The monument comprises an impressive rounded standing stone bearing a Latin inscription and a cemetery of inhumation burials in stone-lined 'long cist' graves. The inscription has been translated as: 'In this tomb lies Vetta, daughter of Victricus'. The script probably dates to the 5th or 6th century AD, although the standing stone may originally have formed part of a Bronze Age burial site dating to around 2000 BC. The graves date to the same period as the inscription. Most of the graves cluster to the south and east of the stone. Although there have been several excavations, the most recent in 1977, many graves were covered over after investigation and survive as buried archaeological features. The monument lies at around 30m above sea level on a low ridge 80m SSE of the River Almond and 670m north of Edinburgh Airport's terminal building. The monument was last scheduled in 1966, but the documentation does not meet modern standards: the present rescheduling rectifies this.
The Catstane is an irregular boulder with a girth at the base of 3.65m. The inscription, on the E face, now reads: IN OC T / MVLO IAC T / VETTA F / VICTR. The stone stands 1.3m above ground level, but excavations in 1860 suggest it was buried to a depth of about 0.9m giving it a total height of some 2.2m. The excavators observed that 'it was placed upon a basis of stones, forming apparently the remains of a built stone grave, which contained no bones or other relics, and that had evidently been searched and harried'. Excavations in 1977 revealed large-scale disturbance around the base of the stone and it may now be impossible to be certain whether the feature below the stone was a grave or merely a stone-lined pit dug to serve as a socket for the Catstane. However, the 1977 excavations did reveal at least nine cist graves apparently clustered around the Catstane, at distances of between 2.5m and 5m from the stone. Four of the five cists to the south of the stone were not completely excavated in 1977 and remain buried beneath the modern ground surface. Between 5m and 21m east of the Catstane, the 1977 excavations revealed a further 43 cist graves in six north-south aligned rows, most very evenly laid out and oriented close to east-west. It is possible that there were more graves between the excavation areas, making it likely that the cemetery contained at least 80 graves in total, within an area of at least 27m east-west by 20m transversely. Of the 52 graves firmly identified in the 1977 excavations, the report makes clear that 14 were not excavated and remain as archaeological features. Even where cists were emptied, it is probable that many of the cist slabs remain in position. The east ends of the most easterly row of graves form an arc, suggesting that the burial ground was constrained by a curvilinear feature that no longer survives. The extent of the cemetery is also reasonably well defined to the north and south, but its extent to the west of the Catstane has not been established. In most respects, the cists lying immediately around the Catstane resemble the graves laid out in even rows further to the east, the main differences being the more varied orientation of the graves nearer to the Catstane and their tendency to be larger than average. Bone preservation was generally poor, the variations correlating closely with whether the base slabs were of shale or sandstone, and there is little reliable evidence for the age or sex of the individuals represented. The cists mostly tapered from head to foot, though a few were 'coffin' shaped, expanding between the shoulder and hips, while a few of those with sandstone cist slabs were rectangular. Antiquarian descriptions and drawings suggest that the cemetery may have been covered by an extensive mound, with the Catstane standing on its NW edge, alongside several horizontal kerb stones. However, the fact that the area immediately around the Catstane was devoid of graves may suggest that the stone was itself surrounded by a low mound in antiquity.
The area to be scheduled is circular on plan, with a diameter of 60m, to include the remains described above and an area around them within which evidence relating to the monument's construction, use and abandonment may survive, as shown in red on the accompanying map. To allow for its maintenance, the area to be scheduled specifically excludes the metalled surface of the airport road to the east of the Catstane.
The monument's cultural significance can be expressed as follows:
The Catstane is of great significance because it embodies evidence for learning and literacy in an era from which we have no contemporary documents. Although the stone around the inscription has decayed since 2000, the inscription nevertheless survives in relatively good condition and most of the letters recorded in the 19th century continue to be legible. 'Vetta', the subject of the inscription, seems to be a British personal name, probably feminine, though we have no other references to such an individual. Researchers tentatively date the inscription to the late 5th or early 6th century AD. The stone apparently provided the focus for a large, well-ordered burial ground in the early Christian period. Several of the cist graves recorded in 1977 were not excavated and should survive in good condition. Burials have the potential to provide further information on the population that lived in the vicinity. They can enhance our knowledge of status and burial practice, but can also reveal evidence for health, diet, illness and cause of death, although the poor bone condition curtails some of this potential on this site. The skeletal remains can also provide samples for radiocarbon dating and perhaps for isotope analyses that may tell us whether the individuals represented had grown up in the local area or further afield. Buried archaeological remains also have the potential to answer questions that the 1977 excavation could not resolve, particularly as the dry conditions in 1977 limited the identification of subtle cut features such as pits or perhaps gullies. Because many grave cuts were not fully excavated, it may be possible to discover additional stratigraphic relationships between the graves. Buried remains may also confirm the extent of the cemetery, particularly to the west, and may reveal evidence for a boundary feature that defined the burial ground. There is also potential to discover additional pits and postholes that may relate to the marking of graves with wooden or other grave markers. Although previous excavations have disturbed the area immediately surrounding the Catstane, buried deposits still offer some potential to examine whether this is a Bronze Age burial site that was re-used after nearly 2000 years, or if it was newly established in the early historic period. There is also potential to examine and quantify the time period during which the cemetery was in use, with initial indications suggesting a relatively long development sequence.
The Catstane forms part of a dense, multi-period archaeological landscape that is rich in important prehistoric features, as well as early historic remains. The sites of the Hully Hill barrow and Newbridge chariot burial lie around 3km to the south-west, but other finds have been made much closer to the monument. A large tumulus about 55m W of the Catstane was opened in 1824 and found to contain several complete skeletons. Thirteen 'short cists' facing south-west were found several years prior to 1864 on the N bank of the River Almond, opposite the field in which the Catstane stands, and a further 27 'short cists' were found when straightening and levelling the road, about 300m south of the Catstane. They were broken up for road metal. The detailed form of these cists is uncertain, but they are indicative of Bronze Age activity around 2000 BC. In this context, a prehistoric origin for the mound that 19th-century antiquarians reported adjacent to the Catstane remains plausible, and there are hints that other long cist cemeteries may have been established on earlier sacred sites. If the Catstane was, as early travellers' accounts suggest, one upright stone on the line of the kerb of a small cairn, it is closely paralled at Cairnpapple Hill in West Lothian.
The lettering on the stone can be compared with that on the Yarrow Stone in the former county of Selkirkshire, Scottish Borders, although the Catstane lettering is more regular and better preserved. The burial ground associated with the Catstane is one of many long cist cemeteries known from the Lothians, Fife and Angus. There is particular potential for comparison with the cemetery at Hallowhill, St Andrews, where a richly furnished grave lined with stones was surrounded by cists respecting a now featureless area immediately around the central grave. The importance of the Catstane cemetery is enhanced because it has been investigated relatively recently and was not entirely removed in the 18th and 19th centuries, when many comparable sites were destroyed. Radiocarbon dating suggests that long cist cemeteries were used from the late 5th to the mid 7th centuries AD, representing the earliest monuments left by the sub-Roman Christian church in eastern Scotland. Their apparent abandonment during the 7th century is important, as it may correlate with a trend away from local burial places to burial at centres that would become parishes, a change that may in part be a result of the Northumbrian take-over of southern Scotland in the 7th century.
The Catstane is described by the early travellers Edward Lhwyd and James Paterson, who visited in 1699, and is depicted in an anonymous sketch of the site in the Stowe Manuscript, held in the British Museum. The 'Cat Stane' is marked on Ordnance Survey first edition maps dating from the 1850s and the antiquarians, Simpson and Hutchison, produced accounts of their excavations in the 1860s. The long cist cemetery, apparently focussed on the Catstane, represents one of the earliest Christian monuments in south-east Scotland and is an important part of the story of the spread of Christianity across Scotland.