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. This particular Story complements our Story on the stones on display within the nave Preserving our Ornate Medieval Crosses.

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?

 

Kirkmichael E

We built this stone up in stages! In November 2019 we set out to record two broken sections of slabs which had been noted from a test pit excavated a few months earlier. Just a tick box exercise, we thought. We did not expect to have a new medieval cross on our books! Worn, shattered, abandoned but still looking great.


The two part slabs are buried at depth, and each is tilted over, the south edge being much deeper than the north.


We finish the excavation with trowel and brush, and record, but there seems to be something wrong…

We measure and photograph for the record. But the longer we look at the slab sections the more suspicious we get. The basal section gets wider further up just like a medieval stone. But the top section is wide at its base and then narrows. Could it be the wrong way round? And its surface looks like a delaminated slab rather than a top surface. Could it also be upside down? We try the sections together for size and shape – result! We now have a broken six-foot slab decreasing in width along its length. Whoever threw the slabs into this pit were not worrying about how it fitted together!


Wait a minute… could…


It all makes sense now. The top part had indeed been thrown in upside down and wrong way round.

A stepped Calvary base and the thick stem of a cross are obvious now on the basal section. We conclude that the other half is just too eroded to make out anything, except possibly the boss of a central ornate cross. We record, replace the broken pieces and restore the site.



On updating the GIS I noted an anomaly.There is an edge of a slab (red arrow below) cropping out of the soil, where no slab should be. We had taken an exploratory trench down the middle of the gap there without any sign of a slab. Could that edge be of another broken piece some distance away? The day after spotting this, a hasty supplementary excavation revealed the ornate cross head of the medieval ornate cross! How close were we to missing that! The very thick stem of the cross continues up to the ornate head, which is formed entirely from four large fleur de lis terminals. In between the terminals are small shapes, and in the two-and-a-half remaining they seem to be different.



The exploratory trench had just missed the broken piece, prompting us to reconsider our exploratory strategy. We had not allowed for half-slabs! I have superimposed the ornate cross head on the remainder of the stone, and I think there is a portion still missing, a portion bearing a length of that thick stem. But it is a lovely stone, and one that could be pieced together again if so desired!


Our GIS layer, with our exploratory trenches in pink, just missing the half-slab bearing the ornate cross.


The three parts of the medieval ornate cross placed together; you will note the portion of that upper layer still missing a section.

Andy Hickie very kindly returned to Kirkmichael and photographed the half-slab before we backfilled, and produced the photogrammetric images below, in which the small features within the angles between the arms of the cross are much clearer. The one top left looks like a heart on its edge, although I am sure it is not, and the one bottom left has thus far defied our analysis.


Photogrammetric image of Kirkmichael E by Andy Hickie


Photogrammetric image of Kirkmichael E by Andy Hickie

 

Kirkmichael F

It seemed for a while that every week we would find a new medieval ornate cross at Kirkmichael! The Saturday work party on 16 November 2019, a week after investigating Kirkmichael E, was to uncover what we thought was a rough chunk of sandstone beside the main path. We’d identified there was something there during an exploratory trenching, but did not have great hopes.


Well tarped before we start!


The turf is raised, soil removed, the path excavated and the slab is fully exposed

It was deep, and mostly under the path itself, so hideously awkward to investigate. We have learned to cover surfaces with tarpaulins to keep soil from going everywhere. We tried to minimise damage to the path, but had to close it off for a couple of days temporarily with wheelbarrows. In fact we had just given the slab a good washing so it was covered in puddles and we were just leaving when Andy Hickie arrived to photograph Kirkmichael E for photogrammetric purposes. Donald and Jonathan hastily mopped up the water (photogrammetry does not like stone covered in sheets of water!) while Andy got set up to photograph not just Kirkmichael E but a new Kirkmichael F!


The site secured and we are ready to depart


Andy arrives and Donald and Jonathan hastily mop up excess moisture!

We know now that different investigation techniques can be complementary, so Carlann and I came down with the Kirkmichael Lampie on Saturday night for some oblique night-time photography. On Sunday the site was restored and the path re-opened.


Andy Hickie sets to work


And the next day the site is restored and the path re-opened

Despite the base of the stone being severely damaged, the night-time photography shows up the right hand side of a stepped Calvary base. The slanting style of Calvary base seen here is very similar to medieval cross Cullicudden E, to be seen inside the nave at Kirkmichael. The two share another unusual feature, in that the pattern on the top half of the stone is carved in relief and the bottom half is incised. The same stone carver, perhaps? The cross on Kirkmichael F has a most unusual feature – a circular hole off-centre. We wondered if it was just damage, but the low angle shot seen below shows its perimeter to be raised. It is a real puzzler.


And now for the full-length images, first of all with Cullicudden E for comparison, and then Kirkmichael F as both a photogrammetric image and a night-time oblique photograph. A simple cross with thick bars vertically and horizontally reaches the perimeter of a large circle, about 0.40m diameter. Within each angle formed by the bars of the cross is a horse-shoe, each end of which ends with, we think, fleur de lis terminals, although eroded so that fleur de lis is not clear in each case. An asymmetrically placed elevated ring lies within the cross, and inside the ring is a cavity. A sword with two downward sloping quillons is on the right. The cross and the top section of the sword are in relief but the stem of the cross and the sword grade into an incised pattern, which appears faintly only at a few points. Part of the right hand side of a Calvary base is apparent, the steps of the diagonal type seen on Cullicudden E. There is a later and poorly executed date 17 72 faintly incised. Under the 17 there may be a feature which is too faint to be made out.


Cullicudden E with its slanting Calvary steps and transition from profile to incision; photograph by Andrew Dowsett


Kirkmichael F with the same features, but a very different cross pattern; image by Andy Hickie


A night-time oblique photograph of Kirkmichael F – and a later crudely incised 1772 appears; photograph by Jim Mackay

 
 

Possibles – the railing post slab

This is a curious one. It has a well-defined stepped Calvary base, a cross head with further ornamentation, but it is a rectangular slab. Every ornamental medieval cross at Kirkmichael diminishes in width from top to base. This slab has been much used by later Urquharts. This was a stone we uncovered on 12 October 2019 as part of a Highland Archaeology Festival open day. It sits immediately adjacent to the east wall of the chancel, at the south corner, and was half-exposed already. Surprisingly, it had not been recorded previously.


Visitors and volunteers stare at the unusual stone.


And some cold evenings with the Kirkmichael Lampie are triggered.

There are two rectangular holes at either end, halfway across the breadth – to hold a railing? The initials running from the top are I V / A V / G V and across the horizontal bar of the cross is IOHN VRQVHART. The perimeter text despite three separate sessions of night-time oblique photography and photogrammetry still defies us, although tantalisingly close at a couple of points to being read.


Photogrammetry by Andy Hickie brings out the cross well.


But variable night-time oblique lighting assists with bringing out the circles around the cross.

The narrow stem of the cross arises from the stepped Calvary base. The two cross arms end as swollen circular terminals, the end of the top arm has been lost due to the rectangular post hole carved at that end. There are two circles in the angles between the cross arms and the top arm of the cross, and possibly two in the angles below the cross arms as well but this is not absolutely certain. The top two circles each has a teardrop-shaped hole symmetrically within it.


The strange teardrops appear under both photogrammetry and oblique light, confirming they are not lighting artefacts.


The night-time oblique lighting brings the perimeter wording at the top right corner tantalisingly close to being read.


An unusual stone, not least due to the two rectangular post holes sunk at each end.

 

Possibles – the slab under the yew trees

With considerable difficulty we uncovered on 20 April 2019 a rough, badly worn slab which tempts us to think it may once have borne an ornate cross. The three stones parallel to it northwards are the Kirkmichael Cross, Kirkmichael D and Kirkmichael B, so we were ready for a fourth medieval stone. After sawing through numerous roots of yew and excavating part of our path as much of the top surface was exposed as could be without compromising the future of the yew tree! The entire surface is very rough, except one small patch levelled to take at a later date “DB 1760”. There are several Barnet stones adjacent and it is assumed this inscription was to commemorate another Barnet. As for that top surface, we looked at it from different angles, wet and dry, but all you get is a suggestion that it may once have been more!


 

Possibles – the other slab under the yew trees

With even more difficulty we had uncovered on the other side of the yew two stones, one dated 1658, a wonderful heraldic stone, and another, much battered slab which hints at having once borne an ornate cross. Our attention of course was on the heraldic images, but the stone next to it was intriguing. There seemed to be the stem of a cross there, with possibly a symbol on each side like a bible. But despite our best efforts, photogrammetry and all, we simply could not confirm whether or not it had once truly borne a cross.


Davine and Paul excavate the two slabs under the yew tree.


Andy takes images to build into a photogrammetric model


which works really well for the heraldic stone but not for the battered stone

Photogrammetry has to have something to work on, and unfortunately the slab is just too battered to yield more information. There is the outline of the end of a carved bone near the base which suggests the original may have been defaced anyway to take a later post-reformation skull and crossbones. We shall just have to chalk this one up as another “possibly”!


At this end, the suggestion of a sunburst cross with central boss…


and from the other: nothing definitive, just an eroded crossbone design


Photogrammetric image by Andy Hickie again suggestive

 

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