2.3.1 The material

Nearly 2000 carved stone monuments survive from early medieval Scotland (AD 500–1100). These range from unworked boulders incised with simple crosses to magnificent free-standing crosses and cross-slabs up to three metres or more in height, such as those from Iona (Figure 11), Ruthwell (Figure 12) and Aberlemno (Figure 13). The finest, such as the Nigg cross-slab, rank among Scotland's greatest artworks (see Figure 24; Case Study 31: Metric Drawing). These incised and sculptured stones are decorated in regional versions of the 'Insular' art style common to all the peoples of Britain and Ireland, both Anglo-Saxon and Celtic-speaking. Rich in Christian symbolism, this art combines intricate geometric ornament (interlace knotwork, spirals, key-patterns) with figurative scenes depicting Christian imagery and details of everyday life, including dress, transport and weaponry (Figure 14; musicians in Case Study 4: Canmore upgrade example).

Figure 11: The St Martin's Cross, Iona, during RCAHMS recording in 1972/3. Crown Copyright: Historic Environment Scotland

Figure 12: 1832 drawing of the Ruthwell Cross by Rev Dr Duncan, engraved by W Penny. Crown Copyright: Historic Environment Scotland

Figure 13: The back face of the Aberlemno roadside cross-slab, including hunting scene. Crown Copyright: Historic Environment Scotland

Figure 14: The battle scene on the back of cross-slab in Aberlemno kirkyard, Angus. Crown Copyright: Historic Environment Scotland

The range of functions of these monuments is wide: some marked significant points in the landscape (boundaries, routeways, ancestral burial grounds), many stood outside at churches or monasteries as a powerful testament to Christian belief and patronage. Some, whether upright or recumbent, marked the graves of prominent people (Figure 15); a smaller number are architectural features, the sole remnants of exceptional churches (Figure 16). Although the great majority of stone monuments were not inscribed, a number bear short inscriptions: in Latin (the language of the Church) or in Gaelic, Pictish, Old English or Norse; using the Roman alphabet (Figure 17), ogham (Figure 18) or runes (Figure 19). Unique to Scotland is an enigmatic system of graphic motifs known as 'Pictish symbols' found on over 250 stones, both unworked pillar-stones and elaborate cross-slabs (e.g. Figures 13, 14, 18, 20). The set of Pictish symbols comprises about three dozen designs. A small proportion of these are recognizable objects and native creatures but most are abstract geometric motifs, the meaning of which remains a mystery.

Figure 15: Meigle Museum in 1953, with a series of Pictish recumbent monuments in front of the cross-slabs. Crown Copyright: Historic Environment Scotland

Figure 16: Slab from Papil, Shetland, interpreted as part of a composite, box-like shrine or other architectural feature. Crown Copyright: Historic Environment Scotland

Figure 17: Face b of the stone from Lochgoilhead, Argyll and Bute, that bears an inscribed alphabet in roman script and, on another face, a short ogham inscription. Crown Copyright: Historic Environment Scotland

Figure 18: Reconstructed fragments of the stone from Brandsbutt, Aberdeenshire, with Pictish symbols and ogham script. Crown Copyright: Historic Environment Scotland

Figure 19: Norse, rune-bearing cross-slab from Cille-Bharra, Barra, in the Western Isles. Crown Copyright: Historic Environment Scotland