The Over Kirkhope Stone

Over Kirkhope stone
This curious piece of Early Christian sculpture was found in the mid-nineteenth century at Over Kirkhope, a farm in the valley of the Ettrick Water in the Scottish Borders. It was discovered by Jim Elliot, a local shepherd, in a field that had once been an old burial ground. The stone is one of the oldest Christian monuments in Scotland and was probably carved in the fifth or sixth century. It is a roughly shaped pillar of sandstone, some 4 feet tall, with a human figure – usually interpreted as male – carved near the top. A small cross is inscribed on the front of his tunic and the letters PP can be seen in a rectangle above his head. His arms are raised in what appears to be the ancient way of praying, hence he is usually identified as an ‘Orans’ figure – an image in Christian art representing the soul of a dead person who, having gone to Heaven, prays for the souls of the living.

The burial ground may have been associated with a very early church and, although there are no visible traces of such a structure, the first element of the place-name Kirkhope is certainly suggestive. A few hundred yards to the north – according to tradition – there once stood a chapel. This may have been built on the site of something far older, perhaps even a small wooden church dating from c.500 AD. Only a modern archaeological survey could shed more light. In the meantime, we now have plenty of interesting food for thought, courtesy of renowned local historian Walter Elliot whose great-grandfather discovered the Over Kirkhope stone. Walter undertook his own ground-based survey in September 2015 and his report can be viewed at Richard Strathie’s Border Archaeology website (see the link below).

The stone is now at the National Museums of Scotland in Edinburgh. The close-up of the Orans figure at the top of this blogpost is taken from an illustration in Allen and Anderson’s Early Christian Monuments of Scotland (1903). Here is the original illustration which shows the shape of the whole pillar:

Over Kirkhope stone

* * *


Border Archaeology – Over Kirkhope: the story so far by Walter Elliot

National Museums of Scotland – database record for the Over Kirkhope stone

Over Kirkhope

* * * * * * *

13 comments on “The Over Kirkhope Stone

  1. kljolly says:

    Fascinating. What are the two circles with central dots on either side at the waist?

    • Tim says:

      Hi Karen. The circles are certainly mysterious and I’m not sure what they symbolise. A footnote to the entry in ECMS draws a comparison with a female figure on a cross-slab at Llanhamlach in Wales which is accompanied by similar circles. In 1950 the renowned Welsh archaeologist Victor Nash-Williams described these as ’roundels’ and suggested that they might be brooches.

  2. Fizz says:

    I think a LIDAR survey of the area would also be fascinating. If it also hasn’t been done, a GPR survey might also lead to som insights. However, the results I’ve seen with LIDAR would prove to really give some historical clues to the are. Expensive, but would make a great thesis for a MS or PhD student.

    • Tim says:

      Yes, a Lidar survey would no doubt answer a few questions. I’ve seen images from laser scanning on archaeology websites and it does indeed seem a pretty impressive tool.

  3. What an interesting stone… much mystery✨😊✨

  4. pictishy says:

    Funny, it may just be the light in the photo, but it looks like there is ogham running down the right edge?

    • Gizlivadi says:

      I noticed the same thing. Considering it is a drawing and not a picture, it is probably nothing.

      • Tim says:

        I hadn’t spotted those Ogham-like marks before. I’m guessing they were made by the stonecarver when the stone was being shaped before the Orans figure was inscribed. Allen & Anderson in 1903 reckoned that the carver used a pointed tool and a ‘driving chisel’, so maybe the lines along the edge are chisel-marks.

  5. dearieme says:

    If the wee chap represents a pilgrim, could the `’roundels” represent the two ends of a rolled-up blanket (or even prayer-mat) tied around his waist? Against that, there’s no sign that he’s carrying food or water.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s