The Carved Stones and Celtic Crosses
of the Scottish Isle of Islay
By Ron Steenvoorden
Islay, off the west coast of Scotland and part of the
Inner Hebrides, is full of varied interest and charm.
Owing to its position in the path of the gulf stream,
the climate is extremely mild, and vegetation is in
consequence rich and beautiful. There are not many trees
save in sheltered places, but the growth of underwood,
of ferns and of wild flowers is luxuriant and forms a
marked feature of this delightful island.
The variety of scenery is great, along the coast
especially, where bold headlands and reefs of volcanic
rock alternate with stretches of sand-hills and turf.
The great lochs which nearly cut the island in two have
beauties of their own, Loch Indaal studded with villages
which almost recall those of the Italian lakes, and Loch
Gruinart with its sand flats stretching far away
northward to where the tides of the Sound of Islay and
the Atlantic waves meet in never-ending strife.
In Bowmore, the island's main centre, the Mactaggart
Leisure Centre comprises a superb swimming pool, sauna
and fitness gym. Adjacent is Morrisons Bowmore
Distillery, one of the eight working distilleries on
Islay. Other distilleries of fame are Bruichladdich,
Caol Ila, Bunnahabhain, Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Laphroaig.
They all offer guided tours, some on appointment only.
Bowmore famous Round Church stands at the top of Main
Street, overlooking the village.
If the hills seem humble when compared to the
neighbouring peaks of Jura, they are not without a
certain grandeur, affording good walks and marvellous
views; and as many of the lochs are well stocked with
trout, Islay has attractions for the fisherman. In truth
the traveller, whatever be his special pursuit, may do
worse than spend a few summer days at one of the
comfortable hotels and cottages which the island boasts.
But is is to the ever increasing class of persons who
take an interest in the relics of early times that Islay
offers some of the greatest attractions.
Islay's written history is fragmentary and the monuments
of her past are no less so; but for all that, they
extend over a lengthened period, from the days of hill
forts and standing monoliths until later times when, in
the great days of the Western Church, the island became
covered with chapels, under whose protecting walls there
are still to be seen many of the exquisite crosses and
gravestones which form so peculiar and interesting
feature of the Western Highlands.
There are about a hundred examples of carved work
(carved stones, graveslabs and Celtic Crosses) on Islay
alone. Many of these are so much worn and defaced that
only indications of their designs can be traced, but the
remainder are of the greatest interest, some indeed
being works of art in the fullest sense of the term.
The stones belong to various periods. There are little
crossed rudely cut on undressed slabs of stone, and
these are probably the most ancient. Then in the crosses
of Kildalton and Kilnave, and in the cross-bearing slab
found at Doid Mhairi, now in the garden at Ardimersay,
there are examples of a style which seems to have been
directly derived from Ireland; but far the greater
number belong to the thirteenth, fourteenth, and
fifteenth centuries, when the art assumed and retained
its special Argyllshire character, the plated work of
the Irish monuments developing into the richly foliated
scrolls which form one of the great beauties of the West