The Kilmorie Cross

Kilmorie Cross

Illustration from J. Stuart’s Sculptured Stones of Scotland

My list of ‘must see’ monuments includes this magnificent cross-slab from the Rhinns of Galloway. It originally stood near St Mary’s Chapel at Kilmorie but was moved in the early nineteenth century to Kirkcolm, two and a half miles away, where it was used as a door-lintel in the parish church. It was moved again in 1821, to the grounds of nearby Corsewall House. There it was photographed by a Mr Hunter of Newton Stewart, the resulting image being reproduced in Allen and Anderson’s Early Christian Monuments of Scotland of 1903. In 1989, the slab was returned to Kirkcolm church and placed in the churchyard where it resides today.

The slab is sometimes known as the Kilmorie Cross because of the large hammer-headed crosses on both sides. It stands a little over five feet high and is made of ‘greywacke’ sandstone. On one side, the hammerhead cross carries a rough representation of the Crucified Christ. Another figure stands below, flanked by two birds, a set of blacksmith’s tongs and an unidentified rectangular shape. It has been suggested that this lower figure is the Scandinavian hero Sigurd, juxtaposed with the Crucifixion to highlight the mingling of pagan and Christian beliefs in a region colonised by Vikings. On the other side of the slab, the hammerhead cross is decorated with spiral patterns, below which are two horns, a coiled serpent and a panel of interlace terminating in a pair of snakes.

Kilmorie Cross

Photographs from Allen & Anderson’s Early Christian Monuments of Scotland

The slab was probably carved in the tenth century, a very obscure period in Galloway’s history. The region takes its name from a people known as Gall-Gaidhil (‘Foreign Gaels’) whose origins are uncertain. They first turn up in the ninth century, as warbands serving Irish kings, probably as mercenaries. Their name suggests that they were Vikings who spoke Gaelic, or Gaels who behaved like Vikings. In the tenth and eleventh centuries, groups of Gall-Gaidhil seem to be in control of various seaways and coastlands in what is now South West Scotland, from Kintyre down to Galloway. At what point they gave their name to Galloway is unknown, but medieval chroniclers suggest that Gall-Gaidhil or ‘Galwegian’ lords ruled as far east as the district north of Carlisle. Current thinking envisages a sort of ‘Greater Galloway’ by c.1050, extending northward through Ayrshire to the Firth of Clyde, but whether this was a single realm or a patchwork of independent lordships is a mystery. The amount of Scandinavian culture introduced into this very large area is likewise a matter of debate. What the Kilmorie Cross seems to be telling us is that pagan Viking settlers and indigenous Christians were able to live side-by-side in one small corner of Galloway.

Map of Galloway

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Notes & references

At the time of writing this blogpost I had not yet visited the Kilmorie Cross, hence no photographs of my own to accompany the text. I eventually saw the monument in 2016 and some of the resulting images can be seen in this follow-up post.

Kilmorie is a Gaelic place-name which may mean ‘Church of Mary’. Kirkcolm, earlier Kirkcum, means ‘Church of Cumméne’ (not, as I once assumed, ‘Church of Columba’). Here, the Gaelic cille has been replaced by Old Norse kirkja. I am grateful to Gilbert Markus for pointing out the correct dedication in his comment on this blogpost (see below). As Gilbert says, although we don’t know which Cumméne is the patron saint of Kirkcolm, the seventh abbot of Iona may be the likeliest candidate.

The cultural affinities of Galloway’s early medieval sculpture have been discussed in a number of publications. A useful article is Derek Craig’s ‘Pre-Norman sculpture in Galloway: some territorial implications’, in Richard Oram & Geoffrey Stell (eds), Galloway: Land and Lordship (Edinburgh, 1991), pp.45-62.

The Kilmorie Cross is described on the Canmore database, which also has an entry for the old chapel of Kilmorie.

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8 comments on “The Kilmorie Cross

  1. dearieme says:

    “ruled as far west as the district north of Carlisle”: east, I think. Mind you, the proportion of Gaelic place names declines noticeably once you cross the Nith, and even more so as you cross into Annandale. Since the Gaelic-speaking aristocracy of Scotland presumably introduced some Gaelic place names when it came south to rule what had previously been the Kingdom of Strathclyde, it will be very difficult, I suggest, to identify any introduced from Galloway.

    • Tim says:

      Thanks for spotting the typo! The Gaelic place-names, as you say, cannot be used to map an eastward expansion from Galloway. I expect the eastern limit envisaged by later tradition has a lot to do with a mysterious earthwork known as the Fosse of the Galwegians.

  2. ritaroberts says:

    I love these standing stones crosses and monuments . Thank you for sharing your photo’s and outstanding knowledge of them.

  3. Jo Woolf says:

    What a wonderful stone, which I’d never even heard of. To me, the carving on the front looks much more intricate and accomplished than the carving on the back. Is it possible that these were done by different people, or at different times? I’m also intrigued by the hole in the centre – do you have any idea what this was for, or was it purely decorative?

    • Tim says:

      It’s an interesting possibility that more than one carver worked on this stone at different times. The human figures do look a bit like rough sketches.
      I’m not sure about the hole in the middle but I suspect it’s part of the decoration of the cross, maybe instead of a raised central ‘boss’ and probably easier to carve.

  4. Gilbert Markus says:

    Great stuff Tim. Just a brief note: Kirkcolm is not dedicated to Columba. It is is pronounced /kərˈkʌm/, and appears in all early forms as Kirkcum, vel sim. The patron saint is someone called Cumméne – there is more than one: Cumméne Fota/Longus with Munster associations, or Cumméne the seventh abbot of Iona (perhaps more likely). This is explicitly stated in a papal letter of 1397 concerning ‘‘the parish church of St Cummin de Kirkcum, in the Rhinns of Galloway’, granting rights in that church to Sweetheart Abbey.

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