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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 Highland carving.


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