Friday, December 5, 2014

The Rona Cross

I think the North Rona three-holed-cross is the most intriguing early Christian monument in the Hebrides. When I first saw it in 1990, it looked a bit sad and neglected, standing in a dusty case in a dark corner of Teampull Mholuaidh in Eoropie, a mile south of the Butt of Lewis. Here is a photo of the cross from 1990 - you can see it to the left of the very young fellow in the white coat. (Oh how he wishes he took a close up photo of the cross back then.)

The Rona Cross in Teampull Mholuaidh - 1990
Teampull Mholuaidh - 1990
In 1992 the cross was placed in the custody of the Ness Historical Society, and it can be seen today in their museum in Ness. 

The most informative history of the cross that I have come across is Michael Robson's Rona: The Distant Island. In it, he says the cross was removed from Rona 'more than 50 years ago'. As the book was published in 1990, I assume that means it was taken to Lewis in the 1930s. Michael Robson's wonderful book was given to me by Rhoddy MacLeod in 2006. Rhoddy, who passed away in 2011, now lies buried in the holy ground of St Michael's, on the island of Little Bernera.

The Rona Cross on the cover of Rona: The Distant Island, by Michael Robson
Memorial to Rhoddy Macleod - Little Berneray
The Rona cross is an interesting stone. It is pierced by three holes; perhaps symbols of the trinity, and these holes line up with the neck, and armpits, of a figure carved on the cross. Even more odd is the giant phallus/fertility symbol depicted on the torso of the figure, which was either missed (or ignored) by those who wrote about the cross for many years. One of the first depictions of the cross, based on T.S. Muir's drawing from the 1850s, is a simple outline drawing used on the cover of an early book on Rona by Malcolm Stewart: Ronay (1933).

It is a shame the cross was taken from Rona.These days you'll find a half dozen similar cross-stones in-situ on Rona, and some collected inside St Ronan's Chapel, but none have holes in them.

Cross-Stones at the entrance to St Ronan's Cell - 1
Cross-Stones at the entrance to St Ronan's Cell - 2
Cross stone still in the burial ground
The earliest known (I think) photo of the three-holed-cross, is this 1887 photo that shows J A Harvie Brown at St Ronan's Chapel. Brown can be seen reclining in the grass (marked with a 'B'). The three-holed-cross is marked with an 'A'.

If you've read book 2, then you know that during a visit to Rona in 2002 I wanted, but did not have the time, to recreate that photo of Harvie-Brown reclining in the grass by St Ronan's Chapel. But on a return visit in 2011 I had plenty of time to play around, and so I took this 'selfie' reclining in the grass in front of the chapel. The original location of the three-holed-cross is marked with an 'X".

A year before that return to Rona, my wife and I visited the museum in Ness to see the three-holed-cross. Although part of me would like to see it in its true home, it is probably a good thing the stone is now in the safe-keeping of the museum. So next time you're on Lewis, be sure to visit the museum to pay your respects to the ancient cross of St Ronan. And if you want an experience to remember for a lifetime, dedicate a couple week's holiday to get out to North Rona. Northern Light Charters offers such a trip every other year. Unfortunately their 2015 trip is fully booked, but perhaps, if the demand is there, they'll offer it again in 2017.

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