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The Lost stone of Kirkmadrine


By Professor Emeritus Charles McNeil M.D., F.R.C.P.ED. and LOND.

IN THE OLD CHURCH OF KIRKMADRINE in Wigtownshire, and in the safe keeping of H.M. Ministry of Works, there are three inscribed burial stones. They are often described as "the Monogram Stones of Kirkmadrine," and are remarkable for their age and style of sculpture. If the antiquaries are right, they were erected there about A.D. 450, and are the earliest inscribed Christian gravestones in Scotland. They mark the common grave and give the names of three priests. They were set up long before Scotland became a kingdom and they remained undisturbed through the political storms and religious changes of fourteen hundred years. About 1850 they were taken up and moved away. The two taller stones became the gate posts of the churchyard, and continued in that service for forty years. The third stone disappeared, and became known as "the lost stone of Kirkmadrine". This long lost and yet well known stone was found at last in 1916. It may be of interest to learn something of the strange eventful history of these three old and unique burial stones, and of the part taken in their recovery by the learned antiquaries of Edinburgh and by three men in the Rhinns of Galloway.

Kirkmadrine Churchyard lies midway in the Rhinns of Galloway, and about two miles west of Sandhead on the Bay of Luce. It is a forlorn and almost forgotten place, and yet with that solemn air that hangs over every place of Christian burial. It contains some modern tombstones which on the writer’s last visit in 1946 were thickly beset with nettles and coarse weeds; also many an unmarked grave; and a small plain church built in 1889. In the porch of this church and behind a stout railing are placed the three monogram burial stones and a few other crosses of rude sculpture and later date. Beyond the low churchyard walls, pleasant fields with farmhouses stretched down to the Bay of Luce. Eastward across the Bay are clearly seen the lands and shore of the Machars with the ancient stones of Whithorn and the site of St. Ninian’s church; and the Merrick Hill are drawn across the north-eastern sky.

Of the three stones, two are tall narrow slabs of whinstone, about seven feet high; while the third, of the same material, is about three feet high. Each one of the three stones bears at its head the Chi-Rho monogram of Constantine, in its variant but still very early form of a simple cross is beginning to emerge. Each cross is surrounded by a perfect circle deeply cut; which is the symbol of eternity, that which is without beginning or end. Underneath each monogram deeply cut in Latin capitals, the inscription runs as a continuing narrative from stone to stone. Translated, the inscription reads: "Here lie the holy and eminent (praecipui) priests, that is Viventius and Mavorius" (first stone); "and Florentius" (second stone); and on the third stone, the Latin words "INITIUM ET FINIS". Further, above the monogram and circle of the first stone, appear the first and the last letter of the Greek alphabet, Alpha and Omega. Omega. This triple symbolism of the monogram, the circle, and the Alpha and Omega, makes the three Kirkmadrine stones unique; and assists in determining their age and historical significance.

In A.D. 312 the Emperor Constantine issued his edict of toleration; and he then had inscribed on the standards of his legions, on his coins, and even on the front of his helmet a monogram of the two Greek letters Chi and Rho – the first two letters of Christos. This was the Chi-Rho monogram; and before long it began to appear on Christian tombs in the Catacombs at Rome, and by the end of the century on Christian epitaphs throughout Gaul. Towards the end of this century, St. Ninian had come back from Rome and from Tours of Gaul, had made Whithorn the centre of his missionary work, and on the testimony of Bede, was building there in A.D. 397 his church of stone, Candida Casa. Of Candida Casa not a stone remains; and although a number of old Christian stones and crosses have been found among the ruins of Whithorn Priory and nearby, and although most of these are much older than the Priory, none of them goes back to the foundation of the first church of Ninian. Now the age of the three monogram stone at Kirkmadrine has been cautiously dated by the great Scottish antiquary Joseph Anderson as "not earlier" than A.D. 450; and the sculptures of these stones is of an older age than any of the stones that have survived at Whithorn.

It may be said that the Christian settlement at Kirkmadrine was co-evel with Whithorn, and that Kirkmadrine was the first daughter church of Whithorn. Both churches continued to live and flourish, although Kirkmadrine was eclipsed by the renown of Whithorn as a place of Pilgrimage. When the monogram stones were erected at Kirkmadrine about A.D. 450 St Ninian had been in his grave at Whithorn for twenty or thirty years: St Patrick was about to begin his mission in Ireland: and a hundred years and more had to pass before St Columba came from Ireland to Iona. We have proof of the continuing life of Kirkmadrine as a place of Christian worship and burial, by the crosses of later date found there, and by the presence of a small twelfth century church. This church survived the storm and violence of the Reformation undamaged, and continued to be used as a Prebyterian church for some years. It then was left empty and unused, and gradually fell into dilapidation and ruin. But the three monogram stones still remained standing side by side, unchanged, and almost forgotten; and in the New Statistical Account of Wigtownshire 1845, there is this sentence: "Kirkmadrine, with its churchyard still preserved as a burying place, contains come gravestones with antique inscriptions." This certainly refers to the three monogram stones as will be shown later. Undisturbed through fourteen hundred years of "winter and rough weather and man’s ingratitude," they still stood marking the grave that had been dug in A.D. 450. But other uses had now been found for them, and about 1850 the three stones were pulled up and taken away.

In 1861 the two taller stones were discovered at the churchyard gate by Dr Arthur Mitchell, M.D. (later Sir Arthur Mitchell and first Rhind lecturer in archaeology in Edinburgh). It was his first visit to Kirkmadrine and it sealed his vocation as antiquary. The irongate was locked and he climbed it. When he was astride, he found himself looking into the face of the tall stone gatepost on one side and saw the circle monogram, and underneath it bold Latin lettering. On the other gatepost he found the same device and a shorter inscription. At once there came into his memory similar stones that he had seen in the Catacombs of Rome, and he realised that he had found archaeological treasure. Before he left the churchyard he had discovered two other old Christian crosses of different and later style. He then made enquiries among the neighbouring farmers. They knew about the gatepost stones and their removal but they also spoke of a third stone which had formerly stood with the other two in the churchyard. Where this third stone had gone to they did not know: but they suggested that a Mr William Todd, an old retired schoolmaster in Kirkmaiden, and interested all his life in local antiquities, might give him more information. Dr Mitchell made his way the ten mile journey down the Rhinns to Dromore, and was richly rewarded. William Todd would have given Scott more rich material for The Antiquary and Old Mortality. He was a man of "no dubiety," for when asked for more information, about "the two stones" of Kirkmadrine, he said firmly, "There are three stones, not two, at Kirkmadrine. I have seen them standing there." When pressed for some stronger evidence than memory, he paused and pondered a little, and then opened an old desk and handed to Dr Mitchell a faded paper with a sketch of the three stones with their monograms, and their lettering. The sketch had been made by Mr Todd forty years before (1822). The old antiquary handed over this valuable document to Dr Mitchell, who then returned to Edinburgh and reported on his discovery of the two gatepost stones, and on the convincing evidence of a third and lost stone. Edinburgh was interested. At the instance of Sir James Y. Simpson, plaster casts of the stones were made and placed in the Museum of Antiquities at Edinburgh, where they can be seen today. Illustration with a note showing their age and significance were included in the second volume of Dr Stuart’s Sculptured Stones of Scotland (1867); and subsequently the two Chi-Rho monogram stones were carefully examined and fully expounded by Romilly Allen, Joseph Anderson, and others. Meantime at Kirkmadrine, the iron bolts passed again into the holes that had been pierced in the two stones; the gate was reslung and was supported in this way until 1889,when these noble gateposts were placed in safety in the porch of the small new church.

As for the third stone, it at once took its place in antiquarian literature as the lost or missing stone of Kirkmadrine. Dr Mitchell paid another visit to Kirkmadrine, and on the advice of his farmer friends searched the farmhouses and steadings around the old churchyard, but found no trace of Mr Todd’s third stone. But the search was not given up. In 1877 the Rev. George Phillip Robertson, M.A. (the uncle of the writer of this article) became minister of Sandhead Free Church, and took up residence in his manse a mile from Kirkmadrine. It was his first charge and remained in it until his retirement in 1922. From the first he was keenly interested in all the antiquities of his parish and he became at once aware of the fact of the lost stone. Influenced by the opinions of the old farmers of the district that the stone might have been used as a lintel or side pillar in one of the farm steadings, he searched diligently for this goodly pearl that might be hidden in the field of his parish; and he must have come to know every likely large stone in the farms of Cairnweil, Ringuinea, Float and Kirkmabreck. He never gave up the search, but he never found this "precious stone" with its Chi-Rho monogram and its solemn INITIUM ET FINIS.

But the stone was found at last, and found indeed in the minister’s "field". In the autumn of 1916 in the middle of the First Great War, when the mud was deep on the Western Front, the minister was busy in his study one November morning when there was a knock on his door. There entered, bare-headed, Robert Nelson, stone-mason of Sandhead, who was engaged in repairing the hinge of the manse gate. He showed distress in his face and voice. "Excuse me, Sir," he said, "will ye come oot to the gate." Then after a pause, and in a more agitated voice, "A’ve broken the lost stone of Kirkmadrine!". They went out to the gate; and there on the ground lay in broken fragments, but unmistakable, and as sketched by William Todd in 1822, the third and long missing stone. At the gate Robert Nelson told his story. In his repair of the gate, he had to pick out the rubble stones of one pier, and at the upper end he came on a large stone, and pulled it out. As it lay on the ground, its upper surface had no marks of any kind. So he took up his stone-hammer, struck the stone again and again, and broke it into nearly a dozen fragments that would be more suitable for rebuilding the pier. He then turned over one large piece, and then another: and saw there, cut deep, the segment of a circle enclosing a cross and underneath two rows of letters. The mason was no mere stone-breaker; he knew and admired the old stones of Kirkmadrine; and tutored by the minister, he knew well that there was a third and missing stone. And with the first large piece turned over he knew at once that he had found and then had broken up the lost stone of Kirkmadrine.

It was a strange scene at the manse gate on that November morning – the catastrophe of a drama that stretched far back into history. Two elderly men standing bare-headed by the gate; and at their feet an ancient famous stone, a stone of destiny, in shattered fragments. Each man was deeply concerned with this broken block of whinstone. The minister had searched for it during forty years and had passed it close by every day as he went through his gate. The mason had found it by a lucky chance and then had smashed it with his hammer. So do the fates play their tricks on mortal men. "What a world is this, and how does fortune panter us!"

But the catastrophe ended more happily than might be expected. The broken stone was sound whinstone; and when experts came from the Ministry of Works at Edinburgh, its fractures were found to fit closely. In Edinburgh its pieces were skilfully pieced together; and its monogram and lettering were found to agree exactly (with the exception of a single letter) with William Todd’s sketch made ninety-four years before. The lost stone was then brought back to Kirkmadrine, and placed beside the two other Chi-Rho monogram stones in the porch of the little church.

There the three stones are safe behind iron bars. They are released from their ignoble service as gateposts; but they no longer nobly mark an ancient Christian grave. They lean awkwardly against the wall of the porch, and the HIC JACENT of the inscription has lost its meaning. Yet, only a few yards away, the bones of Viventius, Mavorius and Florentius lie in the earth; and only a hundred years ago these stones with their solemn symbols had stood undisturbed for fourteen hundred years, the fixed mark of their grave and the memorial of these holy and eminent priests. With the aid of William Todd’s sketch and other records, it might be possible to fix the site of the grave; and it would be an act of piety to restore the three burial stones to their former and ancient service and to erect them again beside the grave to which they belong. This restoration would not only mark an early Christian grave in an old country churchyard, it would also give Kirkmadrine the place it deserves alongside Whithorn as the two earliest Scottish shrines of our religion.

Thanks to Gayla Meade Templeton for sending us in this account.