2.4.3 Reassessment of West Highland sculpture

Ten graveslabs, including one with a carved knight effigy, propped up vertically, leaning against three walls of the interior of a building with a glass roof

Figure 28: West Highland graveslabs, Kilmartin Churchyard, Argyll and Bute. © Susan Buckham

Recent reassessment of Steer and Bannerman (1977) by Caldwell et al. (2010) combines archaeological, historical and geological analysis, including petrological examination and magnetic susceptibility measurements (Magnetic susceptibility: Case Study 9). Their focus on identifying quarry sources and transport routes highlighted weaknesses in Steer and Bannerman’s hypothesis of mason schools, dating and stylistic groupings. The 2010 study found issues with the 1977 groupings, which the authors felt did not consistently demonstrate clear stylistic unity or progression across all the works ascribed to the various schools (with exception of the Loch Awe category). Caldwell et al. found little evidence to support Steer and Bannerman’s assumptions that the carvers worked in schools or that a strong, and meaningful link necessarily existed between the carvers and major churches. Instead, Caldwell et al. make the case that stones are more likely to be quarried locally and once carved could accompany or follow to the deceased’s place of interment. Second, they proposed circumstances where it might be desirable to be buried away from home, for example at sites connected with saints or where a body of clergy was particularly well equipped to offer prayers for their salvation. Finally, Caldwell et al. argue that the reputation of a particular carver might mean that artisans travelled considerable distances to undertake commissions. They offer initial thoughts on precedents for West Highland sculpture designs (Figure 28) but their major hypothesis deals with the particular distribution of sculpture which they conclude cannot be understood as mere fashions subject to the laws of supply and demand. Instead, they argue the restricted general distribution of stones reflects the political relations of a society that nurtured a professional caste of warriors. Caldwell et al. propose that depictions of swords (Figure 29) are symbolic of this caste and consciously distinctive, rather than depicting mere ‘tools of the trade’ (since documentary evidence suggests medieval warriors fought with axes and bows, which Caldwell points out are poorly represented on West Highland sculpture).

Black and white photo of a rectangular carved grave slab showing a large sword and foliate decoration surrounding it

Figure 29: West Highland graveslab with sword, Nereabolls Chapel, Islay. Crown Copyright: Historic Environment Scotland

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