St Oran’s Cross restored to 8th century glory

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IT is one of the oldest surviving Scottish cultural artefacts, and now St Oran’s Cross has been restored to its former glory ahead of a double anniversary this year.

The world’s first Celtic High Cross, St Oran’s dates back to the 8th century. It is covered in beautiful biblical and Celtic images and patterns carved into the stone. It has just undergone a year-long restoration project led by Historic Scotland which will see the cross returned to Iona Abbey in one piece as part of a revamp to make the Abbey more visitor-friendly.

Conservation mount maker Richard West at work on St Oran's Cross. Picture: Donald Macleod/ Historic Scotland

Conservation mount maker Richard West at work on St Oran's Cross. Picture: Donald Macleod/ Historic Scotland

The timing of the restoration and renovation of Scotland’s holiest site was very deliberate, according to Historic Scotland’s Head of Cultural Heritage Peter Yeoman.

He said: “There was a decision taken in late 2011, the beginning of 2012 to have the cross repaired in time for the joint anniversary of 1450 years since the arrival of Saint Colomba on Iona, and the 75th anniversary of the establishment of the Iona Community.”

A series of seminars on conservation and restoration of early stoneworks attracted experts from around Britain and Europe, and Yeoman said this helped the Historic Scotland team get the project up and running.

Yeoman said the work on the project had been going on intensively for some time. He said: “The team have been working on the project for months now, and will continue to do so up until the project is completed in late May.”

As for the cross itself, Yeoman describes it as one of the very first of its kind.

Yeoman said: “Beforehand, there was nothing like this. Everything from the carving to quarrying the stone, shipping it to the island, the scenes portrayed on the cross - this was all being done for the first time, and at tremendous cost.

“This was the equivalent of a great warship or a palace back in the 700s, it required huge investment which would have had to be from someone like a king.”

Historic Scotland’s work at Iona is not just focussed on St Oran’s cross. Hundreds of Early Christian carved stones line the site, and these have all been carefully assessed and preserved by the Historic Scotland team.

In addition, new permanent displays on the life and times of Saint Colomba, improved panels around the Abbey to explain how and why the various features came about, and a series of new explanatory drawings to help visitors visualise the site have all been commissioned.

All this combines to make a 1300-year-old cross interesting and exciting for a 21st-century audience. “This is our business,” said Yeoman. “It’s what we do across 345 properties across Scotland. We want to make Scotland’s extraordinary heritage much more accessible.”

THE CROSS IN DETAIL

• St Oran’s Cross stands at 4.4m (14.5 feet)

• The cross originally weighed around a tonne, but had added some weight recently thanks to steel supports built by renowned museum display specialist Richard West

• The cross features exuberant Celtic spiral ornamentation, closely matching that on the Book of Kells manuscript which was produced at the Iona monastery not long after this cross was carved.

• There are 20 planned new panels at Iona Abbey to explain the site, and a series of new drawings to help visitors visualise the changes to the Abbey.

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