The Story behind the Stone – the families, estates and stories of Kirkmichael, Cullicudden, the Black Isle and beyond

The Other Medieval Ornate Stones at Kirkmichael

text: Dr Jim Mackay    photos as given below each image

This is the story of the medieval memorial stones at Kirkmichael in the Black Isle that were too worn or fragile to put on display within the nave, but are worthy of notice. Only one sits above ground and hence only it can be seen by the visitor. We went to great lengths to ensure that it is both well protected and displayed. We’ll start with that one, which we have named, imaginatively, “Kirkmichael B”.

A quick plug: a full description and photography of most of these stones and an assessment of their national significance are included within “Tales from Kirkmichael” available from shops locally and on ebay here.

Kirkmichael B

Variations in photogrammetric imagery by Andy Hickie to bring out lost detail

We had been aware that this stone was very old back in the 1990s when Helma Reynolds and I were recording, separately, inscriptions at Kirkmichael. It was one of a set of stones that the Trust began to protect from maintenance work back in the early 2000s by placing thick timber beams around them. But we were never very sure what the pattern was. We did think for a while that a big sword ran down the middle! Following the restoration of the buildings at Kirkmichael, I came down at dawn on a couple of occasions to get the most angled light, and it emerged that the stone was an ornate cross with multiple branches. Excavation showed it possessed wonderful half dogtooth moulding around the sides.

The greatest detail arrived when Andy Hickie applied, in December 2018, his false colour photogrammetric techniques to the slab.

Each of Andy’s variations brings out different features. It is a double-headed cross, with the most extreme branching effect I have seen on these medieval crosses. The stem of the cross becomes the tree of life, and each branch terminates in a fleur-de-lis. The eight-spoked cross at the head contains a small wheel at the centre, reminiscent of earlier Celtic crosses. The eight spoked cross at the base is simpler. There is a lot going on with this stone, without even considering the half dogtooth moulding on the sides! What an amazing memorial it must have been when first carved.

But how could we bring this ornate medieval cross to life? The slab is so worn the pattern emerges only in very low light. The superb half dogtooth moulding around its sides was hidden from view. And how could we protect it? The cross gets walked on and is at risk from grass mowers and other maintenance work. And it is being split open by the roots from the nearby yew tree.

photo by Isabel Ross

photo by Andrew Dowsett

On the left is how the stone was in summer 2018, when we entertained a fine party of visitors from distant — Easter Ross. Thanks to cousin Isabel from Rhynie for this photo! But see how the poor slab has no deterrent to people walking on it or the grass-mowing machinery wreaking havoc on it!

Even worse, as seen on the right, the roots from the nearby yew tree are penetrating the planes of the sandstone and causing serious damage. And just look at the wonderful half dogtooth medieval moulding on the edge of this slab, which is never seen as it is below ground.

Photo by Andrew Dowsett

Here is the stone partially excavated under ideal viewing conditions in January 2019 – wet and with the low winter sun picking out some of the features. Ignore the initials (IMD/MM) – they were carved for a later user of the slab. Our stones were re-used many times over! By the way, note the line on the headstone behind the slab – that was often carved by the stone mason who made the headstone to tell the workmen installing it how deeply into the soil to place it.

We decided to take action. We have cut back the tree roots. We have exposed one of the edges so that visitors can appreciate the dogtooth moulding. We have surrounded the stone with a membrane and rounded distinctive pebbles to let visitors and workers know that it is not for walking on. And we have recorded it, including Andy Hickie producing those fantastic photogrammetric images of its intricate but worn patterns. We think it now looks splendid!

Andrew and Jonathan sever all the roots around the slab, whilst Donald accurately cuts the membrane that will keep the pebbles from touching the slab; photo by Jim Mackay

the membrane going in; it also serves as an easy way to remove the pebbles if need be; photo by Andrew Dowsett

the finishing touches; the tarpaulin is to prevent the path being muddied; photo by Andrew Dowsett

We’ve dropped the soil level on the south side of the slab to prevent tree root growth into the slab, and to present a boundary for people and grass-cutting equipment. The rounded pebbles serve to show visitors and grass-cutters where not to walk or work. The stone is now better displayed to show its marvellous medieval moulding and, in the right conditions, some of its ornate cross pattern. It looks better now than it has done for several hundred years.

photo by Andrew Dowsett


Kirkmichael D

This stone was identified as recently as January 2019. We had been excavating Kirkmichael B to sever the tree roots that were damaging it and to put in a protective depth of rounded pebbles in membrane. The adjacent slab naturally became partially uncovered and some curious incised marks on the edge were noted. Unfortunately practically all of the slab lies under the path installed in February 2017, under a clay protective membrane. I went back to have a look at the photographs taken by the archaeologists during the watching brief. The pictures aren’t very clear and the slab is not very clean, but it is apparent that the other side of this slab has the same regular incised marking. I thought I might even be able to distinguish the shape of a sword on the left side, but not with any confidence!

These incisions are very unusual, and may be the remnants of worn patterns or edge moulding. But what is astonishing about this slab is its thickness – at its head we measured it to be about 25–26 cm thick, whilst at the mid point it was about 28 cm thick. At 190.5 cm long, it must have been a challenge to shift. I believe that the thicker the slab, the earlier the stone.

A strange stone emerges beside Kirkmichael B – what on earth are these holes?

The massive slab is measured up

And that is as much as we know about Kirkmichael D, unless we lift the path again sometime!


Kirkmichael A

The next stone is buried under soil and turf. Kirkmichael A bears some wonderful carving, under a plethora of later initials and dates. It is an ornate cross arising from a three-stepped Calvary base, with four loops forming the top of the cross. A sword on the right arises from a lower point on the Calvary base, its quillons angling steeply downwards. To the left of the cross are three shield-like shapes, one above the other, just touching – the top shield, the largest, seems plain, the middle shield contains a rectangular shape (a Bible?) and the bottom shield contains a double traced circular device (a halo?) and is the smallest. These features can be seen only in low light.

The later initials, curiously enough, we can assign to real people, as this stone forms one of three mentioned in the church records as a family transaction. They read:

AU / 1805 / H [heart shape] S [the S is reversed] / ION HINDE / [at far right, due to carver under-estimating width of surname] RY / HF / [some distance below] WH / MM / 1726 [at base] XX

The AU/HS combination were Alexander Urquhart tenant in the Birks and Henny or Hendrate Stewart. They had children in the 1770s and 1780s, and their descendants were still living in the parish in the 20th century. A story about this family and their trio of rudely inscribed stones will be written at some point! I don’t know who the John Henry/HF combination were, or indeed the WH/MM combination from 1726.

Kirkmichael A

Kirkmichael B and Kirkmichael D

Kirkmichael C


Kirkmichael C

This stone is also buried under soil and turf, and is so worn that, when exposed during path creation, it passed by our diggers unnoticed when the path was being excavated. Only when washed and in strongly angled light does the worn medieval cross appear. I have placed a red spot in the centre of the ornate cross to aid the eye in picking out the pattern. A later “I W 1768” has been carved across the head of the cross.

A large eight-spoked wheel can be seen at the top (the wide) end, each spoke terminating in a fleur-de-lis. The interlacing of the pattern creates a large octagon in the centre, the feature that is picked out most easily. The joining of the fleurs-de-lis outside the Celtic circle and the stems reaching to the central octagonal create heart shapes, just as in the Kirkmichael Cross. A sword is apparent on the left side of the cross, but no details can be distinguished. Part of a sword can also be seen on the right side. The cross arises from a stepped Calvary base of, I think, three steps.

Kirkmichael B, Kirkmichael D and the location of the Kirkmichael Cross before it was removed to the nave were adjacent to and parallel with each other. The slab next to the north shows no medieval features, and the slab to the south of the three is under the central yew and not easily accessible. But who knows?


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