The MacEachern Cross

Norman S. Newton

In Kilkerran Cemetery are two portions of the shaft of a cross, erected to commemorate Colin MacEachern and his wife Katherine. The base is on the site of the mediaeval church, surrounded by the graves of later MacEacherns, while the upper part lies with other stones near the cemetery entrance.


At the top of the front of the shaft is a 12-line inscription in Latin, in a style of lettering known as Lombardic Capitals, suggesting a date of before 1500:


"This is the cross of Colin MacEachern and his wife Katherine'

The Latin Calenus or Colinus, is for the Gaelic personal name Cailean. Macheachyrna is from Gaelic Mac, 'son of", each, 'horse' and tighearna, 'lord' - 'son of the horse lords. The name also appears on the Campbeltown Cross of around 1380 (from which it may have been copied) commemorating Ivor and Andrew MacEachern, father and son, successive pastors at Kilkivan, near the village of Machrihanish, to the west of Campbeltown. We know from contemporary documents that Colin MacEachern was chief of the MacEacherns of Killellan, in the neighbouring parish of Kilblane (Kilblaan), now part of Southend parish. A royal charter of 1499 confirmed him in the office of inner of South Kintyre, a hereditary post granted to him by John, the last Lord of the Isles; he was also confirmed in grants of land at Killellan and other lands In the parish of Kilblane. As all the lands of the Lordship were forfeited In 1493, Colin MacEachern must have been the chief by that year, and perhaps even by 1475, when John's lands in Kintyre were forfeited.(1) The MacEacherns held Killellan until about 1740, when the male line came to an end.(2) In 1507 Colin was given the office of Chamberlain for South Kintyre, and granted further lands, which he had been leasing previously from the Earl of Argyll. These lands included Glenramskillmore, which we know was given to the church of Kilkerran by Colin before 1507, thus establishing a connection with the church where the cross dedicated to Colin MacEachern and his wife is found.

In 1511 Colin's eldest son Malcolm was granted some of the MacEachern lands, including Killellan. We know that Colin was still alive at that date, as the grant included a provision that he should be allowed to enjoy the fruits of these lands for his lifetime. By 1525 his second son Andrew had succeeded him, but there is no record of Colin's death.

Colin had previously applied to the Church, in 1510, for legitimating of his six sons: Malcolm, Andrew, John, Donald, Eachann and Niall, probably in preparation for the grant of lands to Malcolm and to make the ownership of the clan lands more secure for his successors. Apart from being born out of wedlock, the most common reason for such an application at this time was that the parents were too closely related, thus infringing the forbidden degrees of kinship between partners.


Under the Inscription, the front of the MacEachern Cross has two small panels: in the left panel is a pair of shears, perhaps symbolizing Colin's involvement in the cloth industry, while the right panel is blank. Below is a niche containing a man and a woman embracing - presumably Colin and Katherine - and a warrior on horseback, with sword, spear, spurs and pointed helmet. At the bottom of the shaft is a galley with sails furled, showing the masts and rigging. The hinged rudder characteristic of the West Highland broiling is clearly visible, and there is a shield embossed with a trefoil between the prow and the rigging. Traditionally the adoption of the hinged rudder is attributed to Somerled, ancestor of the MacDonald Lords of the Isles who ruled Kintyre and the Western isles from the 12th century until the last forfeiture in 1493.

The reverse side of the shaft has at its top a square panel of plait work interlaced with four rings. Below it, in a niche, is a Crucifixion scene, showing Christ being speared by two soldiers. The rest of the shaft is made up of interlaced foliage, terminating at the bottom in a dragon or griffin attacking another beast. The edges of the shaft are decorated with a variety of patterns: a leaf-scroll (which ends in a dragon's head) and a T-fret design on the right edge; a three-cord ribbon plait and a straight fret on the left edge. (3)(4)

The style of decoration suggests that this cross is a product of the Kintyre school of carving based at Saddell Abbey from c 1425 to c 1500.(5) It is very similar to the cross at Kilkerran commemorating Gliclirist MacKay and his wife, arid to the cross at Saddell Abbey for an Alexander (the rest of the inscription is missing). Fragments of a cross-shaft from Kilchousland, two miles north--east of Caupheltown, can be seen in the Campbeltown Museum. Another fragment of a cross-head has recently come to light at Saddell. It was common for such crosses to be erected during the lifetime of the persons honoured, and taking into account the documentary evidence, artistic style and lettering. It seems likely that the MacEachern Gross was made in the 1490s; thus it is over a hundred years younger than the Campbeltown Cross, which from its inscription and style was carved at Iona around 1380.(6)

Apart from the Saddell crosses, nothing survives of the cross-heads to indicate their design. At Saddell, enough survives to be able to say with assurance that the heads had the shape of a cross-patonce.(7) This is seen fully preserved on the cross at Inveraray, which, like the disk-headed Campbeltown Cross, was made on Iona. The choice of cross-head was probably a matter of preference by the person commissioning the work.

Recent work on the late mediaeval carved stones of the West Highlands has identified five different schools of carving, based in workshops at Iona, Saddell, Loch Awe (Kilmartin), Loch Sween (Kilmory) and Oronsay. The Iona school dates from 1350, and has its own distinctive style. After 1500 the lettering used in all the workshops changed from Lombardic capitals to the style known as black letter: this transition took place in England about 150 years earlier.

The Campbeltown Area in the Middle Ages.

If the surviving remains of Campbeltown's mediaeval castle and church are disappointing, we are indeed fortunate in having smaller fragments of the power and patronage of the Lords of the Isles in the form of the elaborately and beautifully carved stone grave slabs and stone crosses of the same period, of which the Campbeltown Cross is the finest and most superb example. We are lucky that it has an inscription, from which it can be deduced that the cross was made around 1380.

Steer and Bannerman, in their authoritative opus on Late medieval monumental sculpture in the West Highlands (1977), which develops the seminal work of Dr W. D. Lamont, advance the theory that carved grave slabs and crosses of the type found in Kintyre in the Middle Ages were the products of schools of stone-carvers which existed under the patronage of the Lords of the Isles at Iona, Oronsay, Loch Awe and at Saddell Abbey, and possibly elsewhere as well. Their evidence is impressive and convincing. The stones all date from the period 1350-1500, and die out with the demise of the Lordship. Stones from the end of that time-span become rather crude and degraded, but those from the fourteenth century are wonderfully impressive, and the Campbeltown Cross is widely regarded as the best of all. It is one of the most superb pieces of mediaeval art in Scotland, and comparing it with other examples of its style it was probably carved in Iona.

The cross now stands in the middle of a roundabout at the bottom of Main Street in Campbeltown, overlooking the harbour, but this is not its original position in the town. It used to stand further up Main Street, in front of the Town Hall, from where it was removed for safety during World War II, when the blackout and the dramatic increase in traffic posed serious risks. It was taken to Kilkerran Cemetery for the duration, and re-erected at the bottom of Main Street after the war.
The inscription on the Campbeltown Cross is very worn, but readable:

HEC EST CRVX D This is the cross of
EACHYRNA QVO (N)D Eachern, sometime
AM RECTORIS DE parson of
KYLKECAN ET DO Kilkivan, and of his
MINI ANDREE NAT son, Sir Andrew,
DE KILCOMAN Q of Kilchoman,
VI HANC CRVCE (M) who caused it

It seems likely that the cross therefore originally stood at Kilkivan, possibly to be moved into Campbeltown to serve as a market cross after the creation of the burgh in 1609. The Andrew MacEachern who set it up was promoted from Kilkivan to serve as parson at Kilchoman in Islay before 1376, and was dispossessed of that post in 1382 or soon thereafter. A date of around 1380 for the Campbeltown Cross is therefore very probable.

Above the inscription are three empty spaces on the cross face, areas mutilated by zealous Protestant reformers at the time of the Reformation. The surviving bible and chalice in the lowest space identify the missing figure as a cleric; traces of a throne in the middle space suggest the missing figure was the Virgin and Child; the topmost gap of course contained a Crucifixion scene. The other side of the cross is in pristine condition, and has the most intricate interlacing imaginable - a true masterpiece. The mermaid at the top of the disc-head panel is an unusual and intriguing feature of the decoration.

Of course the years have taken their toll, but the reason the carvings appear so fresh is because of the incredibly hard, close-grained epidiorite stone from which this cross and many of the mediaeval grave-slabs in Argyll are carved. Excellent reproductions of the cross and Kintyre grave slabs can be seen in Captain White's Archaeological sketches, drawn while he was map-making in Kintyre for the Ordnance Survey in the 1870s. His drawings have two advantages: they were made before atmospheric pollution started to take its inevitable toll, and there are no complications of copyright in reproducing them. A copy of Captain White's book can be seen in Campbeltown Public Library -or in many large Reference Libraries further afield.

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