Case Study: Auchnaha cairn in Cowal, and its cross-carved stone

Case Study 39

Auchnaha cairn in Cowal, and its cross-carved stone

Gilbert Márkus

The Faith in Cowal pilgrimage landscape (see Faith in Cowal: Case Study 12 and www.faithincowal.org) contains a number of medieval church and chapel-sites, and a good number of carved stones, both early Christian and later medieval. One early carving of a very small cross at Auchnaha on the west side of Cowal is particularly interesting. This is not for any aesthetic reason—it is the most modest and superficially the most unattractive of carvings—but because of what it may reveal when we interrogate it about the belief and culture of the people who carved it. 

On a hillside covered in a sitka spruce plantation are the remains of a chambered cairn with a crescent-shaped ‘forecourt’. The cross is carved on the easternmost stone of the crescent; it is small (18 cm tall, 11 cm across) and shallow, and carved into a very rough surface which makes it hard to find. In 2015 it was even harder to find because the cairn had largely been covered by fallen trees. They had been planted too close to the monument and, having grown to 30 or more feet in height, when they fell they almost completely obscured the cairn for some years. Recently the site was cleared, and Faith in Cowal cut a path through the forestry from the road to the site, marking the route with arrows to guide visitors to the cairn. 

While it is hard to imagine a less impressive carved stone, this one has the power to excite the imagination and raises fascinating questions. Why did someone in early Christian Cowal carve such a stone on a prehistoric cairn? Did he or she perceive this as a risky place occupied by dangerous otherworld beings or by the restless spirits of the dead, and so seek protection by carving a cross there? 

Or perhaps there is another, more plausible explanation. We know that people in the early medieval Gaelic world regarded prehistoric burial monuments as significant and powerful, treating them as if they contained the remains of their own ancestors. Could the cross have been carved there so that Christ’s saving power would embrace the pre-Christian ancestors? We know that the cross was used in other parts of early Christian Europe to ‘save’ the unbaptised dead. It was in this belief that one couple in 5th-century Gaul buried their unbaptised child and placed a cross beside it, with an epitaph in which they expressed their trust that God ‘will give rest to any member lying beneath the noble sign of the cross, and the child will be heir to Christ’.


Figure 1: The incised cross at Auchnaha (detail). © Gilbert Márkus


Figure 2: Auchnaha chambered cairn, with its covering of fallen trees removed in 2015. © Gilbert Márkus