Modern impact on the fabric of the Ruthwell Cross

Heather Hobma [a], Daniel Paul O'Donnell [a], Catherine Karkov [b], Sally Foster [c], James Graham [a], Wendy Osborn [a], Roberto Rosselli Del Turco [d], Robert Broatch [e], Susan Broatch [e], Marco Callieri [f], Matteo Dellepiane [f]

[a] University of Lethbridge; [b] University of Leeds; [c] University of Stirling; [d] Universitá degli studi di Torino; [e] Ruthwell Kirk; [f] Visual Computing Group, CNR-ISTI


TThe Ruthwell Cross is a partially reconstructed Anglo-Saxon stone cross that has been housed since the late nineteenth century in a specially built apse of the Ruthwell kirk between the villages of Clarencefield and Ruthwell in modern Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland.1 The monument is commonly dated to the eighth century (Ó Carragáin, Ritual and the Rood; O'Neill), albeit with some disagreement as to both its dating and indeed whether it was originally a cross (see particularly O'Neill; also the essays in Orton, Wood, and Lees; pre-1642 opinion of whether the monument was a cross or a pillar is inconclusive). Although it was moved to its current location in the apse only at the end of the nineteenth century, the monument seems to have always been associated with the Ruthwell church site. As a related monument still standing at nearby Bewcastle and the frequent finds of fragments from similar objects at the even closer but now abandoned monastic site at Hoddom suggest, such monuments also appear to have been relatively common in the area (on Hoddom see Lowe, Brooke, and Society of Antiquaries of Scotland; the Bewcastle cross has an extensive bibliography: relatively recent works include Ó Carragáin, Ritual and the Rood; Orton, Wood, and Lees; Ó Carragáin, "Christian Inculturation in Eighth-Century Northumbria: The Bewcastle and Ruthwell Crosses"; Ó Carragáin, Ritual and the Rood 32-33, discusses the relative frequency of crosses in the area; see Bailey and Cramp for a detailed description).

The Ruthwell Cross is not solely an Anglo-Saxon monument however (see particularly O'Neill 1). It also has had a quite active modern history. As is well known, it was torn down, defaced, and broken into pieces in 1643 during the Scottish iconoclasm in response to the Church of Scotland Act anent Idolatrous Monuments in Ruthwell (Orton, Wood, and Lees 32; Ó Carragáin, Ritual and the Rood 15; General Assemblies of the Church of Scotland). The current cross, actually an amalgam of cross fragments, mortar, stone blocks, and a nineteenth-century transom with Masonic symbols, was assembled by Henry Duncan during his appointment as minister to the Ruthwell Kirk (1799-1843; see the drawing in Duncan, reproduced in O'Neill 103). Duncan himself reconstructed the cross in the garden to his manse, where it was subject to further erosion and damage (Wright 18; Dinwiddie; O'Neill 21-22; Ó Carragáin, Ritual and the Rood 18-19). It was moved into its current location in 1887 by the Rev. James McFarlan, and then taken into state care, under the provisions of the Ancient Monuments act of 1882 (Ó Carragáin, Ritual and the Rood 19; O'Neill 22); it was formally scheduled as an ancient monument in 1921.

Today the cross is a central part of the religious and cultural life of the local community and, through the efforts of the Scottish tourist and heritage authorities, not to mention its prominent place in Anglo-Saxon studies, a popular draw for visitors to the region. When the parishes of Cummertrees, Mouswald, and Ruthwell united into a single presbytery in 2011, it was the church at Ruthwell—rather than the larger and potentially more suitable churches at Mouswald or especially Cummertrees—that came to serve as the centre of the new parish, in large part due to the presence of the cross at the Ruthwell Kirk (a presence emphasised throughout the church's website: see Ruthwell Kirk: Cummertrees, Mouswald and Ruthwell Church of Scotland).

This popularity has also had an impact on the fabric of the cross, as the members of the Visionary Cross project team discovered during their visit to Ruthwell in April 2012 for the purposes of scanning the cross for their proposed 3D model and edition. The following article summarises the history of post-medieval impact on the fabric of the Ruthwell monument before concluding with some new discoveries of activity dating from the late nineteenth and possibly late twentieth centuries.

Iconoclastic damage (1643) and rediscovery (c. 1800)

The destruction, reconstruction, and movement of the cross obviously involved modern interventions with its fabric. The iconoclasts, in addition to pulling the cross down and breaking it up, defaced the lower portion of the monument with chisels or similar implements to about an adult's height from the base (figure 1).2

Figure 1. (Roll over to enlarge.) Iconoclastic damage on three faces of the Ruthwell Cross (from left): West face, South face, East face. (Photographs, James Graham for the Visionary Cross project. © Visionary Cross Project, 2012, CC-BY). IMG_3393.JPG, IMG_3378.JPG, IMG_3375.JPG.

After it was pulled down, pieces of the cross were dispersed: one piece was partially buried in the church floor and perhaps used as a bench (Ó Carragáin, Ritual and the Rood 15, 21); other parts were scattered elsewhere in the church and churchyard: Duncan's interest in reassembling the cross appears to have been sparked sometime between 1799 and 1801 when a fragment was discovered in an exceptionally deep grave dug to accommodate a husband and wife who had died within a few days of each other (see Duncan 318-19; Ó Carragáin, Ritual and the Rood 18).3

Nineteenth-century reconstruction

The reconstruction also impacted on the physical features of the cross. In addition to filling in missing fragments of the original cross with stone blocks and mortar (and possibly pieces from other, otherwise lost, crosses on the site), and ultimately commissioning a new stone cross-piece, Duncan is said by Hannah Mary Wright to have had the cross hollowed and reinforced with an iron rod "inserted through its length" (Wright 20). The location of the cross in the manse garden for eighty-five years led to the growth of lichen and significant erosion (see Wright 18). Some sense of how heavy this erosion was can be seen on the transom, which shows signs of significant degradation, even though it was new when added to the cross by Duncan in 1823. Before the cross was pulled down, it appears to have been inside Murray's Quire (now part of the church building, but originally a separate attachment, see Orton, Wood, and Lees): this is where Reginald Bainbrigg describes seeing it during his visit in either 1599 or 1601—in contrast to the Bewcastle Cross, which he describes as being in the churchyard (see Ó Carragáin, Ritual and the Rood 13, 33; cf. O'Neill 20). When the cross was moved indoors into the specially constructed apse in 1873, it was taken apart and moved in pieces. Original architectural drawings now hanging on the walls of the Murray Quire inside the church show the initial design of the new apse and some ideas "shewing the proposed method for the safe removal of the cross" using complex and large-scale machinery (these drawings are initial sketches: the final form of the apse as constructed deviates somewhat from the architect's drawings). A first-hand account of the move itself was recorded by McFarlan's wife Helen in her privately published journal:

The skill and ingenuity of Dr. Henry Duncan, in piecing together the many fragments called forth admiration and grateful remembrance, as they were one by one detached and laid carefully on the grass ... Next day, the socket having been prepared, and a gentle slope arranged towards it, the base of the Cross—the large block which forms the lower half of it—was wheeled round into position. The rope, fastened around the stone, was passed over a pulley and grasped by men inside the church, the minister and his boys laying hold of it too ... At a given signal the rope was pulled with a will, the grand old block rose forwards, and, guided by the sculptor's hand, slid unscathed into its resting-place.

A scaffolding was quickly erected, and the other parts of the monument restored to their places (quoted in Orton, Wood, and Lees 60; a sketch by John Dods, who assisted McFarlan, can be found in O'Neill 104).

Subsequent changes

Moving day in 1873 was the last intervention on this scale in the cross's history. It was not, however, the last time observers have altered its fabric. The attention of scholars, along with the exigencies of daily life in an active religious community, have also left their impression on the monument, although few of these can be dated with any certainty other than to say that they belong to the late nineteenth or twentieth centuries.

Cleaning and removal of lichen (between 1873 and 1894)

The main lower stone of the cross was moved to the manse garden after the floor of the church and quire was paved between 1760 and 1782 (Ó Carragáin, Ritual and the Rood 19). Duncan began his reconstruction of the cross soon after his discovery of the first few additional fragments before 1802. These fragments, supplemented by the addition of the modern crosspiece in 1823, stood outdoors subject to the Scottish elements for as long as, in some cases, another eighty-five years. In addition to erosion from wind and rain, and frost damage, these conditions also promoted the growth of lichen and mosses, as reported by Wright in 1873 and easily seen in a photo of the cross in the Manse garden taken by J. Richards two years before it was moved into the church (figure 2).

Figure 2. (Roll over to enlarge) General view of cross taken before removal into Ruthwell Church, showing lichen and moss. Inscribed "Runic Cross. Ruthwell. J.R[ichards]. 1883." Copy of vintage photograph on glass. General Collection. Photographs. J E D Murray. Date 1883 Image courtesy of RCAHMS. Item SC1115768.

This growth was removed from the cross some time before 1894, probably 1887, at which point a plaster mould was taken from the (by then) clean cross. A photo of the cross inside the church by Erskine Beveridge taken on July 20, 1896 also shows the cross in what is recognisably its current, largely moss- and lichen-free state (figure 3).

Figure 3. (Roll over to enlarge) General view of the Ruthwell Cross. Photograph by Erskine Beveridge Date July 20, 1896. Image courtesy of RCAHMS. Item SC747876

Casting (1894)

In the mid-to-late nineteenth century, plaster casts were commonly made of monuments, sculptures, architectural features, etc., and distributed to museums for the purpose of making immovable cultural heritage objects accessible to urban populations at a time when travel was expensive, and for the use of art students in art schools (Victoria and Albert Museum, "Introduction to the Cast Court Collection"). The process began with the creation of a negative mould taken from the original artifact (Victoria and Albert Museum, "The Cast Courts"). A separating agent was used to prevent the wet plaster or other moulding agents from sticking to the object. Since almost all sculptural and architectural objects, including the Ruthwell Cross, have projections, indentations, and undercuttings, such moulds were made in pieces with, as we shall see, larger sections cut into smaller sections for easier removal. They were then recombined in an outer casing to which a separating agent was applied and plaster poured to make a positive impression.

The Ruthwell Cross was captured in this way in 1894 by Leopoldo Arrighi of Edinburgh at the commission of the Edinburgh Museum of Science and Art. As described by the Director of the Edinburgh Museum of Science and Art in 1893, the proposed technique was to be "the usual one of first covering the Cross with a thin covering of soap and then applying the thin soft plaster, bit by bit, by hand ... I can confidently assure the Heritors that the taking of the cast will not cause the very slightest injury to the Cross." Which separating agent Arrighi actually used is not known, but is relevant in terms of traces of the casting process that may be left on the Cross (see below). The Edinburgh Museum arranged for Arrighi to make (and be paid for) duplicate casts for the South Kensington Museum, the Dublin Museum of Science and Industry, the Museums and Art Galleries of the City of Glasgow, the Dundee Free Library of the Corporation of Dundee, Durham Cathedral (all in 1894), and the Manchester School of Art and Belgian Royal Commission for International Exchanges (1898) (Foster 81; Hewison 19 note 6). According to Ó Carragáin, a cast also made its way to Cardiff Museum (Ó Carragáin, Ritual and the Rood 13). Edinburgh University also has a cast of the top arm of the cross, probably also dating from the 1890s. In the early 1950s Hindshaw & Co. of Pendleton made a further copy for Manchester Museum, borrowing the Edinburgh moulds (Worsley, Norris, and McCombe 2); this is now in the Discovery Centre, Leeds City Museum. Many of these casts survive (and—to be confirmed—possibly some of the moulds), if only in part, and sometimes repainted.3

In addition to what may possibly survive as traces invisible to the eye, as in the case of the St Andrews Sarcophagus, this casting process has also left its visible mark on the cross, as was discovered by the Visionary Cross team during their work scaffolding, photographing, and scanning the Ruthwell cross in April 2012 and, subsequently, by Robert Broatch of Clarencefield, at the request of the Visionary Cross team: there are two faint cut marks around the shaft of the cross, apparently created when the original moulds were being removed.

The lower of these two is the easiest to see: it passes through the Annunciation panel on the (current) South side of the cross and the Journey into Egypt panel on the (current) North side, bisecting the knees of the figures in each panel in each case5; it also passes through the vine scrolls on the East and West sides. While this mark is very fine and easy to miss on the cross itself, it is quite clear on the Manchester (now Leeds) cast, as the following photos illustrate (figure 4):

Figure 4. (Roll over to enlarge) Comparison of the cut-mark visible on the Ruthwell Cross "Annunciation" panel. Left: Ruthwell Cross. Right: plaster cast, formerly in the Manchester Museum. Bottom: detail from Ruthwell Cross. Ruthwell Cross photo by James Graham for the Visionary Cross (adapted from IMG_3371.JPG). Manchester cast photo, John Prag, Project Woruldhord, University of Oxford (© 2010 Creative Commons Licence CC-BY-NC-SA).

Figure 5. (Roll over to enlarge) Knife cut crossing below feet of Christ healing the blind man (South face) and above the hands of Saints Paul and Anthony (North face). Photo by James Graham for the Visionary Cross (adapted from IMG_3370.JPG and IMG_3384.JPG).

The second cut mark is much harder to see and is not reflected in the Manchester/Leeds casting (this mark was discovered by Robert Broatch after discussions with the Visionary Cross team). It is clearest on the North face, just above the hands of Saints Paul and Anthony (this cut is clearly visible in figure 5, above, and can be seen in our as yet unpublished 3D models). It crosses the right hand (West) border through the nineteenth-century mortar and reappears across the top of the blank portion at the foot of Christ healing the blind man on the South face.

Graffiti (after 1823, perhaps twentieth-century?)

The last example of modern interventions with the fabric of the cross involves pencil graffiti on the top of the (current) East and West arms of the nineteenth-century crosspiece. These marks are extremely difficult to see with the naked eye and cannot be seen at all from the ground. They were discovered by the Visionary Cross team on the first day of scanning after scaffolding had been erected to allow us access to the top of the cross (see Visionary Cross Project for photos of this scaffolding and work). Both examples are written in what looks like graphite pencil in block capitals. The surface is extremely rough and, as a result, the hand(s) very coarse and difficult to read. Because the writing is so rough, it can only be seen if the light and angle are correct. The Visionary Cross team worked for several hours at the top of the cross before it noticed the graffiti. Readings on site proved next to impossible, though the photographic evidence is somewhat clearer and can be enhanced. The marks on the West arm of the crosspiece appear to read W ALSTON or WALSTON, with underlining (Figure 6 left). The marks on the East arm are in two or more lines, oriented with the top towards the cross shaft (Figure 6 right). The second row from top appears to read NEWBIE; the first row has seven or eight letters, perhaps beginning with an I or J and ending in ATE E or AME E. The remaining lines, if that's what they are, cannot be deciphered.

Figure 5. (Roll over to enlarge) Graffiti on the Ruthwell Cross. Left: W ALSTON. Right: (?)ATE E(?) / NEWBIE / (?). Photo by James Graham for the Visionary Cross (adapted from IMG_1716.JPG and IMG_1718.JPG).

All of these appear to be local references. Alston is a family name in the Dumfries area: there was an Alston family in Ruthwell throughout much of the nineteenth century (1851 Scotland Census, National Records of Scotland; National Records of Scotland, the Court of the Lord Lyon, and DC Thomson Family History) and the name is relatively common in the surrounding area to this day; Walston and Alston are also place names in the broader region: there is a town Walston about 100 kilometres to the north of Ruthwell, and a town Alston in Cumbria, about 80 kilometres to the South East. Newbie is more rare as a surname (although it is found in the nearby towns of Hoddom and Annan in the nineteenth century, see National Records of Scotland, the Court of the Lord Lyon, and DC Thomson Family History). But there is also a small village of Newbie, approximately 11 kilometres to the East of Ruthwell.

Exactly what this graffiti refers to is, of course, uncertain. During our work on site, some parishioners suggested that the contractors who last painted the church ceiling might have come from Newbie. It is also possible that the graffiti was added in the nineteenth century during the reconstruction of the cross or its relocation—although to the extent it is possible to judge handwriting on such a small and unrepresentative sample, the letter forms look more contemporary.


The Ruthwell Cross is a living monument that belongs as much to the modern era as it does to the Anglo-Saxon. Its location, fabric, and form have been shaped nearly as much by post-medieval intervention as by the original Anglo-Saxon sculptor(s) who carved it—from the seventeenth-century iconoclasts who damaged its surface and pulled it down, to Henry Duncan, James McFarlan, and the nineteenth-century craftsmen who rebuilt it, contributed new stones, and moved it into its current location.

But this engagement with the material of the cross has continued even into the age of modern scholarship: late nineteenth-century hands cleaned the reconstructed the cross and cleared it of its moss and lichen, and formatori partially damaged its panels in the process of making moulds to be used in bringing it to museum-goers in Britain, Ireland and beyond; at some point, pencil graffiti was also added, perhaps by contractors working on the church's maintenance as late as the end of the twentieth century. Historic Scotland conservators regularly monitor its condition, and clean it, but have not yet needed to make any significant interventions since its 1887 relocation.

Works Cited

1851 Scotland Census, National Records of Scotland. N.p. Web. 29 May 2015.

Bailey, Richard N. and Rosemary Cramp. Cumberland, Westmorland and Lancashire North-of-the Sands. Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture 2. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988. Print.

Dinwiddie, John Linton. The Ruthwell Cross and Its Story with Seven Illustrations. Dumfries: Robert Dinwiddie, 1927. Print.

Dumfries and Galloway Family History Society. Ruthwell Parish Church Graveyard Monumental Inscriptions. Dumfries: Dumfries and Galloway Family History Society, 2006. Print.

Duncan, Henry. "Account of the Remarkable Monument, in the Shape of a Cross, Inscribed with Roman and Runic Letters, Preserved in the Garden of Ruthwell Manse, Dumfriesshire." Transactions of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland IV.2 (1833): 313-326. Print.

Foster, Sally M. "Circulating Agency the V&A, Scotland and the Multiplication of Plaster Casts of 'Celtic Crosses.'" Journal of the History of Collections 27.1 (2015): 73-96. Web. 27 May 2015.

General Assemblies of the Church of Scotland. The Acts of the General Assemblies of the Church of Scotland from the year 1638 to the year 1649. Inclusive. To which are now added the index of imprinted Acts of the Assemblies; and the Acts of the General Assembly 1690. Edinburgh, 1691. Print.

Hewison, James King. The Runic Roods of Ruthwell and Bewcastle, with a Short History of the Cross and Crucifix in Scotland. Glasgow: J. Smith, 1914. Print.

Lowe, Christopher, Daphne Brooke, and Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. Excavations at Hoddom, Dumfriesshire: An Early Ecclesiastical Site in South-West Scotland. Edinburgh: Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 2006. Print.

National Records of Scotland, the Court of the Lord Lyon, and DC Thomson Family History. "Surname: 'ALSTON'; Surname Option: Exact; Forename: ; Forename Option: Prefix; Sex: 'Any'; Date From: 01 January 1538; Date To: 31 December 1854; Parish: RUTHWELL;." Database search result. ScotlandsPeople. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 May 2015.

Ó Carragáin, Éamonn. "Christian Inculturation in Eighth-Century Northumbria: The Bewcastle and Ruthwell Crosses." Colloquium Journal 4 (2007): n. pag. Web. 12 Dec. 2012.

-----. Ritual and the Rood: Liturgical Images and the Old English Poems of the Dream of the Rood Tradition. London; Toronto; New York: British Library; University of Toronto Press, 2005. Print.

O'Neill, Pamela. "A Pillar Curiously Engraven with Some Inscription upon It": What is the Ruthwell Cross? Oxford: Archaeopress, 2005. Print.

Orton, Fred, Ian Wood, and Clare A. Lees. Fragments of History: Rethinking the Ruthwell and Bewcastle Monuments. Manchester University Press, 2008. Print.

Ruthwell Kirk: Cummertrees, Mouswald and Ruthwell Church of Scotland. "Welcome to Ruthwell Kirk." Ruthwell Kirk: Church of Scotland. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 May 2015.

Victoria and Albert. "Plaster Cast." Digital Library. Victoria and Albert Search the Collections. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 May 2015.

Victoria and Albert Museum. "Introduction to the Cast Court Collection." Victoria and Albert Online Museum. N.p., 20 May 2011. Web. 27 May 2015.

-----. "The Cast Courts." Victoria and Albert Online Museum. N.p., 25 Jan. 2011. Web. 27 May 2015.

Visionary Cross Project. "First Day's Scanning and Photography." Photo Album. Flickr - Photo Sharing! N.p., 2012. Web. 29 May 2015.

Worsley, Darren, Sarah Norris, and Robert McCombe. Notes on Colouring the Ruthwell and Bewcastle Crosses. Manchester: Manchester Museum. Web. 27 May 2015.

Wright, Hannah Mary. The Ruthwell Cross and Other Remains of the Late Hannah Mary Wright. Edinburgh: John Greig & Son, 1873. Web. 30 May 2013.

1. Hobma was responsible for the initial drafting of this article and shared responsibility for subsequent revisions; O'Donnell significantly revised the original draft and shared primary responsibility for subsequent revisions and editing; Graham, Karkov, Osborn, Rosselli Del Turco, Callieri, and Dellepiane were part of the research team responsible for the scanning and assisted in the acquisition of the research data and contributed to the revision. Foster contributed original research on modern castings of the cross and revised the paper. Susan and Robert Broach assisted in the examination of the cross and participated in the revision of the paper.

2. File names referenced in this article are from the (currently) unpublished data held by the Visionary Cross Project. All material is © Visionary Cross Project, 2012. It is made available under a Creative Commons 2.0 Attribution (CC-BY) licence.

3. We have been unable to identify a suitable candidate for the relevant burial (e.g. in Dumfries and Galloway Family History Society).

4. A study and inventory of Ruthwell Cross casts and moulds is in preparation by Foster, O'Donnell, and Hobma.

5. Many scholars assume the cross is currently rotated 45° from its original orientation (see Ó Carragáin, Ritual and the Rood for one discussion). Descriptions of the cross in this article use its current orientation.