The period 400 to 600 AD was a time when Christianity, the religion of the last Roman emperors, was gaining ground in many parts of Britain at the expense of home-grown pagan beliefs. The spread of Christianity brought an ecclesiastical infrastructure of churches, monasteries, priests and bishops. It also initiated a stonecarving tradition in which crosses and Latin inscriptions were incised on memorials to the dead. Some of the finest examples of this type of sculpture come from Southern Scotland, bearing witness to the growth of Christianity among the Northern Britons in the fifth and sixth centuries. In this blogpost I’ll be highlighting one such monument, the Coninie Stone, which is of particular interest because it commemorates a woman. Only rarely do we find women identified by name on early medieval sculpture, their minimal appearance on inscriptions matching their sparse treatment in contemporary literature.
The Coninie Stone formerly lay in the valley of the Manor Water, a tributary of the River Tweed, but is now kept in the Tweeddale Museum at the Chambers Institution in Peebles. It has been known since 1890 when it was associated with a cairn of smaller stones situated on sloping ground beside the Newholm Hope Burn. The cairn was demolished sometime between 1890 and 1934, when the Coninie Stone was transferred to the museum. Measuring just under a metre in length, the stone is an irregular slab of whinstone with a cross and a Latin inscription incised on the flattest side. The two-line inscription begins with the word Coninie, deriving from Coninia, a Celtic female name that may be of Irish provenance. The second word –tirie is incomplete and is missing a letter or two at the beginning. One theory proposes that the absent letters are M and A, thus making martirie (a form of the Latin word for ‘martyr’). An alternative view is that there’s only one missing letter, an E, for Ertirie, with the inscription then commemorating a woman called Coninia Ertiria. The form of lettering and the design of the cross suggest a date in the late sixth century.
Whoever she was, Coninia was clearly remembered with affection and respect by the people who commissioned her memorial. She may have been buried inside or beneath the cairn, or her stone may have marked a separate grave nearby. The cross and the Latin inscription tell us that she was a Christian, but this is as much as we can say about her. If her name is indeed of Irish origin, she might not have been a native of the area. Missionaries from Ireland, both male and female, appear to have been active in northern parts of Britain during the sixth century and this could provide a context for her presence in Tweeddale. Alternatively, she may have been a Briton with an Irish name, or someone with a name that isn’t actually Irish at all.
The stone and cairn were found close to a mysterious site traditionally known as St Gordian’s Kirk or St Gorgham’s Chapel. This is marked today by a small enclosure containing a Celtic-style cross (erected in 1873) and an early medieval cross-base. The latter was moved from a location some distance away and is often referred to as St Gordian’s Cross. It has been hollowed out to resemble a baptismal font but the basin was originally the socket for a (now lost) cross-shaft possibly carved in the tenth century. St Gordian’s Kirk has earthwork traces of buildings that, according to local tradition, are the remains of an ancient church. In the absence of a detailed excavation, the date and purpose of these features are unknown, but the prevailing view among archaeologists is that the visible remains look secular rather than ecclesiastical. On the other hand, nearby place-names like Kirkhope and Kirkstead are suggestive of an old church having stood in the locality at some point. The traditional connection with the obscure saint Gordian is also interesting. He was a Christian martyr executed in Italy in 362 but is hardly well-known in Britain. Even if there really was a church at this site in the secluded Manor Valley, we would be left to wonder why it was associated with him. A modern archaeological investigation could perhaps answer some of these questions. At the very least, it might enable us to provide Coninia and her memorial with a little more context.
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I visited the Tweeddale Musuem on 19th February 2020. At that time, the Coninie Stone was not on public display, having been moved to a storage area. I am grateful to Wendy at the museum and to Trevor Cowie of the Peeblesshire Archaeological Society for enabling me to see the stone and to take the photograph below. The stone lay on the floor under a tall shelf-unit and was partly obscured by other artefacts that were too heavy to move aside. I managed to crouch down and take this ‘snap’ using the camera on my phone. I will try and get a better-quality image on a future visit!
For an excellent study of the Early Christian stones of Southern Scotland I recommend the following paper by Dr Katherine Forsyth, Reader in Celtic and Gaelic at the University of Glasgow:
K. Forsyth, ‘Hic Memoria Perpetua: the Inscribed Stones of Sub-Roman Southern Scotland’, pp. 113-34 in S.M. Foster and M. Cross (eds.) Able Minds and Practised Hands: Scotland’s Early Medieval Sculpture in the Twenty-First Century. (Leeds: Society for Medieval Archaeology, 2005)
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