Case Study: The Hilton of Cadboll cross-slab: a complex and fragmented biography

Case Study 16

The Hilton of Cadboll cross-slab: a complex and fragmented biography 

Siân Jones and Sally Foster

[T]he greatest glory of a building is not in its stones, nor in its gold. Its glory is in its Age, and in that deep sense of voicefulness, […] which we feel in walls that have long been washed by the passing waves of humanity (Ruskin 1849, 233–4)

All too often in archaeology, art history and heritage management the original meaning and use of objects, images, buildings or monuments is privileged. Yet if we follow Ruskin, it is the effects of human engagement over time that produces their ‘voicefulness’ or sense of authenticity. The Hilton of Cadboll cross-slab has a complex and fragmented history (Figure 1), on a par with other fragmented and displaced monuments like the Parthenon and the contested ‘Elgin Marbles’. Following excavations in 1998 and 2001 (James et al. 2008), a detailed study of its cultural biography shed light on its rich social life and explored the wider social interactions and processes in which it has been entangled (Foster and Jones 2008). 

Excavation revealed that the cross-slab had been erected twice at the Hilton chapel site. The cross-face may have been deliberately damaged during the 16th century. Subsequently the upper portion was broken off in a storm and reworked into a gravestone dated 1676, creating thousands of small fragments. Following its ‘rediscovery’ by antiquarians, this upper portion was taken by the laird to Invergordon Castle in the 1860s. His son sent it to the British Museum in 1921, resulting in widespread protest and it was quickly re-donated to the National Museum of Antiquities (NMAS) in Edinburgh. It now features prominently in the ‘Early People’ exhibition in the Museum of Scotland. In 2000, a full-scale reconstruction was commissioned and erected adjacent to the Hilton chapel. The excavations of 2001 recovered the missing lower portion and thousands of fragments from the cross-face. While the latter are stored at the NMS the lower portion became entangled in conflicting claims of ownership and belonging and remains in the village community hall.

The biographical study of the monument highlights the myriad ways it contributed to the production of meaning, identity and place. In Pictish times it was involved in the expression and negotiation of religious and political identities, as well as possible regional or ethnic ones. In the Reformation it became tied up with new forms of religious and political identities, but from the late 18th century onwards its significance for religious identity waned in contrast to its part in negotiating the personal identities of the landowning elite and ‘polite’ classes. During the 19th century it played an increasing role in the production and expression of national identity. This became fully realised in the 20th century with the incorporation of the upper portion into the collection of the NMAS. Meanwhile, in Hilton itself, the recently excavated lower portion acts as a medium for the production of community identities and processes of place-making, specifically in the construction of Hilton as a place of significance. The biography of this monument highlights potent themes of faith, identity, power and place-making, which lie at the heart of people’s relationships with one another and with the material world. The powerful nature of these themes contributes to the contestation surrounding the monument, but it is also the reason why it has such a compelling aura, or sense of ‘voicefulness’. 


Figure 1: Composite image depicting different stages of the life of the Hilton of Cadboll cross-slab. © Richard Easson, photographer unknown; Siân Jones © National Museums Scotland; Siân Jones; GUARD; and Crown Copyright: Historic Environment Scotland