OS Grid Reference: NM 28632 24504. At the western side of the Abbey Church on the Island of Iona, Argyll and Bute, Western Scotland, stands the richly sculptured ‘St Martin’s High Cross’, which is similar to some of the Irish high crosses. It is thought to date from the beginning of the 9th or the late 8th century AD, although some think it to be much earlier? This tall granite cross is probably the best preserved Celtic religious monument in the British Isles, displaying scenes from the Bible. It was set up on the island in dedication to the French saint, Martin of Tours, who was much venerated in the so-called Dark Ages, especially in Scotland, Wales and the far west of England, when St Columba (521-597) sailed over from Ireland to set up his celebrated monastery here on this Scottish island in 563 AD. The college quickly became a renowned centre of early monasticism and learning and, also a ‘Cradle of Celtic Christianity’. The Island can be reached by ferry firstly from Oban to Mull, and then a smaller ferry from Fiannphort, taking you across the narrow Sound of Iona, to the little village of Baile Mòr on the eastern side of the island.
St Martin’s High Cross on Iona stands over 14 feet high and, on its stepped base, well over 16 feet, and is made of red granite. It is very similar in sculptural design to some of the Irish high crosses, with its typical ring-head. One of its faces has scenes from the Bible, while the opposite face has Celtic-style decoration and bosses; but it is a beautifully and richly carved monument, which is thought to date from around 800 AD although some think it may actually date from the 6th Century – at which time it would have been set-up and dedicated to St Martin of Tours (320-401). So, we might ask: did St Columba have a hand in the setting up of the cross? There is a replica of the 8th or 10th Century St John’s Cross, the original is in the abbey museum (along with St Matthew’s Cross) and has a serpent with boss and spirals. St John the Evangelist was the apostle of Christ. There is also MacLean’s Cross though this is more recent, still, and dates from the 15th Century; it is named after a chief of the clan MacLean.
The Rough Guide (2000) tells us that: “Beside the road stands the most impressive of Iona’s Celtic high crosses, the eighth-century St Martin’s Cross, smothered with figural scenes – the Virgin and Child at the centre, Daniel in the lion’s den, Abraham sacrificing Isaac and David with musicians in the shaft below. The reverse side features Pictish serpent-and-boss decoration.”
The Canmore website tells us much more about St Martin’s Cross, saying: “This cross, whose name was recorded by Lhuyd in 1699, stands in a granite base…..21m W of the Abbey Church. It is carved from a single block of epidiorite, probably from the Argyll mainland, and is 4.3m in visible height by 1.19m in span. The diameter of the pierced ring is 1.09m and that of the armpits 0.24m. In the ends of the arms are vertical slots, open at the top, which may have housed ornamental panels rather than extensions for the arms. The angles bear roll-mouldings which on the W face extended below the lowest panel to flank an inscription, now indecipherable. The shaft of the E face bears three roundels of snake-and-boss ornament, a coarser variant of that in the same position on St John’s Cross. In the top of the shaft are seven interlaced bosses, each producing two snakes, and the largest of these is also one of the group of five high-relief bosses in the cross-head. That at the centre is set in a ring of nine small bosses linked by spirals, and in the side- arms each boss produces three snakes, while that in the top arm lies between two pairs of rampant leonine beasts. The E face of the ring bears knitted interlace.
Canmore also adds: “On the W face the lowest panels bears six bosses with intertwined serpents, followed by four rows of figure-scenes on an undivided field. (i) Two pairs of figures too simplified for indentication. (ii) A harper, seated with outstretched legs as on St Oran’s Cross and facing a kneeling man with a (?triple) pipe; a rectangle between them may represent a drum or a book symbolizing David’s authorship of the psalms. (iii) Abraham’s sacrifice, with a central figure holding a sword across one shoulder and grasping the hair of Isaac, whose arms are extended above a rectangular altar; the small winged figure of the angel stands at the left. (iv) The seated figure of Daniel between two rearing lions, with a lump which may be the head of another lion to the right. This theme may continue in the side-arms, where two passant leonine beasts flank a central roundel with the seated Virgin and Child between four small angels, the upper ones forming a canopy. The top arm bears three pairs of back-to-back leonine beasts with intertwined tails.” I Fisher 2001. See the Canmore website, below. The Canmore ID number is:- 21653.
Derek Bryce (1989) says of St Martin’s Cross: “In Scotland, on the Isle of Iona, there is a cross known as St. Martin’s. Its front is decorated in a similar way to the Irish high crosses, with biblical scenes on the shaft, and the very centre of the cross has a representation of the Virgin and Child. The ornamentation on the back is, however, purely decorative. This cross stands on a square, stepped base.”
Joyce Miller (2000) adds some interesting info on Iona Abbey and St Columba: “Situated on the beautiful and peaceful island of Iona, this is where St Columba came to found a monastic community. He converted the Picts of mainland Scotland, ruled by Brude, to Christianity. Columba was born in Donegal in 521 and died in 597, and the Columba’s shrine, within the Abbey buildings, dates from the 9th century.
“The abbey was abandoned after raids by the Vikings but was re-established by Queen Margaret, wife of Malcolm Can-more, in the 11th century. Margaret is one of the few native saints still recognized by the present Roman Catholic church. The island was a major place of pilgrimage in medieval times, and there was a pilgrim’s route, marked by standing stones, across Mull.”
Miller goes on to say that: Two crosses – St Martin’s Cross and St John’s Cross – the latter a replica: the original is recon-structed and displayed in the Infirmary Museum – stand just outside the church. An extensive collection of sculptured stones and crosses, one of the largest collections of early Christian carved stones in Europe are held in the museum. The Black Stones of Iona were kept by St Martin’s Cross, and would reputedly turn black (or turn the oath-taker black) if somebody was lying when taking an oath. The last of the stones was apparently here until the end of 19th century, but has since gone.”
Sources and related websites:-
Bryce, Derek, Symbolism Of The Celtic Cross, Llanerch Enterprises, Felinfach, Lampeter, Dyfed, Wales, 1989.
Miller, Joyce, Myth and Magic — Scotland’s Ancient Beliefs & Sacred Places, Goblinshead, Musselburgh, Scotland.
The Rough Guide, Scotland, Rob Humphreys, Donald Reid & Paul Tarrant, Rough Guides Ltd., London, 2000.
*Wonders Of The World, (fwd: by Sir Philip Gibbs K. B. E.), Odhams Press Ltd., London, 1930.
© Ray Spencer, The Journal of Antiquities, 2019.