2.5.1 In-situ architectural sculpture

Close up colour photo of the pinnacles of stone columns in red sandstone which are heavily worn, around a doorway

Figure 36: The Romanesque west doorway of Kirkwall Cathedral, Orkney Islands. Crown Copyright: Historic Environment Scotland

The later medieval period (AD 1100–1560) saw large numbers of building campaigns that resulted in ecclesiastical and secular structures of greatly varying scales. In Scotland, with rare exceptions such as the doorway of the round tower at Brechin, in-situ later medieval architectural carving generally dates from no earlier than the early 12th century. From this time many of the ecclesiastical buildings, in particular, were embellished with figurative or vegetal carving, as well as with enriched mouldings (Figure 36). At the most ambitious end of the spectrum is figurative carving, sometimes planned as part of complex iconographic schemes (Figure 37), though the majority of such carvings were destroyed at the Reformation, and now tend to survive only as isolated features or as ex-situ fragments. In addition to losses at the Reformation and under the Commonwealth, subsequent programmes of church remodelling have also destroyed or masked later medieval carved stones, although new discoveries of surviving material continue to be made, notably through the Corpus of Scottish Medieval Parish Churches. Much of the surviving carved masonry was conceived as decoration to essentially structural features, such as foliate capitals to the arches of doorways and windows, the finials at the apex of pinnacles, and blind arcading or tracery intended to enrich otherwise plain surfaces. Significant worked stonework that fulfils an architectural or structural function, such as window tracery, vault ribs, and arcade piers must also be taken into account (Figure 38). Later medieval carved stones are also an important early primary resource for heraldic information (see for example Richardson 1964).

Two black and white photo of stone carvings, columns and a detail of a female torso corbel in late medieval dress

Figure 37: Detail of the south-east angle of Stirling Palace in 1900 (left), and decorated shaft corbel (right). Crown Copyright: Historic Environment Scotland

Black and white engraving of very ornate columns and interior roof with foliate style decoration

Figure 38: Engraving of the interior of Rosslyn Chapel in around 1900. Crown Copyright: Historic Environment Scotland

Significant academic overviews of later medieval carved stones in their own right are rare, although the work of the medieval stone carver was the subject of the Rhind Lectures for 1949 (Richardson 1964). As in Richardson’s case, expertise in later medieval Scottish carved stones was often something that developed through the course of working in a sustained way with the monuments in state care (see also the extensive and more recent outputs of Professor Richard Fawcett, examples of which are listed in Section 10.5). One major source of information is the eight volumes of MacGibbon and Ross which cover both ecclesiastical and secular architecture and include a wealth of detail on carved stones. The castellated volumes were published 1887–92 and the church volumes in 1896–7 (see also Billings 1845–52). Their surveys provide details of historical context, descriptions, sketches and measured plans of buildings throughout Scotland, which the authors visited in person. More recently, Fawcett (2002; 2011) has provided an up-to-date synthesis for the specific development of the medieval church. His work includes discussion of the chronologies and the typological analysis possible for carved stones as church fixtures and fittings including sections, for example, on mouldings and tracery. In addition, there are several examples of thematic studies of particular forms of ecclesiastical carved stones such as sacrament houses (Figure 39; MacPherson 1890; McRoberts 1965), altar retables (Richardson 1928) and fonts (Walker 1887). Holmes (2015) considers how liturgy was reflected in ecclesiastical furnishings, many of which included carved elements. Dunbar’s 1999 survey of royal residences in the late medieval and early Renaissance period gives, in passing, a sense of the ways in which carved stones might be employed to highly symbolic effect in more secular contexts.

Close up black and white photo of a detail of a stone ediface with a male head, two angels and pinnacles
Figure 39: Detail of sacrament house at Old Parish Church Cortachy, Angus. Crown Copyright: Historic Environment Scotland

Given that the Scottish kirk did not favour sculpture and the royal court had moved to London, the native sculpture tradition of the 16th to 18th centuries has generally been considered not strong: largely ornamental (e.g. Grant 1881) and heraldic carvings progressing into the occasional very sophisticated and elaborate tomb (Clifford 1991; Howarth 1991; see Sections 2.4 and Section 2.6). But even if not always aesthetically strong, recent research has shown how the ideology supporting the placement of carved stones and figurative sculpture both inside and outside buildings of nobles, academics and merchants, and in their associated gardens and designed landscapes, could be intellectually complex and can offer important social insights (Insh 2014, 54–89; Fraser 2015) (Figures 40–41). Attention has also been drawn recently to how architectural sculpture had confessional uses and, again, needs to be read as part of a larger symbolic landscape (Bryce and Roberts 1993; Dransart and Bogdan 2004).

Two black and white photos of lintels above doorways - one with letters and the date 1680 and the other with garland decoration
Figure 40. Examples of 16th- and 17th-century decorated stone lintels at the Stag Inn, Falkland, Fife (left) and Provost Skene’s House, Aberdeen (right). Such carved stones could embody messages of welcome, ownership, gratitude and allegiance to God, as well as loyalty to the king (Insh 2014, 82). Crown Copyright: Historic Environment Scotland
Garden surrounded by stone walls containing niches and carved panels with the exterior of a small building in one corner
Figure 41. Ornamental panels adorn the walls of the garden at Edzell Castle, Angus. Crown Copyright: Historic Environment Scotland

There are of course excellent architectural surveys that embrace carved stones in passing in a range of architectural contexts, e.g. Glendinning et al. (1996), McKean (2001), Gow (2006) and the Yale University Press The Buildings of Scotland series. This might be something as ‘simple’ as a carved street name or Ordnance Survey benchmark added to a building.

Leave a Reply