Crail Pictish cross-slab

Crail Pictish Stone

(click to enlarge)

Crail is a picturesque village on the coast of Fife. It lies 9 miles south of St Andrews in an area called the East Neuk which forms part of the northern shore of the Firth of Forth. Near the centre of the village stands the parish church with its fine 13th century tower. Formerly known as St Mary’s, the church once had a much older dedication to St Maelrubha, an Irish missionary who reputedly preached among the Picts in the late 7th and early 8th centuries. Among many items of historical interest inside the church is a Pictish cross-slab of c.800, now standing against a wall near the main entrance.

Crail Pictish Stone

from Scotland in Early Christian Times (1881)

The slab was retrieved in 1815, having been used as a paving-stone in the floor for about fifty years. Its carvings are therefore quite worn and any detail is difficult to see. There are no Pictish symbols and the style of the cross is late, hence the slab’s usual designation as a ‘Class III’ stone carved at the end of the Pictish period when the symbols were probably obsolete. Because of the slab’s position against a wall the reverse is no longer visible but, given the date, it is most likely blank. Current thinking among archaeologists and art-historians identifies the following sculptural features on the front face:

* a large cross of a common ‘Celtic’ type surmounted by an arc containing key-pattern decoration. The arms of the cross and the upper and lower parts of the cross-head are decorated with interlace. A key-pattern adorns the shaft below the head.
* the legs and arms of a human figure who is holding or supporting the base of the cross.
* left panel: various unidentifiable beasts.
* right panel: a seated figure with another standing behind; a horseman; two beasts, one of which could be a cow with a bell around its neck.

Crail Pictish Stone

The seated figure

The seated figure seems to be holding a child in its lap and might represent the Virgin Mary, with Joseph standing behind the chair. Other interpretations are elusive because the badly-worn carvings are too indistinct. The horseman is clearly a secular figure and presumably represents a member of the local nobility, perhaps the individual commemorated by the stone.

Crail Pictish Stone

Horseman on the Crail cross-slab

In the absence of a modern archaeological excavation we cannot trace the early history of the church but the Maelrubha dedication and the cross-slab hint at an ecclesiastical presence in Pictish times. The churchyard contains an ancient well which may have been a focus for pagan rituals before the arrival of Christianity. Was a monastery founded here by Irish missionaries, disciples of Maelrubha, on land granted by a local Pictish family? It is interesting to consider the possible relationship between such a settlement and the ecclesiastical centre at St Andrews which lies only nine miles to the north. A monastery certainly existed at St Andrews before 747, when the death of its abbot was noted by the monks of Iona. At that time it was known as Cenrigmonaid, ‘the end of the royal grazing’, but had not yet achieved the importance it held in later times. If a religious community was indeed established at Crail in the 8th century was it independent of Cenrigmonaid or was it merely a satellite?

Crail Kirk

Crail Parish Church

The place name Crail, earlier Caraile, is often seen as being of Gaelic origin, comprising carr+ail where both elements mean ‘rock’. This kind of duplication using two synonyms from the same language doesn’t look right to me. I prefer Watson’s suggestion that the name is more likely to be a contraction of Cathair Aile, where Gaelic cathair represents a North Brittonic (Pictish) term related to Welsh caer, ‘fort’. A castle formerly stood near the harbour and might have occupied the site of an old Pictish coastal stronghold, perhaps the residence of the patrons of the church. This leaves us with the second element aile which Watson left unexplained. If it is indeed Gaelic ail, ‘rock’, this would make Caraile a Pictish-Gaelic hybrid meaning ‘Fort of the Rock’. Such a name is certainly consistent with the craggy landscape around the harbour and would not be the only hybrid place name in the East Neuk. A few miles along the coast, at Pittenweem, we find Pictish pett, ‘portion’, with Gaelic na h-uamha, ‘of the cave’. Another possibility is that Caraile is not a hybrid name at all and that aile has simply replaced a synonymous Pictish term related to Brittonic al (Welsh alt), as in Alt Clut, the Old Welsh name for Dumbarton (‘Rock of the Clyde’). I’ve not seen this explanation given for Crail but it’s the one I feel inclined to run with at the moment, although I also wonder if Aile could be the name of a person (e.g. ‘Aile’s Fort’) or of a nearby topographical feature (e.g. ‘the Fort beside the Aile’).

Map of Fife

Notes & references
* The photographs used in this post are all copyright © B Keeling
* My information on the place names comes from William Watson’s The History of the Celtic Place-names of Scotland (1926) and George Mackay’s Scottish Place Names (2002).
* A detailed history of Crail Church can be found in a booklet produced by the congregation entitled The Kirk of Crail. The latest edition was published in 2003. It has an interesting drawing of the Pictish cross-slab by Reverend William Macintyre who served as minister from 1956 to 1989.
* I’m hoping to delve deeper into Crail’s early history and will put any new findings on this blog. A separate post on Pittenweem is in the pipeline.

Crail harbour

Crail harbour

* * * * * * *

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19 comments on “Crail Pictish cross-slab

  1. Paula de Fougerolles says:

    Tim–Thanks for bringing this cross-slab to attention. It’s little-known but still very evocative.

    • Tim says:

      Yes, it does seem to be quite obscure, which is kind of surprising because Crail is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Fife.

  2. Henry Gough-Cooper says:

    Is the seated figure playing a harp? King David? – I can’t see a figure standing behind: just looks like an ornate seat-back; a throne, perhaps?

    • Tim says:

      I’m inclined to agree with your interpretation, Henry. Although the consensus seems to be woman+child I’m not actually seeing this at all. Looking closely at the Macintyre drawing mentioned above (not reproduced because of copyright) the seated figure appears to be holding a bow-shaped object which definitely looks like a harp. This could be a David image, as you suggest. As we’ve got the same king a few miles up the road on the St Andrews Sarcophagus he wouldn’t be out of place at Crail. Like you, I see a high-backed chair or throne rather than a figure standing at the rear. A sturdy throne with a high, ornate back is what the Reverend Macintyre drew, presumably after long and careful study of the stone during his long period as minister at the church. I’m wondering if the much older drawing from Scotland in Early Christian Times (as shown in the post) might have influenced people to see a child rather than a harp. Given the weighty reputation of Joseph Anderson in these matters I think it quite likely.

      I’ll continue to track down opinions and interpretations of the Crail carvings. So far, I’ve only consulted three, which isn’t really enough. I’d especially like to see if Romilly Allen drew the stone for ECMS and, if he did, whether he followed Anderson’s earlier view of the seated figure.

  3. Ian Malcolm says:

    Hello. Subscribers may wish to be aware of the recent reconstruction of the 8th Northumbrian cross at Aberlady, east Lothian. Standing nearly 5m high the intrictately hand carved cross with intertwined beasts, birds, vine scroll, knotwork and angular desings has an imposing presence in the village memorial garden. I am happy to send further information to all who are interested. The project was funded by East Lothian Council and the Scottish Government/EU Tyne Esk Leader Programme. It is part of a wider heritage project funded in the main by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

  4. Tim says:

    Thanks again, Phil. Setting aside the erroneous ‘Pictish’ reference it’s quite an informative article about Barry Grove’s brilliant reconstructions. I assume the ‘most cumbersome piece’ mentioned here was the jaw-dropping Hilton of Cadboll replica which is, of course, genuinely Pictish. Barry is probably on the right track when he refers to the Aberlady cross being involved in Christianising the Picts: at Abercorn 25 miles to the west the ill-fated Northumbrian ‘bishop of the Picts’ had his seat from 681 to 685. The cross itself is presumably later but I wonder if it played a role in the close relationship between the Northumbrian and Pictish churches in the early 700s, perhaps being used in ceremonies connected with the ‘re-education’ of the Pictish clergy?

    • An old cross at Aberlady reminds me that a route between Lindisfarne and Iona was supposed to cross the Firth at Aberlady. Maybe the cross was a way marker for the trail. An Anglican cross at a ferry point or port could be an indicator of whose land you were entering.

      It makes me wonder about the Lady of Aberlady, maybe a church of St Mary?

      • Tim says:

        Yes, Aberlady would have made good sense as a point on the Iona-Lindisfarne route. It was a well-known harbour in the Middle Ages. In his 1999 paper on ‘Iona abbots in Scottish place names’, Simon Taylor looked at different routes to Lindisfarne and proposed an overland one via Glasgow and the Kelvin valley to the Firth of Firth where the travellers took to the water. He then adds:

        ‘If the overland route was taken, the most convenient landing-place would have been Aberlady, also a detached parish of Dunkeld diocese, whence over the Lammermuirs…’ (p.49 in Spes Scotorum: Hope of Scots, ed. Broun & Clancy)

        The place-name is interesting. Watson in CPNS found early forms such as Aberlauedy (c.1221) and Aberlefdi (c.1300) and suggested that the second element might be a Brittonic word related to Gaelic lobh, ‘rot, putrefy’. On this basis he equated Aberlady with ostium fetoris, ‘mouth of stench’, mentioned in the fragmentary Life of St Kentigern (the ‘Herbert’ Life of c.1160). A connection with the Virgin Mary is another possibility, with the second element being Old English hlaedig, ‘lady’, i.e. Our Lady. A page on the Aberlady Heritage website mentions an old chapel dedicated to the Virgin and supports the ‘Lady’ theory. I suspect the jury is still out on the true origin of the name.

  5. […] Clarkson of Senchus writes on the Pictish Cross-slab at Crail in […]

  6. Thanks for this informative page – good to see your photos. I have tried to view this slab a few times but the church has always been locked. I think that it would be interesting to try photographing with raking light from different angles.

    I have always been a bit suspicious of the David & harp interpretation but your photos look more compelling. One thing to follow up would be the chair which is relatively well preserved. Does it fit better into the David & harp cycle or into the Madonna and Child cycle? (see for example the various chairs shown in Helen Roe’s article “The David Cycle”, JRSAI 79, 1949.

    • The Church is open to visitors during July & August on Tues, Wed & Thurs 2pm to 4pm (and of course on Sundays, if you dont want to join in worship come about 10.30 before the 11.15 service) There is another slab in Victoria Gardens which if you enter Crail from St Andrews on A917 is on the right of St Andrews Road

  7. Tim says:

    Thanks for visiting, Simon. I was either unaware of, or had forgotten, the Roe article and will seek it out on my next ref-hunting expedition among the old journals. After reading your comment I went back to an earlier discussion with Henry Gough-Cooper (see above) where I wondered if Romilly Allen had drawn the stone for The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland. As I now have my own 2-volume reprint of ECMS (the Pinkfoot Press edition – an incredible bargain at £49) I’ve been able to confirm that no such drawing was made. Instead, Allen & Anderson reproduced a photo by Erskine Beveridge from his Churchyard Memorials of Crail (a book I’ve not yet seen) but this doesn’t add much clarity to the sculptural details. The description in ECMS, presumably written by Joseph Anderson, merely refers to ‘an enthroned figure, perhaps intended for the Virgin and Child’. Looking again at the Beveridge photo, as I type this reply, I’m now seeing the figure as a man not a woman, mainly because the face appears to be female. Allen & Anderson mention a drawing of the stone in John Stuart’s Sculptured Stones of Scotland, another much-needed addition to my bookshelf, which might shed a bit more light on the Crail carving.

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