Scottish High Crosses

Outside Ireland, the Celtic Crosses on the holy island of Iona and at Kildalton on Islay in Strathclyde are closest in design to the Irish high crosses. The ninth-century cross in the churchyard at Kildalton is the most impressive surviving wheel-head Celtic Cross outside Ireland. Measuring 2.7 m (9 ft) in height, the whole cross was carved from one piece of stone. It has a few bosses and serpents, but these are subordinate to spirals, interlace and panels containing episodes from the Old Testament. According to a 1982 survey of Iona by experts from the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland, St John's, St Martin's and St Oran's crosses were made during the second half of the eighth century. St Matthew's Cross, of which only a fragment still exists, dates from the late ninth or early tenth centuries. It has been suggested that St John's Cross was made originally without a wheel-head, and that, because it was weak, had the ring added later to strengthen it. Made of stone imported from Argyll, it had one of the widest spans of any cross known in the British Isles. Its original base now supports a replica.

Like St John's Cross and that at Kildalton, the Ionan cross of St Martin is a fine example of the 'boss style', carved with masterly skill. The arms of this cross have slots at the end which may have held metal or wooden pieces, perhaps for the suspension of garlands, ribbons or banners. The 'serpent stone' bosses on St Martin's Cross resemble those on the Dunfallandy cross-slab in Tayside, and the Irish high crosses at Ahcnny and the South Cross at Clonmacnois. Although commentators have suggested that they are derived from metalworking, they and their metal counterparts resemble the rope knotwork used in sailing ships and practised today by canal-boat enthusiasts. The astonishing Celtic knotwork plug for the font in the church at Kilpeck in Hereford and Worcester is another parallel which is often overlooked. The creation of Celtic high crosses continued on Iona long after they had passed into

Standing Celtic Cross

St Martin's Cross on the holy island of Iona is one of the finest still standing in the British Isles. (Historic Scotland)

Crucifix Circular

the 'gothic' style elsewhere. Later high crosses, such as the fifteenth-century MacLean's Cross on Iona, are rather simple when compared with the scriptural crosses of Ireland and Islay. Later medieval high crosses, such as MacMillan's Cross at Kilmorie in Knapdale, retain the circular portion of the wheel-head but no longer have the wheel form. Instead, at Kilmorie, there is a crucifixion scene, and the lower part bears a sword flanked by simple interlace carving.

The churchyard high cross at Kildalton, Islay, Scotland, of typical Irish form in the 'boss style', and standing on its original stepped base. (Historic Scotland)

Opposite: MacMillan's Cross at Kilmorie, Knapdale, Strathclyde. This fifteenth-century cross perpetuates the Celtic shape, but without a wheel or holes, as a crucifix. Interlace patterns are reduced, though the 'holu hill' base of the earlier Celtic Crosses is retained, maintaining the cosmic axis symbolism.

Celtic High Crosses
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