a real power centre in the Pictish kingdom."

Nan Bethune, current chairperson of Dunbeath Heritage Trust, sees the stone as "a personal statement, for all to see - ‘I am here. I am Christian.’ This is no craftsman’s masterpiece, but people relate to it. They’re not in awe of it, but they’re fascinated by it."

Following the stone’s discovery, Nan and her husband George found further keys to the strath’s ecclesiastical past - in their own garden wall. These stone fragments are more ornate than the Ballachly Stone, and later, dating from the eighth century. "Their message," she says, "is wealth, status and continuity - a powerful church in a powerful Pictish estate. But we’ve only found three bits and we’re now rebuilding our garden wall - very slowly, looking at every side of every stone."

Established 12 years ago in Gunn’s old school, Dunbeath Heritage Centre underwent major refurbishment last year. Its designer, Paul Basu, regards the Ballachly Stone and whatever decision is made on it as being "in some sense at the heart of Dunbeath, of some of Gunn’s writing and of the redevelopment of the centre itself. "Over the years, many antiquities have been removed from their local context to be displayed - or, worse, stored out of sight - in Edinburgh or at other non-local museums. One of the motivations for the redevelopment of the Heritage Centre was to ensure that the Ballachly Stone could be retained in Dunbeath. This required the centre’s upgrading into a fully registered museum.

"So far as I’m aware, this is the first instance of a local community mobilising itself in such a way, to ensure that a much valued part of its heritage is kept local."

The centre is no audio-visual tourist trap but enshrines a powerful sense of place. Round the floor winds a painted map of the Dunbeath Water by Edinburgh artist Tim Chalk, inspired by Gunn’s description of the river as "a mighty serpent". At its "source" are two sculptured wooden benches from the workshop of the late Tim Stead. Other craftwork includes a glass installation by Thurso artist Alexander Hamilton and glass doors by Wick engraver Denis Mann, while a series of big monochrome photographs of the landscape by Basu adorn the walls.

Gunn, who died in 1973, nurtured a suspicion of tourism, writing that "not all the deserving old women attending to all the tourists of the world and prattling of the scenic beauty of empty glens can save ancient heritage from decay and death."

However, his nephew, Diarmid Gunn, a trustee of the centre, believes his uncle would have been enthusiastic about the project: "What would have appealed to him would be the retention of the stone as an incentive for educating people in the area of their heritage," says Gunn, who is launching new editions of two of his uncle’s lesser-known novels, Second Sight and Wild Geese Overhead, at the centre tonight. "So it’s not just for tourists, although that is important financially. But there’s a tremendous message there, and it’s drawing attention to an area which is often neglected."

The next few days - and a letter from the Queen’s Remembrancer - should decide whether the Ballachly Stone will stay, where Gunn’s "river of life" flows through his native strath and its still uncharted history.

For further information, visit www.dunbeath-heritage.org.uk