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Art in Scotland
Chapter I


WHEN Columba in the sixth century received the gift of Iona from the western King Connal, and with his few followers began to cultivate some portion of that lonely and barren island, the first symptoms of the dawn of art with that of civilisation began to appear in Scotland. The humble and rudely built edifice, with its primitive altar, which served as their chapel, after many vicissitudes gave place to the venerable cathedral still standing beside its stone effigies of forgotten kings and sculptured crosses of almost mythical saints, from whence "savage clans and roving barbarians derived the benefits of knowledge and the blessings of religion." For centuries before and after the landing of Columba and his fellow- missionaries, up till about the twelfth, Scotland is considered as having been purely a Celtic kingdom, inhabited by different branches of the same race in process of being civilised by the early Culdees or Keledei, the last mention of whom as a Church occurs in 1332.

As in nearly all other countries, the most ancient evidences of art effort are to be found in the early stone monuments, which far antedate written or even reliable traditional history. In the unhewn blocks of stone still to be found standing in almost every part of the country, we see the first intentions of monumental art, belonging to a period in which the native dwellings were probably constructed of timber, with possibly a lower base wall of upright slabs of unhewn stones. There is every reason for supposing that these isolated stones were erected to identify some spot remarkable for a victory gained, or to mark the grave of some deceased hero, whose actions were thus meant to be commemorated by his successors, their stone implements being inadequate to do more than separate the rude monument from its parent quarry.

As civilisation progressed and tools of metal began to replace the smaller ones of stone, efforts were made towards enriching these with circular-shaped hollows, irregularly sunk on the face of the stone, or incised designs of strange curvature suggestive of the tattoo forms used by the natives of New Zealand, with symbolic shapes more or less ornate, the meanings of which still baffle the researches of the most ingenious investigators. In the history of the early Christian Church in Scotland, a peculiar veneration was sometimes attached to particular stones. It is known that the principal Irish missionaries sometimes carried about with them a slab or block of stone, to be used as an altar for the celebration of the Eucharist, and which, when used by any celebrated saint and left in some locality, became an object of veneration. [Skene's Celtic Scotland.] The well-known coronation-stone of Scotland is an instance, concerning which Mr Skene relates how the boy-king Alexander, when he was crowned at Scone in 1249, was led by his nobles up to a cross in the cemetery, and placed upon the coronation-stone, which was covered with silken cloth interwoven with gold, and consecrated king. The same author mentions the standing-stone near to a cairn on the farm of Whisgills, in the vicinity of Milnholm on the Liddel, at which latter place a cross was erected—probable memorials of the battle between Aidan and Aedilfrid, in which the latter was defeated, in 603 ; also, two high upright stones near the river a few miles above Dunkeld, the supposed locality of the battle of Seguise, fought A.D. 635. It has with reason been conjectured that some of these pagan stones were replaced by early Christian monuments and crosses, on the same principle that Christian churches were erected on heathen sites, and pagan symbols combined with the cross. Various circumstances, apart from mere tradition, go to prove that the standing-stones were venerated prior to the introduction of Christianity into Scotland by the Culdees. Mr Skene, referring to Fiace's poem, speaks of the "gentiles" adoring the elements in the shape of idols, adding that the word "darkness" is glossed by "the worship of idols," and also that the few notices we have of such indicate that these idols were usually pillar stones. [Celtic Scotland]

The earliest historical reference to the sculptured stones of Scotland occurs in the writings of the sometimes unreliable Boece, who tells us that King Reutha, about two hundred years B.C., was the first Scottish king who made rich sepultures for the bodies of those slain in defence of their country, and erected so many stones about his grave as the hero had slain of his foes in battle. The same writer refers to the markings and figures on such, as the symbols of the dead language of a people whose rites were derived from those of the Egyptians. [Stuart's Sculptured Stones.] The devices most frequently occurring on rude pillars, oblong slabs, and in a few cases on erect cruciform stones, are what is known as the spectacle ornament, formed by two circles, sometimes enclosing others more or less complicated, and connected by a bar of horizontal or curved lines, frequently traversed by the sceptre, as it is called, in the form of the letter Z reversed, its extremities being variously foliated; single and double crescents variously arranged, at times combined with the sceptre differently formed; combinations of circles; horse-shoe and torque-shaped figures; serpents, fishes, and walrus or elephantine -looking animals, often enriched with interlaced work. Numerous other figures of a more intelligible meaning occur, such as mirror and comb-like forms, hammers, anvils, and tongs, some of which, however, may be after all of no very great antiquity. In support of the assumption that these figures had a definite meaning, it has to be noted that while similar forms perpetually recur on different stones, the arrangement continually varies, as well as the filling in with lines and patterns. In some cases the sceptre, for instance, is two or three times repeated on the same stone, in each case with a slight change of form. With regard to these symbols, it has also to be noted that some of them are not exclusively confined to sculptured stones, of which several instances might be mentioned. Thus, the spectacle and sceptre with a scrolled animal's head appears on an oval-shaped silver plate of about three inches in length, forming a portion of the so-called silver armour of Norrie's Law; a corresponding circle, similarly divided to one of the eyes of the spectacle, is carved on a flat piece of ash-wood about five inches square, which was found along with a canoe and paddle in a crannog at Loch Lee—the uses of either of which are unknown. [Scottish Antiquaries' Museum] Efforts have been made to connect these symbols with Buddhist emblems, but it cannot be said with much success, although great ingenuity has been exercised in associating the inscription which accompanies the supposed contemporaneous Oghams on the Newton stone with ancient Sanskrit, thus to some extent corroborating the tradition mentioned by Bocce. Those emblems which exist on pre-Christian stones may not improbably be yet traced to a remote southern origin, but they were evidently perpetuated into a comparatively late period, when they came to be enriched by forms similar to those so often occurring in the Irish illuminations and other similar works, extending from probably the seventh century. [ Compare with the Book of Kells, &c.]

The early Christianisation of Ireland may be said to have entirely influenced the Celtic art of Scotland. From probably the sixth till the end of the eighth century in Ireland, that country possessed and practised a style of its own—very markedly in its illuminations—in which much ingenuity is displayed in the beautiful and elaborate interlacements of lines, spirals coiling one within another, with various lacertine animals, the extremities of which form long narrow bands twisted and interlaced. It is usually admitted that Columba, or at least some of his early followers, introduced this style of art in the form of illuminating into Scotland by Iona, and from thence to Lindisfarne, from whence, and by the Irish mission to Glastonbury, it spread into England. [Digby Wyatt's Art of Illuminating. M. Lacroix, who treats of it rather imperfectly in his 'Arts au Moyen Age,' like several others, classes the Irish illuminations out of Ireland and Scotland as Anglo-Saxon.] Scattered throughout various libraries and abbatical institutions on the Continent, such as those at Milan, Metz, Ratisbon, and Wurzburg, are works which Irish antiquaries claim as the productions of the companies of Irish monks who travelled thus far from the monastery founded by Columba. Thus, from the seventh century onwards, the numerous carved Scottish stones and crosses bear this character, as well as the many fine objects of personal adornment, such as brooches and pins, and even perpetuated till the present day in the hilt of the Highland dirk. Antiquarian study has shown that while there are characteristics common to all the sculptured stones of Ireland, Wales, the Isle of Man, and Scandinavia, those of Scotland assimilate most closely with similar Irish work, mostly contemporaneous, and point unerringly to the more intimate connection existing between the natives of Scotland and Ireland, than between those of the northern and southern parts of the now United Kingdom; also, that they cannot safely be set down to Norwegian settlers. [Stuart's Sculptured Stones.] On none of the Danish stones in Man or Scandinavia do the symbols appear which are so frequent on those of Scotland, while the Runic inscriptions on some bear the Scandinavian names of those concerned in their erection as memorial gravestones.

Several instances are on record of the causes of the erection of sculptured crosses in Scotland. Concerning the once numerous crosses at Iona, Adamnan tells us that Ernan, who was Columba's uncle, and presided over the settlement which he had founded in the island of Hinba, feeling himself seriously unwell, desired to be taken back to Columba in Iona, who set out from his cell to the landing-place to meet him. Ernan, though feeble, attempted to walk from the landing-place to meet Columba, but when there were only twenty paces between them, suddenly died before reaching the gate Canabae. "On the spot where he died a cross was raised before the door of the kiln, and another where Columba stood." Adamnan also mentions the erection of a third at a spot where Columba rested on the wayside, on returning from blessing a barn, shortly before his death. In further illustration of the same, it is chronicled as having been the custom of St Kentigern to erect a cross at any place where he had made converts: a large one was thus erected at Glasgow, and another at Borthwick. When St Cuthbert withdrew from the monastery at Dul in Athol, and began to lead his solitary life on the summit of the high and steep mountain of Doilweme, his first work was to erect a large stone cross ; and in Ireland, in corroboration of what has already been said, the custom is mentioned of St Patrick having consecrated the existing heathen stone pillars to Christian uses, followed by the erection of crosses. The great number of such erections during the time of the early Church is still further accounted for by the fact that the sign of the cross was very generally employed as a signum salutare, and endowed with such virtues as the power of banishing demons, restraining river monsters, protecting from wild beasts, &c.; hence the readiness to erect a substantial vexillum crucis on the site of any remarkable occurrence. [Stuart's Sculptured Stones. Adamnan's Life of St Columba.]

At a later period than the first use of the devices referred to, figures often occur of robed priests, occasionally with peaked beards; men armed, on horseback, or shooting with bows and arrows; others seated as if in judgment, in procession with oxen, or being devoured by animals; with an innumerable variety of grotesque monsters and animals, many of the latter being then unknown in Scotland, and the representations of which bear evidence that the carver was reproducing a traditional type or form of what he had never seen the reality. Scriptural subjects are common on crosses and other carvings, and many of the subjects referred to can easily be interpreted by any student of iconography Thus, the repeatedly occurring figure standing or sitting between leonine animals points to the story of Daniel in the den of lions,—one which would appeal strongly to the feelings of a semi-civilised race, and serve the early missionaries of religion with a striking illustration of the efficacy of faith in Divine protection in circumstances of personal danger. On the stone slab which forms part of the St Andrews sarcophagus, and described in Dr Wilson's 'Archleology' as a Pictish hunting-scene, the most prominent figure is represented in the act of rending the jaws of a lion. This, no doubt, was meant for Samson; and the other figures on the same may be assumed to have Scriptural meanings. "It is strange," remarks the authoress of 'Early Christian Art in Ireland, [Early Christian Art in Ireland. Margaret Stokes: 1887.] "to find a scene from the Dance of Death upon a carved stone in the churchyard of Soroby in the island of Tiree; or to see, upon a cross in the island of Harris, angels carrying souls through the air, and poor sinners torn to pieces in hell, after the manner of the resurrection angels and death-demons of the Campo Santa at Pisa." 1 Throughout these sculptures there is a distinctive character, besides being full of a rich inventive fancy, which entirely separates them from the more elegant and refined form of the southern sculptor's art of the same period nurtured under Byzantine influence.

With regard to the Scottish sepulchral stones, there are a great many to which a fictitious antiquity is sometimes too readily ascribed. Mr Billings remarks of the Iona stones, that what is very remarkable about some is, that with certain sculptured forms, believed to be very ancient when found on stones in other parts of the country, they have undoubted marks of much later origin—indeed, some which in other respects show characteristics of extreme age, are inscribed with a date in the seventeenth century. [Ecclesiastical and Baronial Antiquities.] Among such, and in other parts of Scotland, are many effigies of Highland chiefs whose ambition it was to appear in the character of Norman knights; and a document written between 1577 and 15 mentions, in regard to the burying-place at Iona, in this are all the gentlemen of the Isles buryit as yet." [Skene's Celtic Scotland.]

Probably the earliest specimens of ecclesiastical figure-sculpture which Scotland possesses, are those on the Celtic tower at Brechin. Rude and small—some twenty inches or so in height —they consist of a crucifixion in the position which the keystone would occupy on a larger arch, with the figure of an ecclesiastic on each of the jambs, and two crouching animals of Celtic character at the base. The date of the tower is uncertain some assume it as being of the eighth century, but perhaps it would be safer to put it two or three centuries later, contemporaneous with the commencement of the adjoining church. [Anderson's Scotland in Early Times.] The crucified figure is not cross-legged, the crossing of the limbs not having been adopted in such representations till the early fourteenth century. On the well-known similar doorway on the round tower of Donoughmore, in Ireland, there are only heads on the jambs in addition to the crucifixion. Among other similar work of that far-back period not now existing, may be mentioned a little church at Abernethy of probably the eighth century, on which the nine virgins and the miracles of Dovenald are said to have been sculptured. [Ibid.]

The beautiful and interesting twelfth-century church at Dalmeny contains a curious example of the transition of Celtic into Norman art. In this fine specimen of old architecture, while Norman carvers may possibly have been employed, the native Celtic art is perpetuated, especially on the flat inner moulding on the main- entrance doorway, on which, as well as in the intervals between the projecting heads on the outer moulding, appear the hippocampus and other curious animals so often occurring on Celtic stones.

Prior to the eighth century there cannot be said to have been any architecture in Scotland. Such church buildings as then existed were probably very similar to those of Ireland, where the true arch seems to have come into use in the ninth century, and were probably of the simplest and rudest type. In Conchubran's Life of Monenna we are told that she founded a monastery (in Ireland), "which was made of smooth planks, according to the fashion of the Scottish natives, who were not accustomed to erect stone walls, or to get them erected." [Skene's Celtic Scotland.] Bede mentions that Naiton, the Pictish king, in 710 sent messengers to Abbot Ceolfrid, of the monastery of Peter and Paul at Jarrow-on-Tyne, desiring, among other requests, to have architects sent him to build a church in his nation after the Roman manner. About fifty years later Bishop Regulus, with the relics of St Andrew, met King Hungus, who did the relics honour, and "gave the place to God and St Andrew, and builds a church there. The king then crosses the Mounth and comes to Monichi, where he builds a church, and after that to Chilrymont, where he dedicated a large part of that place to God and St Andrew, for the purpose of building churches and oratories." [Legendary—from Skene's Celtic Scotland. Chilrymont is the modern St Andrews.] There does not seem to have been any architectural feature connected with church building till probably the tenth century, when the round towers began to appear, which no doubt were meant as places for the protection of church valuables from the rapacity of uncivilised marauders. A passage in the Life of St Tenenan of Brittany, [Quoted in Early Christian Art in Ireland (Margaret Stokes).] where such towers seemed to have been connected with churches so early as the seventh century, suggests the idea that these towers reached Ireland from that district, and so became introduced into Scotland. Their earlier origin must be left to the investigations of the cultured architect, to whom the early Italian and French types are familiar.

Traces of Saxon sculpture in Scotland are extremely rare, and -I
its remains are exclusively confined to the more southern counties, such as Dumfriesshire, where an interesting specimen in the form of the shaft of a Saxon cross was discovered in Hoddam church in 181. This fragment, which is less than three feet in height, contains on the front the probable figure of the Saviour with an aureole and a book, half figures of saints on the sides, the back containing a roughly chiselled pattern of the interlaced work common to Scotland. It is attributed to the twelfth century.

Extremely beautiful and interesting, especially as works of art, the many specimens of Celtic metal-work testify to the skill and taste of the early artificer. Early weapons or tools show great elegance of form as well as appropriate enrichment. There seems to have been no scarcity of the precious nietals in Scotland in prehistoric times. Malcolm Canmore had a large quantity of gold and silver plate; and so early as 930 a silver shrine for the gospels was executed at St Andrews, which is stated to have been the work of native artificers. [Mr R. W. Cochran Patrick's Early Scotland.] The many fine specimens of this branch of ancient Scottish art which form such an attractive feature in the museum of the Scottish Antiquarian Society, were mostly executed between the ninth and eleventh centuries; but a detailed account of such works belongs rather to the labour of the archaeologist than to the chronicler of the progress of art. The most frequently appearing works of this class are the buckles or brooches, which were worn by both sexes, the size and value of which were in proportion to the rank or wealth of the wearer. These are of gold, silver, and of a mixture of copper and tin known as white bronze. They are wrought with panels of elaborate interlaced patterns, resembling raised or implanted filigree-work, varied by projections with terminating crystals or other stones. The Glenlyon brooch and the historical brooch of Lorn are well- known examples of this class of art-work: with these may be mentioned the two Cadboll brooches just added to the museum of the Scottish Antiquaries, the finest known specimens in Scotland, and inferior in point of decoration only to the Tara brooch in the museum of the Irish Academy at Dublin. Prominent among the ecclesiastical art antiquities of the early Christian period, not only on account of its curious history, but of its great beauty also, is the splendid "quigrich" or pastoral-staff head of St Fillan, which may be said to stand alone as representing the early Scottish crosier in an artistic sense. [The Bachuil-More is denuded of all its enrichments.] It is similar in form to the Irish crosiers, somewhat like an inverted L, and consists of the original wooden staff enriched with metals, and the outer case or shrine of silver, elaborately wrought, of a somewhat later period. It is said that, according to ancient custom, it was carried by the Scottish army at the battle of Bannockburn, after which it remained in the custody of the Dewars of Strathfillan till the present century, when it was acquired a few years ago from a descendant in America, and placed in the museum of Scottish Antiquaries. ["Dewar" or "Doihre" was the title of the keeper.] Almost equally rare in Scotland are the bell covers or shrines, only two important specimens of which are known. As examples of early art, neither is of equal importance with the St Patrick's bell shrine in Armagh. These consist of the well-known Guthrie bell shrine, of a Byzantine type, with raised implanted figures; and the Kilmichael Glassary bell shrine, of rather Norman character, possibly of the eleventh or twelfth century. [Compare with mitre of Thomas a Becket, Labarte's Hand-Book.]

The establishment of an independent Scoto-Norwegian kingdom by Harold in the northern and western isles, which lasted more than a century and a half after the closing years of the ninth century, diminished the direct intercourse with Scandinavia proper, and led to some mixture of the Celtic and Scandinavian races. To this period belong the many objects bearing a Scandinavian character, blended with native Celtic art, such as the Hunterston Runic brooch, and many of the carved stones, among which might perhaps be included the fine Ruthwell cross.

From King David's time the old Celtic art lost its sway, to be succeeded by the early Norman or ecclesiastic. The fraternities of St Serf and the Culdees were superseded by monasteries, and new relations began to take form in parts of the country, by which the southern districts of the kingdom became more important as places of strength for defending the country from English incursions. Although the Anglo-Saxon ecclesiastic edifices which were built in England before the Norman Conquest were larger than those in Scotland, they were probably equally rude, and this might also apply to any sculpture by which they were enriched. Concerning the architecture of France during the glorious period of the thirteenth century, of the many still existing churches of that time, they were not commenced till the early twelfth century, and not completed till after the fourteenth. [Anderson's Scotland in Early Times.] In the south of Europe art was dead in a sense during the tenth century, at the end of which, the fears of the world coming to an end passing away, with other operative causes, gave the first great impetus to the more modern development of literature as well as the fine arts.

In the outlying districts of Argyleshire and other northern parts of Scotland, the gradual transition of Scottish art of this period can best be studied in its scattered vestiges, and the teachings of the Christian religion as a message of peace become manifest on the tombs of ancient warriors and the remains of early churches. The figures of helmeted knights grasping spears are to be found side by side with those of ecclesiastics, and others of a later date, in the act of returning their swords to their sheaths, their battles being over and a life of rest about to begin—different from the old pagan ideas of daily fights followed by nightly carouses. These again are succeeded by others, on which, under a more matured form of Christianity, the sword is left reposing in its sheath, the head, clad only in its basenet and camail, resting on crested helmet, the eyes closed, and the hands pressed together in prayerful action, with a lion or other animal writhing under the armed heel.


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