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.
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.
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.
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?
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’).
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.
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