Stones of destiny show Scotland's ancient faith

MORE than 1,000 years ago three brief words were cut into the face of a beautiful carved cross.

It is one of more than 60 early Christian grave markers and crosses, many decorated with elaborately carved patterns, that form the internationally important collection known as the Whithorn stones.

For centuries the meaning of the runic inscription was lost after the Anglo-Saxon kingdom that once controlled much of south-west Scotland was swept away. But conservation work, while the collection was prepared for display by Historic Scotland in their modernised museum at Whithorn Priory, recently revealed a plea from a distant time.

It implores us to "Pray for Hwitu".

Discoveries of this kind are like postcards from the past, compressing a remarkable amount of information in a limited space.

Hwitu was a woman who took her name from the Old English place name for Whithorn itself which was Hwit-erne, meaning white house. She, and the loved ones requesting prayers for her soul, were people of some standing.

Even though the cross was already old when the Anglo-Saxon runes were added, it was only the wealthy who could afford to be commemorated in such style.

The inscription probably dates from the 9th century or 10th century when the area was controlled by Anglians who, despite being invaders, built on its Christian traditions and made it the centre of a bishopric (or diocese).

These traditions stretched back to the 5th century when St Ninian was believed to have founded the first Christian mission in what came to be Scotland.

The tale of St Ninian saw a cult develop which brought Christian pilgrims to Whithorn throughout the Middle Ages. As they trudged across the landscape, in hope of a cure or some other saintly favour, they would have gazed on other stone crosses pointing heavenward from the Machars in this quiet area of the Solway coast.

A number of the crosses have survived, mostly as fragments, and since 1908 they have been gathered together in a small museum at Whithorn Priory, where they have continued to be admired by pilgrims and other visitors. Since March (not coincidentally on Easter weekend) they have been easier to appreciate thanks to a revamp of the museum.

This new display, created in consultation with the local community, restores something of the wonder medieval pilgrims would have felt for the crosses. They were spiritual objects created by craftsmen of supreme talent, and bore witness to profound devotion.

The museum now uses innovative techniques to make the stones more accessible and reflect the fact that they were created over many centuries.

As a collection, the stones tell an astonishing tale which stretches from the arrival of Christianity to the Reformation.

The first one which visitors encounter is the Latinus Stone, a grave marker dating to around 450 AD. It is the country's oldest Christian monument, commemorating a man called Latinus and his unnamed three-year-old daughter.

Being so old makes it important, but its greatest value is in drawing back the veil on a little-known era. It was a moment when Christianity was a new and unfamiliar faith just gaining a first foothold in pagan lands.

The name Latinus also suggests continuing and positive associations with Rome, even after its abandonment of Britain and when the empire in the west was collapsing.

Other stones were created in the 10th century during the heyday of the Whithorn School, when local carvers established a distinctive style of stone crosses with intricately decorated shafts.

The reason so many are in pieces can be traced back to the 12th century when the building of a new monastery here made a break with the past. The irony is that the attempted destruction could have been their very salvation as the stones were then used as building material, and rediscovered in later centuries when their value was appreciated once again.

While the museum was closed for refurbishment most of the stones were taken to the Historic Scotland conservation centre in Edinburgh. It was then that David Parsons, of Nottingham University's Centre for English Name Studies, translated the Anglo-Saxon runes. The spell at the conservation centre meant the stones could be cleaned, conserved, studied and recorded.

A complete and accurate record of the collection was also created by Ian Scott, the former chief draftsman for the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland. His work had a bearing on the new display as he showed that some fragments quite possibly came from the same stone, even though there were no connecting edges.

As a result we have a more detailed understanding of the stones than before.

And thanks to the new-look museum visitors now have an opportunity to fully enjoy some of the most remarkable pieces of Scottish historic, artistic and religious heritage.

Peter Yeoman is a Senior Inspector of Ancient Monuments with Historic Scotland. He advises on archaeology and conservation with the Major Projects team, currently involved with projects at Stanley Mills and Edinburgh Castle. He has excavated numerous medieval ecclesiastical and defensive sites, as well as publish books on medieval archaeology and pilgrimage.