Case Study 26: Iona Abbey and Kirkmadrine

Adrián Maldonado

HS recently redisplayed two collections of early medieval carved stones, at the major ticketed site of Iona Abbey and the smaller site of Kirkmadrine in Galloway. In advance of this, Katherine Forsyth and Adrián Maldonado (University of Glasgow) were commissioned to produce a research report for each site. Despite the differences between the two sites, there are some key themes that emerged from this research.

The first is the importance of documenting the biography of each stone. On Iona, this was extremely difficult given the size of the collection (108 stones) and the amount of unrecorded antiquarian activity on the site. However, it was clear the vast majority of the stones came from three main clusters: St Columba’s Shrine, the Relig Odhráin cemetery and St Ronan’s Church. This is interesting as there are several known burial grounds on the island, and it seems most of these had little or no early sculpture. It shows that only a privileged few could expect to be commemorated with an individual grave marker, and the presence of early sculpture is instead strongly linked to the presence of a church.

At Kirkmadrine, only two of 13 stones were certainly found off-site, but the biography of the collection as a whole shows the importance of conservation in situ. Three 6th-century Latin-inscribed stones were reused as gateposts as late as 1840 after residing there for over 1000 years, while several others were used in the 19th-century enclosure wall and field dykes in the vicinity. Once their significance was recognized, they were sought out and gathered into a purpose-built porch attached to the west end of the kirk by architect William Galloway in 1890, making this one of the earliest public displays of early medieval sculpture in Scotland.

Another important theme which emerged from this research is attention to materials and materiality. The sourcing of stone may have been as significant as its ultimate destination. On Iona, we were able to match several stones from distant sources—including the Western Isles, Colonsay, Lismore and the Isle of Man—to a Viking-Age context, revealing a distinctive practice of ‘gifting’ stone to Iona from a period when the monastery was supposedly in decline due to Viking raids.

At Kirkmadrine, all the stones seem to be from local sources, but the three large Latin-inscribed stones stand out as being smooth, water-worn pillars while the later sculpture is carved from rough and ready blocks. It is possible the early stones had been chosen for their specific look and feel. Similarly, on Iona, the most commonly used stones are mica schists and granites, despite the availability of sandstone from Mull which is easier to carve. On closer inspection it is highly likely these obstinate geologies were chosen for their glittering, almost metallic appearance. 

This research has shown that the importance of carved stones is not always in their artistic form, but in the way people in the past engaged with them, and how this could change over time. 

A colour photo of a stone carved with a cross, circles and Celtic interlace - with some individual chisel marks visible

Figure 1: Individual chisel marks still visible on Kirkmadrine 8 (Ardwell House). © Adrián Maldonado 

A colour photo of two large stone crosses on display in a dark museum display room but lit with bright raking lighting so the detail is visible

Figure 2: Displayed to best advantage: the new display of early medieval and later medieval sculpture at Iona Abbey museum won an industry award for its innovative lighting which reveals to the viewer not only fine details of the carving but also the colour and other qualities of the stone itself. Crown Copyright: Historic Environment Scotland

Return to Section 6.2.3: Through targeted interpretation

Leave a Reply