Perthshire, and particularly the Highland glens, have produced some of the most critical survivals of the early medieval period, in the form of intact handbells, crosiers and other reliquaries of the early Church. In addition to early medieval carved stones and saints’ dedications, they are important witnesses to the earliest days of Christianity in Scotland. As they were often kept in or near the churches they were associated with, they also tell us a great deal about how early medieval objects impacted on later medieval and early modern identities.
Most notable in this respect is the density of surviving handbells. Quadrangular bells of iron coated with bronze, and later of copper alloy only, were commonly used in early Irish monasteries in Ireland and Scotland to mark time and help to shape monastic rituals, including calling the brethren to prayer. Over the years many of these bells became venerated as relics in their own right. Out of 27 bells recorded in Scotland, ten are from Perthshire (Bourke 2020), a testament to other close links between the Highland glens of Perthshire with Ireland, notably via the Columban network of churches. In addition, several more bells recorded in historical sources and tradition have not survived, so this is only a fraction of what was once available. Only one, a rather different and probably later cowbell from ‘Perthshire’ now in the NMS (PKARF Early Medieval Section 6.5.1), has no connection to an early saint or ecclesiastical place. The role of the dewar, or hereditary keeper of relics, seems to have been honoured for much longer in the Perthshire glens than elsewhere. It may be that they continued to have peace-keeping and other civic roles even after monasteries to which the relics pertained were long gone (Márkus 2009). This has certainly been a factor in the survival of so many bells in this region. At least two bells, from Forteviot and Strowan, were recast in early modern times, attesting to their continued significance to the community in the post-medieval period (Campbell and Driscoll 2020, 122–8; Hall et al 2000, 177–9). Only a small handful remain in local display or private possession, and sadly several have been lost since being recorded, including one from Balnahanaid and most recently the bell from Fortingall, stolen from the church in 2017.
At least one handbell was given an elaborate shrine casing in the 11th century. The Inchaffray Shrine (NMS accession X.KA 32 A-B) is the crest of a bell-shrine similar to a series of 11th-century examples from Ireland (Bourke 2020, no 76, 380–1). Crafted of openwork bronze inlaid with silver and niello, its Ringerike style is a rare example of the fusion of Insular and Scandinavian styles popular in Ireland at the turn of the millennium (Caldwell et al 2012, 226).
In addition to the handbells, there is another notable reliquary surviving from the region, the crosier and Coigreach of St Fillan, from Glendochart (NMS H.KC 1 and H.KC 2; Anderson 1889; Michelli 1987). The crosier survives as a bronze casing of 11th-century make, possibly once enclosing a wooden crook. The Coigreach is the name given to the later casing of silver gilt, which incorporated filigree panels that were formerly attached to the 11th-century crosier. This outer reliquary was further embellished several times through to the 16th century, and kept by the Dewar family of Glendochart until it was gifted to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in the 19th century. It is a reliquary of St Fillan, an early Irish saint with a strong regional cult in western and northern Perthshire (Taylor 2001). A bronze bell of St Fillan from Strathfillan is also now in the National Museums Scotland (H.KA 2), while the Struan, Blair Atholl bell, also associated with St Fillan, is now in Perth Museum (accession 3/1939).
Overall, Perthshire remains especially rich in intact ecclesiastical metalwork from the early medieval period. The handbells alone date from the early iron types (700–900) to later bronze types (800–1000) and a bell-shrine of the 11th century. However, given their portability, the findspots of bells and other shrines, and the traditions attached to them, can only be used with caution to tell us about how they were used in the early medieval period. The fact of their preservation may actually tell us as much about belief and legal customs in medieval and early modern Perthshire. The bell of St Fillan at Struan remained in use until the early 20th century and it was only then that a new bell was commissioned to replace it, at which point the now redundant bell passed into the collections of Perth Museum (Bourke 2020, cat 72, 377–8). The bell until recently at Innerwick, Glen Lyon, had only been there since the late 19th century. Prior to that it had been kept in a niche in the ruined nearby chapel, Cladh Bhranno, having been moved there when its former chapel of reputed Adomnan foundation had been demolished in the 14th century (Bourke 2020, cat 74, 379–80). Following the theft of the Fortingall bell, the Innerwick bell was donated to Perth Museum (accession 2022.35).