Iona’s archetype? A concrete replica of the Cross of St John speaks

The Isle of Iona, located off the south-western coast of Mull in the Inner Hebrides, has been described by the poet Robert Crawford (b. 1959) as a place where ‘spirit, imagination, and physical exertion mingle’. Iona’s assemblage of early medieval carved stones and grave slabs constitute a special part of the island’s magic, forming a collection of early medieval art for which there are few parallels in the rest of Europe. The importance of one cross in particular – the 8th-century Cross of St John – has only recently been realised, in part because of a study of its concrete replica, as Current Archaeology's Chris Catling reveals.


The Isle of Iona is one of the most atmospheric and authentic early Christian sites in western Europe. It was here that St Columba (AD 521-597) founded a monastery in AD 563 that served as the base for a growing network of religious settlements that spread Christian culture across Pictland and as far to the south-east as the island of Lindisfarne. That early monastery suffered repeated Viking raids, starting c.AD 794, and most of the monks moved back to the monastery at Kells in Ireland in AD 804, taking the relics of St Columba with them, along with the renowned Book of Kells which had been partially completed by that date in the island’s scriptorium. Even so, a monastic presence continued on Iona, which became the burial place of choice for early medieval clan chiefs and several later medieval monarchs, including Duncan I (d. 1040) and Macbeth (d. 1057).

An aerial photograph of Iona’s main settlement (‘The Village’) taken in 1977, showing a tour boat at the landing pier and the path up to the Nunnery, where the road takes a right-angled turn to head northwards up to the abbey. PHOTO: Crown copyright: Historic Environment Scotland.

In 1203, the abbey was refounded as a Benedictine institution by Reginald MacDonald, Lord of the Isles, only to fall into decline at the Reformation. Consolidation of the surviving ruins began in 1899. By 1905, the chancel had been reroofed and a grand opening service was held on 14 July of that year; by 1913, the nave had also been reroofed and restored, and a service marking the completion was held on 17 July 1913. Iona Abbey’s new lease of life as a Christian community began in earnest in 1938, when George MacLeod founded the Iona Community as a response to the poverty he had witnessed as minister to a dockland parish in Govan, Glasgow, and to the growing threat of war.

A map of Iona identifying the key sites mentioned in the text. IMAGE: Artwork: Christina Unwin; photographic details: Sally Foster.

Describing Iona as a ‘thin place where only tissue paper separates the material from the spiritual’, MacLeod took a group of unemployed ship-workers and trainee clergy to Iona to rebuild the domestic and residential buildings of the former Benedictine abbey. Since then, Iona’s rebuilt monastic buildings have served as a place of retreat and reflection, and the focal point for the dispersed ecumenical Community whose core values include social justice, pacificism, and environmental stewardship.

Ian G Lindsay, the architect who advised the Iona Community on the restoration of the monastic buildings, drew this summary of the abbey’s three main phases: the surviving medieval fabric (green), the abbey church restoration of 1902-1910 (yellow), and his own work of 1938 and 1964 (pink). IMAGE: courtesy of Historic Environment Scotland (Iona Cathedral Trustees Collection).

Crossing paths with St Columba

For a place of such significance, understanding of the island’s early medieval archaeology was astonishingly poor until quite recently. Early guidebooks assured visitors that very little remained on the island of the original Columban settlement or its 13th-century successor. Fresh insights began to emerge, however, once Historic Scotland (now Historic Environment Scotland, or HES) assumed guardianship responsibility for the abbey and associated monuments in 1999, leading to a review of the archive of the late Charles Thomas (1928-2016), whose campaign of excavation, aimed at recovering ‘as much as possible of the material remains of the monastic house founded in AD 563 by Columba’ was carried out between 1956 and 1963.

Ewan Campbell (University of Glasgow) and Adrián Maldonado (National Museum of Scotland) recently published the results of that review in The Antiquaries Journal (Vol.100, 2020) and concluded that, despite extensive damage to the archaeological deposits caused by ploughing, excavation, and later building and drainage works, half of the early medieval deposits have survived undisturbed. In particular, earthwork banks and buried ditches survive from a series of monastic enclosures. Fresh fieldwork and geophysical survey were undertaken in 2010, revealing that what Thomas thought was single vallum (enclosing ditch) in fact consisted of a complex series of multiple enclosures, formed by the gradual enlargement of the area around the monastic buildings, defining a space that functioned as a place of holiness and sanctuary.

St Oran’s Chapel and the Reilig Odhráin cemetery in the foreground, with the abbey complex behind.
This postcard of c.1880 shows what visitors saw before restoration began, with the Reilig Odhráin in the foreground and the railed lapidarium where parts of St John’s Cross were stacked, the roofless chapel of St Oran in the centre, and the abbey ruins to the right. The rocky outcrop of the Tòrr an Aba, where Columba had his writing cell, is visible to the left. IMAGE: James Valentine Photographic Collection.

Thomas’ excavation took place in an era before the systematic collection of datable carbon, but the surviving finds (rescued from Charles Thomas’ garage in Truro!) included a piece of hazel charcoal from the low hillock called the Tòrr an Aba (Abbot’s Mound). Thomas had treasured the hazel, believing it to be a relic of a wattle-and-daub beehive cell that stood on the mound that was used by St Columba as his writing hut. The saint’s biographer, Adomnán (AD 624-704), says that Columba habitually used two separate buildings: his scriptorium, located ‘in a raised-up place’, and a hut where he slept with ‘bare rock and stone for a pillow’.

More cautious souls had accused Thomas of wishful thinking and of seeing what he wanted to see, but he was posthumously vindicated when a carbon date was obtained from that piece of hazel charcoal and refined using Bayesian modelling. This led to headline news in 2017 when the results were reported, dating the hut to the years AD 540-650 (see CA 330). Adrián Maldonado told the BBC at the time that these dates are ‘within a standard deviation of the lifetime of St Columba’ and so were ‘about the closest you can get to being certain that it is something that was standing when Columba was on Iona’. Thomas’ excavations showed that the mound had been converted into a monument after Columba’s death by placing a layer of cobbles over the site and raising a central cross set within a millstone with a hollowed-out socket.

The feet of many pilgrims have polished the stones of the early medieval pilgrimage path discovered by Charles Thomas in 1959. Once lined with crosses, the processional route leads from the Martyrs’ Bay landing point to the shrine of St Columba. Originally a detached chapel, the shrine is now joined to the north-western side of the abbey church.
Iona Abbey Museum, showing the remains of three of Iona’s four surviving 7th- to 8th-century high-crosses (left to right): St Oran’s Cross, St John’s Cross, and St Matthew’s Cross. The fourth (St Martin’s) still stands outside in its original position.

Another unexpected discovery was a substantial paved road built in two sections, each with a different style of paving, with a sharp kink dividing the two sections and clearly built at two different periods. At first Thomas identified this as the Sràid nam Marbh (‘Street of the Dead’) mentioned in antiquarian accounts. This ‘coffin road’ ran from the landing place in Martyrs’ Bay (said to be the site where 68 monks were massacred in the Viking raid of AD 806) up to the abbey. In fact, a gravel-surfaced path more precisely matching descriptions of this route was subsequently rediscovered in 2013, but the name has stuck to Thomas’ discovery.

The later northern section of this paved route probably dates to the later Benedictine stage of the abbey’s development, but the earlier part has been dated to the 7th or 8th centuries through its stratigraphical relationship with a gap in the vallum and with the stone-lined drains carrying water from the road. It is a very substantial construction, without parallel for this early medieval date (few paved roads were built in Britain from the late 4th century) and representing a major investment in labour and materials.

Subsequent test-pitting, excavation, and geophysical survey has identified more of the route, which Ewan Campbell and Adrián Maldonado interpret as an early medieval pilgrimage path, linking the main burial grounds and devotional sites on the island, including the chapels of St Ronan and St Oran, and leading ultimately to the shrine of St Columba himself alongside the abbey church. Between 2m and 3m in width, the road is bounded by an intermittent curb on the eastern side and a low wall on the west. At least 250 tonnes of large, water-rounded red-granite boulders were used in its construction, and the polished surface testifies to heavy foot traffic.

At least seven monumental free-standing crosses once lined this route, known from socket stones surviving in situ or from documentary sources. Adomnán mentions three of these, stating they were erected to commemorate incidents in the life of Columba and served as places for prayer and reflection both for the monks undertaking their daily tasks around the monastic precinct and for pilgrims visiting St Columba’s shrine (see CA 292).

Collating the collection

A romantic tradition has it that the island once had 360 crosses in total. Many were destroyed as a result of the Synod of Argyll, which met on Iona in 1642 and passed a resolution condemning ‘idolatrouse [sic] monuments’. As a result, unknown numbers were broken up and thrown into the sea. It was not until 1982 that a complete catalogue of the islands’ remaining early medieval carved stones was completed. This found 111 individual pieces, including grave stones, cross-inscribed slabs associated with burials, and ex-situ architectural sculpture. Though much of this material was highly fragmented and dispersed, it nevertheless makes Iona’s assemblage the largest and most important single collection of early medieval sculpture in Britain and Ireland after the monastery at Clonmacnoise, in Ireland.

This sketch of the Reilig Odhráin, drawn by Henry D Graham c.1848-1849 for his book Antiquities of Iona, shows the medieval cemetery thickly studded with carved tombstones marking the graves of Scottish kings and clan chiefs, bishops, nobles, and warriors. IMAGE: courtesy of Historic Environment Scotland (copied from the Henry Graham Album, held at HES Archives).

It was, however, a much-neglected collection. W Douglas Simpson, Chair of the Ancient Monuments Board from 1954 to 1967, and author of The Ancient Stones of Scotland, was one of the first to express dismay at the lack of proper care for the stones, saying, in 1965, that it ‘remains one of the most urgent needs of Scottish archaeology that the best of these priceless monuments should be placed under shelter in a museum provided on Iona for the purpose’.

The later medieval socket-stone for a cross on the top of Tòrr an Aba (Abbot’s Mound), made from a millstone and marking what Charles Thomas believed was the site of St Columba’s beehive-shaped writing cell.

In My Life as a Replica: St John’s Cross, Iona, Sally Foster (Senior Lecturer in Heritage and Conservation) and Siân Jones (Professor of Environmental History and Heritage), both at the University of Stirling, give a blow-by-blow account of the bureaucratic wrangling that prevented Simpson’s modest proposal from being realised for the best part of 50 years. The Abbey Museum, with its impressive displays, finally opened in June 2013, and it is here that today’s pilgrims will encounter the remains of three 7th- to 8th-century high crosses – St John’s, St Matthew’s, and St Oran’s – along with the cross base from the top of the Tòrr an Aba and several further cross bases, including two from the Reilig Odhráin (St Oran’s Graveyard), the nearby burial place of early medieval kings.

A fourth cross – St Martin’s – carved sometime between the middle or the second half of the 8th century, and the only stone cross on Iona to survive intact, still stands outside on its original site. The name was recorded by Edward Lhuyd in 1699, although the iconography makes no reference to St Martin, the 4th-century Roman soldier. St Martin did later hold an important position in the church, however – as Bishop of Tours, while leading a life of poverty and simplicity – so it is possible that he represented a religious ideal for Iona’s evangelical monks. The west face of St Martin’s Cross is decorated with scenes from the Bible, including the Virgin and Child, Daniel in the Lions’ Den, David and Goliath, and David with Saul. The east face is adorned with bosses and interwoven serpents.

The surviving elements of the eastern and western faces of St John’s Cross. IMAGE: Crown copyright: Historic Environment Scotland

St Martin’s Cross is thought to be the latest in date of the Iona group of crosses, but it has become something of a logo for ‘brand Iona’, featuring on postcards, jewellery, tea-towels, mugs, and ecclesiastical vestments, not to mention the thousands of selfies snapped by visitors every summer on day trips from Oban to Mull, Iona, and Staffa. Sally Foster and Siân Jones could so easily have made St Martin’s Cross the central theme of their book. Instead, they have chosen to focus on a modern concrete replica of St John’s Cross, erected in 1970, which gets nothing like the same attention from visitors and scholars. Nevertheless, standing in the original cross base in front of St Columba’s shrine, it symbolises the history of heritage management on the island in many ways that are comprehensively explained in the book through the ‘cultural biography’ of the replica cross.Cross-examining the evidence

St John’s Cross was one of those that suffered at the hands of 17th-century iconoclasts, having been broken up so that only the shaft remained in situ when Edward Lhuyd sketched it in 1699. By the mid-19th century, the broken fragments formed part of the jumble of carved stones gathered together in a lapidarium inside a railed enclosure within the Reilig Odhráin; the stones were later moved into the cemetery chapel itself. The initiative to attempt a restoration of the cross was set in train by Alec (Alexander) Ritchie (1856-1941) who, with his wife Euphemia (1862-1941), had settled on Iona and set up a silversmithing workshop, creating jewellery based on Celtic designs. Alec also acted as an unofficial guide to the island’s heritage, and in 1900 he was appointed official custodian by the island’s owners, the Iona Cathedral Trust, who also gave him permission to reconstruct the cross. The project was funded by Robert A S Macalister, Professor of Celtic Archaeology at University College Dublin and a regular visitor to the island. The work was carried out by Holmes and Jackson Ltd, and involved fixing the known fragments of the cross together using copper dowels and reconstructing the missing parts in reinforced concrete.

The forlorn shaft of St John’s Cross in 1965, following the collapse of the upper section in 1957. IMAGE: Crown copyright: Historic Environment Scotland.

A visitor to the island approaching the abbey in late September 1927 would not have been able to miss the result. A deliberate decision had been made not to try to reconstruct all the missing areas of the cross, and to draw a sharp distinction between the original stone and the new concrete. The visual contrast between the worn historic stone and the Portland cement that filled the gaps was stark and not entirely appealing. Then, in 1951, the upper part of the cross was blown down during a gale. The cross was repaired three years later, but fell again in 1957. This time, the broken fragments were simply left on the ground, much to the frustration of many who wanted a more dignified solution to the future of this important cross.

In 1959, the Ancient Monuments Board for Scotland travelled to Iona to view the problem, and a conference was convened in Edinburgh later that year. The participants decided that the pieces of the cross should be taken from the island for conservation and then housed indoors on their return to Iona. Perhaps as a response to those who objected to the ‘museumification’ of the cross, it was decided that casts should be taken from which to create a full-scale concrete replica for display out of doors.

Two possible reconstructions of the first phase of the St John’s Cross, with (b) thought to be the most likely. The cross measured about 5.3m in height and the double-curved arms stretch for 2.17m – the widest span of any known cross of early Christian date in the British Isles. The ring (c) is 1.25m in diameter and was inserted as a secondary feature to repair and support the damaged arms after the cross suffered an accidental collapse. IMAGE: Christina Unwin, developed from Argyll: An Inventory of the Monuments – Volume 4: Iona, RCAHMS, 1982.

The work of creating the replica was entrusted to George Mancini, a well-established bronze founder, based in Edinburgh, who had already gained a reputation for skilful conservation work thanks to his repairs to the statue of ‘Eros’ (the Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain) in Piccadilly Circus. Norman Robinson was appointed to provide archaeological and art historical advice, but many other experts were involved in subsequent debates about how an ‘authentic replica’ could be created, complete with design elements that had long ago disappeared, including the circular ring head – a distinctive feature of the Irish high-cross tradition.

Never before had it been possible to study the constructional details of an early medieval high cross in such close detail, noting in particular the stone used for the different parts and the ways in which the components fitted together and were held in place by invisible mortice-and-tenon joints. Detailed recording and analysis continued well beyond the initial conservation stage, and was raised to a new level when, in 1972, Ian Fisher (an early medieval sculpture expert working for the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland) recognised a fragment of the ring head among the hundreds of ex-situ carved stones lying in the Reilig Odhráin lapidarium. The tenon of this easily overlooked fragment was found to fit perfectly into the mortice on one of the cross arms, and was the right diameter for the anticipated ring.

This drawing shows how the ring quadrants were inserted into the composite cross-head of St John’s Cross, and the photograph shows the one surviving ring fragment. The insertion of the ring created what is now recognised to be the earliest ringed high-cross in the Irish world. IMAGES: Crown copyright: Historic Environment Scotland.

Ian Fisher reported on his findings in 1982, and his succinct eight-page document contained a revolutionary claim: that the distinctive ring of stone that encircles the four arms was a secondary feature and was made from a different kind of stone to the main cross. The shaft and the upper arms are carved from greenish chlorite-schist, probably from the Loch Sween area of Argyll and Bute, some 50km south-east of Iona. The finial of the top arm and the only surviving fragment of the ring are made of silver-grey mica-schist from the Ross of Mull, the long peninsula to the south-west of Mull that is only separated from Iona by a short, narrow sea channel.

Ian argued that this difference in geology, along with damage to the cross head and the awkward relationship of the stone-joints to the carved ornament, was evidence of a secondary repair. The head, which has the widest span of any known cross of early Christian date in the British Isles, had suffered an accidental fall at an early stage in its lifetime, and the ring-quadrants were introduced using local stone to support and strengthen the arms when it was repaired.

St John’s Cross, with a key to the evidence for its 8th-century damage and repair. IMAGE: Christina Unwin, developed from Argyll: An Inventory of the Monuments – Volume 4: Iona, RCAHMS, 1982. IMAGE: Christina Unwin, developed from Argyll: An Inventory of the Monuments – Volume 4: Iona, RCAHMS, 1982.

In other words, the ring that makes the heads of Celtic crosses so distinctive was not an original design feature but was developed as an innovative engineering solution to stabilise and strengthen the cross arms. An accident then gave rise to a new fashion. The Cross of St John, carved about the middle of the 8th century, is now regarded as the progenitor of all the world’s ringed high-cross monuments, including the many Irish examples dating from the 9th and 10th centuries.

George Mancini in his Edinburgh workshop with the master model for the St John’s Cross replica. This plaster cast was then used to make the moulds from which the reinforced concrete replica was made, with aggregates and colouring agents added to reflect the texture and colours of the original stone. IMAGE: Drummond Young © courtesy of Historic Environment Scotland (Iona Cathedral Trustees Collection).

Scholarly opinion supports this conclusion, answering the much-debated question of the origin and meaning of the ring-headed cross. In the mid-19th century, this distinctive high-cross design was reborn as the ‘Celtic’ style of cross now found in cemeteries and public spaces all over the world, used for war memorials, boundary markers, and grave monuments. Ring-head cross replicas were first exhibited at the Great Exhibition in 1851 and at the Dublin Great Industrial Exhibition of 1853, and the style blossomed during the Celtic Revival of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when all aspects of Celtic culture were in vogue.

Ringed crosses are deemed icons of Irishness, and many reference texts will tell you that the style emerged in Ireland, which is correct in a sense, because Iona was settled by Irish monks and formed part of the Irish cultural sphere of influence in the early medieval period. But for a fall, though, the ringed-cross style might never have been invented, and but for further falls, we might never have known the secret of their accidental origin on the Isle of Iona.

Further reading
Ewan Campbell and Adrián Maldonado (2020) ‘A New Jerusalem “at the ends of the earth”: interpreting Charles Thomas’s excavations at Iona Abbey 1956-63’, The Antiquaries Journal 100: 33-85.
Sally Foster and Siân Jones (2020) My Life as a Replica: St John’s Cross, Iona, Windgather Press, ISBN 978-1911188599, £35.