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RCAHMS; Early Medieval Sculpture in the West Highlands and Islands

Date 1971 - 2001

Event ID 1083124

Category Project

Type Project


'This volume presents in compact form the results of two extensive [RCAHMS] surveys, covering over 150 sites from the southernmost islands of Argyll to the most northerly of the Hebrides. The Inventory of monuments in the former county of Argyll, including about 300 carved stones of the early medieval period, was published between 1971 and 1992 in seven large volumes, all now out of print.

This material is presented here in abbreviated but updated form, with the addition of eight newly-discovered stones, and all of the drawings are included in the sheets of comparative drawings that form the core of this publication. The survey was also extended to record new discoveries on Canna and Inchmarnock, and subsequently to the remainder of the West Highlands, the Hebrides and the Clyde islands, comprising in all about 160 carvings. These are treated in greater detail, with concise descriptions of the historic landscapes that form dramatic settings for many of the carved stones.

Most of the carved stones catalogued here belong to the period between the introduction of Christianity to western Scotland by Irish monastic founders such as Columba of Iona in the sixth century, and the arrival of new monastic orders and an organised parochial system in the late twelfth century. These monuments, and the evidence of place-names, show the wide diffusion of the new religion in the Gaelic-speaking area and its adoption by later settlers of Scandinavian descent. In the century after Columba's death his successors were active in eastern Scotland and sent missions to Northumbria and other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, while retaining a dominant position nin the Irish church. This network of religious, political and cultural contacts contributed to the development of the elaborate 'insular' art-style common to Britain and Ireland between the seventh and ninth centuries. The free-standing crosses of Iona include some of the most elaborate surviving sculpture erected in that style to the glory of God, and they played an important role in the development of the Irish high crosses. Simpler slabs and pillars bearing incised crosses are more widely distributed, occurring even at the greatest monasteries, and illustrate the austere spirituality of the Irish church with its veneration for the solitary life of the hermit.

This volume is presented, not only as an aid to the understanding and appreciation of our early medieval heritage, but as a practical tool for its preservation. Most of the stones recorded here have undergone the vicissitudes of at least one millennium. Their survival through another will depend on informed management and public awareness of their value. The year 2000 was marked by the transfer of the historic monuments on Iona to the guardianship of Historic Scotland, on behalf of The Scottish Ministers, and the acquisition of the islands south of Barra by The National Trust for Scotland. Many stones lack this security, and the illustrated descriptive catalogue provided here is a contribution to their identification and protection.'

RCAHMS: Early Medieval Sculpture in the Western Highlands and Islands (Fisher 2001, vii).

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