Early medieval sculpture in the West Highlands and Islands of Scotland
Mac Lean, Douglas Grant
MetadataShow full item record
This thesis places the early medieval sculpture of the West Highlands and Islands, which has previously been studied primarily in relation to either Pictish or Irish sculpture, in its own cultural context. The region is separated from the rest of Scotland by the watershed of Druimalban (the "Spine of Britain") and formed a distinctive cultural area between the late sixth and the twelfth century. Four major categories of sculpture are discussed: Pictish symbol stones, cross-marked and cruciform stones, the sculptured stone crosses of the Iona School, and monuments carved after the devastating Viking attack on Iona in 806. A review of place-name, archaeological and historical evidence establishes the existence of a Pictish province west of Druimalban, which was lost to the Gaelic kingdom of Dal Riata at the end of the seventh century. Typological examination dates the western Pictish symbol stones to the period when control of the Pictish western province passed to Dal Riata. The lateness of the western symbol stones is used to argue for an emergence date of c. 600 for the symbol stone series east of Druimalban. The establishment of the kingdom of Dal Riata provides the background for the introduction of Christianity from Ireland. Cross-marked and cruciform stones are found throughout the region and illustrate the spread of Gaelic Christianity, beginning in the late sixth century. Simple incised crosses are seen to exemplify the "white martyrdom" of monastic and eremitic life. Iona's central role in the development of Gaelic monasticism provides the context for the Iona School of crosses, which is dated between the mid-eighth century and the beginning of the ninth. The iconography and decoration of the Iona School crosses reflect artistic contact with Pictland and Northumbria, but it is argued that they were carved by Gaelic sculptors influenced by native metalwork and iconographical sources brought from the Continent of Europe. Viking raids and settlement in the first half of the ninth century led to the removal of the centre of the Columban paruchia from Iona to Kells in Ireland, the unification of the Dalriadic and Pictish kingdoms and the transference of royal rule to the east of Druimalban. Sculpture carved west of Druimalban between the mid-ninth and the eleventh century was, for the most part, outside the mainstream of Gaelic art and represents fusions in varying combinations of Gaelic, Pictish and Scandinavian taste. The Scandinavian contribution was minimal and only one monument of inferior quality, which may be as late as the early twelfth century, was carved in one of the principal Viking styles. Sculpture carved in the West Highlands and Islands between the late sixth and the twelfth centuries provides a record in stone of an area in the process of developing cultural unity. The cohesion achieved by Dal Riata in the late seventh and eighth centuries was destroyed by the Vikings and a new synthesis was achieved by the kindred of Somerled, beginning in the mid-twelfth century. Artistically, the late medieval sculpture of the Lordship of the Isles is of provincial importance, but the West Highlands and Islands made a major contribution to the early medieval art of northern Britain and Ireland.