9.6.7 Wider Religious Landscape

An aspect of medieval religious life in Scotland that has not been the focus of any systematic archaeological or historical research is the informal provision of foci for devotional or commemorative activities away from the formal locations in churches and chapels. Documentary evidence suggests a landscape rich with free-standing crosses and similar objects for veneration or devotional performance, which served a variety of purposes. Some mark locations associated with the cult of a particular saint, such as the early medieval St Devenic’s cross at Creich, Sutherland (MHG14233), commemorated as the scene of a miracle or other special event recorded in a saint’s Life. Others were way-crosses or prayer foci, often but not exclusively erected along popular pilgrimage routes. These are still to be seen in South Uist and Barra, but are also known more widely across Roman Catholic parts of Europe. Crosses also marked property boundaries or defined religious zones, such as for the sanctuary girth at Tain.

Large standing stone with carving depicting a cross
St Devenic’s Cross, Creich, Sutherland. ©HES

Crosses were also erected for commemorative purposes, marking places where important individuals died or were killed, or they had a penitential function, being erected by the perpetrators of the crime as marks of atonement. The churchyard crosses that survive at Dallas, Duffus and Kinneddar in Moray provide an indication of the scale and sophistication of such monuments in the later medieval period, but the better-known free-standing crosses from Argyll and the Isles are probably closer in form to what would have been present within mainland Highland contexts. The prominent displays of Roman Catholic symbolism which such crosses are known to have carried made them targets for destruction during the Reformation and the episodes of particular iconoclasm in the mid-17th century, meaning that few have survived throughout Scotland. Many are known only from documentary records or from place-names, but socket-stones for crosses – in- and ex-situ – are distributed widely throughout the Highlands. Cataloguing of known examples, physical or documentarily attested, has not been undertaken in any systematic manner.

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