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Iona, St Martin's Cross

Cross (Early Medieval), Cross Base (Early Medieval)

Site Name Iona, St Martin's Cross

Classification Cross (Early Medieval), Cross Base (Early Medieval)

Canmore ID 21653

Site Number NM22SE 4.04

NGR NM 28632 24504

Datum OSGB36 - NGR


Ordnance Survey licence number AC0000807262. All rights reserved.
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Administrative Areas

  • Council Argyll And Bute
  • Parish Kilfinichen And Kilvickeon
  • Former Region Strathclyde
  • Former District Argyll And Bute
  • Former County Argyll

Archaeology Notes

NM22SE 4.04 28632 24504

(NM 2863 2449) St Martin's Cross (NR)

OS 25" map (1900)

A high cross of red granite, probably dating from about 800 AD. It is sculptured in low relief and stands 16'8" high in its stepped base. The name is of no great age.

J R Allen and J Anderson 1903; R Reece, undated


Field Visit (9 June 1972)

As described.

Visited by OS (RD), 9 June 1972.

Field Visit (September 1980)


The best-preserved of the Early Christian crosses of Iona stands in a stepped granite base some 21 m W of the SW angle of the nave of the abbey church. Its name is first recorded in 1699, in the caption to a sketch by one of Lhuyd's draughtsmen, and although some later writers appear to confuse it with St Matthew's Cross, there is no reason to doubt that it is an authentic medieval designation . Indeed, in view of the high reputation of St Martin of Tours in the early Irish church, attested by his commemoration in the liturgy at Iona in the time of Columba, his name may have been associated with the cross from the time of its erection.

Excavation in 1963 established that the base extends down to an old land-surface at a depth of about 0.8m, where it stands at the E edge of an infilled pit of uncertain origin. It was stated in 1849 that a bronze spoon was discovered underneath the cross when it was re-erected after falling, but there may be some confusion with St Matthew's Cross, which was prostrate at that time, and there is no other evidence that St Martin's Cross has ever been removed from its socket. As early as 1749 it was noted that the cross was 'overgrown with fog (moss)', and a thick growth of lichen was removed shortly before 1860. The cross was again cleaned in 1973 to allow geological identification and to facilitate photography in connection with the present survey.

The cross is carved from a single block of grey epidiorite of Dalradian age, probably imported from the 'green beds' of the Argyll mainland. This material is particularly intractable, and did not permit the precise setting-out or delicate carved detail seen on St John's Cross. It measures 4.3m in height, excluding a tenoned butt of unknown length concealed in the cross-socket, by 0·67m in width at the base, tapering to 0.55m at the cross-head , and is 0.26m in maximum thickness tapering to 0.20m at the apex.

It is suggested on RCAHMS 1982 pp. 17-19 that St Martin's Cross belongs to about the middle or the second half of the 8th century, and that it is the latest of the 'Iona group' of crosses.

RCAHMS 1982, visited September 1980

See RCAHMS 1982, 204-8, No. 6 (83) for a full description of the cross, and 214, No. 6 (97) for a description of the base.

Reference (2001)

(Iona 83) ST MARTIN'S CROSS. This cross, whose name was recorded by Lhuyd in 1699, stands in a granite base (no.97) 21m W of the abbey church. It is carved from a single block of grey epidiorite, probably from the Argyll mainland, and is 4.3m in visible height by 1.19m in span. The diameter of the pierced ring is 1.09m and that of the armpits 0.24m. In the ends of the arms are vertical slots, open at the top, which may have housed ornamental panels rather than extensions for the arms. The angles bear roll-mouldings which on the W face extended below the lowest panel to flank an inscription, now indecipherable. The shaft of the E face bears three roundels of snake-and-boss ornament, a coarser variant of that in the same position on St John's Cross. In the top of the shaft are seven interlaced bosses, each producing two snakes, and the largest of these is also one of the group of five high-relief bosses in the cross-head. That at the centre is set in a ring of nine small bosses linked by spirals, and in the side-arms each boss produces three snakes, while that in the top arm lies between two pairs of rampant leonine beasts. The E face of the ring bears knitted interlace.

On the W face the lowest panel bears six bosses with intertwined serpents, followed by four rows of figure-scenes on an undivided field.

(i) Two pairs of figures, too simplified for identication.

(ii) A harper, seated with outstretched legs as on St Oran's Cross and facing a kneeling man with a (?triple) pipe; a rectangle between them may represent a drum or a book symbolising David's authorship of the psalms.

(iii) Abraham's sacrifice, with a central figure holding a sword across one shoulder and grasping the hair of Isaac, whose arms are extended above a rectangular altar; the small winged figure of the angel stands at the left.

(iv) The seated figure of Daniel between two rearing lions, with a lump which may be the head of another lion to the right.

This theme may continue in the side-arms, where two passant leonine beasts flank a central roundel with the seated Virgin and Child between four small angels, the upper ones forming a canopy. The top arm bears three pairs of back-to-back leonine beasts with intertwined tails.

I Fisher 2001.

External Reference (28 October 2011)

Scheduled as element within 'The monument known as St Mary's Abbey, Iona, monastic settlement [comprising] the remains of the large early historic monastic settlement founded by St Columba in AD 563, St Martin's Cross, and parts of medieval buildings associated with the Benedictine Abbey of St Mary founded around AD 1200.'

Information from Historic Scotland, scheduling document dated 28 October 2011.


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