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

Preserving our Ornate Medieval Crosses

text by Dr Jim Mackay; photography, unless otherwise indicated, by Andrew Dowsett

Two problems, one solution. In the Black Isle parish of Resolis, in the two old burial grounds of Kirkmichael and Cullicudden, we have one of the most remarkable collections of medieval ornate crosses in Scotland. They are all carved in sandstone, the local rock, but were eroding and being damaged by grounds maintenance. How to preserve them?

And we had the derelict and dangerous buildings at Kirkmichael, our restoration of which has brought many plaudits. But the nave was virtually empty. How to use that space appropriately?

The two came together as we created a wonderful display of medieval ornamental crosses within the restored nave. This is the story of that project.

We had been raising awareness of these medieval crosses for many years, visiting other sites in Scotland to learn how to display them (and how not to), giving talks. We often took the community, school groups and archaeologists around Kirkmichael and Cullicudden.

Photo: Verity Walker

The stones became better known through our work, but they continued to deteriorate. The medieval stones in Cullicudden had led to the site becoming a scheduled monument. Kirkmichael had been a scheduled monument for much longer. It was counter-Historic Environment Scotland policy to transfer stones from one site to another. However, there was nowhere on or near Cullicudden to act as a home for them, and we pointed out to HES just how much wear and tear they were suffering outside. Delamination, chipping, erosion, breaking due to heavy weights being placed on them or being run into by machinery. On the day there was a site inspection by HES, chance would have it that the Council mowers were at work, and after observing the mowers doing wheelies on the medieval stones, and listening to the chink-chink-chink of mower blades whipping off protruding parts of stones, scheduled consent soon followed.

Photo: Verity Walker

Photo: Jim Mackay

Photo: Jim Mackay

Photo: Jim Mackay

A selection of pre-Reformation stones demonstrating the full range of features on these stones were uplifted, conserved and mounted. We juxtaposed them with a post-Reformation “doom and gloom” slab, covered in grim protestant symbols of mortality.

Laing Traditional Masonry conservator Derek Cunningham and assistant Walter Adelfio carried out much of the work for us, but the Trust was an essential part of the process, choosing the ornamental crosses, weighing them, replacing them with slabs of the same dimensions to mark where they had come from, even painting the metal supports which hold them securely in place.

We deliberately kept interpretation as minimal and as non-intrusive as possible, to maximise the “wow” factor, whilst linking to our web-page for full details.

There were two slabs which were too far gone to be moved, so we had world-class carvers David Lindsay and Richard Groom re-create them as they would have appeared when first carved five hundred years ago. To maximise community interest, we had a wonderful event where David and Richard gave training in ornamental stone carving. We also had them deliver a lecture in Fortrose Academy. And as the process of planning, stone selection, carving, delivery and mounting progressed they maintained a blog on our website, which we turned into a permanent web page. The two stones, mounted as part of our seating arrangements in our nave and chancel, serve to show visitors just how amazing these stones would have been when first carved.

Photo: Jim Mackay

Photo: Richard Groom

Photo: David Lindsay

Photo: Richard Groom

From agreed drawings to finished sculptures

HRH the Duke of Gloucester meets the stone carvers

Training day, and talking about carving!

What follows is a detailed description of the ancient stones on display within the nave at Kirkmichael. For a description of every single medieval stone recorded in Kirkmichael and Cullicudden see Tales from Kirkmichael.

Cullicudden G is an extraordinary double-headed stone, clearly created to impress. It was in a sad state at Cullicudden – one end of a heavy tablestone had been unsympathetically placed over one cross, forcing the stone up. The stone had broken neatly across the middle. Another tablestone had been progressively tilting over and was threatening to crash down onto the medieval stone. It is a massive slab, 2.12 metres long and very deep, with its depth increasing as it widens. The cross at the top is a complex openwork plaited design. Double-beaded plaited strands interweave before crossing a triple-bead circle near the outside of the design. The key to this design is to recognise it as plaitwork rather than a mathematically precise design of interlinking arcs. The plaited strands are bent and squeezed to achieve the overall design. Even where the strands project over the circle the 16 points formed are not symmetrical or identical in shape. Within the space in the centre formed by the winding plaits is a small boss presumably used for measuring purposes as well as for ornamentation. To heighten the asymmetry, occasional short branches each terminating with a fleur-de-lis are squeezed in between some of the projecting terminals both at the top and bottom of the cross. And as well as these short asymmetric branches, two long branches, of differing length and thickness, dangle down from the plaited circle, one bifurcating, before ending in three fleurs-de-lis. The shaft itself continues the plaited theme, with strands congregating around a projection from the triple-beaded circle coming together into three beads which run down the stone to a small triangular base formed by the separation of the two outer beads. A downward sloping branch, each terminating in a large fleur-de-lis, comes off each side of the shaft.
The cross at the base is also complex. A plaited, eight-spoked cross, each spoke at times double-beaded and crossing a double-beaded circle to terminate in a large fleur-de-lis. A central boss has a clear hole in the centre, no doubt used for measuring. The design would be complex enough, but squeezed in are two further symbols, both damaged by the break in the slab. On the right of the shaft is a pair of shears (a pre-Reformation symbol – cutting the strings of life) and on the left of the shaft is a creature which has been described by the RCAHMS as a “?lion passant” but as I see hooves on this creature and the head is equine I am more inclined to think of it as a horse. It is a wonderful stone.

Kirkmichael Tree Cross The Kirkmichael Tree Cross is heavily eroded but was once a magnificent stone. It has been rescued from final obliteration by mounting in the nave mausoleum. The shaft originates from a stepped Calvary base, and rises, sprouting three matching pairs of leafy branches as it goes, to a cross head where each of the four ends of the cross terminates in a large fleur-de-lis. A raised boss appears in the two lower angles of the intersection of the cross, a complementary upper two were perhaps excised to take later initials. At top left and top right there is a five pointed star. Straddling the highest bar of the cross are the initials “TF AD” and on the left hand side, on the third highest branch, is roughly carved “1730”.
Rarely do you see the Christian cross so overtly merged with the tree of life.

Cullicudden C bears a marvellous double-headed cross, the slab having a margin of dogtooth between two roll-mouldings. The detail and depth of the dogtooth on this and on stone D diminish the closer the foot is approached. The head of the cross (i.e. the top as indicated by the direction of the sword and the greater width at one end) has eight inner spokes in a central circle, which beyond the circle expand as large fleur-de-lis terminals. As in Cullicudden A, the curve of the edge of each fleur-de-lis forms a “horseshoe” shape with the next. The fleur-de-lis terminals at top, left and right extend onto the perimeter. At the base, the cross arises from a curious, asymmetrical curved shape with protruding "cogs", with perhaps six cogs on the right and five on the left, the cogs increasing in size as they approach the perimeter of the stone. It has been conjectured if this was some elaborate form of a Calvary base. And below this shape is another cross, set inside a circle, the cross containing four circles with a terminal between each pair of circles, the terminal pointed at base, left and right, but retaining more width at the top, perhaps implying a connection with the shaft above the curious curved shape. On the left of the stone stands a sword, very similar to that on Cullicudden A.
The sandstone is dotted with pebbles of igneous rock; the sculptor had worked with the rock regardless of these inclusions, but the feature emphasises the disparate origins of the sandstone used for these medieval crosses.

Cullicudden E is a particularly striking stone. The features on the “head” half are carved in relief, whilst those on the “foot” half are incised, so that the sword and cross shaft oddly fade into the stone until they become mere outlines. The stone itself is 0.185 m deep, but composed of a bevelled top layer that projects 0.090 m over a lower, narrower layer. And the stone bears an axe and a mullet (five-pointed star). It is different. The shaft of the cross arises from a very simple three-stepped Calvary base, and rises to a beautiful eight-spoked cross, a larger version of that carved on Cullicudden C, the horse-shoe effect being particularly pronounced on this stone. The sword on the right bears a lobated pommel and inclined quillons. On the left, a mullet over an inverted axe. The initials (“A MG”) of a later owner have been incised across the shaft of the cross and the sword blade.

Cullicudden D bears the most recognisable cross, albeit with many additional touches. It is again a double-headed cross. It bears such strong similarities (albeit inverted) to a full length stone once in the graveyard in Contin (now inside a cage in the hallway in the church there) that it is thought likely they were the work of the same carver. The slab has a bevelled margin of large "half-dogtooth". The head comprises a big cross with fleur-de-lis terminals extending onto the bevel. Within each right-angle formed by the cross lies a half-circle with similar fleur-de-lis terminals, thus giving the head of the cross 12 fleur-de-lis terminals in total. The shaft of the cross bears on either side four short down-curving branches which terminate in fleurs-de-lis. The thick shaft narrows near the basal cross, bears a thin crossbar and sits upon a tiny triangle, again, perhaps, a stylised Calvary hill.
The basal head lies immediately below this triangle, and comprises an eight spoked cross, each spoke terminating in a fleur-de-lis, the bottom, left and right of which extend onto the bevel. The spokes of this cross are formed from interlaced arcs, with a boss in the central cavity left inside the arcs. There is a small hole in the centre of this boss which was probably used as the measuring point from which a taut line could be anchored to mark symmetrical key points on the stone. To the right of the stone is a sword with lobated pommel and a short inclined quillon on the left and a stub of a quillon on the right. This stone has survived remarkably well, its pale sandstone clearly more resistant to weathering.

Cullicudden A. You couldn't get much higher risk than Cullicudden A, now in Kirkmichael. Its foot broken off altogether at some point, the slab was being used as a step in the main pebbled path at Cullicudden, with sharp pebbles being ground into its surface, and the maintenance mower photographed doing wheelies on it. The lines of small scratches on the mid-section are all mower blade marks. The narrow shaft of the cross probably arose from a stepped Calvary base, although given similarities with the double-headed Cullicudden C, even this cannot be confirmed.
The head of the cross is contained within an incised circle, and is formed of four short spokes each ending in a large fleur-de-lis, the curve of the edge of each fleur-de-lis forming a "horseshoe" shape with the next. To the right of the shaft of the cross stands a sword. The hilt of the sword has, at the very top, a "lobated pommel", i.e. the swollen section above the grip has dimples or lobes within it, and the pommel is diamond-shaped. The quillons (the protective guard above the blade) are inclined, although the one on the right, which is overlain by the shaft of the cross, much less so. This is a simple and yet beautifully designed stone. It is thick, but the bottom layer of sandstone has at some time split off from the top along a bed of weakness, although rejoined by our conservator. We really did wonder if this stone was past rescuing, but we are delighted with how it has turned out.

The Kirkmichael Cross. And finally, the star of our show, and the cross on which the Kirkmichael logo is based. The Kirkmichael Cross is well known locally. In my youth, children would drop in from Newhall School to take rubbings of it.
The Kirkmichael Cross is a wonderful stone, and the regret is that it was not taken into shelter generations ago to preserve its sharpness. The short, thick shaft rises from a four-stepped Calvary base, the hill represented being steeper than other examples I have seen. The cross head is formed of eight, double-beaded, woven arcs surrounding a large central boss. Just after the arcs touch they cross a large outer Celtic circle (itself double-beaded in places) alternately above and below the circle. Outside the circle, the combined arcs each terminate in a large fleur-de-lis, giving eight fleurs-de-lis around the cross. The shape of the petals of adjoining fleurs-de-lis combined with the arcs produce eight perfect hearts, and as the fleurs-de-lis have been more eroded than other elements, the hearts first strike the eye.
To the right and left of the cross, and arising from lower steps in the Calvary base, are swords, the left with a round and the right with a raindrop shaped pommel, and both with downward sloping, straight quillons. The sword on the right has a triangular feature a short distance down its blade – a shield or escutcheon? And, only discovered when cleaned up and mounted inside the nave, flanking the blade of the left sword, the tools of the blacksmith: hammer and tongs.
As usual, the cross bears evidence of later re-usage, in this case initials “R E” to the left of the shaft of the cross, and “C E” to the right, and, lower down, again straddling the shaft, “I A”. Given there were relatively few surnames locally beginning with “E” except that of “Elphingstoun” it is tempting to think this might have been one of the later families to re-use the stone.

The McCulloch of Udale slab. In 2017, five of the Cullicudden stones, the Kirkmichael Tree Cross and the Kirkmichael Cross were relocated to a bare area of Kirkmichael for cleaning and repair, prior to erection in the nave. We repaired the broken slab from a McCulloch of Udale tablestone and introduced it to the set to provide a contrast between the pre-Reformation ornate crosses with a post-Reformation “symbols of mortality” stone. Although broken and eroded, when cleaned up and joined it now looks magnificent beside the entrance door to the nave. Following the Reformation, the previous symbology on gravestones became anathema, and many were broken up or disfigured. It took quite a while for the new “doom and gloom” symbology to become popular in the region. The McCullochs were generally solid financially and socially in the area, tacksmen or factors or millers, far above the humble tenant or mailer, and their gravestones reflect their social status.
The symbols are: a handbell – rung in front of the funeral procession; an hourglass – your time is running out; a coffin – your time has in fact run out! The scroll on similar stones always reads “Memento mori” (remember death), although only the traces of letters remain here. The final layer of symbols are, on the left, the one-sided spade used to cut the turf on your grave; on the right, the shovel to excavate the soil from your grave; and in the centre the skull and crossbones to show what you turn into in the grave! All tailored as a warning to the living to correct their ways as death is just a short step away. As usual the inscription starts at the top left corner and proceeds clockwise around the perimeter of the slab until the circumference is complete, when it begins to fill the interior of the slab. There are some marvellous ligatures or joining of letters to save space and time, with THE becoming one symbol. “Here lys the body / of ISABEL McCULLOCH sp … / … [presumably spouse of] HUGH McCULLO/CH miller in Udol who died / the 20 day of / February / 1725”
The stone also bears a shield and the initials of Hugh McCulloch and his two wives, Isabel McCulloch and then Janet Young.

It is one of the great community action success stories – a heritage gem has been created from the deteriorating and damaged ornate medieval crosses by the determined activity of the community.


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