On the path of Scotland's early Christian crosses

John R Hume highlights some of Scotland's oldest Christian symbols in the August edition of Life & Work.

Celtic cross with a blue background
One of Scotland's ancient crosses

Summer is a good time to visit and reflect on the land of Scotland and the cultural and spiritual influences which infuse it.

A connection to the past

Churches often seem to embody that sense of different places that tugs at the heart-strings, and communicates a feeling of continuity with the past. 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: people are still arguing about the meanings of the sculptured motifs on Pictish stones. Whatever their meanings they are well worth seeking out, both in their original settings, and indoors in churches and museums.

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 the pioneering missionary 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.

Whithorn remained an important religious centre until the Reformation, a place of pilgrimage for many. Peculiar to the area is a number of curious 'disc-headed' crosses to be seen in the Whithorn Priory Museum (including the tall Monreith Cross) and in the parish church of Kirkinner, (north of Whithorn) in which the cross form is only hinted at. Almost human in their appearance, they linger in the mind. Galloway is a lovely and lovable part of Scotland, and its crosses are a very profound part of it.

Viking influence

Of very different character are the crosses of the western seaboard, 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.

To come across this cross in an otherwise fairly typical churchyard is something which lingers in the mind. There are substantial remains of a similar cross at Iona Abbey, but the finest cross on Iona is that of St Martin, very tall, with short arms and with a lighter ring. It is recognised as one of the supreme works of art in Scotland.

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.

Apart from the elaborate crosses to be seen in these places there are also many simpler representations. Visiting some of the places I have mentioned involves long-distance travel, but it is very worthwhile, to experience some of the best coastal scenery in Scotland and to begin to feel in tune with areas of ancient spirituality.

Early Christianity in Govan

Exterior of Govan Old Parish Church with a celtic cross next to it
Govan Old Parish Church. Photo: Lynn M Reid

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, now part of Glasgow. In workmanship and design these are simpler than the Argyll crosses, but they are also probably earlier. The stone from which they are carved is also less tractable than that of the Argyll monuments.

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, 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. All these sites can be visited in a day from anywhere in central Scotland, and both Govan Old and Paisley Abbey are well worth visiting on their own accounts.

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. There must have been many of these in Scotland before the Reformation. The Merkland Cross has a very beautiful cross head on a plain shaft.

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. This shows a wide variety of figurative panels, with floriated decoration on the sides, and inscriptions both in Latin and in Ogham (an early script).

Pictish symbols

North and east of the central belt were the kingdoms of the northern and southern Picts, eventually part of the kingdom of the Scots. Most of what we know about the Picts is derived from their sculpture, which includes many crosses of the highest quality of design and workmanship.

Before Christianity arrived in Pictland a tradition had emerged of carving largely abstract symbols on boulders and exposed rock surfaces. It has been suggested that these symbols, enigmatic to us, may have been representations of personal names, perhaps? 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. It is worth pointing out that with few exceptions Pictish crosses are flat representations on stones that are not cross-shaped. Their designs parallel representations of crosses in illuminated manuscripts being produced in Scotland at the same time, which may be a reason for the flat, usually stylised carved crosses.

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 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. Some good stones are in private hands and are not accessible to the public.

The Dupplin Cross at St Serf's Church, Dunning.
The Dupplin Cross at St Serf's Church, Dunning. Photo: Hartlepoolmarina2014

I can only begin to suggest routes to visit important groups of Pictish crosses. Moving north east from the central belt, one could visit the Dupplin Cross at Dunning, then Perth Museum, moving east to Meigle, then taking in Dundee Museum, the Aberlemno Churchyard Stone and the St Vigean's Museum.

Another fine group is in Easter Ross, taking in on the way north the little Logierait stone, the Dunfallandy Stone, and Sueno's Stone at Forres on the way to Inverness, where one could visit the museum. Once in Easter Ross one could start with the Groam House Museum in Rosemarkie before visiting the Shandwick and Nigg stones, the visitor centre at Tarbat, near Portmahomack, and the chapel site of the Hilton of Cadboll Stone, before returning to Edinburgh to see the stone itself.

Spirals & bosses

I have already mentioned some of the figurative and symbolic features found on Pictish crosses, but these are, on the faces of the crosses, the context within which the crosses themselves are sculpted. Within the outline of the crosses the designs are abstract. The design themes can be categorised under four headings: interlace, key pattern, spirals and bosses. Interlace and bosses are to be found in west of Scotland crosses, but key patterns and spirals are more particular to Pictish ones.

In Pictish monuments these features are all constructed with extraordinary geometric accuracy, as in manuscript illumination. With interlace (based on plaiting of hair or textiles) as used on crosses the obvious intention is to take a single line on an endless journey over a whole area, over and under itself in strict sequence.

Key patterns are angular, repetitive and intriguingly abstract. Spirals can be seen as lines moving both inwards to a focal point and outward to a defined periphery; they are explicitly dynamic whereas interlace and key patterns are more subtly so. Finally, bosses are comparatively rare, and best seen in the Nigg Stone. They relieve the generally flat appearance of Pictish sculptural art.

Spiritual meaning

In my first draft of this piece I began to speculate on the spiritual meanings of the different types of cross. It is very striking that representation of the crucified Christ common in west Highland crosses is unknown in the Pictish ones, though some may have been destroyed after the Reformation.

My feeling is that most of the free-standing crosses were intended as focal points for worship, or at least reminders of the spiritual. They may also have been wayside or landscape markers. The simpler ones have an immediate impact both for their symbolism and for their art. The more complex ones demand more detailed study. The integration of pre-Christian symbolism with an explicitly Christian motif in Pictish stones suggests an easy acceptance of the missionary message.

Go & see

But 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.

Note: Many of these stones and collections are in the care of Historic Environment Scotland, and information about them can be found on their websites. For those not in HES care there are good images on their Canmore website, and on the Scran website, which includes images of museum objects.

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