Probative Quarters in Cupar

The final post in the series on Alfred Huhnhäuser’s photographic archive is coming soon, but in the meantime here’s a lighter one – the fruits of some field work in Fife over the weekend.

Part of my preparatory work for the first volume of the Scottish Corpus of Carved Stones (which may or may not have exactly that title in final form) has been to undertake a visual survey of every early modern carved stone in the kingdom of Fife. This has resulted in all manner of wonderful discoveries, such as this recumbent slab currently propped against the side of the kirk in Cupar:

The inscription can be reconstructed with the assistance of a reading taken in 1933 (characters in brackets represent text legible at that time but now unreadable):

A recumbent slab with an inscribed border is probably the single most common form of early modern Scottish funeral monument, but what sets this stone apart from the ordinary are the nine coats of arms in the central panel. The scroll to the left (the viewer’s right) of the heraldic helm reads “THE MOTHERS SYD” and an equivalent inscription headed “THE FATHERS SYD” can be presumed to have once been present on the companion scroll.

What we’re seeing here are the deceased’s “probative quarters”, the arms of their eight great-grandparents. The legal and cultural practice of recording noble ancestry for a given number of generations – usually back to great- or great-great-grandparents – was common on the continent, especially the German lands, but only intermittently practiced in Scotland (for another example, see my blogpost here). In Fife it seems to have had particular currency in the early modern period, but this stone is still exceptional for dramatising its subject’s ancestral nobility in such a striking fashion.

Visible on the left hand (paternal) side are the arms of: (1) Crichton of Cranston Riddell, (2) Corstorphine of that Ilk, (3) Forrester, and (4) unreadable. On the right hand (maternal) side are those of: (5) the Earls of Buccleuch, (6) Beaton of Creich, (7) the Earls of Roxburgh, and (8) the Earls of Erroll. Any heraldically literate viewer would have been acutely aware of Thomas Crichton’s illustrious pedigree and his kinship to a series of powerful noble families across Scotland.

It is a distressing evidence of the rapid deterioration of these monuments over the course of the twentieth century that the inscription on the Crichton memorial, almost fully legible in 1933, should now be fragmentary, and that the closest analogy to this stone, the 1734 monument to John Melville in nearby Kilmany, should be completely lost, though fully legible as late as 1896. These irreversible erasures of Scotland’s artistic heritage make me all the more determined to do as much as I can to make the Corpus of Carved Stones a reality before it’s too late.

The only surviving record the Melville monument at Kilmany, reproduced from R. C. Walker’s “Notes on a Heraldic Monument at Kilmany, Fifeshire”, PSAS 31 (1896-97): 94-98.

© 2019 Kelsey Jackson Williams

Post-Book Pleasures

One of the nicest things about having submitted my book manuscript has been the suddenly-restored space in which to simply read, think, and tentatively write about new ideas.  I’m already working on my latest research project – a study of carved stones in Scotland – but that’s both long-term and expansive in its remit, so there’s been plenty of space in which to explore.

At the moment that’s taking the form of some research and the beginnings of writing on a monument I’ve been fascinated by for a number of years: the towering baroque tomb of the Marquess and Marchioness of Atholl in Dunkeld Cathedral.


The Atholl Monument (1704-05), Dunkeld Cathedral.

The monument commemorates the first marquess of Atholl, a nobleman in the characteristic Restoration mould, and his half-English, half-French wife.  Its designer, however, was none other than Alexander Edward, the prolific and polymathic Jacobite, Episcopal minister, and architect who was an associate of William Bruce and a client of the Maules of Panmure.  Remarkably, Edward’s original plans for the monument survive and lately I’ve been exploring what this can tell us about its purpose and its larger architectural and art historical context.

It’s an exciting project, but mostly I’m just pleased to be working on something other than the book!

Copyright © 2018 Kelsey Jackson Williams

Conference Season

It’s the middle of conference season, at least for me.  While the book continues to occupy most of my time, I’ve also been busy with a few papers which I hope might be interesting and indicative of some of the new directions in which my research has been moving.  If you’re there anyway, you might enjoy:

Towards a Theoretical Model of the Epigraphic Landscape

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Thursday, 12 July, 9-9.50am, 11th Celtic Conference in Classics, University of St Andrews.

This will be my first attempt to fully explain some of the methodological and theoretical approaches I’ve been developing for the study of early modern carved stones and I’ll be using the wonderful (bizarre?) object in the picture above as a case study.  If you feel strangely exhilarated by post-processual archaeology, then this will be a paper not to be missed.

The Origins of Engraving in Scotland

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Wednesday, 18 July, 11-12.30am, Eighteenth-Century Scottish Studies Society Conference, University of Glasgow.

In retrospect, I should probably have gone with a paper that spoke more directly to my new book, but I couldn’t resist talking a little about the sudden and unexplained flowering of the art of engraving in Scotland around the year 1700.  Later that day I’ll also be at the Stirling Centre for Eighteenth-Century Studies gin tasting (!) in Glasgow University Library, for which I would heartily encourage you to reserve a ticket if you’ve not yet done so.  Nothing says “eighteenth century” like gin . . . .

New Light on Old Stones: Reassessing the Post-Reformation Funeral Monuments in St Andrews Cathedral

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Saturday, 18 August, 3-4pm (tentatively), Medieval and Early Modern St Andrews: A One-Day Conference, University of St Andrews.

I’m extremely pleased to be consulting for Historic Environment Scotland on the post-Reformation carved stones in St Andrews Cathedral and as part of that larger project I’ll be talking about my initial findings at this conference.  The corpus of carved stones in the cathedral is outstanding and reveals some exciting connections between the East of Fife and the wider world.

If you happen to be at any of these, please do say hello!  Only ask me about the book at the last one, though . . . .

Copyright © 2018 Kelsey Jackson Williams

Kayaking and Epigraphy: A Match Made in Heaven?

A few months ago, the Historian and I were on holiday in Mull, bouncing along sheep-strewn single-track roads in our aging but faithful Honda Jazz in search of whatever antiquities we could find.  We found plenty, including a possibly unrecorded boat graveyard, dozens of pre-Clearance settlements, and a Victorian country house with a particularly delectable vegetable garden, but the most exciting discoveries weren’t on the mainland of Mull itself but in the waters to the west.

The island of Inch Kenneth (Innis Choinnich) lies at the end of Loch na Keal, off the west coat of Ulva, where the loch meets the open sea.  Visited by Johnson and Boswell, it was later the home of Unity Mitford, whose utterly disgusting mansion continues to survive on the island’s south side, and is now home more or less entirely to sheep.  It’s also the site of a medieval church and that was the goal of our visit.  We kayaked over from the sound of Ulva – a slightly nerve-wracking experience, even in reasonably good seas – and spent the better part of the morning exploring the island and its antiquities.


And such antiquities!  There were beautifully carved funeral monuments dating from the late middle ages to the nineteenth century, a sample of which you can see in the photo above.  In this post, though, I want to talk about three heavily worn but spectacular carved stones which currently lie in the midst of the Victorian graveyard and which have not, I think, been written on before.  Their inscriptions are enigmatic at best, entirely non-existent for two out of the three.  How do we interpret these stones?

The answer is through heraldry.  Each stone contains weathered but still discernible coats of arms and it is these which allow us to make some educated guesses as to their period and subjects.  Hebridean heraldry is rather unusual compared to most western European heraldic traditions but its oddity helps in this case.


To begin with the first, and easiest, above.  We have the partially damaged initials and date (“HML”, “1676”) as well as a quartered shield of which quarters two, three, and four are a tower, a birlinn, and a hand holding a cross, respectively.  These arms match those of the Macleans of Lochbuie as recorded in 1672, but the date makes me suspect that instead it belongs to a cousin of the Lochbuie family, Hector Ruadh Maclean of Coll who died in that year.


The second stone presents more of a challenge.  Once again, we’re presented with the characteristic quartered shield of Hebridean heraldry, but only the first quarter (two towers) is immediately recognisable.  Had that been all, it would have been impossible to identify this tomb, but we’re fortunate to have notes on Inchkenneth made by Duncan Macleod of Salen, Mull, in 1897 which gives us the remaining quarters (a triskele, second; a deer’s head, third; and a repeat of the two towers, fourth) as well as the now obliterated date “1758”.  The presence of the Macleod triskele may suggest that this stone belonged to a later Hector Maclean of Coll who died in 1754 and whose mother was a Macleod.


The arms are better preserved on the final stone in this sequence and appears to show a fess chequy in the first and fourth quarters, a triskele in the second, and a heart in the third.  The combination of the fess chequy of the Stewarts with the triskele common to the Macleods in a Mull context may suggest that this stone belonged to a child of Robert Stewart, 8th of Appin (died by 1739) and Isabel Macleod.  Robert’s mother was a Maclean of Coll, one of Hector Ruadh’s daughters, providing a connection to the Inch Kenneth burial ground.

What initially appeared to be three disparate stones turn out to be linked by familial ties and to represent a larger pattern of burials on the part of the Maclean family of Coll.  In turn this encourages us, I think, to consider the remarkable richness of these stones’ carvings as evidence of an island visual culture which is all too often neglected.  In 1897 Duncan Macleod saw several more stones in the vicinity which are now vanished or buried and commented on the presence of others which even then were “so worn as to render them wholly illegible”.  Instead of surprising outliers, these monuments are the fragmentary relics of an largely lost Baroque material culture of commemoration common to the gentry families of the Inner Hebrides.

Copyright © 2017 Kelsey Jackson Williams

Mural Monuments in Crail

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The funeral monument of James Lumsden of Airdrie (d. 1598) in Crail Kirkyard – one of the grander pieces of monumental sculpture in Fife.

I’ve been interested in the remarkable early modern epigraphic landscape of Crail kirkyard (in the East Neuk of Fife) for about as long as I’ve been interested in carved stones.  A while ago I wrote a small piece on Crail, comparing its carved stones with analogous wooden relics for the Scottish Archaeological Research Framework, and I’m now very pleased to be giving a paper to the Crail History Society next week on the same topic.  I’ll be looking specifically at how we can track local monuments’ deterioration through comparing their current condition with a series of photographs taken by Erskine Beveridge in the 1890s, but I’m moderately optimistic that the talk won’t actually be as dry as it sounds!

For anyone interested, the paper will be given in the Legion Hall, Nethergate, Crail, at 7.30pm, Tuesday, 13 June.  Hecklers always welcome . . . .

Copyright © 2017 Kelsey Jackson Williams

The Future of Early Modern Scottish Studies

What a great conference!  I probably shouldn’t say that quite so unreservedly, given that I was one of the organisers, but last weekend’s conference on “The Future of Early Modern Scottish Studies” really did exceed all expectations.  Over two days we had twenty-two speakers from across Europe and America, two roundtable discussions, five debate-filled coffee breaks, and an absolutely fantastic evening courtesy of the Byre and the St Andrews Brewing Company (neither of which, I suspect, have quite the same concentration of fowk gabbin in braid Scots maist Fryday nichts).


The general roundtable: “where do we go from here?”

I can’t even begin to single out particular papers for praise – they were all excellent and on such a wide variety of exciting topics: newly-discovered religious poetry, forgotten chapters in Scottish art history, blackness, globalisation, Scots at home, abroad, the Privy Council, a recently recovered legal manuscript, and many, many more.  What had been less obvious to me before the conference, though, but which became very obvious as we went on were the larger trends in what people were studying and how they were studying it.  Scottish studies (history, especially) has a long and distinguished tradition of focusing on the country’s political and economic contexts, so it was surprising – and exciting! – to see an overwhelming majority of papers focusing on Scotland’s cultural history and, more than anything, on the history of its texts, both printed and in manuscript.  As someone who, after carrying on a lengthy flirtation with the label of “intellectual historian”, has gradually settled into the role of being a cultural historian, that was very exciting, indeed.


Jamie Reid-Baxter kicking off the conference on Friday morning with a cracking paper on religious poetry in early seventeenth-century Fife.

What was also exciting was the level of energy in the room.  People were brimming over with ideas, with plans, with projects and it was impossible not to come away with the impression that early modern Scottish studies are currently more vibrant than ever.  You can get a sense of some of that energy if you look at the live-tweeting on the hashtag #EMScots2017.  Certainly it left me feeling incredibly buoyed up and positive about where our field is going.

If you missed the conference and wished you’d had the chance to listen to a paper or two, don’t worry!  Part of our plan from the beginning was to record and make freely available on the conference website the majority of the papers presented and we’ll be moving forward with that in the coming months.  An edited volume is also in the works and I’m very hopeful that the momentum the conference has generated will be sustained well into the future, whether by its subsequent outputs or by the links and friends formed during those two days.

Copyright © 2017 Kelsey Jackson Williams

Stravaigin: Innis Bhuidhe, Killin

The highland village of Killin is bisected by the River Dochart which splits just below the old bridge there to form an island: Innis Bhuidhe (“yellow island” in Gaelic). Last week the Historian and I were in Killin. Having obtained the gate keys from the local librarian, we made our way onto the island itself, a surprisingly still, silent space in the midst of the busy village, its sounds dampened by a thick carpet of yellow leaves and a heavy canopy of branches above. While the Historian hunted an extremely camera-shy red squirrel, I turned my attention to the shaped and carved stones which inhabited this autumnal landscape.


Entering Innis Bhuidhe (© Dawn Hollis)

On first passing through the gate to the island, you are confronted with two massive pillars and a rubble-built screen wall, but thereafter the path leads straight and unimpeded through the trees until you pass across a ditch and inner rampart of earth, encircled by a low stony bank, to enter the prehistoric fort at the north-east end of the island. It wasn’t the fort we were after, though, but what was subsequently built atop it: a burial ground for the clan Mac an Aba (MacNab).


The burial ground viewed from the east (© Dawn Hollis)

This burial ground is complex to say the least. It contains seventeen carved stones – that I could see, anyway – as well as a number of uncut stones and a large rubble-built enclosure. According to local tradition, the burials within the enclosure pertain to the chiefly family of the MacNabs of Bovain while those outside, to the east, belong to other cadet members of the clan. What I found most intriguing, though, were the multiple layers of use and reuse, all wrapped up in complex, sometimes competing meanings, which were evident in the site.


Peeking through the gate into the enclosure.  Note the recumbent figure almost buried in grass and leaves (© Dawn Hollis)

The enclosure itself – like the pillars and screen wall at the other end of the island – seems to be eighteenth century in date and was probably the doing of the antiquarian-minded Francis MacNab of Bovain (1733-1816). Within it, however, are at least two significantly earlier burials. The gate to the enclosure was locked when we were there, so I was unable to examine the stones inside in detail, but one was undoubtedly the perhaps medieval recumbent figure which has been noticed by a number of previous scholars. A worn and grass-covered thruchstane which had no carving visible from ten feet away was probably the tomb noticed by William Gillies in the 1930s as that of Finlay MacNab of Bovain (d. 1573×74).

So we have a first period of sixteenth-century, perhaps even medieval, use of this burial space (I should also mention in passing that the Chronicle of Fortingall records the death of an earlier Finlay MacNab of Bovain who died in 1525 and was “sepultus in Kyllyn”, quite possibly on Innis Bhuidhe). There is no material evidence of futher burial, however, until 1777, when a roughly incised headstone was erected east of the enclosure with the inscription “Hear lay the cors of patrick McnaB in [sic] Taylor in Aucharn Woodend 1777”. This was followed by a series of burials in the first decades of the nineteenth century, some commemorated by contemporary stones, others by small rectangular wall plaques which appear to be early to mid-twentieth century in date.


The pictorial reverse of Patrick MacNab in Aucharn’s stone.  A traditional angelic head is visible at the top of the stone as well as remnants of memento mori symbols further down (© Dawn Hollis)

The third period of use is in the modern day, from the 1970s to the present, represented by one wall monument on the exterior of the enclosure and several tombstones in the area to the east. With one exception these commemorate the most recent generations of the chiefs of Clan Macnab, proudly denominated as such on the stones, and their spouses. Judging from the recently erected sign on the screen wall, the burial ground as a whole is now partly or wholly in ownership of the clan association.

If we think for a moment in terms of the creation of heritage or the creation of a certain type of memorialising space, Innis Bhuidhe offers a particularly interesting example. An early modern, possibly medieval, burial ground has been demarcated and reused in the late eighteenth century, and this same burial ground has been reimagined as a locus for clan “belonging” in the late twentieth century. The result is a complex, layered space which is brimming with multiple signifiers pointing in different directions (early modern displays of power, eighteenth-century antiquarian pride, modern fascination with genealogy and heritage), but also overlapping and entangled with each other, as in the case of the twentieth-century plaque within the enclosure which proudly notes that “there are fifteen graves in this enclosure nine of them being graves of chiefs”.


This plaque and the others like it appear to postdate a 1911 survey of Innis Bhuidhe (© Dawn Hollis)

If Innis Bhuidhe has taught me something, it’s that when studying early modern carved stones, you can’t study them in a chronological vacuum; you have to be aware of the later use and reuse of sites as well as the meanings which subsequent generations have given them. In due course, I’d like to return, obtain permission to access the enclosure, and properly record the early stones within, but those stones can only be made sense of fully in light of how they were preserved and understood, whether that was by a lineage-obsessed Georgian gentleman or by a modern clan association spreading halfway across the world.


One of the remarkable eighteenth-century heads atop the enclosure wall (© Dawn Hollis)

Copyright © 2016 Kelsey Jackson Williams