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Islay, Kildalton Chapel Burial Ground, Kildalton Great Cross

Cross (Early Medieval)

Site Name Islay, Kildalton Chapel Burial Ground, Kildalton Great Cross

Classification Cross (Early Medieval)

Alternative Name(s) Kildalton Old Parish Church; Kildalton High Cross; Thief's Cross; The Kildalton Cross

Canmore ID 251204

Site Number NR45SE 3.03

NGR NR 45802 50830

Datum OSGB36 - NGR


Ordnance Survey licence number 100057073. All rights reserved.
Canmore Disclaimer. © Copyright and database right 2022.

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Administrative Areas

  • Council Argyll And Bute
  • Parish Kildalton And Oa
  • Former Region Strathclyde
  • Former District Argyll And Bute
  • Former County Argyll

Treasured Places (1 August 2007)

The cross at Kildalton Chapel on Islay is one of the finest Early Christian crosses in Britain. It is closely related to the group of major crosses, St Oran's, St John's and St Martin's at Iona, and, like them, it probably dates from the second half of the 8th century.

Standing 2.65m in height by 1.32m across the arms, the cross is carved from a single block of local stone. It is elaborately decorated with intricate carved reliefs of interlacing spiral-work and zoomorphs, such as fierce serpents, lions and birds. Several biblical scenes are depicted on the reverse: these include the Virgin and Child with angels, Cain murdering his brother Abel, Abraham preparing to sacrifice Isaac, and David killing the Lion.

Other carved stones on the Kildalton Chapel site cover the period from the 10th to the18th centuries and include one which is sometimes referred to as 'The Thief's Cross'.

Information from RCAHMS (PJG) 1 August 2007


Field Visit (1920)

Field Visit (August 1962)

Field Visit (1978)

Field Visit (June 1982)

(1) The Kildalton Cross.

This monolithic ringed cross stands in a damaged socket-stone of local epidiorite, measuring 0.83m by 0.69m by 0.13m in visible thickness.

The cross, which had developed a dangerous tilt, was temporarily removed from its base in 1882, when a concrete

cast was made for the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland Scotland, and the original socket-stone was incorporated in a double-stepped plinth in its original position.

The cross is carved from a slab of grey-green epidiorite containing numerous granules of felspar, which can be

closely matched in outcrops near Port na Cille, about 1.3 km to the ESE. It measures 2.65m in visible height by 1.32m

across the arms, and the shaft tapers from 0.41m by 0.I8m just above the base to 0.37m by 0.17m below the cross-head.

The thickness of the original slab, however, was at least 0.32m, for the central bosses of the W and E faces project

respectively 95mm and 50mm beyond the general level, while other elements of the w face of the cross-head show the

same bold relief. The semicircular armpits have a span of 0.39m, and the overall diameter of the ring is 0.99m.

The Kildalton Cross is closely related to the group of major crosses, St Oran's, St John's and St Martin's, at lona, and like them it probably dates from the second half of the 8th century. Whereas it resembles St Martin's Cross, also of

epidiorite, in having figure scenes on one face, the delicacy of its carving and the proportions of the cross-head, with its wide armpits, are closer to those of St John's Cross. As in those two crosses the arms are double-curved, the top arm

extending 0.46m and the side-arms, which are somewhat irregular, up to 0.22m beyond the ring. The edges of the cross

are dressed smooth, and the carved field of each face is framed by a continuous 40mm half-roll which on the w face

is treated as a cable-moulding.

On the W face, the edge-roll returns horizontally 0.26m above the base, but below it to the right there are traces of a

marginal groove, possibly intended to frame an inscription. The shaft contains two linked cruciform groups of 65 mm

bosses from which spring serpents' bodies, half of which terminate in fierce biting heads seen in profile, and half in

lizard-like heads with splayed fore legs, seen from above. In each group the central boss is smaller and produces several small spiral bosses, while the diagonal equal-armed crosses enclosed between the main bosses and the encircling serpents are filled by other small bosses linked by C-curves. The number and disposition of these bosses, and the plaiting of the serpents' bodies between the two medallions, are identical with those on the E face of St Martin's Cross, but two of the principal bosses in each of the cruciform groups resemble those of St John's Cross in being of 'bird's-nest' type, containing single pellets. The remainder of the shaft displays elaborate spiral-work composed round four 70mm bosses at the angles and a large central boss, one of the major bosses of the cross-head, which has a diameter of 125mm and contains three internal pellets. (These pellets are raised on stalks and closely resemble the conical bosses of the underside of the Ormside Bowl {Schapiro 1980}, whose design is related to that of the medallions in the lower part of the shaft) Each of these bosses is triple-linked to small bosses and voluted trumpet-spirals, and the outer face of the central boss is covered with worn spirals.

The W face of the cross-head is designed around four large bosses, each set outside the ring and central to its own panel, and a very large central boss, 170mm in diameter and about 95mm in projection, whose surface is composed of four 50mm bosses and a cluster of many small spiral-linked bosses. Springing from the base of the central boss are four close-clinging serpents, and it is surrounded, within an interlaced ring, by a border of seven 50mm bosses

alternating with paired serpents' heads whose bodies emerge from the adjacent bosses. In the constrictions of the arms

four lions are carved in high relief; their heads are all damaged but the lower fringes of their manes survive in those

in the side-arms, who advance towards the centre with long tails curved above their backs. The lion in the left arm

displays male genitals, and above its head and that of the other there are two identical and unidentifiable horn-shaped

features with coiled terminals. A crouching lion in the lower arm faces the central boss with fore legs extended and hind

legs bent close to its body. Its tail is loosely intertwined with the bodies of serpents, probably three in number, one of

which appears to have looped over the lion's back. The lion in the upper arm is in the same posture, its head facing the top of the cross, but its left hind leg is splayed and, like its tail and forelegs, is linked to complex interlace incorporating two pairs of confronted beasts above and below the principal boss. These beasts have back-turned heads, and the upper pair bite their own tails, but the legs of all and the tails of the lower pair merge into the interlace, which rises to cover the sides of the boss. This is 130mm in diameter and 90mm in projection, and its dome is covered by small linked spiral bosses. The extremities of both side-arms bear serpent-and-boss ornament, of varying design, springing from their large central bosses. That in the right arm is 120mm in diameter by 80mm in projection, and is covered in knitted interlace from which two serpents emerge, while the left boss has dimensions of 110mm by 95mm, and is divided into four panels, each containing knotwork, by serpents' bodies spiralling from its centre.

The quadrants of the ring measure 100mm in width by 110mm in thickness, and bear ornament framed betweer

bead-mouldings. On the lower right and upper left quadrants of the w face this comprises interlace with regular cruciform breaks (Allen and Anderson 1903), while the lower left and upper right quadrants bear two varieties of key-omament (Allen and Anderson 1903).

The edge-moulding of the E face returns horizontally 0.18m above the base, but is cut at the left by a vertical groove. The shaft is filled by a rectangular panel of low-relief spiral-work composed around a central 240mm roundel and

four 130mm roundels at the corners, each of them divided into three openwork roundels and linked to the centre by

elongated trumpets. The central roundel generates six other trumpets ending in 35mm bosses, and the other roundels

produce S-shaped fillers at the outer spandrels, and voluted trumpet-spirals, while the remaining spaces are filled with

interlinked small bosses.

The top of the shaft, like the other arms of the cross-head, bears a figure-scene, the Virgin and Child with angels, which appears to be modelled on the carving in the same position on St Oran's Cross. The Mother is placed frontally with the Child tilled back across her knees, supported by a hand behind His neck. The folds of her garment are visible on her legs, but her throne is not indicated. The two angels, similar in height to the Virgin, make a canopy by raising their inner wings to touch above her head. That on the right holds a rectangular object, probably a book, while the other has a hand raised to an appropriate position for holding a staff across his shoulder. None of the figures is haloed, although all have wig-like hair.

The E face of the cross-head is centred on a hollow boss or ring, 180mm in diameter and 50mm in projection, whose

outer surface bears close-knit interlace. It encloses a 90mm hollow containing a low central boss from which four short-

bodied serpents spiral anticlockwise to confront four lizard-like beasts set on the outer face. These have small bent fore legs, and large splayed hind legs which merge into a continuous band of interlace enclosed within a cable-

moulded ring. In the constrictions of the lower and side-arms there is serpent-and-boss ornament, of which that in the right arm appears to incorporate birds' heads, while the other arms are composed round central lozenge-shaped bosses.

The spiral-ornament on some of these bosses is particularly well preserved.

The scene in the left arm shows two figures, that to the left standing and holding a curved club-like object with an expanded end having two projections while the other, apparently in profile, kneels before him with outstretched hands. The distinctive shape of the club-like object identifies the scene as Cain murdering Abel with the jawbone of an ass or camel, as depicted on Irish crosses and Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, (His identification of the weapon as a jawbone in the Irish carvings has been challenged by G Henderson in 1961, but neither writer considers the representation on the E face of the South or Tower Cross at Kells {Henry; Roe 1959} and where the murder of Abel is shown in the same panel as Adam and Eve, as on Muirdach's Cross at Monasterboice. The Kildalton carving was identified by Allen as 'Abraham preparing to sacrifice Isaac' {Allen and Anderson 1903}, while Anderson offered no identification {Graham 1895}), and the kneeling figure probably shows Abel offering his sacrifice to the Lord. Thus the murder itself, a prefiguring of Christ's Crucifixion, is combined with the more general concept of an acceptable sacrifice, and in both respects parallels the carving in the right arm of the cross, the Sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham. (In the mosaics in the chancel of San Vitale, Ravenna, Abel's sacrifice of a lamb is shown in the same panel as Melchizidek, while Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac is included in the same programme of Eucharistic symbols) This is similar to the carving on the shaft of St Martin's Cross except that one small figure, probably an angel, is omitted. Abraham holds in his right hand a sword which rests on his shoulder, and with the other hand grasps the forelock of the short ?standing figure of Isaac, who extends his hands above a rectangular altar.

In the construction of the upper arm of the cross-head are two confronted birds who bite at an oval object, possibly a

head but more probably a bunch of grapes. This motif is common in Mediterranean art of the Early Christian period,

and peacocks with the prominent feet of the Kildalton birds are associated with vines in the Book of Kells, in one case

flanking a portrait of Christ." The upper arm contains two angels, and below them a standing figure whose hand is

raised to the jaws of a rearing beast. A horned animal filling the space behind the beast's back, evidently intended as a

sheep, identifies this scene as David killing the Lion.

The surfaces of the E face of the ring are extremely weathered, but the lower left quadrant appears to have borne

key-ornament, and both of the right quadrants may have borne interlace.

(NMAS cast; GAGM cast; Proc Soc Antiq Scot 1883), 277-9; Graham,1895; Stuart 1867; Lamont, 1968).

Visited June 1982


Measured Survey (18 October 1982 - 7 April 1983)

Photographic Survey (1983)

Publication Account (1985)

The simple church dating to the late 12th or early 13th century is an oblong building, now heavily restored, although some interior features including the remains of a piscina and an aumbry may still be seen. What is remarkable about Kildalton is the presence of one of the most complete Early Christian crosses still to be found in Scotland, dating to the second half of the eighth century. The decoration is clearly comparable to the crosses on Iona and demonstrates that this part of the Dalriadan possessions was within a similar artistic ambit The ringed cross has been carved from a single slab of epidiorite. At the top of the shaft on the east face there is a representation of the Virgin and Child flanked by angels; on the arms of the cross the scenes have most recently been identified as Cain's murder of Abel, and Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac, while at the centre of the upper shaft of the cross it is possible that, surmounted by a pair of angels, the carvers have shown David slaying the lion. The remaining ore decorative panels on this side demonstrate the carvers' expertise in serpent-and-boss ornament and in curvilinear interlace. On the west side serpent-and-boss patterns run in restrained riot creating a three-dimensional decoration, with four lions around the central boss.

There are at least seventeen West Highland graveslabs both inside the church and in the surrounding graveyard which underline the importance of Kildalton from Early Christian times to the medieval period, when the present parish church was built The slabs are of diverse manufacture and belong to four of the five schools of carving outlined by Steer and Bannerman, Iona, Loch Awe, Loch Sween and Oronsay.

Information from ‘Exploring Scotland’s Heritage: Argyll and the Western Isles’, (1985).


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