The Pictish period is the term often given to the last centuries of the Iron Age, a time when Christianity was being adopted and the first historical references to Orkney are known.
Pictish culture developed out of late Iron Age Orcadian society, but whilst the Picts had their own distinctive style and material culture, they left little behind in the way of buildings or burials. Relatively few sites of the period have been identified but we do know that the Picts lived in cellular, sometimes ‘shamrock-shaped’ houses and they are famed for the beauty of their metalwork and sculpture, such as the symbol stone from Birsay.
The introduction of Christianity to Orkney in the Pictish period (it is first mentioned in the late 6th century) transformed the islands and many early Christian chapels have been identified, such as St Nicholas in Holm. In the 19th century a particularly fine sandstone slab bearing a Pictish Celtic cross (now in the National Museum in Edinburgh) was found in the ruins of a supposedly ancient church on Flotta. This would have originated from the front of an altar and was dated to the 8th century.
A further cross-slab dated to the 6th century was retrieved from the ruinous foundations of an old (presumably early Christian) chapel within the Osmondwall cemetery on the Cantick peninsula in South Walls in 1887. A replica of this stone can be seen in the chapel at Melsetter House. A Pictish symbol stone was found re-used as a window sill in St Peter’s Kirk, Kirkhoose, South Ronaldsay. This with two other Pictish stones found in the vicinity suggest that this too had been an important early Christian site.