Images in Stone: Scotland’s Late Medieval Burial Slabs

The Kilmartin Museum online lectures continue to attract impressive numbers of people to their talks, from all over the world.

Kilmartin stones The glass-roofed shelter displays carved grave slabs found in the vicinity. They are arranged in order of age, clockwise from the left.

In his talk ‘The Medieval Burial Monuments and Sculptures of Kilmartin, first aired on Thursday September 15th, Dr David Caldwell, took us on a fascinating journey through images of late medieval sculpture found on burial slabs in Scotland.

David Caldwell used as his starting point the work of Ken Steer and John Bannerman published in Late Medieval Monumental Sculpture in the West Highlands. Whilst acknowledging the outstanding contribution to the subject, David Caldwell also challenged some of the ideas and looked afresh at what the authors were proposing.

Grave slabs in Kildalton Church, Islay

Iona was the place that those with great riches wished their bodies to be taken to for burial. The carving on the slabs and grave marker stones is of a high quality. David Caldwell suggested that there are varying qualities of carving with the best being in Iona and some of the poorest around the Kilmartin area. He went on to say that these extremely heavy slabs were perhaps started in the likes of the Kilmartin Glen area then transported to Iona where they were sculpted by extremely skilled masons.

This area requires new research. Was the Hillfort of Dunadd a source of quarried stone? Were ancient Standing Stones re-purposed?

David Caldwell also discussed the images represented in the carvings. Kilmartin stones depicted warriors clad in Highland armour. He touched on the qualities of this armour, made of textiles with spears, swords and metal gauntlets. This subject would make a fascinating talk in itself because it differed from the armour used by the Lowland knights. Does the use of the Highland armour signify that these men identify with Robert Bruce King of Scots who is credited with its introduction? Are these knights who fought alongside the Bruce?

The MacDonalds created a myth around Iona, said David Caldwell, that it was the burial place of Kings. They were creating a sort of ‘cult’ and enhancing their position . Did this go to such a extent that they were ‘faking’ some slabs?

Times and influences changed the images depicted on the grave slabs. At Kilmun, Loch Awe, the monumental sculpture depicts an effigy of Sir Duncan Campbell and his wife, dates from 1441. He is wearing Lowland armour, most likely carved by a Lowland mason.

Late Medieval grave slabs were themselves later reused.

Seven memorials lie in the Poltalloch burial enclosure, built for the Malcolms (MacCallums) of Poltalloch in the 1700s. All but one are inscribed ‘POLTALLOCH’, which the family added to re-used medieval gravestones, perhaps to give a sense of greater antiquity. The seven stones comprise three West Highland grave-slabs of the 1300s or 1400s, two medieval effigies of warriors wielding spears and swords, and two tombstones of the 1600s. Later gravestones can be seen in the graveyard behind the enclosure.

There are over 800 monumental burial slabs of the late Medieval period in the West of Scotland. Several of these are deteriorating fast. The recording and researching of this fascinating slice of Scottish culture is needed so that we can better understand and refresh our ideas about late Medieval Scotland.

Dr David Caldwell is a retired curator who spent 38 years working for the National Museum of Scotland. In the 1990s he directed excavations at Finlaggan in Islay, the centre of the Lordship of the isles.

The Kilmartin Museum YouTube channel contains a wide selection of online talks.

Fiona Grahame

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1 reply »

  1. We saw these grave-markers when we visited Kilmartin Glen a few years ago… and I wrote this to a friend, with a photo of the slabs…..

    “Re-using the stones……annexing the power.
    We’ve just been in Kilmartin Glen for a week, and I saw these in the churchyard there. The Pontalloch family appropriated the marker stones of medieval knights, and simply carved their own names on them instead!
    I was puttering about rich bastards being all the same.
    It’s true though – it’s what happens all down the ages, isn’t it?

    For me, they were the least edifying/interesting aspect of our visit. Each to their own!

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