Continuity And Destruction

There are a number of surviving late medieval artefacts that demonstrate the continuation of traditional Celtic art. A notable Irish example is the fifteenth-century leather satchel made as a container for Tlie Book of Armagh. Kept in Trinity College, Dublin, it is stamped with patterns that reflect the full repertoire of Celtic ribbonwork and animal interlaces. The famous ivory and metal Eglinton Casket (on show in the National Museum of Antiquities in Edinburgh), once thought to date from the first millennium, appears to be one of the finest products of the west Highlands in the early sixteenth century. The brass ring brooch from Tomintoul, Grampian, illustrated here, dates from the seventeenth century and contains wonderful four- and five-fold knot-work roundels. This so-called 'revival' demonstrates that the principles of Celtic interlace were understood and used by traditional craftspeople in Scotland well into the eighteenth century. It seems that the catastrophes of the Jacobite rebellions and the subsequent repression of Highland culture after 1746 led to the suspension of Celtic art in Scotland for a period, but not to its permanent suppression.

A seventeenth-century Scottish brass brooch from Tomintoul, Grampian, showing the continued understanding of Celtic interlace design which continued until the renewed interest in Celtic art in Queen Victoria's reign.

Scottish Celtic Art

At the Reformation, places and things formerly revered by Roman Catholics as holy were condemned by the new Protestants as objects of superstition that should be destroyed. In those parts of the British Isles where staunch Protestants gained the ascendancy, most of the crosses were destroyed in the religious turmoil that marked the change from Catholicism. Puritan zealots believed it to be their religious duty to eliminate all 'idolatrous images' at which Catholic 'superstition' was practised. So, when they smashed and burnt the church's images of Christ, Our Lady and the saints, broke stained-glass windows and dug up altars, they also destroyed stone crosses both on church ground and at the wayside. An English law against witchcraft, passed in 1542, specifically mentions the latter practice, in the shape of certain people who had 'digged up and pulled down an infinite number of crosses within this realm, for despite of Christ, or for love of money'.

It was the Puritan destroyers, however, who by their activism had led the way in smashing churches. Because of their activities, those who believed treasure to lie beneath crosses could dig without fear of divine vengeance. However, the law did not recognize this, and condemned cross-destroyers as anti-Christian witches, or alternatively as people who believed the widespread story that treasure could be discovered beneath crosses. Because the Protestants wrecked so many churches and crosses without divine vengenace descending upon them, it became apparent to everyone that anyone could vandalize or loot a church or dig up a cross without fear of God's summary punishment. Then destruction could proceed without hindrance. In Scotland, the Edinburgh Parliament authorized the destruction of sacred places in 1581 with an act that stated: 'the Dregs of Idolatry yet remain in divers Parts of the Realm by using of Pilgrimage to some Chapels, Wells, Crosses, and such other Monuments of Idolatry, as also by observing the Festal days of the Saints sometime Named their Patrons in setting forth of Bon-Fires, singing of Carols within and about Kirks at certain Seasons of the Year.' This act to extirpate folk piety was the authorization by which many Scottish crosses were cast down and smashed. A thousand years of tradition was broken at a stroke.

So, outside Ireland and South Uist, which remained largely Catholic, the crosses were destroyed wholesale. As stone is a useful material, however, the pieces were not always thrown away, but reused for other, profane, purposes. Fine crosses were broken up for their stone to be re-used as building material in houses, or as roadstone and gateposts. In some places, no use could be found for the crosses, so the fragments were buried or otherwise removed from sight. The scale of destruction was enormous. Before the Reformation, every churchyard had at least one cross; there were numerous wayside stopping-places marked by crosses, and every market-place had its market cross. Places of great sanctity had many crosses, and the oral tradition of Iona recalls that over 200 crosses from there and the islands nearby were tossed into the sea by fanatics.

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