The Journal Of Antiquities

Ancient Sites In Great Britain & Southern Ireland

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The Sagranus Stone, St Dogmael’s, Pembrokeshire (Sir Benfro), Wales

The Sagranus Stone at St Dogmael’s.

OS Grid Reference: SN 16404 45914. In the mid-19th century parish church of St Thomas the Apostle in the village of St Dogmael’s (Llandudoch), Pembrokeshire, is The Sagranus Stone, a 5th century pillar-stone which is inscribed with both Ogham and Latin inscriptions to the memory of Sagranus, son of Cunotamus. There are some other Early Medieval stones in this church though these would be called cross-slabs rather than inscribed stones. Close by the church are the ruins of the 12th century St Mary’s abbey of the French Tironesian religious order but, a long time before that, there was a Celtic ‘clas-type’ monastery here in the 5th century which had been established by St Dogmael, a Welsh monk who was born in the local area. This early Christian monastery was, however, destroyed by the invading Danes in 987 AD. The village of St Dogmael’s, also called Llandudoch, lies 1 mile southwest of Cardigan (over the river Teifi) and 3 miles northwest of Cilgerran. St Thomas’ parish church is located on Church Street and the abbey ruins are next to the church. 

Sagranus Stone.

The Sagranus Stone stands in the west end of the nave of St Thomas’ parish church and it has for some time now been recognized by scholars of Early Christian inscribed stones as being of great importance. It is a 7 feet high dolerite pillar-stone and is thought to date from the late 5th or early 6th century AD, that being the immediate years following the Roman retreat from Wales. This ancient stone probably came from the original cell (llan) of the Celtic monastery. There are two holes in the slab which means that in the past it was used as a gate post, and it may even have been in use as a sort of stepping stone over a stream; maybe this caused the stone to be broken into two pieces. But as a bilingual inscribed stone with its Ogham cipher inscription of notches or strokes on its edges and the Latin (Roman) inscription on its face – it’s safety is now assured. Back in 1848 the strokes on the ancient pillar-stone enabled scholars and historians to de-cipher (interpret) the Ogham alphabet. Ogham was the early Goidelic/Gaelic) language of Ireland. Both inscriptions, once they are translated, read as the same. 

HMSO/DoE (1975) says that: “1 Rough pillar stone of the early sixth century……. On the face is an inscription in two lines of Roman capitals, running downwards: SAGRANI FILI CVNOTAMI. On the dexter edge is an inscription in Ogham characters, which reads:  SAGRAGNI MAQI CVNATAMI. Both indicate that the stone was set up to mark the grave of the local chieftain, Sagranus, the son of Cunotamus. Ogham is a cipher, in which strokes arranged in relation to a vertical stem—in this case the angle of the stone—are used to represent the letters of the Latin alphabet. The system, which was evolved in Ireland, is found on a number of early inscriptions in Wales where it is generally employed, as here, with a Latin transliteration.” 

HMSO/DoE also give details of the other pre-Romanesque stones in the church: “2 Part of headstone now in the parish church near the south door. On the face is slightly incised Maltese cross in a circle. Small headstones of this type were in common use from the ninth to the eleventh century; this example is early in the series. 3 Base of a tall stone pillar now standing reversed near the pulpit in the parish church. On the face is incised the lower arm of a cross with a swollen foot enclosing spirals and a basal knob; the out-turned lines at the broken upper edge of the pillar indicate the beginning of the cross. Pillars of this type with incised crosses were set up for commemorative purposes in the cemetery and in other parts of Celtic monasteries. The elaborate cross is probably not earlier than the ninth century. 4 Part of the cover slab of a grave, originally some 6ft by 14in by 11in thick. On the upper surface is a Maltese cross in a circle with a long shaft and swollen foot enclosing spirals and a basal knob. Rather later than number 3; probably eleventh century.” There are several other Medieval stones but they are located in the abbey precinct outside. 

Donald Gregory (1991) adds that: “Between the south door of the church and the north entrance to the abbey ruins should be noted a very old yew, which is so large that it has had a three feet high brick wall built to contain it.” 

The abbey of St Mary was founded in 1115 by Robert Fitz Martin, Lord of Cemais, as a daughter house of the Abbey of Tiron in France, on the site of a Celtic (clas) monastery. However, the Celtic monastery was destroyed by the invading Vikings in 987 AD. The monks of St Mary’s were members of the Tironesian Order, founded at Tiron between Chartres and Le Mans (1114) by St Bernard of Abbeville (1046-1117). The order of Tiron followed closely the Benedictine Rule and, in accordance with that, the monks at St Mary’s led a simple and austere life much influenced by the self-disciplined austerity of St Benedict. St Mary’s had dependencies at Caldey and Pill in Wales. In 1536 the abbey was dissolved but the church and conventual buildings remained intact with some reconstruction taking place; and then it was put into parochial (parish) use, while the rest of the monastic buildings were allowed to fall into a ruinous state. The 14th century doorway of the abbey church retains its carved flower ornamentation. In the north transept there are Medieval carvings on corbels which depict Christ’s apostles, the eagle of St John the Evangelist and St Michael. Later, in 1848 a new church, dedicated to St Thomas the Apostle, was built from the stone of the old abbey. 

Not that much is actually known about St Dogmael, Dogfael, Dogwell or Toel, who has given his name to this Pembrokeshire village, apart from that he was a native of Ceredigion (Cardigan) just across the river Teifi. He was the son of King Ithel ab Ceredig ab Cunedda Wledig. Apparently he gained his monastic training in Ireland, but came back to settle on the Isle of Anglesey – where Llandogwel church is dedicated to him. Then, later he sailed down the Cardigan coast and established a monastery inland at what became St Dogmael’s (Llandudoch) near the river Teifi. Another church is named after him at St Dogwells, Pembrokeshire, but it seems he died in Brittany about 505 AD, where he goes under the name of St Toel. He is titular saint of the church of Pommerit Jaudy in the diocese of Trequier, Brittany. David Hugh Farmer (1982) says that: “It is likely, but not certain, that he moved to Brittany where a St. Dogmeel or Toel has had a considerable cultus, and is invoked to help children to learn to walk.” His feast day is celebrated on 14th June.

Sources and related websites:-

Bottomley, Frank, The Abbey Explorer’s Guide, Kaye & Ward Ltd., London, 1981. 

Farmer, David Hugh, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Oxford University Press, 1982.

Gregory, Donald, Country Churchyards In Wales, Gwasg Carreg Gwalch, Capel Garmon, Llanrwst, Gwynedd, Wales, 1991.

H.M.S.O./DoE, St Dogmael’s Abbey, C. A. Ralegh Radford, Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, London, 1975.

Spencer, Ray, A Guide to the Saints Of Wales and the West Country, Llanerch Enterprises, Felinfach, Lampeter, Dyfed, 1991.

© Ray Spencer, The Journal Of Antiquities, 2018.

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Moone High Cross, Co. Kildare, Southern Ireland

Moone High Cross (East Face)

Irish Grid Reference: S 78911 92693. About ½ a mile northwest of Moone village, on Belan Avenue, Co. Kildare, Southern Ireland, is a 5th century monastic site with the lavishly sculptured ‘Moone High Cross’, a 9th century richly carved granite monument with numerous scenes depicted from the Bible. It is said to be the second tallest high cross in Ireland. There is a second cross but this only survives in parts. Also here are the ruins of a 13th century abbey church (which now houses the cross). A monastery or abbey was probably founded here after 431 by St Palladius (d c460), and in the 6th century this was named after St Columba. The ruined church stands over the foundations of ‘this’ early Celtic monastery. The little village of Moon, in the Valley of the river Barrow, is 3 miles south of Ballitore and ½ a mile south of Timolin, close to the R558 road. At the post office in Moone take the road opposite going northwest crossing over the R448, then shortly after go onto Belan Avenue, crossing over the river Greese, and then follow the lane until you reach the farm and old mill: the high cross is on the opposite side of these buildings at the west side.

The high cross, also called St Columba’s Cross, stands inside the ruined 13th century abbey church which now has a glass roof over it. It is a 5.3 metre (over 17 foot) high granite cross of three sections with a long slender shaft that tapers away. The wheel-head, which might be of a later date, shows Christ crucified but this has suffered some damage. There are 51 sculptured panels on all four sides, each having richly carved decoration depicting numerous scenes and characters from the Bible, and also Celtic symbolism including animals, mythical and magical creatures and other figures, but also other decorative work. The cross is thought to date from the 8th or 9th century AD. In 1835 and 1893 sections of the cross were excavated from the church-yard and then re-erected, and more recently placed for protection against the elements in the ruined medieval church.

West Face

The S. face shows The Temptation of St Anthony while below that four mythical serpents (snakes) are fighting with two open-mouthed lions or horses. Above those: SS Anthony and Peter and a raven bringing food. The N. face shows: The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes, The Flight into Egypt, SS Paul & Anthony in the Desert and The Three Children in the Fiery Furnace. The E. face has a large panel at its base showing the twelve Apostles, each having a square-shaped body, stubby legs and feet and pear-shaped heads; they all appear to have a slightly different facial expression! Above that: Christ being crucified (he has long outstretched arms), angels, a lozenge shape (diamond) and a whirligig (an object seen to be whirling or spinning around). The W. face shows: Daniel in the Lions’ Den (he is surrounded by seven hungry, open-mouthed lions), The Sacrifice of Isaac, Adam and Eve (with apple trees); also monsters interlinked with heads, and Christ and a Dolphin (above). 

There is also part of a holed cross in the church. This only has a short section of its shaft left and three sections of its wheel-head remaining; but the carvings on this cross are very similar and equally as good as those on the high cross. The carvings on this cross are: mythical and magical creatures, spirals, swirls, intertwining foliage, knotwork and interlacing. Although the 13th century church is ruined it still possesses ‘antae’ (projecting walls) at its gable ends, according to Nicholson’s Guide (1983).

Katharine Scherman (1981) says of the Moone High Cross that it is: “The most attractive of the Barrow crosses is the one at Moone, which, though the representations are no less naïve than those at Castledermot and other Barrow localities, has an entirely original and ingratiating charm. The cross is unusual in its shape, its tall slenderness accentuated by a long, tapered base. On the shaft are panels containing graceful, active and nearly recognizable quadrupeds. The Bible tales, scenes of spirited imagery, are on the four sides of the base. They include Adam and Eve—two small fat people framed by arches of apples; Daniel in the Lion’s Den—a figure in a square garment, like a paper doll, in a frame of seven openmouthed lions, four down one side from his ear to the hem of his dress, three down the other; the Twelve Apostles—twelve identical square men with pear-shaped heads and circle eyes, looking like three rows of cookies; the Miracle of the Loaves and the Fishes—five loaves, two fishes and two eels all by themselves in a pure and simple design.

“Homage is paid to those early anchorites St. Anthony and St. Paul, patrons of the monastic life. One panel shows their meeting in the desert: seated facing each other on straight-backed chairs, they break bread together. Another depicts St. Anthony—the rectangular saint beset by two rectangular visions , one with the head of an animal, the other of a bird. The panel below these two religious ones has an unscriptural scene of animals with the heads of horses and the bodies of serpents locked in an inextricable coil of combat; unlike the squared representations of humans, the artist carved his animals in sinuous curves. All the scenes are executed with a kind of childlike artfulness so that they fit exactly into their frames: the animals arch into the corners; the humans have round heads (the males’ are elongated by their short oval beards into teardrop shapes) and rectilinear torsos to fill the squares, and all their feet are turned side-ways, like those on Egyptian friezes. 

Scherman adds that: “In fact the art is clearly reminiscent of that of ancient Egypt: the artist was concerned with depicting what he saw intellectually with his mind’s eye rather than in reproducing in a naturalistic stylethe shapes seen by the visual eye alone. The stonework lacks the formalized skill of the Egyptians’ art, but it has an individualistic freshness deriving from the sculptor’s unregimented imagination, a luxury never permitted to the intensively trained Pharaonic artists.”

Sources and related websites:-

Nicholson’s Guides, Guide To Ireland, Robert Nicholson Publications Limited, London, 1983.

Reader’s Digest, Illustrated Guide To Ireland, The Reader’s Digest Association Limited, London, 1992. 

Scherman, Katharine, The Flowering of Ireland, Victor Gollancz Ltd., London, 1981.

© Ray Spencer, The Journal Of Antiquities, 2018.


Tintagel Head Celtic Monastery, Cornwall

Map of Tintagel Island in Cornwall.

Map of Tintagel Island in Cornwall.

   OS Grid Reference: SX 05003 89064. On the rocky, windlashed headland of Tintagel-Head, in Corn-wall, near the ruins of Tintagel Castle which was built in c 1145, are the scant foundations of what was considered to be a Celtic monastery, dating from the beginning of the 6th century AD. This was probably a high-status Dark Age monastery with royal connections. There are also the walls of a 12th century chapel of St Julitta which is attached to the monastic buildings. It has always been assumed that the monastery here on Tintagel Head was founded in 500 AD by St Juliot, Julitta, or Julianta, a princess who hailed from south Wales, and might be one and the same as St Uletta. Tintagel Castle has long had “romantic” associations with King Arthur and Merlin the Magician. Today the monastic remains lie on Tintagel Island, which is all but cut-off from the rest of the headland where the castle ruins are situated. There is limited access from the castle to Tintagel Island through a deep chasm in the headlands via a footpath and bridge, but its very precarious and great care “should” be taken, especially if weather conditions are against you.

   The monastic site here at the south side of Tintagel Island, with its rectangular-shaped buildings all joined together, was excavated in the 1920s and 30s by C. A. Raleagh Radford (1900-1999) – at which time it was thought to be a high status Celtic monastery, but more recently a few historians have opted for the possibility that it might have been a trading centre due, perhaps, to the large amounts of pottery (known as Tintagel Pottery) found at the site, says Geoffrey Ashe ‘A Guidebook to Arthurian Britain’. Another large building (site E) that was a part of the monastery lies beneath a garden, while other little clusters of buildings (sites B.C. and F) lie to the S and SE of the main monastic site, which is known as site A. These clusters of buildings were probably the monastery’s farm and stables. By the 9th century it seems the monastery here at Tintagel was abandoned, its buildings left to go back to nature and the mists of time, but to be re-invigorated again in the 1920s by an archaeological dig! 

   There is a lot of very good field information on the Celtic monastery at Tintagel in the work ‘The Quest for Arthur’s Britain’, edited by Geoffrey Ash. It says that with regard to excavations on the island: “These excavations showed that the headland of Tintagel had been the site of an extensive Celtic monastery. Four different phases identified in one of the buildings indicated a long period of occupation. Imported pottery from the east Mediterranean established an initial date in the fifth or early sixth century. A silver penny of King Alfred (871-99)—the latest artifact antedating the castle—may represent no more than the loss by a pilgrim to a deserted oratory which was no longer the centre of a living community. Pottery of the twelfth century and later, though relatively common on this site, was never found in the layers associated with the monastery.

   “The Celtic monastery of Tintagel was bounded on the landward side by an earthen bank, now crowned by the thirteenth-century curtain, and by a broad, flat-bottomed ditch. The upper part of the existing bank is a twelfth-century heightening, but the base, some 30 feet across and 8 feet high, dates from the fifth or sixth century. Like its medieval successor, the monastic bank ran from the edge of the scarp overlooking the eastern valley to within a short  distance of the protruding boss of rock, leaving the same narrow entry. Early texts often speak of the monastic vallum, a term indicating the enclosure which fenced in the cashel or settlement occupied by the community. It seems always to have been a physical barrier, an earthen bank, a rampart of turf or a hedge. But it also had a spiritual meaning, separating the city of God from the world outside.

   “Within the enclosure the monastery consisted of groups of buildings, each with its special function. Eight such groups were located, of which six were explored and planned; the other two had been too far destroyed by the medieval castle. Two further sites were noted in folds of the cliff, and others probably await identification.

Plan of Celtic monastery at Tintagel, Cornwall.

Plan of Celtic monastery at Tintagel, Cornwall.

   “The first and largest site examined lay on the eastern edge of the plateau; it was centred on the twelfth-century chapel. The Celtic site consisted of a long range of buildings facing east on to a court which was bounded on the far side by the cliff, here forming the edge of the plateau. The range was approached from the south by a path running along the edge of the plateau; this is now reached by a modern zigzag approach rising up from the inner ward of the castle. The original way is likely to have been along the plateau, which has here been destroyed by the encroachment of the sea. At the south end of the range of buildings, a small square room thrust forward from the general line, together with the stub of a wall, suggest a gate with a lodge providing access to the court. With the court, a much-ruined stretch of walling immediately south of the later chapel is probably part of an older oratory. Beside it is the base of a square block of masonry, a tomb shrine or leacht. These tomb shrines are a normal feature in Celtic cemeteries; they housed the relics of saints or founders.

   “On the far side of the chapel a number of graves have been discovered. The oratory with the tomb of the saint would be the primary objective of visiting pilgrims. In its immediate vicinity one would expect to find the various buildings catering for their needs. There would be a treasury containing other relics, perhaps possessions of the saint. There would also be a sacristy, where the vessels needed for the service of the oratory would be stored. A guesthouse for the refreshment of pilgrims might also be found in this area, together with rooms needed by those members of the community charged with the care both of the pilgrims and of the lay community, of which the pastoral care was the responsibility of the monastery.

   “On this basis, it may tentatively be suggested that the southern end of the range, with a large central hall and smaller rooms grouped on one side and to the back, represents the guesthouse. The central part, now appearing as a single room, has been much damaged by the later chapel. Originally it may well have been subdivided, and here, in the vicinity of the oratory, one might expect the treasury and sacristy. This would leave the smaller rooms at the north end for the needs of those members of the community whose duties were with the lay world. This range had a long history. Four distinct building phases could be recognized. Normally the phases indicated adaption, while retaining the main structure of older date. Even so, a life of some three centuries is not likely to be too long for the existence of this community, and it could well have been in being for a far longer period.”

   And what about the founder/foundress of the Celtic monastery on Tintagel Head. Who was St Juliot or Julitta? The thinking is that the founder was St Uletta (Ilid). She was, according to legend, one of the many daughters of King Brychan Brycheaniog and was the founder of the first church at Llanilid, Mid-Glamorgan, in Wales, and is commemorated there with St Curig. In c 500 AD she went with other members of her family to Cornwall. We know that she was close, spiritually, to her sister St Morwenna and her brother St Nectan. It seems, however, that in Cornwall her original name was St Juliana (Iludiana) and over time the name became Juliot and Julitta; and soon after her arrival in Cornwall she established the monastic community at Tintagel.

   But St Juliot has been much confused with an early 4th century Christian martyr called St Julitta, who was commemorated with her three-year-old son St Cyricus in the west country. Their cultus was brought to Cornwall in the Middle Ages. St Juliot, however, is perhaps the patroness of Luxulyan church, Cornwall, with a feastday on the sunday nearest 29th June, according to David Farmer ‘Oxford Dictionary Of Saints’.  In Cornwall St Juliot (Julitta) is sometimes referred to as a “martyr” due to confusion, again, with the 4th century saint of the same name. St Juliot is also commemorated at Lanteglos-by-Camelford, Cornwall, where a holy well is named for her. And St Juliot in the Valency Valley, north-east Cornwall, is named after the saint. A few historians have suggested that St Juliot was, in fact, a male saint! St Julitta’s feastday at Llanilid church in Mid Glamorgan, Wales, is given as 30th June.

Sources and related websites:

Ashe, Geoffrey,  A Guidebook to Arthurian Britain, Longman Group Limited, London, 1980.

Farmer, David, Oxford Dictionary Of Saints, Oxford University Press, 2004.

Jones, Sally, Legends of Cornwall, Bossiney Books, St Teath, Bodmin, Cornwall, 1980. 

Spencer, Ray, A Guide to the Saints Of Wales and the West Country, Llanerch Enterprises, Felinfach, Lampeter, Dyfed, 1991.

The Quest for Arthur’s Britain, (Edited by Geoffrey Ashe), Paladin Frogmore, St Albans, Herts, 1976.

Westwood, Jennifer, Gothick Cornwall, Shire Publications Ltd., Princess Risborough, Bucks, 1992.

                                                                 © Ray Spencer, The Journal Of Antiquities, 2017.


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St Eithne’s Grave, Eileach An Naoimh, Argyll and Bute, Inner Hebrides

Aethne's Grave on Eileach an Naoimh (photo credit: Gordon Doughty Geograph)

Aethne’s Grave on Eileach an Naoimh by Gordon Doughty (Geograph)

    OS grid reference: NM 6302 0964. The little Scottish island of Eileach-an-Naoimh (Rock of the Saint) is one of the Garvellach Islands, in the Firth of Lorne, and is the reputed burial place of St Eithne, mother of St Columba, making it a ‘holy island’. On this very remote, windswept island are the scant remains of a Celtic monastery with beehive huts, two chapels and a graveyard with three crosses, and 80 metres to the south-west is the traditional site of St Eithne’s grave, which is marked by a grave-slab bearing an incised cross. In old texts the island was called Hinba. And to this little island St Columba and other ‘saintly’ figures came from time to time for a deeper solitude and contemplation – this fact being borne-out because the island was, and still is, largerly inaccessible. There are no ferries or steamers alighting in Port Cholumcille, but some pilgrims do visit the island and pay their respects at St Eithne’s grave, though they have to hire their own boats! The island of Mull is 6 miles to the north and Scarba 4 miles to the south-west, while the mainland of Argyll is 6 miles away.

    Author Reginald B. Hale in his work ‘The Magnificent Gael’, tells us that: “Eithne came of the royal line of Leinster kings. Her husband Felim macFergus was a chieftain of the dynastic family of Ui Neill, heirs of the mighty Niall-of-the-Nine Hostages, High king of Ireland. So their little son was born a prince of the Blood Royal and would inevitably live his life in the glare of the political limelight. His parents had every reason to hope that someday he might hold the scepter of the High King and reign at Tara.

    “But the child also had another heritage. His great-great-grandfather Niall had been a heathen and an unabashed slave raider. However several of his sons had been converted by St Patrick, the ex-slave who brought Christianity to the Irish. One of these sons was Conall Gulben, king of Donegal. St Patrick with his staff marked a cross on King Conall’s shield and from then on his descendants took as their symbol a Hand grasping a Cross. From the time of his conversion his clan had been staunch for the faith. So it was that Felim macFergus, grandson of Conall, was himself a deacon of the Church and his son was born into a devout Christian family.”

    Hale goes on to say that: “Felim and Eithne took their child six miles to Kilmacrenan to be baptized by the priest Cruithnechan which is pronounced “Crenan”. He was christened Colum, which in Latin is Columba. He also received the traditional family name of Crimthann that means a fox, an animal admired by the Gaels.”

    But we know that Columba was born beside Lough Gartan in Co Donegal (521 AD) where there are the Medieval ruins of what is locally called St Eithne’s Convent. And there is a St Eithne’s Well at Termon. The site of St Columba’s birth, near the southern shore of the lough, is marked by the so-called ‘Natal Stone’, and nearby are the saint’s holy well, the Stone of Lonliness, and the saint’s ruined church. His birth was miraculous we are told. St Eithne had a dream in which she was given a beautiful robe with colours similar to the wild flowers, but the wind blew the robe away. However, the wind-blown robe grew in size and spread out to cover the land, mountains and islands – this being a sort of divine portent regarding her son who would eventually take Christianity to the northern Pictish High King, Brude, and his people sometime after 565 AD – at a time that was “dark” in many respects, but for St Columba it was a time of ‘great joyfulness’.

    In 563 AD Columba set sail for Iona and was accompanied by members of his family including his mother and also disciples and servants. Later, he founded a great monastery on the island which became a college of learning; he took the message of Christ to the Picts and established many other monasteries and churches in Scotland. His mother retired to the Island of Hinba (Eileach-an-Naoimh) where she was cared for by Ernan, who was St Columba’s uncle and also prior of the monastery of Hinba, founded by St Brendan. Women were not allowed in the monastery. St Eithne died and was buried on the island in the mid to late 6th century. Her ‘reputed’ grave is located on the Peak of Hinba, 80 metres south-west of the monastery, where a circular enclosure (11 feet in diameter) with three standing stones marks the site, one of these being a grave-marker (2½ feet high) bearing a thin equal-armed Greek cross with terminals, beneath which is a thinner spike. And there are a number of recumbent stones and a kerb running around the site. The grave seems to be positioned so as to look out over the Firth of Lorne.

    But some historians question the grave-site. A few think that it may in fact date from the Iron-Age, or earlier, and others think it may be the burial site of more than one person? But I think it should be pointed out here that the type of burial that was around in prehistoric times was more than likely to have existed well into the early Christian period – the so-called Dark Ages of the 5th-7th centuries AD.

The Monastery Chapel, Eileach an Naoimh by Gordon Brown, Wikipedia.

Monastery Chapel, Eileach an Naoimh by Gordon Brown, Wikipedia.

    The monastery on Eileach-an-Naoimh often ascribed to St Brendan, rather than St Columba, is a ruin consisting of low drystone walls with a number of bee-hive huts (hermits cells) around it, one of which is a double construction. There are two small ruined chapels that are said to date from the 9th-12th centuries and a graveyard with three stones bearing incised crosses, and also a circular feature that is probably an early Christian grave, maybe that of Ernan the first prior? The monastery was probably burned c 800 AD and thereafter it suffered from a number of attacks by invaders from overseas, including the Vikings. The monastic site on Eileach an Naoimh is probably the oldest religious ruin in Scotland.


Hale, Reginald B., The Magnificent Gael, R.B.Hale, Otawa, Canada, 1976.    © Copyright Gordon Doughty and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence   Photo by Gordon Brown Creative Commons Attribution Share-alike license 2.0

Newton, Norman., The Shell Guide To The Islands Of Britain, David & Charles, Newton Abbot, Devon, 1992. 

The AA, Illustrated Road Book Of Scotland, The Automobile Association, 1963.

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Whitby Abbey, North Yorkshire, by Edward White

Whitby Abbey, North Yorkshire (photo by wilson44691 - Wikipedia)

Whitby Abbey, North Yorkshire (photo by: wilson44691 – Wikipedia)

    OS grid reference: NZ 9030 1122. On the headland of the east-cliff (up the famous 199 steps) and above the seaside town of Whitby, north Yorkshire, stand the formidable ruins of Whitby Abbey, which was initially founded as a priory sometime after 1078 by Reinfrith, then in c 1105 it became a Benedictine abbey. It was finally dissolved on 14th December, 1539. On the same site back in 657-58 AD an Anglo-Saxon monastery was founded by Oswy, the King of Northumbria. This ‘then’ became a double monastery for both men and women and was headed by St Hilda (614-680 AD), a Saxon princess who had travelled ‘here’ from Hartlepool at the request of the king; Hilda being the daughter of a prince by the name of Hereic, who was apparently poisoned in 616 AD.

    In 663 AD the famous ‘Synod (Council) of Whitby’ took place at the monastery itself and, was significant in that it brought together both the  Celtic and Roman churches! In 867 AD the Saxon monastery of Whitby was destroyed by Viking raiders. The majestic ruins of Whitby Abbey that we see today date, for the most part, from the mid 13th century. St Hilda (Hild) died on the 17th November (her feast-day) in 680 AD – her passing being mentioned by the Venerable Bede and ‘The Anglo Saxon Chronicle’. In the Dark Ages Whitby was called ‘Streonshall’ and continued to be called that until at least the Viking Invasion in the 9th century, but probably the old name continued to be used long after that.

    The following ‘Whitby Abbey’, which I will quote” in full is taken from ‘Stories & Tales Of Old Yorkshire’, 1993, an excellent compilation of work by Edward White – that was first edited by him whilst residing in London (1883) – and then published in the antiquarian work ‘Old Yorkshire’, in 5 volumes. White says:- 

“This famous Abbey was founded by Lady Hilda, whose death took place twelve-hundred years ago, and an enquiry into the special circum-stances which induced her to build the Abbey opens up an interesting chapter in ancient local and general history. This will be seen when we consider what England was when Hilda’s Abbey and College first arose, a lighthouse above the ocean — waters in the seventh century — when it first shone like a Pharos over the old kingdom of Deira, which was one of the chief provinces of the kingdom of darkness.”

“England was, from North to South, along its whole eastern side, and far up in the Midland Counties, a thoroughly heathen country, and had been heathen for 200 years preceding, ever since the departure of the Romans. What makes this fact so striking and terrible is that during the 400 years of the Roman Dominion, nearly the whole country had been evangelized. St Ninian, after whom one of Whitby’s churches is named, was a Scottish nobleman educated in Rome, who became one of the chief evangelists of the ancient races during the Roman times. The British tribes, and their neighbours, the Irish people, had thus early received the Gospel. When the Saxons came and saw, and conquered Britain, they restored heathenism over the whole area of their conquests. It was almost as if any army of Hindoos should now land in England, vanquish the inhabitants, drive the remnant towards the West, and establish Indian idolatry on the ruins of our Christianity. We are the descendants of those Saxon heathens, and we still call our week-days after the names of their impure gods and goddesses, Sun-day, Moon-day, Tuisca’s day, Woden’s, Thor’s day, Freyga’s day—a fearful memorial of the overflow of the ancient British Christianity.”

St Hilda's Statue at Whitby (photo credit Wilson44691 for Wikipedia)

St Hilda’s Statue (photo Wilson 44691 for Wikipedia)

“The conquered Britons retired westward, fighting all the way, into Cornwall, into Devonshire, into Wales, into Cumberland, and Westmoreland, and Lancashire; and they took their Christianity and civilization with them, leaving behind a vast and awful night of  barbarous Saxon paganism—of paganism with its ignorance, ferocity, blood-thirstiness, drunkenness, and lust. Eastern and Midland England for 200 years, from the time of Hengist to the time of Hilda, was full of ferocious tribes, battling all along the west with the remnant of the British aborigines, and battling just as fiercely with each other. When St Hilda was a young woman all central England, or Mercia, was held by a savage Pagan Sovereign named Penda, 80 years of age, a sort of Saxon Cetewayo, master of a powerful army, who for fifty years had made a war upon his neighbours. And it was in consequence of the destruction of this terrible old Pagan warrior by King Oswy at Winwidfield, near Leeds, in 655, that Hilda was enabled in 658 to found her abbey. Penda had previously slain King Oswald in the west, and hanged his mangled body aloft at Oswald’s tree, now Oswestry.” 

“A monastery of the ancient ages is often thought of as necessarily an abode of idleness, and even of licentiousness. Such no doubt many of the religious houses at last became, and even this great Benedictine house at Whitby among the number in its latter days. Its present ruin is, according to Dr. Young, the visible punishment of the sins of its lates inmates. But in the earlier centuries a great monastery was often a stronghold of the good cause against the powers of darkness—and this mighty foundation of Hilda’s was among the noblest in England. Its purpose can hardly be understood, unless we remember that in the first half of the seventh century, there was in all Europe no more awful Aceldama and “abomination of desolation” than this northern part of England. The Saxon Heathen and Pictish Highlanders, had repeatedly laid the land waste in their wars, and made its rivers flow with blood. The country was scarred with the black marks  of conflagrations of farms and homesteads. Deira invaded Mercia, and old Mercian Penda invaded Deira again and again. Bernicia invaded Lancashire and North Wales, and North Wales invaded Bernicia and Deira, or Northumberland and Yorkshire. All the history of these parts that remains is the history of cruelty, wrong, and bloodshed. No power but one could save and civilize Saxon heathenism, and turn this hell of the angles into a paradise. That power was Christianity.”

Whitby Abbey (Line Drawing 1960's)

Whitby Abbey (Line Drawing 1960’s)

“The kings had begun to hear of what Christianity had done for other states  and nations in Europe, and they were growing weary of their own wars and miseries. The monasteries which arose in that age, in the midst of the forests and open countries, were, then, strongholds of Christianity and civilization. A great monastery well placed aloft, like Cassino or Streonshall, and wisely and holily governed, was a Bethesda or Pool of Mercy with many porches. It was (1) a Temple for the worship of the living and eternal God, amidst the grotesque and degrading horrors of paganism, where the light of truth shone on high over the pagan pande-monium. (2) It was a place of education for both sexes. The Princess Hilda, grand-niece of King Edwin of Northumbria, founded here (after the modern American fashion) a college and school for both sexes, for both monks and nuns. Many of these were persons, like Hilda, well on in life and weary of the world; some of these were young, some even almost boys and girls. Her first charge was the little Princess Elfreda, well-born on her mother’s side; for there had been a succession of Christian Queens. First, Bertha, a French Princess, married Ethelbert, the King of Kent, and brought Christianity with her. Their daughter was Ethelburga, who married King Edwin in the great well-built Roman city of York, the capital of his kingdom of Deira. There daughter was Eanfleda, who married King Oswy, still a heathen; and their child was Elfreda, who was educated as a Christian at Whitby. In three cases Christianity came with the wife to a pagan husband. Who could say how great a blessing, or how great a curse, every young woman carries with her in her marriage, according as she is a loving wife and worshipper of God, or a heathen-ish worldling. Thus a monastery was a College and a School, and often had a learned Library. We still possess the catalogue of good books in manuscript, which this Abbey treasured up in the 12th century, beginning with the Bible. Part of the work of the place always was to copy good books, the priceless legacies of elder times, as it is now a good work to give or to lend them. A monastery inspired by such persons as Hilda and her fellow-workers was next a great mission centre, whence educated men went forth on foot to evangelise the neighbouring villages and towns; and many were the cells and village churches which were set up by the godly monks from Whitby College.”

“The noble St Chad, or Ceadda, of Lindisfarne, was often here; and so holy and laborious a worker and walker was he, that the people in after-times fancied that a healing virtue remained in the springs and pools where he baptized the heathen Saxons whom he converted; so that the name of “St. Chad’swell,” or Shadwell, is found over half of England, and has reached as far as London. For long Ceadda’s central abode was at Lastringham, beyond Pickering; and afterwards, in his last days when full of years and honours, he was made the Bishop of Litchfield, the first  of a series of eighty, ending with Bishop Maclagan.” 

3.  A monastery was also a great school of medicine, and place of healing. There were stored up all manner of receipts, wise and unwise, for the medical use of plants and treatment of wounds. And thence went forth elder Sisters of Mercy, to nurse the poor people of Whitby 1200 years ago”

“4.  A great monastery was a fountain of civilization in all the useful arts, such as agriculture and gardening. The best intelligence of the time was frequently brought to bear on the culture of a great abbey’s  possessions. It was also a school of the fine artsof music, singing, painting, and preeminently of architecture. It was likewise a school of  poetry, for here Caedmon sang his inspired song of the creation, and commended to the semi-barbarous Saxons divine ideas in strains that echoed far and wide over Saxon England, and gave prophetic hints of Miltons of the future yet to come.”

“And (5) lastly, a great monastery was a visible monument of all the Past Divine History of the world, as well as a written prophecy of a better kingdom to come.”

“All this was in the design of the Princess Hilda, when she planted her great Abbey upon these heights; and since she was, beyond all reasonable doubt, a devoted Christian, her object was in a great measure realized. For the great church and college of Whitby became to Yorkshire, and far beyond it, a fountain of salvation. Her religion was clothed in the idiom, the ceremonial, the con-ceptions of her own day; and much of that external investure was no doubt the growth of ages of gradual departure from the apostolic model. But what a grand and noble woman was this, who kindled so great a light on that sublime eminence, the memory of whose noble works was powerful enough 400 years after her death, to create another race of men to  rebuild the fallen in new splendor on the very site of her earlier enterprise.”

Now arose the early monasteries of Canterbury, of Glastonbury, of Streonshall—to this last king Oswy assisting  by the gift to Hilda of twelve manors, prompted thereto by the remorseful desires of a heart that repented itself of its previous blood-stained and violent career. Now hence-forth the figure of the Princess Hilda rises on her sacred hill, towering aloft above the desolated villages of Saxon Deira, a true messenger of peace to the troubled people. Her monastery continued for 200 years to be the central light amongst this darkness; and the gleam that shone through the rounded windows of her humble early church was truly a light of life to the Saxons. Then, as you know,  followed in the 9th century the complete destruction of the first modest and mostly wooden fabric by the Danish pirates, and an utter desolation of Streonshall for 200 years, indeed until after the Norman conquest. Then the Norman Percys, moved by the horrors of William the Conqueror’s desolation of Yorkshire—as Hilda had been moved 400 years before by the similar horrors of the Saxon war Desolations—began the re-building of the Abbey and Monastery, of which, and its subsequent additions, we can see the noble ruins to day.”

Whitby Abbey Ruins (old illustration).

Whitby Abbey Ruins (old illustration).

“Now again 400 years followed of growing magnificence, of cease-less worship, of holy song, devout study, of strenuous labour by twenty-five generations of the black-robed Benedictine monks among the surrounding towns and villages; and alas, of increasing superstition, increasing depravation of manners, increasing sloth and forgetfulness of God, until the crisis was reached of the Tudor reigns; when the voice of England, thundering indignantly like a northern tempest against the apostate church, supported Henry VIII in the dissolution and plunder of the Abbeys, then possessed of at least one-third of the cultivated land of the kingdom, and ruin fell upon Streonshall, with its precincts full of the dust of saints and kings, in the just judgment of God.”


Smith, William., Stories & Tales Of Old Yorkshire, (orig. edt. by William Smith, 1882-3. Selected & Edt. by Dawn Robinson-Walsh, 1993), Printwise Publications, Tottington, Bury, Lancs., 1993. [Stories & Tales of Old Yorkshire selected from the work ‘Old Yorkshire’ 5 vols, 1882-3.]


Kilmalkedar Monastic Site, Dingle Peninsula, Co Kerry, Southern Ireland

Kilmalkedar Church, Co Kerry (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Kilmalkedar Church, Co Kerry (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Irish grid reference: Q 4030 0620. Just off the R559 Cois Farraige (or the Carrig) road to the east of Murreagh on the Dingle Peninsula, Co Kerry, stands the 7th century Kilmalkedar Monastic Site, also known as Cill Malcheadair. Here we find a small 12th century roofless Romanesque church, a rare Dark Age sundial, an Ogham and Latin inscribed stone and some cross-inscribed slabs, one of which is called ‘the Alphabet Stone’ and, there are some pre-Christian holed ‘balaun’ stones, holy wells and early medieval grave-markers – in what is a ‘very’ beautiful and holy setting in the far south-west of County Kerry, some 5 miles north-west of Dingle on the R559 road.

The first church and a monastery, were established here at Kilmalkedar in c 600 AD by St Maolcethair (Maolcedar), the son of an Irish king (of Ulster). A building called ‘St Brendan’s House’, actually an oratory, can also be found here and, close by the pilgrims’ road (Cosan na Naomh) leads on to Mount Brandon from where St Brendan departed for foreign lands in the mid 6th century. About 1 mile to the south-west of Kilmalkedar is the famous boat-shaped building known as ‘the Gallarus Oratory’, which dates maybe from the 8th century. The Celtic monastery of Kilmalkedar is known from history to have been a renowned school of learning during the early medieval period.

The ancient roofless Romanesque chapel dates from the mid-12th century, though there was obviously an earlier religious building on this site, maybe dating back to the Dark Ages when both St Brendan and, later St Maolcethair were in residence here. There are a number of very beautiful architectural features in the church. It consists of a chancel and nave – the chancel measures roughly 6 metres by 5 metres – while the nave is roughly 8 metres by 9 metres. The church is said to resemble the more famous Cormac’s Chapel at Cashel, County Tipperary.

In the excellent article ‘Marking The Passage Of Time’ by Patrick O’Sullivan for the Ireland’s Own magazine we are informed that the church was: “built in the Romanesque style of the twelfth century, typical features being the round headed doorway and the high pitched gables”. But there are a number of other features too including the barrel-vaulting and a lower section of the corbelled stone roof, and some carved window surrounds have survived. The chancel dates from 1200; and the west doorway has a ‘tympanum’ with carved stone head. O’Sullivan in his article goes on to say: “The original roof of the church has long since given way but the East Window, known locally as Cno na Snaithaide, the eye of the needle, still remains. It has long been the tradition for pilgrims to pass through the window nine times, especially at Eastertime, when it was believed that doing so would grant them the promise of eternal life”.

Standing in the chancel is the famous ‘Alphabet Stone’, dating probably from the 6th century AD, which is 4 feet high, but is broken at the top. On its west face the Latin alphabet and an earlier inscription DNI which is probably ‘domini’. The north face has a thin, damaged cross while the south face has an equally thin Latin cross with scrolled ends. And outside in the graveyard a 6 foot high slender Ogham stone with a little round hole at the top. The Latin inscription on this is: ANM MAILE INBIR MACI BROCANN which is translated as: ‘In the name of Mael Unbir, son of Brocan’, and on the opposite side (along the edge) is the Ogham notch inscription reading the same. This stone is thought to date from the 5th or 6th century AD.

Kilmalkedar Sundial Co Kerry (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Kilmalkedar Sundial Co Kerry (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Also in the churchyard is a 4 foot high rectangular shaped stone with sundial markings beautifully carved onto it. O’Sullivan says of this: “The beautiful sundial is marked with segments which correspond to the divisions of the monastic day”. He goes on to say: “The northwest face meanwhile is decorated with a cross of arcs, the later now thought to be a symbol of pilgrimage, as it appears on many stones associated with early pilgrimage routes”. And further he says: “While the lines on the Kilmalkedar sundial end in half moons, or semi circles, other examples have lines that end in three pronged forks. There are two decorative fret motifs at the top of the shaft of the Kilmalkedar sundial, everything about it evocative of an age when the pilgrims made their way to the holy mountain. It is the easiest thing in the world to picture some of them stopping by the sundial, telling the time of day from the way in which its face was shadowed by the sun”, he says.

There are a number of interesting early Medieval grave-markers set among the more modern gravestones, these may indicate where monks from the monastery were buried between the 8th-12th century. Also, there are two holy wells – one for St Maolcedir, founder of the monastery here, and the other belongs to St Brendan whose ruined, roofless oratory (St Brendan’s House) stands 50 metres to the north. St Brendan’s holy well is located at the south-east side of his two-roomed oratory.

Also in the churchyard, a hefty and tall slab-cross with a thin (unfinished) cross carved onto it, and a number of early medieval grave-markers in the form of crosses, including a small T-shaped tau cross. These probably mark the graves of the monks who lived at the monastery between the 8th-12th centuries AD.

Some 50 metres to the north, near St Brendans House, there are two pre-Christian balaun stones with several depressions or bowl-like holes in them – though what these were originally used for is uncertain, maybe milk, or some other substance was placed in the holes as a kind of fertility aid, or for healing purposes? During the early Christian period these holes may have been used by missionaries for holy water and, subsequently baptism of the local people. Close by is the pilgrims road (Saint’s Road) which leads from Kilmalkedar to Brandon Mountain from where legend says St Brendan the Navigator sailed across the Atlantic Ocean on his long journey to other lands back in the mid-6th century AD, according to Katharine Scherman in her delightful book ‘The Flowering of Ireland’.


Bord, Janet & Colin., Mysterious Britain, Paladin Books, London, 1974.

O’Sullivan, Patrick., ‘Marking The Passage Of Time’, Ireland’s Own, (Various Dates), Wexford, Ireland.

Scherman, Katharine., The Flowering of Ireland, Victor Gollancz Ltd., London, 1981.

Meteora, Plain Of Thessaly, Greece

The Monastery of Meteoran, Greece (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

The Monastery of Meteoron, Greece (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

Latitude: 39.726457. Longitude: 21.626565. At the north-eastern side of the Plain of Thessaly, central Greece, to the north of Kalambaka lie the monasteries of Meteora, a Christian enclave where in 950 AD Barnabas and his fellow hermits came to live in inaccessible rock-hewn caves and, later, in 1350 the first hermitage was established on Dupiani Rock by the monk, Nilos. At about the same time Greek Orthodox monks sought sanctuary here by building monasteries on top of high, rocky pinnacles over 1,000 feet up. These Christian monasteries lie to the north of the Pineios river on the edge of the Pindhos Mountain, along bending roads and winding tracks that seem to go on forever into a strange land of towering outcrops of red sandstone and conglomerate rock that have been fused together over thousands/millions of years, forming ‘strange geological formations.’ There are twenty-four lofty pinnacles, many having monasteries and churches on top that seem to mingle in with the very rocks that they sit on. The largest of the monasteries is Moni Meteoron on Platys-Lithos (The Broad Rock) at an altitude of 1,752 feet; and the name Meteora is said to mean ‘In the heavens above’ or ‘floating in the air.’ Kalambaka in the Pineios Valley is 1.5kms to the south of Meteoron and the village of Kastraki is 1km south.

There were twenty-four monasteries in all between the 14th and 16th centuries but today only six are still inhabited, two of which are convents of Orthodox nuns. The most famous and largest of these monasteries ‘The Great Meteoran’ or Theotoko Meteoritis on Broard Rock was founded sometime after 1350 by St Athanasios Koinovitis (1305-83) who had earlier travelled here from Mount Athos, in Greece. Athanasios is a Greek Orthodox saint who is honoured on 6th March as St Athanasios Meteoritis. The monastery is dedicated to the ‘Metamoposis’ or Transfiguration, and it’s church of 1388 is cross-in-square shaped, being enlarged in 1550 by the Serbian monk, Josaph. On the East Rock stands Moni-Varlaam founded in 1517 by the two brothers Theophanes and Nectarios of Ioannina on the site of a hermitage established in 1350 by the monk Barlaam. The monastery had to be restored after it suffered bomb damage in World War II. Its monastic church ‘Agion Panton’ or All Saints is a typical cross-in-square building. A couple of interesting relics were ‘reputedly’ housed here, namely the finger of St John and the shoulder blade of St Andrew, and there are lovely frescos depicting scenes from the lives of Jesus and the Virgin Mary.

The Moni-Rossanis or Russanu monastery (Russian monastery) stands on top of an inaccesible rock. It was founded in 1639 on the site of a hermitage of 1388. Now a convent, its church dedicated to St Barbara is richly decorated with well-preserved frescos that are said to date from 1566. Agios-Nikolaos Monastery (St Nicholas) opposite Dupiani Rock was founded in 1588 and enlarged (1628). A basilica-like church has lovely frescos that date from 1527. The Agia-Triada Monastery (Moni-Triada) was founded in 1438 and is dedicated to the Holy Trinity; its church was built in 1476. The monastery is quite exeptional in beauty. There are damaged frescos dating from 1692, while the Chapel of Agios-Ioannis (St John) dates from 1682 and is hewn out of the rock. It is reached by way of a narrow stone stairway which leads up from the valley below.

The rocky cliffs of Meteora (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

The rocky cliffs of Meteora (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

One of the best monasteries is probably Agios-Stefanos Nunnery. This was founded in 1312 by the Emperor Andronicus III (Palaiologus) 1328-1341. It used to have a small basilica, but the main church Agios-Charalampos (St Charalambos) was built in 1798 and has wood carvings, the Iconostasis, abbots throne, choir stalls, lecterns and Epirus carvings etc. The Chapel of St Stephan has frescos (1500), while the treasury (monastery museum) houses old icons, manuscripts, reliquaries and a skull set in silver that is said to be that of St Charalambos, an early Christian martyr (AD 198). Two other monasteries: Ypapanti and Pantokrator (Christ) are now ruined. There are several churches hidden-away on the rocky pinnacles, while others can be found in the valley below Meteora. These churches that are linked to the monasteries include: Ayia-Trias, Ayia-Pro Ilias, Ayia Analipsis and Panagia.

In the great tome ‘Strange Worlds Amazing Places,’ 1994, one passage sums up the demise of Meteora: “The eerie fascination of Meteora’s geology and the spiritual pull which the place exerts are largely responsible for its current demise as a religious centre. As Meteora increasingly becomes a museum piece which attracts thousands of tourists each year, aspiring young monks and nuns are unwilling to join the monasteries, while older devotees flee from them, to seek solitude elsewhere.”

Up until last century anyone wishing to visit the monasteries of Meteora had to endure climbing up a precarious rope-ladder, but nowadays it is somewhat easier as there is a pulley system (a net-and-rope device) with a sort of seat to sit on while a monk operating a windless from a gantry above, hauls you up over a thousand feet!


Photos Wikipedia:

Strange Worlds Amazing Places, The Reader’s Digest Association Limited, London W1, 1994.

Book of Natural Wonders, The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc, New York & Montreal, 1980.

Gouvoussis C., Greece, Editions K. Gouvoussis, Athens, Greece, 1970.