The Kildalton Cross, Isle of
Islay, western Scotland

The island of Islay must surely rank as one of the most important sites for those with a love of Celtic/megalithic/early Christian lore. Islay lies 14 miles west of the Kintyre peninsula. It has standing on its original site the best-preserved and possibly the most beautiful early ringed stone cross in the British Isles, situated at Kildalton and dating from c.800AD.

The island has many examples of stonecarvings from around this period and later. These are very well documented in ‘Ancient and Medieval Sculptured Stones of Islay’, by W.D. Lamont – an essential handbook for anyone visiting the island.

Ignoring the whisky distilleries (if you can!), the island has a definite aura of mystique. We visited Islay in September and particularly noticed the vividness of the autumn colours there, together with the relatively unspoilt coastline and abundant wildlife. We found it easier to imagine the early Irish monks landing initially at Islay rather than on Iona. In fact tradition has it that St Columba’s tutor in Ireland, St Ciaran, established himself at on the island at Kilchiaran, in the Rinns of Islay on the Atlantic Coast, and that he died here in 548AD. (Kilchiaran means church or cell of St Ciaran).

Most especially we felt that the early Celtic religious settlement of Kilnave retains much of its original atmosphere of peace and tranquillity. The beautiful but now weathered high cross (8.5ft high and carved c.850AD) stands in the chapel grounds of Kilnave, on the edge of Loch Gruinart. Although it is not in such pristine condition as the cross at Kildalton it is important in its own right, as the carvings bear a direct resmblance to those found on the high cross of Kells in Co.Meath, Ireland. The carving on the lower area of the shaft of this cross is very reminiscent of La Tene art. The name Kilnave means ‘church of the saints’. This is a wild, lonely and inspiring place.

Kilchoman, which is also on the Atlantic Coast only 2 miles north of Kilchiaran, has a beautiful freestanding disc headed cross, albeit of a much later date from the 15th century. This cross stands among many elaborately carved grave slabs that are well documented in Lamont’s book, mentioned earlier. There is also a broken floriate-design disc headed cross named the MacInnirlegin Cross. Lamont says that the name MacInnirlegin is explained as ‘son of Lector’ – Lector being the head of the monastic school which flourished at Kilchoman in early medieval times.

Interestingly, most of the early Christian chapels or ‘cilles’ on Islay are associated with standing stones, the latter being very potent points of earth energy known and used in pre-Christian times. There is a wealth of megalithic remains on Islay, and some of the standing stones are huge, especially in the Port Ellen area. As in many other parts of Britain, some of the standing stones have been Christianised, or de-paganised, by having Christian symbols carved onto them.

The Kildalton and Oa district of Islay produces a very useful mini-guide, available through the Tourist Office, which pinpoints the megalithic and ancient sites in this area. Port Charlotte, at the southwest of the island, has the Museum of Islay Life, which possesses a fine collection of sculptured stones from all over the island housed under cover. These fine carvings span from the 6th to the 10th centuries, with a few later examples. There are some intricate cross variations.

Three miles south of Port Charlotte we arrive at Nereabolls, a ruined chapel and burial ground containing some of the finest medieval carved grave slabs in Scotland, some bearing high-relief images of clan chiefs in armour – second only (in the writer’s opinion) to those found at Saddell Abbey on the Kintyre peninsula.

There is to be mentioned one further gem of Islay’s history, and that is Finlaggan. This name may resonate with enthusiasts of the popular UK Channel 4 archaeology programme ‘Time Team’, who conducted a fascinating televised excavation at Finlaggan in the late 1990s – showing megalithic stone row alignments and other prehistoric constructions. Here on a tiny islet in Loch Finlaggan, the court of the Lord of The Isles was based, and among other prestigious early investitures the clan Donald chiefs were installed.

Recently a most interesting cross has been found on the islet at Finlaggan, as well as grave slabs of the type already described at Nereabolls. Today it is possible to reach the islet by a wooden causeway and rope-pulled boat. There is no reason to suppose that this access was any different in the islet’s heyday. Unfortunately torrential rain had submerged the causeway and also most of the boat when we arrived there, so we could not get across to visit the castle ruins and the carved stone slabs. We had to be content with viewing the permanent exhibition on Finlaggan in the nearby wooden building. The latter is very well laid out and includes the early stone cross from the islet.

However, the glory of Islay is the Kildalton cross. A narrow road hugging the coast approaches it, travelling through woodland that goes down to the sea, and on past basking seals – everywhere quiet and still on the day we visited. Interestingly a small stone on which is carved a Latin cross was found buried below the Kildalton cross when work to strengthen its foundations was carried out. Joseph Anderson, in his book ‘Scotland in Early Christian Times’, says of the Kildalton cross ‘The special feature of its character is the intense Celticism of its art. No other cross now standing exhibits this in such a striking manner’. We were left with a strong impression that the Kildalton cross and other crosses on Islay and elsewhere were originally painted in bright colours. This idea has been put forward by several archaeologists and historians, and is adeptly illustrated in Maureen Costain Richards’ book ‘The Manx Crosses Illuminated’ in which she has accurately drawn and painted many Celtic/Viking crosses on the Isle of Man, using her intuitive and artistic skills.

Carved from a single block of local blue stone, the Kildalton cross stands 9ft high. About half way up on the reverse side is what has been described in the past as the mysterious ‘nest of eggs’ symbol, carved in very high relief. This symbol also appears several times on the cross of St John on Iona – which dates from the same period and is believed by some to have been carved by the same stonemasons.

Mysteries abound on Islay. Among the ornate carved stones, the magnificent Celtic crosses, the seat of the Lords of The isles at Finlaggan, and the many prehistoric stones and alignments, there are many exciting discoveries waiting to be made by future generations.

- © C. and J. Tweedale