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Scotland's Crosses

Tuesday August 15 2017

John R Hume highlights some of Scotland's oldest Christian symbols

We know, or think we know, what a church is for, and in churchyards we know the meaning of tombstones. The early Christian crosses found all over Scotland are in many cases much more enigmatic but, whatever their meanings, they are well worth seeking out.

The earliest stone crosses are in the extreme south-west of Scotland, in the Rhinns and Machars of Dumfries and Galloway. At Kirkmadrine, near the Mull of Galloway, and at Whithorn and Glasserton there are crosses inscribed on stone, some of them as grave markers and at St Ninian’s Cave on native rock.

The association of St Ninian with this area is a powerful one; the presence of natural crosses (formed by veins of quartz in masses of grey stone) on the foreshore at St Ninian’s Cave may well have led the saint to choose this area for his mission. Peculiar to the area is a number of curious ‘disc-headed’ crosses to be seen in the Whithorn Priory Museum and in the parish church of Kirkinner, in which the cross form is only hinted at. Almost human in their appearance, they linger in the mind.

Of very different character are the crosses of Argyll and the isles, and of other parts of western Scotland influenced by Viking and Gaelic-Celtic immigrants. Here the grandest early Christian crosses are in Iona and at the south end of the Isle of Islay, at Kildalton, where there is a High Cross, on an Irish model, with its arms linked by a ring of stone, a masterpiece of stone-carving. There are substantial remains of a similar cross at Iona Abbey, but the finest cross on Iona is that of St Martin (right, photo by iStock), very tall, with short arms and with a lighter ring.

The tradition of making free-standing crosses persisted in Argyll until the late middle ages, though their form changed. The local availability of a type of stone – chloritic schist – which could easily be split into thin slabs, and was soft when quarried, led to the carving of flat, thin crosses with ornamentation all over their surfaces. Some, if not all, of these had representations of the Crucifixion in a central panel, but there was a tendency for these to be excised after the Reformation, as in the fine crosses to be seen in the centres of Inveraray and Campbeltown.

There are unaltered ones in the little chapel at Kilmory Knap, on Loch Sween, on the island of Oronsay and at Kilchoman on Islay. The ornamentation on the shafts and arms of crosses of this type often takes the form of flowers and leaves – ‘floriation’. Other crosses in this area were made as markers, to be placed flat on top of graves. There are fine collections of these at Kilmartin, Kilberry Saddell and Keills, as well as at Kilmory Knap.

There is one more important group of crosses in western Scotland. These are in the Clyde valley, and are particularly associated with the early Christian centre of Govan. In workmanship and design these are simpler than the Argyll crosses, but they are also probably earlier. There are no complete crosses in the otherwise marvellous Govan Stones collection in Govan Old Church, but the shaft of the Jordanhill Cross is very fine. There is another collection of fragments of Govan-School carving at Inchinnan Parish Church, moved from their original site to make way for Glasgow Airport. Other crosses of this character are the Barochan Cross  (right, photo by Paisley Abbey), moved from a hill-top site near Houston into Paisley Abbey Church, and the Netherton or Cadzow Cross, now outside the north entrance to Hamilton Old Parish Church. Of these my favourite is the Netherton Cross, which is delightfully gawky, and all the more moving for that.

Before leaving the west of Scotland I should mention two Dumfriesshire crosses of remarkable beauty and significance. The smaller and simpler is the Merkland Cross, north of Kirkpatrick Fleming. This is a ‘wayside’ cross, placed on a route, before formal roads were made, as a focus for the devotions of travellers.

The other Dumfriesshire cross is in the parish church at Ruthwell, east of Dumfries. The Ruthwell Cross is unique in Scotland, and dates from a period when the south west was under Northumbrian rule. The cross was broken up after the Reformation, but the pieces survived and have been reassembled and set in a pit in the church, so that its very beautiful ‘high-relief’ sculpture can be appreciated.

North and east of the central belt were the kingdoms of the northern and southern Picts, eventually part of the kingdom of the Scots. Before Christianity arrived in Pictland a tradition had emerged of carving largely abstract symbols on boulders and exposed rock surfaces. These symbols persisted after the coming of Christianity, and are to be found on many crosses. Other common motifs are animals, birds, fish and human beings, often men on horseback. On two crosses (Sueno’s Stone in Forres and the Aberlemno Churchyard Stone) there appear to be representations of important battles, which may have been a primary reason for their creation.

There are so many fine Pictish cross stones, and they are so varied in treatment that I can only include a selection here. I will begin by mentioning some which are in or near their original locations. These include the exceptional Sueno’s and Shandwick stones, the latter (right, photo by Wojsyl) on a hillside in the Nigg peninsula of Easter Ross. Both are now protected by glazed enclosures. The Dunfallandy Stone near Pitlochry has a protective shelter, as has the Eassie Stone in rural Angus. The Aberlemno Churchyard Stone, the Glamis Stone and a little cross at Logierait, Perthshire can still be seen in the open. The superb Nigg Stone is now in the former parish church, not far north of Shandwick, and the unusual Dupplin Cross is in St Serf’s Church, Dunning, in Strathearn.

There are site museums with collections of stones, including crosses, at Meigle, Perthshire and St Vigean’s, just north of Arbroath. Many of these stones are in the care of Historic Environment Scotland. Other museums in Pictland with Pictish stones are the Groam House Museum at Rosemarkie in Ross and Cromarty, Inverness Museum, and the Meffan Museum in Forfar. Further afield there are fine stones in Dundee and Perth museums, and in the Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, which houses the splendid Hilton of Cadboll Stone from Easter Ross.

Go and see these amazing relics of the creators of these stones in the places where they lived, worked and thought about spiritual things. You will not be disappointed, and you will probably be much moved.

A longer version of this feature appears in August's Life and Work. Download here.