Case Study: Celtic Revival gravemarkers in Scotland

Case Study 15

Celtic Revival gravemarkers in Scotland

Murdo Macdonald

There was a proliferation of gravemarkers throughout Scotland (and elsewhere) in the 19th and 20th centuries that drew on work originating in the Celtic cultures of Scotland and related areas from (usually) the 8th and 9th centuries. These include works designed by artists of the first rank such as Charles Rennie Mackintosh, James Drummond, William Bell Scott and Archibald Knox. Celtic Revival gravemarkers from the 1860s onwards acted as a form of ‘validation’ by being seen as appropriate ways to mark the passing of prominent Scottish artists: e.g. Alexander Nasmyth (St Cuthbert’s), David Scott (Dean); Horatio McCulloch (Warriston) and Joseph Noel Paton (Dean), to name four Edinburgh examples. In addition, these monuments generally display high quality of production and design, which speaks volumes for the firms involved, such as Mossman in Glasgow and McGlashan in Edinburgh.

In the context of carved stone research Celtic Revival motifs, often appearing independent of crosses, should also be considered. In particular, the clarsach, which appears frequently: e.g. on memorials to James Hogg (Ettrick); Mary MacKellar (Kilmallie); Alexander Smith (Warriston); Mary Macpherson (Inverness). Celtic Cross war memorials have been of importance from the time of Robert Rowand Anderson’s pioneering monument to the 78th Highlanders (1861, Edinburgh Castle). In addition markers based on the West Highland School of Sculpture (14/15th century), deserve specific notice (e.g. Caroline Campbell’s memorial, St Conan’s, Loch Awe, 1900).

A number of these memorials bring Celtic Revival design back to their Gaelic speaking culture of origin (and the Scottish Diaspora in places such as Nova Scotia), such as the memorial to the Gaelic poet Mary MacKellar at Kilmallie near Fort William, c. 1890. That also applies in Hebridean graveyards, e.g. Father Allan McDonald’s memorial, Eriskay, c. 1905, or that of the ethnologist Calum MacLean, South Uist, c. 1960. One can also see such reappropriation in the graveyard at Cille Choirill, Roy Bridge, Lochaber. In this aspect of Celtic Revival work a visual culture dating back well over a millennium (i.e. to the time of the Kildalton Cross in Islay and the Book of Kells in Iona) is reintegrated with the wider Highland Gaelic culture of the late 19th and early 20th century.

As with earlier carved stones, these stones are exposed to environmental risks. These works are mainly sited outside, they are subject to damage, weather, vandalism, over-enthusiastic health and safety measures, etc., which makes the case for research all the more pressing. Celtic Revival carved stones in Scotland are a major cultural achievement. Research should cast an illuminating light on the entire body of carved stone research, both ‘revival’ and ‘original’, within Scotland and further afield. For example The ‘Celts: Art and Identity’ exhibition held at the British Museum in London and the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh in 2015–16, integrated Celtic Revival and earlier material to very good effect (Fowle 2015).


Figure 1: The Mackintosh cross in Glasgow Necropolis. © Murdo Macdonald


Figure 2: The memorial to Mary MacKellar, Kilmallie. © Murdo Macdonald