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Applecross, St Maelrubha's Monastery

Cross Slab (Early Medieval), Monastic Settlement (Early Medieval)

Site Name Applecross, St Maelrubha's Monastery

Classification Cross Slab (Early Medieval), Monastic Settlement (Early Medieval)

Alternative Name(s) Applecross Old Churchyard; Claodh Maree

Canmore ID 11734

Site Number NG74NW 1

NGR NG 7135 4583

Datum OSGB36 - NGR


Ordnance Survey licence number 100057073. All rights reserved.
© Copyright and database right 2017.

Digital Images

Administrative Areas

  • Council Highland
  • Parish Applecross
  • Former Region Highland
  • Former District Ross And Cromarty
  • Former County Ross And Cromarty

Archaeology Notes

NG74NW 1 7135 4583

See also NG74NW 3.

(NG 7135 4583) The monastery established by St Maelrubha at Applecross in 673 survived in 1963 (A C Thomas 1971) as an oval enclosure, almost ploughed out; and a low mound known as Claodh Maree was alleged to contain St Maelrubha's grave. The topography suggests that the modern church, built in 1817 partly on the site of an older church extant until 1792, occupies the site of the actual monastery.

Reeves (W Reeves 1862) mentions a low nearly circular embankment, about 30' diameter internally, south of the cross (NG74NW 2) and on the opposite side of the road. It was said to be venerated and to contain human remains. Embankments near the river in the meadow below the church, were alleged to be connected with the Abbot's Mill; and a mound a short distance NE of the east boundary of the churchyard was said to have been used as an altar. He also mentions the alleged remains of St Maelrubha's tomb consisting of red granite fragments, some lying about the churchyard and others built into the manse. The sanctuary of the monastery is said to have extended for six miles.

Orig Paroch Scot 1855; W Reeves 1862; A C Thomas 1971; Information from A C Thomas to OS 26 October 1966.

There is now no trace of the oval vallum recorded by Thomas (A C Thomas 1971). MacRae (K MacRae, 42 Denny, Inverness) is an obervant and reliable informant whose great grandfather supplied Reeves with his information and he states there never was anything ancient visible outwith the modern graveyard, except a pool, now drained, S of the old manse which was known as the "Pool of the Coracles".

The N arc of the circular embankment noted by Reeves (D Reeves 1862) survives in the S corner of the modern graveyard and is shown on Thomas' plan (A C Thomas 1971). It is a curving turf-covered bank 3.0m wide, 0.5m high and c. 16.0m long, which isolates an area where there is only one recent gravestone. The area enclosed must have exceeded 30ft but there is now no trace of the remainder outside the graveyard. According to MacRae this area was not venerated as stated by Reeves (W Reeves 1862), indeed the opposite as a suicide was once buried in the enclosure.

According to MacRae (K MacRae) the whole area between the east gable of the chapel (NG74NW 3) and the graveyard wall is known as Claodh Maree and there have never been burials in this traditionally venerated area. He is uncertain of the origin of the two small pillars which occur here at distances of 11.5 and 13.5m from the gable. It was in this area (some 4 to 5 yds from the gable) where he found a long cist in 1934 which he believes was Maelrubha's grave. At that time there were visible traces of three walls of a building some 10 ft wide, whose W end he believes was overlaid by the chapel. He thought it represented an oratory. He estimated where the altar would be at the E end and dug at its right side. At a depth of about 12 inches he found a rough flagged floor and some 18 inches below this was a slab which when lifted proved to be the cap of a long cist. The slab lined cist was bottomed with loose gravel amongst which were pieces of charcoal and calcined human bones and also an artifact of 'yellow metal' probably bronze which Callander identified as a ring brooch with a bent pin though MacRae still maintains it was more like a link of an ornamental chain. It was made of 'thin yellow wire' and seemed precisely bent. Each end had an ornament of three grooves and was blunt, not pointed as a pin would be. The cist was carefully re-covered.

MacRae (K Macrae) says that in the area immediately SW of Cloadh Maree where the most northerly of the modern graves occur, several similar, but not so well constructed, stone cists have been found over the years. One which he uncovered about 2ft down, was constructed above another at a lower level. It was in this same locality that from time to time he found five sculptured cross fragments which were preserved in the modern church, although only two of them are there now. A third preserved there, the largest of three, was discovered built into the wall of the chapel. All the fragments seemed to be from different crosses.

There is no trace of the pre-1817 church, but MacRae (K MacRae) knows the tradition of its site under or beside the modern church. He knows nothing of the mound NE of the E boundary of the graveyard, nor of the embankments near the river. None of the alleged fragments of the Saints' tomb were noted at the old manse which is now a farm-house.

Visited by OS (A A) 31 May 1974.

D Reeves 1862; A C Thomas 1971.

The brooch found was deposited in the National Museum of Scotland, accession number H.NGA 174.

Information from A Saville (NMS), 1998.

The monastery of Applecross was founded in 673 by Maelrubha, a monk of Bangor (Co.Down), who had left Ireland two years earlier. His death in 722, and those of later abbots up to the early 9th century, are recorded in the Irish annals, and it is clear that the connection with Bangor was maintained (a). At the time of its foundation, however, the monastery was probably in Pictish territory, and dedications to Maelrubha are found in Easter Ross, Sutherland and the north-east as well as being widespread on the W coast (b). Its name is a medieval corruption of a Brittonic one, recorded in 673 as Aporcrosan, meaning 'the mouth of the Crossan' (the former name of the Applecross River). The district is known in Gaelic as a' Chomraich, 'the sanctuary', and it was marked by crosses, one of which survived at Camusterrach, 4km to the S, until about 1870 (c).

The monastery was situated about 250m from the head of Applecross Bay, on the NW bank of the Applecross River and opposite what are now the policies of Applecross House. The site is occupied by an L-shaped burial-ground containing the former parish church of 1817, with a small post-medieval 'chapel' or burial-aisle close to the E boundary. It has been suggested that aerial photographs indicate a larger curvilinear enclosure measuring at least 180m from NE to SW by 140m, but the area S and E of the burial-ground was planted with conifers in the 1960s and no surface-remains survive (d). A low curving mound in the W part of the burial-ground may represent a small enclosure described by W Reeves (e), who also recorded that a 'little hillock' named Claodh Maree, the supposed burial-place of the saint, lay S of the 'chapel'.

A large cross-slab (no.4) stands inside the W entrance of the churchyard to the N, and three carved fragments are displayed in the porch of the former church. The largest of these (no.1) was formerly built into a wall of the 'chapel', and the other two, with three other lost pieces, were found in the area to the S of it by the grave-digger in the 1930s (f). It is possible that some of these fragments belonged to the monument of 'red granite', supposedly sent by the daughter of the King of Norway to mark the grave of Maelrubha himself, that was broken during the construction of the manse in 1796 (g). They are presumably to be distinguished from the 'several carved stones' that were buried under a path near the S wall of the church when it was being built in 1817 (h). In the churchyard there are also a sandstone graveslab with a moulded margin of late medieval type, and a large slab of late 17th-century character bearing emblems of mortality (i).

(1) Fragment of red-brown Torridonian sandstone, comprising part of the right half of a large cross-slab and the decorated right edge. It measures 1.33m in height and 0.31m in surviving width and varies in thickness from about 95mm to 55mm at the edge. The back may have suffered some damage, but the form of the right edge makes it unlikely that any carving has been lost. The slab was divided into rectangular panels by bead-mouldings 12mm to 15mm wide which merge into the edge-moulding, and the cross-head had a pierced ring whose lower quadrant survives. The other fragments from the churchyard (nos.2, 3), which are of similar material and have comparable edge-mouldings, may have belonged to this slab as shown in the accompanying drawing. Its original height was at least 2.2m and may have been considerably more.

The lower part of the fragment, forming the base of the shaft, comprised a panel of key-pattern (RA 974) enclosed by a broad double band of interlaced knots with S-shaped internal loops and additional knots at the junctions of the cords (related to RA 545 with RA 307 at intersections). The shaft of the cross has been filled with two panels of diagonal key-pattern (related to RA 963; RA 969, with spiral centres), both very fragmentary, but flanking these to the right is the only panel to survive complete. It contains six pairs of interlinked triple-spiral roundels, with an additional roundel at the top right in the spandrel formed by the oblique curve of the ring. The spirals terminate in bird, dragon and animal (possibly human) heads, and the connections are made with triquetra knots which also fill the interspaces at the edges of the panel. The ring-quadrant is 80mm wide and is decorated with a repeated diagonal T-fret pattern which continues onto the front curve of the pierced armpit. The remainder of this curve is smoothly shaped to meet the back of the slab.

The right edge of the slab forms a panel 40mm wide between two 15mm angle-mouldings. In the lower part there is a series of linked double spirals with curved hollow triangles in the spandrels. The upper part bears interlace containing pairs of Stafford knots which form cruciform breaks (RA 598). Below the ring there is a small naked human figure with bent knees and hands crossed in front of the genitals (j).

The panelled treatment of this slab closely resembles that of Pictish cross-slabs, especially those at Nigg, Rosemarkie and Tarbat (Easter Ross) and Farr (Sutherland), and several of its fret- and interlace-patterns recur on those carvings. The closest parallel for the spiral roundels is on a slab at St Vigeans (Angus) (k). The piercing of the ring, however, produces a distinctive blend of Irish and Pictish sculptural traditions, and the use of triquetras to link spirals is found in the Book of Kells and in Irish crosses (l). In these cases it is used for variety, and its repetitive use at Applecross, along with the very precise but mechanical execution of the slab, suggest a date for the latter in the early 9th century.

(J Close-Brooks 1986, 123; ibid. 1995, 125; D MacLean 1997, 177-8.

(2) Fragment of red Torridonian sandstone, 0.36m by 0.32m and tapering in thickness from 100mm to 35mm. It forms the almost square terminal of a cross-arm with curved armpits, and the outer angles of the arm are broken obliquely. This damage is consistent with the suggestion that this was part of the large cross-slab no.1, as is the neat execution of the ornament. This comprises interlace incorporating Stafford knots arranged in four pairs to form circles, within a bead-moulded margin which continues on to the armpits. In the constriction of the arms there are traces of a curving moulding, which presumably encircled the centre of the cross-head, but its diameter is uncertain. On the back of the fragment there is a transverse rebate behind the constriction, but this is unlikely to be an original feature and its purpose is not obvious.

(D MacLean 1997, 178).

(3) Fragment of red Torridonian sandstone, 0.24m by 0.21m and 75mm thick. It has formed the angle of a slab or cross-arm, but one edge is damaged although the other preserves its 12mm bead-moulded margin. Within a border of interlace there has been a panel of interlinked double-spirals with zoomorphic terminals. The panel was probably square and had a small central roundel with a central pit which is repeated twice on the enclosing motif.

(D MacLean 1997, 178).

(4) NG74NW 2. Cross-slab of Torridonian sandstone, 2.63m in visible height by 0.99m in maximum width and tapering upwards from 100mm to 75m in thickness. The surface is heavily flaked in the lower part and much worn and lichen-stained throughout. The SE face bears the outline of a ringed cross with a short shaft supported on a concave-sided pedestal which itself rises from a tall rectangular base. The cross has short side-arms and circular armpits containing 60mm bosses, and the ring-quadrants are slightly sunk below the surface-level of the cross itself. The outline was defined by a flat-bottomed bevelled groove except for the concave sides of the pedestal where the groove is of V-section. The right edge of the base and the right arm extend to the edge of the slab, whereas at the left there is a margin about 0.15m wide. The top of the slab has been shaped to the outline of the upper part of the cross-head, and there is no obvious reason for this not being completed.

In local tradition this slab was associated with Ruaraidh Mor MacCoigen, a local hero. W Reeves suggested a connection with 'Macc-oigi of Applecross', abbot of the mother-house at Bangor, whose death is recorded in 801 (m).

(D MacLean 1997, 176).


(a) Annals of Ulster s.a. 671, 673, 722, 737, 802; A O Anderson 1922, 1, 181, 183, 219-20, 236, 258; W Reeves 1862, 258-96.

(b) W Reeves 1862, 286-96; W J Watson 1926, 287-9; I Henderson 1971a, 41-9; A Macdonald 1974, 68-9.

(c) W Reeves 1862, 272-4; W J Watson 1904, pp.lxvi, 201-3; W J Watson 1926, 124-5; E Beveridge 1923, 9-10. The cross at Camusterrach was described as a 'rude monolith' about 2.5m high and 'showing traces of a cross on the west face' (T S Muir 1855, 32). It may be represented by a broken slab 0.4m high and 0.6m wide in a croft steading at NG 7096 4160 (NMRS database NG74SW 4).

(d) C Thomas 1971, fig. on p.43; NMRS air photo unit, CPE/SCOT/UK/284, nos.3036 and 4044 (August 1947). Field-survey in May 2000, following removal of the trees, identified no remains of early earthworks.

(e) C Thomas, loc.cit.; W Reeves 1862, 280-1, describing a 'nearly circular space' about 9m across.

(f) W J Watson 1904, 202; information given to the Ordnance Survey by the finder, Mr K MacRae, 1965. Mr MacRae found a long-cist burial in this area in 1934, from which he recovered a ring-brooch (PSAS, 69 (1934-5), 21), and a similar burial was found in the late 19th century (W J Watson, loc.cit.).

(g) W Reeves 1862, 279.

(h) W J Watson 1904, loc.cit.

(i) For later inscriptions see A G and M H Beattie 1987, 37-9. The 'holy water font' found outside the NE angle of the churchyard in 1874 (Name Book, Ross and Cromarty, No.4, p.31) was presumably the basin or saddle-quern that is preserved outside the 'chapel' (NMRS database NG74NW 4).

(j) For a later parallel on a cross-arm from Strathmartine, Dundee, see J Stuart 1867, 101 (2).

(k) A lost example is recorded from Birnie (Moray), with pairs of birds biting each others' necks (J Stuart 1856, pl.42).

(l) Book of Kells, f.34r; Termonfechin Cross, Co.Louth (P Harbison 1992, 2, fig.583).

(m) T S Muir (op.cit., 32), recording the name of the slab as Clach Mhor Mac-Cuagan; W Reeves 1862, 274-5, 279-80; Name Book, Ross and Cromarty, No.4, p.34; A O Anderson 1922, 1, 258. D MacLean (1997, 176) recorded a variant tradition associating the slab with Macc Oigi himself.

I Fisher 2001.


Publication Account (1995)

The cross-slab standing by the gate is almost three metres high. Incised on one face is the outline of a large, plain ringed cross. The stem of the cross expands into a wide base, imitating the sort of base that supported free-standing crosses. The top of the cross seems to be partly carved into shape, but may have broken along the carved lines.

Inside the church, at the west end, are three more carved fragments kept in display cases. The largest is part of a broken cross-slab decorated in relief. The design and execution of the complex patterns are of a very high standard. To the right of the ringed cross is a panel of whirling triple-spirals with varied terminals including birds' heads, closely related to designs in gospel books of the period. Other patterns include interlace and key pattern. The other two smaller pieces belong to one or more cross-slabs decorated with interlace. They were found at the east end of the graveyard.

The cross-slabs are the only surviving physical evidence of an Early Christian community founded here in 673 by St Maelrubha, who came from the abbey of Bangor in Ireland. He chose a well sheltered and fertile spot for his new monastery, of which he was abbot until his death in 722. From historical sources we know little more about it than the names and dates of the first two abbots. No trace remains of the monastic buildings, which may have been a few thatched huts and a little stone chapel within an enclosure bank, and only the cross-slabs give us some idea of the artistic capabilities of these early monks.

The church is next recorded in 1515 as the parish church of Applecross in the diocese of Ross. The existing church, now disused, was built in 1817.Most of the furnishings have been removed, but a west gallery survives, and a fine pulpit with reader's desk. The ruins of a small 15th-century chapel stand in the graveyard.

Information from ‘Exploring Scotland’s Heritage: The Highlands’, (1995).


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