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Title: An Attempt to Explain the Origin and Meaning of the Early Interlaced Ornamentation Found on the Sculptured Stones of Scotland, Ireland, and the Isle of Man
Author: French, Gilbert J.
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "An Attempt to Explain the Origin and Meaning of the Early Interlaced Ornamentation Found on the Sculptured Stones of Scotland, Ireland, and the Isle of Man" ***

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                               AN ATTEMPT
                         OF THE EARLY INTERLACED

                              FOUND ON THE

                        Ancient Sculptured Stones


                       SCOTLAND, IRELAND, AND THE
                              ISLE OF MAN.

                           GILBERT J. FRENCH,
                               OF BOLTON.


                    PRINTED BY CHARLES SIMMS AND CO.


Any reasonable and honest attempt to explain the origin of the singularly
elegant interlaced ornamentation, familiar to archæologists as the very
earliest style of artistic decoration known in the British islands,
must be entitled to, and I feel assured will receive, favourable
consideration. Even should the attempted explanation fail to obtain
entire sanction, it will at least lead to attentive and accurate
observations upon an interesting subject, which may at some future time
refute or establish the theory which I venture to propound.

The style of interlaced ornament to which I refer is found in an infinite
variety of devices on the earliest sculpture, whether of stone or metal,
and in the oldest manuscripts and illuminations of Britain and Ireland.
It retained its peculiar distinctive character throughout the Roman
occupation of Britain, slightly modified by, and often mixed with,
classical ornaments. These, however, in a great measure disappeared
during the Saxon period, a circumstance which induces the belief that,
whatever its origin and purpose, interlaced ornamentation was equally
familiar to the Saxon invaders and to the British aborigines. It
entered largely into Norman architecture; but from the time of the
Conquest it gradually became less used, though traces of it are to be
met with at nearly every period in the history of British art. Thus
it was revived with the introduction of printing, when many beautiful
capital letters, copied from ancient manuscripts, were reproduced as
wood-cuts. It reappeared in the strap-work peculiar to the architecture
and ornamentation of the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras. It is found in
the bone-lace patterns of this country and of Northern Europe in the
sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and was retained in almost its
original purity for the decoration of the dirks, targets, brooches and
powder horns of the Scottish Highlanders within the last hundred years.[1]

Very striking examples of interlaced ornament are met with on the
ancient sculptured stones and crosses so plentifully scattered over our
islands. They have been of late brought into prominent notice by three
invaluable publications which graphically represent and accurately
describe these interesting relics of ancient art as they are now found
in Scotland[2], Ireland[3] and the Isle of Man[4]. It is to be regretted
that those of England and Wales—though many of them have been separately
engraved—have not yet been collected in a well-edited volume, since a
careful comparison of their details would prove an immense assistance to
antiquaries, bringing before them a new and delightful chapter, richly
full of pre-historic suggestions.

My remarks are confined to sculptured stones only, though the subject
would be greatly elucidated and my argument enforced by references
to manuscripts and metal ornamentation. This ground, however, is so
well occupied by gentlemen who have made palæography and metallic art
their peculiar study that I decline intruding upon it, even had it been
possible to treat it satisfactorily within the limits of this paper.

The aborigines of this or any other country of corresponding climate,
after discovering some natural cave, or making for themselves a rude hut,
would probably take their next step in constructive art by attempting
to form such utensils as might contain, and enable them to preserve,
the fruits and seeds necessary for food. Assuming that they were then
unprovided with even the rudest tools,—for we refer to a time before our
far-off ancestors knew the use of bronze or iron,—they would form these
utensils by twisting together the long, pliant osiers with which the land
abounded, and of which, by the unaided action of the fingers, they could
form baskets excellently adapted for the required purpose.

No other branch of art is even now so independent of tools, and none has
been so universally diffused or so long and uninterruptedly practised
as basket making. It is the humble parent of all textile art, the
most elaborate tissues produced by the loom or the needle being but
progressive developements proceeding from the rude wattle-work of
unclothed savages. Basket making is the first natural step in the path
of civilization. To this day the earliest effort of infantile ingenuity
among the rural population is directed to making (as it were by intuitive
instinct) personal ornaments of plaited rushes, and that, too, in
patterns, some of which are identical with the devices engraved by our
pre-historic ancestors on their old sculptured stones.

The earliest authentic records of Britain refer to its inhabitants as
expert basket makers; their houses were made of willows and reeds; their
fences and fortifications were living trees, with intertwisted branches;
their boats were baskets, covered with skins; their domestic furniture,
defensive armour, even the images employed in their erroneous religion,
were each of wicker-work; and though we have no absolute proof that
such was the case, it is at least probable that those famous chariots
so formidable to the Roman invaders were similarly constructed, for it
appears altogether impossible that the feats recorded of these celebrated
charioteers could have been performed with carriages of wood and iron;
though if we can suppose them to have been of small size, constructed
of elastic wicker-work, and placed upon low wheels, the accounts of
their marvellous movements become reasonable, and within the bounds of

The monastic historians of the succeeding ages continue to mention
wicker-work as the principal architectural material used in Britain and
Ireland, not only for the rude dwellings of the inhabitants, but also
for their more important public edifices and churches. Thus we find
that so late as the sixth century Dermot MacKervel assisted “the Abbot
St. Keyran to make a house to dwell in” by “thrusting down the peirs or
wattles” of which it was made.[5] The monastery founded by St. Columba
in the same century, though of much theological repute, must have had
little material grandeur, as it is known that the great apostle of the
Scots “sent forth his monks to gather twigs to build their hospice,”
and the abode of St. Woloc, a bishop of the same age, was “a simple hut
of wattles.” Glastonbury, supposed to have been the earliest Christian
church in England, was, on the authority of William of Malmesbury,[6] “a
mean structure of wattle-work;” and there are numerous other references
to churches and monasteries constructed altogether or in part of the same
material. Vestiges of such structures are now occasionally met with,
which verify the records of the Roman and Mediæval historians. Recently,
on the Etive in Argyleshire, the progress of agricultural improvement has
uncovered rough pavements of stone, bearing marks of fire strewed with
charred ashes, surrounded with the remains of hazel stakes, the relics of
the frame-work of ancient Caledonian hearths, which have been concealed
for centuries under a cover of eight or ten feet of moss.[7]

Many of the purposes to which the ancient Briton applied his manufacture
of baskets were singularly useful, and so well were they adapted to
their peculiar purposes that they are employed almost unchanged even
to the present day. The coracle of basket and hide is still used by
sportsmen and poachers on the waters of North Wales.[8] The bothies of
the Scottish Highlanders are yet constructed of wattles; and even in the
cottages of a better kind the doors and sleeping cribs are frequently of
the same fabric: so also are their rude little sledges and carts; and
until of late their horse harness also.[9] Modern civilization does not
now disdain to use for drags, dog-carts, and German waggons the same
strong yet light and elastic materials which the ancient Briton probably
employed for his formidable war-chariot; and our ancestors of the last
century knew well the value of the stage-coach “_basket_” as a convenient
means of conveyance over their rough roads.

“Hanapers (or hampers) of twyggys” were long the official receptacles for
certain documents connected with the Court of Chancery, and the name is
still, or was recently, applied to an officer of that court.

The firm hold with which long-established customs, combined with
convenience, fix themselves upon the reason of men, and the pertinacity
with which nations cling to their old habits, refusing, for the sake of
old associations, alterations of the most obvious utility, is altogether
marvellous. Speaking of this power and permanency of custom, Lord Bacon
curiously illustrates this subject by an anecdote pertinent to the
matter before us. “I remember, in the beginning of Queen Elizabeth’s
time, of England, an Irish rebel condemned, put up a petition to the
Deputy that he should be hanged in a withe, and not in an halter, because
it had been so used with former rebels.”[10] Another author, in his
version of the same story, says that this “favour of being hanged in
gads (twisted withes, so called after the manner of the country), was
not refused.”[11] This, though probably an extreme, is by no means an
unique prejudice in favour of ancient modes of execution, a prejudice
which extends beyond life, influencing nations in their adherence to
old-established sepulchral customs.

A manufacture which was probably progressing for many centuries before
the Romans invaded Britain, must necessarily have acquired a certain
amount of refined ornament as a result of so much experience and
practice. We have, indeed, direct evidence that the Romans greatly
admired the ornamental baskets of the British, which were exported in
large quantities to Rome, and became fashionable appendages among the
extravagantly luxurious furniture of the imperial city. Juvenal, writing
about A.D. 120, mentions the popularity of these baskets;[12] and that
they were productions of the British islanders is distinctly stated by
the epigrammatist Martial,[13] who wrote about the end of the first
century. It is not improbable that these British baskets were enriched
with colour, and even gilding. The former we know was profusely and
permanently applied to the persons of the aborigines; the latter—probably
one of the earliest discovered metals—was used in the middle of the
fifth century for so common a purpose as decorating the roofs of
important buildings.[14] It is not, therefore, likely that they were
denied as additional means of ornament to these highly valued baskets.

When the aboriginal Briton had made his first step in domestic
civilization by constructing useful baskets, he would still be subjected
to a great inconvenience from the absence of any suitable vessel of
sufficient size to convey or store a supply of water. Nature in this
country did little to assist him, denying even the slight aid of the
gourd and calabash common in warmer climates. To invent a water vessel
would thus become to him a necessity; without it he must have been
compelled to reside on the bank of some river or brook, in which he and
his family could quench their thirst in the same manner and as frequently
as the wild animals of the surrounding forests. Nor is it improbable that
many generations of people were restricted to such localities for this

There appears at first sight to be no possible analogy between baskets
and water vessels; yet I apprehend that they are in reality almost twin
inventions. The same reasoning which induced the naked Briton to line
the wicker walls of his hut with clay for the purpose of excluding
cold, would, after some experience, lead to an application of the same
material as a coating to the inside of his baskets, which, when dried
in the sun or hardened by fire applied to the inside, would then be
enabled to retain liquids at least for a time, and consequently permit
the desired migration from the immediate margin of a river. This is of
course a gratuitous assertion, of no value without proof; but it is also
a reasonable induction, and one which is, I venture to think, worthy the
considerate attention of archæologists.

Fortunately vessels of this description have been preserved in the
ancient burial places of the Britons, and are occasionally exhumed in a
state of tolerable preservation. They are for the most part not turned on
the potter’s wheel, but moulded by the hand, and marked on the exterior
by ornaments, not in relief, but always depressed or incised, having
the appearance of indentations made in the soft clay by plaited osiers,
rushes, or strips of hide, more or less distinct, but, so far as I know,
all referrible to such an origin.[15] In some the coating of clay appears
not to be carried to the mouth of the basket, but the plaited rushes seem
to have been folded inside, and thus the interior of the urn is on its
upper portions indented with the same pattern of basket-work as that on
the outer side. All British urns are, comparatively with Roman or with
Saxon examples, wide-mouthed, a condition essential to their being made
by hand on an exterior frame-work of plaited rushes or willows; and some
appear to have been constructed on two separate baskets, one inverted
over the other. There is rarely any attempt at _ansation_, the nearest
approach to handles being heavy perforated knobs placed a little beneath
the mouth, for the evident purpose of attaching to them the twigs,
withes, or thongs, which served both to protect and to suspend these
fragile vessels.

I must not be supposed to assert that the ornaments found on British,
occasionally on Anglo-Roman, and abundantly on Anglo-Saxon urns, were
in all cases real impressions of basket-work; but merely that the
use of that style of ornament probably originated in the manner I
have described, and that it was continued after the introduction of
the potter’s wheel by force of habit and long-continued custom. This
induced the potter to stamp or incise on the surface of the vessels he
made ornamental devices similar to those on the honoured urns of an
earlier people; for that they were honoured and held in high estimation
is apparent from the sacred purposes to which they were applied as
receptacles for the ashes of the dead. In absence of all direct proof
of this assumed origin of urn ornamentation, I have thought it right to
test the possibility of the process;—with a result entirely satisfactory.
Taking such small baskets as I found used by my family for ordinary
domestic purposes, I have roughly coated them inside with different
clays, subjecting some to the action of fire in the kiln, while others
I have left exposed to the sun, and to a few I have applied heat inside
only. On all the indentations of the basket-work are sufficiently marked;
but they are best defined on the sun-dried specimens, since the shrinking
of the clay under the action of fire in the kiln obliterates some of the
more salient ridges. A comparison of these jars with ancient British urns
will, I apprehend, be more satisfactory and convincing than any elaborate
argument, leaving little doubt that both have been produced by similar
processes, and that the British urn is, in truth, a secondary application
of the British basket.

Mr. Birch, in his learned and most valuable _History of Ancient Pottery_,
applies the term “_bascaudæ_,” employed by Juvenal and Martial, not
to baskets but to sepulchral urns with basket-like ornamentation.[16]
Though most unwilling to hazard a contrary opinion, I still cannot avoid
suggesting that such urns, judging from the specimens which have been
preserved for our inspection, were not likely to be acceptable ornaments
on the tables of the luxurious Romans, accustomed as they must have been
to elegant products of high art in the plastic manufactures of Etruria,
Greece, and Egypt. It is, I think, greatly more probable that ornamental
baskets to contain fruit or flowers were indicated by that name.

Though there is good proof that the Britons had acquired much skill in
the art of basket making at the time of the occupation of this island by
the Romans, it is equally certain that they were ignorant of the art of
constructive masonry; for when the legions left the British to their own
resources, they advised them to build a wall between the two seas across
the island, to keep off their northern enemies. They, indeed, “raised the
wall as they had been directed,” but “not of stone _as having no artist
capable of such work_, but of sods [which] made it of no use.”[17] From
this it is apparent that the British people at that time, and probably
for some centuries afterwards, were unaccustomed to the use of building
materials of a kind more permanent than wood, wattle-work and clay. Such
an arrangement quite accords with the manners of the people and the state
of the country at that period, covered as it was with extensive forests,
and swamps abounding with osiers. A people of migratory habits, occupied
in perpetual warfare, and depending in a great measure on the chase for
their food, must have had little inducement to build residences of great
durability; and this would happily lead to the more rapid clearing of the
country, and consequently to its earlier civilization.

Such was the condition of art in Britain and Ireland at the time that the
first Christian missionaries commenced their labours in these countries.
So signal was their success that Tertullian, writing of his own time (the
third century), tells us that “some countries of the Britains that proved
impregnable to the Romans are yet subjected to Christ.” It was the custom
of those earnest and indefatigable men (so pious in their lives that
after their death they were usually honoured with the title of Saint) to
place crosses in every place where they succeeded in making converts, or
in which they planted a church, chapel, or monastery; and it becomes
a question of some interest to ascertain the materials of these early
symbols of the Christian faith, which must have been extensively spread
over the land.

Clearly they were not of stone, since we know that even after the Romans
left England the natives had not sufficient skill to build a wall of that
material; nor have we any reason to believe that they had the ability
or the tools requisite for the construction of a cross of timber, which
would demand the use of cutting instruments with finer edges than those
necessary for stone. Under these circumstances it is only natural that
the British convert would dedicate to the glory of God the products of
that talent which had acquired for him a continental celebrity. The
basket-work, so prized at Rome, was the most valuable oblation that the
pious ancient Briton could offer to the services of his new religion, and
thus it was that the first emblems of Christianity erected in England
were (almost necessarily) constructed of basket-work.

The perishable nature of the materials forbids us to expect almost any
other than inferential evidence that crosses of basket-work ever existed,
but happily this is not denied to us. A careful examination of the
admirable engravings of the sculptured stones of Scotland, the ancient
Irish crosses, and the curious monumental remains of the Isle of Man,
together with many existing carved crosses in England and Wales, cannot
fail to convince any unprejudiced observer that the beautiful interlaced
ornamentation so lavishly employed on these sculptures derived its origin
from the earlier decorations of that British basket-work which the Romans
had learned to value and admire.

Before attempting to describe the method by which such crosses may be,
and probably were constructed, I beg to call attention to the fact that
basket-work and the earlier Pagan or Druidical religion were closely

Cæsar, writing of the Druids, states that “they have images of enormous
size, the limbs of which, formed of wicker-work, they fill with living
men, which being set on fire, the men perish enveloped in flames[18];”
and Strabo says, “having prepared a Colossus of hay and thrown wood upon
it, they burn together oxen, all sorts of wild beasts, and men.[19]” It
has been assumed that these wicker-work images were in the human form,
but I apprehend that there is nothing in either text to warrant this
conclusion. The word colossus implies a figure of large size, which may
quite as probably have been that of some enormous animal.

On the Shandwick stone,[20] one of the most interesting of the Scottish
series, figures of men, horses, stags, birds, and other animals are
carved with much spirit, and with more than usual attention to their
relative proportions. The animals are represented in life-like attitudes,
as if moving about. But there is one remarkable exception,[21] a colossal
four-legged creature, of a form peculiar to these Scottish stones,
differs from the others as much in figure as in size. Compared with two
sheep and a dog which occur on the same panel,[21] its height, if erect,
would be about thirteen feet, its length about eighteen feet, while
its ungainly leaning posture is singularly suggestive of its being a
sculptured representation of some huge beast built up of wicker-work.
Certain marks on its surface warrant this supposition, which is
strengthened by the fact that other representations of a similar animal,
which occur on the same series, have the most distinct indications of a
basket-work origin. Well marked examples are to be found on the stones at
Brodie and at Glenferness.[22] Resembling no known animal, these curious
figures—which are represented above twenty times on the Scottish stones
and are nowhere else to be met with—have a general likeness to each
other; they are all in postures by no means indicating life or motion,
and all distinguished by the striking peculiarity of having no feet; the
limbs terminate in long wands rolled up after the manner of volutes,
obviously suggesting the idea that if opened out they would serve, on
being thrust deeply into the ground, to keep the colossus in a standing
attitude. Similar volutes are represented terminating the base of the
well-known cross at the gate of St. Michael’s church yard in the Isle
of Man. They were probably used in the same way to fix to the ground an
earlier cross of wicker-work, of which the existing monument is a copy
engraved on stone.

I dare not of course take it upon me to assert that there is any
positive connection between the huge animal on the Shandwick stone and
the colossal images mentioned by Cæsar and Strabo, as being employed by
the Druids in their human sacrifices, but the coincidence (if indeed
it be not something more) is sufficiently curious and interesting to
demand a passing notice. It is supposed that these and some other as yet
inexplicable devices found on the same stones are symbols of a religion
prior to Christianity; a circumstance by no means improbable, as it is
known that convents among the Saxons and probably the Britons also,
clung with much pertinacity to some of their Druidical and Pagan customs
long after they had assumed the outward emblems of Christianity. This
may account for the juxtaposition of the cross with devices of unknown
meaning, and explain in some degree the remarkable circumstance that
Pagan and Christian emblems both derive their ornamentation from the same

Having shown that at the time when Christianity was introduced into
Britain the native population, totally unacquainted with practical
masonry, were yet expert and experienced manufacturers of highly
ornamental baskets; and suggested the reasonable probability that they
would employ their best talents in the service of their new religion,
as they had previously devoted them to their earlier Pagan or Druidical
superstitions, I proceed to offer some reasons for believing that the
first crosses erected by Christian missionaries in Britain, Ireland, and
the Isle of Man, were constructed of plaited osiers.

Many of the Mediæval biographers narrate with much minuteness the
particulars of stone crosses set up by Christian bishops; but no such
notices occur before the sixth century, and from the great importance
attached to them by the monastic historians, it is evident that they
were objects of extraordinary interest, and moreover, of _exceptional
material_. Such crosses were erected by St. Columba, St. Oswald, St.
Cuthbert, Bishop Ethelwold, and other holy men. Of St. Kentigern—better
known in Scotland as St. Mungo—it is said that, among many crosses which
he put up, one in the city of Glasgow was taken from the quarry by his
orders, and, by the united efforts of many men, erected in the cemetery
of the Church of the Holy Trinity, in which his episcopal throne was set
up. That this particular cross was of more than usual importance may be
inferred from the statement of his biographer, that it was the custom of
St. Kentigern to erect a cross in any place where he had converted the
people, or had for a time resided. Such crosses, therefore, must have
been executed by some less laborious process than was used for the one
which he erected near his cathedral about the end of the sixth century,
and which is said to have still marked the spot where the original
edifice stood, when the Cathedral of the West was reconstructed five
hundred years afterwards.

But St. Kentigern erected one other cross, which demands the attention
and consideration of archæologists. We are informed that at Locherward, a
parish in Mid-Lothian now called Borthwick, he set up a cross constructed
of _sea sand_. There is no hint of any miraculous assistance in the
erection of this cross, and therefore we are constrained to look for
some mechanical appliance by which sea sand could be made to cohere in
the form of a cross.[23]

But first I may be permitted to suggest a possible motive for the
adoption of a material so unstable, and apparently so little fitted for
the purpose.

Locherward (now Borthwick) is a considerable inland property in the
east of Scotland, and for some reasons, not requisite to be inquired
into here, this parish was appended to the Western Diocese of Cumbria,
which comprised the valley of the Clyde and much of the west coast of
Scotland during the episcopate of St. Kentigern. It is not improbable,
then, that this cross-rearing Bishop would commemorate so important an
event, in his accustomed manner, by sending to Locherward a cross of
baskets made of the osiers and filled with the sea sand of his western
diocese, which, having been sanctified by his episcopal benediction,
would be appropriately set up in his new territory as a visible sign of
the transfer, and a practical assertion of his accession to the property.
Here again, however, I am compelled to say that I have not a shadow of
proof to offer in support of my surmise. St. Kentigern may have set up
the sea-sand cross by other means, and for another purpose. I have only
endeavoured to suggest a reason in accordance with possibility and the
customs of the times in which he lived.

Before asking you to believe that the earliest existing stone crosses
were reproductions of still earlier crosses of twigs, I may well be
expected to offer some evidence that any such basket-work crosses ever

Of all the superstitious legends of the middle ages, none was more widely
popular than that of St. Patrick’s purgatory. The little island in gloomy
Lough Derg, in which it was believed that both the pains and advantages
of purgatory could be anticipated, and the duration of its torments
abridged, was visited by great and powerful pilgrims, who enriched its
clerical guardians by their offerings. Suppressed at the Reformation, and
its rude buildings more than once demolished by the orders of government,
it nevertheless still retains so strong a grasp on the superstitious
feelings of the poor and ignorant of the present day, that, actuated by
religious enthusiasm, crowds of such pilgrims at certain seasons pour
themselves upon this miserable little islet, consisting of three roods
of barren surface; and so numerous are these visitors that the tenant
pays the landlord a yearly rent of £300 (the greater part in sixpences),
derived from a small charge imposed on them at the ferry toll.[24]

In this place, where ancient superstitious practices still linger, the
remembrance of its founder and his imputed miracles would naturally be
longest retained, and any relics appertaining to him preserved with
pertinacious care. None such can now be found; but it is recorded
that about or before the year 1630, a certain Lord Dillon visited the
island, accompanied by a government surveyor, and they gave a detailed
description of the place, which was published by the then Bishop of the
Diocese. In their report it is stated that “at the east end of the church
there is a heap of stones, on which there is _a cross made of interwoven
twigs_; this is known by the name of St. Patrick’s Altar, on which
there do lie three pieces of a bell, which they say St. Patrick used to
carry in his hand,” &c.[25] This is the only record I have met with of
any actual cross of twigs or basket-work. It was probably the last of
innumerable crosses of the same kind, and was found in the place where,
of all others, the latest example was likely to be met with. Doubtless
it was a many times repeated copy of some ancient cross attributed
originally to the hands of the patron saint of Ireland.[26]

The devices sculptured on a majority of the Scottish and Manx monoliths
must have been executed before the artists possessed such skill or such
tools as would enable them to cut the outline of the stone itself to any
required form; they do not appear at that time to have _set up_ crosses,
but they engraved representations of that symbol on the surface of huge
stones many of which were already fixed in an erect position and most
probably had been for a long series of years employed in the services of
an earlier religion. Upon such stones they imitated the ornamentation
of wicker-work by innumerable reiterated blows of their small celts
of flint, bronze, or iron, working out the design in low relief, and
showing one half of the round, or as much only of the osier wands as
could be seen when plaited together. It is only in the later examples
that the outline of the stone assumes the form of the cross; and this
change is accompanied by a considerable alteration in the ornamental
details, the interlacings become less elegant but more complicated,
and terminate in the heads, tails, and limbs of various animals, often
grotesque in expression; or, the wands burst into buds and leaves, or
give place entirely to sculptured representations of men and animals
of the rudest execution. It is a curious proof of the earlier use of
the interwoven ornamentation that it may be found in elegantly arranged
and highly-finished devices on the same stones with representations of
the human figure so rudely carved as to appear to be the work of mere

It may be objected, that the British or Saxon artisan, when working on
a new material, would adopt a style of ornament appropriate to it, and
discard the totally irrelevant system of decoration which had been used
by his ancestors; but it must be remembered that he had many inducements
to adhere to the ancient patterns. The force of custom and education
would be a powerful motive, and no other style of ornament was then
known to the people, who were accustomed to and well understood these
endless intricacies which appear to us a mass of confusion; probably,
however, the best reason was an earnest desire to perpetuate in durable
material those crosses of perishable basket-work, before which he and his
ancestors had bowed themselves in worship in the depths of their primæval
forests,—crosses, which had been sanctified by the holy men who at first
erected them, and to many of which miraculous powers were undoubtedly

A majority of the Irish examples differ from those of Scotland and the
Isle of Man, in being elaborately carved in their outline to the form of
richly ornamented crosses. This argues either an earlier developement
of art in Ireland, or a later execution of the work; but the plaited
ornaments are found to prevail in each locality, though they probably
gave place to sculptured representations of men and animals somewhat
earlier in Ireland than elsewhere. The usual form of these crosses is
fairly expressed by the example engraved[27] representing the interesting
Irish cross at Kilklespeen.

It may at first sight be supposed that crosses of timber would precede
those of stone, the material being abundant and the workmanship
apparently more easy; but a little consideration will show that timber
required tools of a higher order than stone; the blunt celt would be far
from efficient as an instrument to carve wood, and sharp-edged tools
were not then attainable. Irrespective of this, the superior durability
of stone would of itself induce the choice of that material.

There is a common arrangement in most of the Scottish and Irish crosses
to which I desire to call attention; whether sculptured into true
crosses, or merely engraved on the surface of the stone, they are divided
into irregular compartments, each for the most part ornamented with a
different device of interlaced work, or, in late examples, subjects in
sculpture. These compartments are usually broad at the base and gradually
decrease in size towards the apex of the cross, as would be the case with
a series of baskets piled upon each other, and then firmly bound together
by continuous bands of twisted withes. A wheel or ring, connecting the
horizontal with the perpendicular limbs almost invariably accompanies
the interlaced ornamentation on these early crosses. This ring I long
supposed to represent a nimbus or glory, but remembering that that usual
symbol of divinity is of Eastern origin, and that it is commonly met with
on crosses where there is no representation of the figure of our Lord, I
was induced to seek for some other meaning, and have now no hesitation
in saying that its original purpose was not symbolical, or even merely
ornamental, but that it was a necessary appliance in the construction of
the earlier wicker-work crosses, reproduced on the stone crosses for the
same reasons which induced the retention of the interlaced ornaments.

It is obvious that the horizontal arms of a basket-work cross must
require some extraneous aid to enable them to retain that position even
for a short time. For this purpose the ring seemed to me to have been
adopted; but I was quite unable to discover the manner in which it was
applied, until on application to a practical basket-maker I was at
once told that he could not construct a cross of willows without the
ring, which he must make first, and then work the cross upon it. That
such was its use is confirmed by the arrangement of some of the rude
crosses in the Isle of Man. On the sculptured stone in the church-yard
of Kirk Michael[28] is a cross of interlaced work without any ring; but
to compensate for its absence another contrivance has been adopted. The
horizontal arms are sustained by a series of plaited twigs hung over the
top of the upper limb, and interwoven with the arms. On the reverse of
the same stone[28] the cross has a ring composed of one thick and two
slender stems, which last appear to pass through and fasten together the
limbs and the ring by a curious and ingenious knot. Another example of a
similar fastening may be observed on the fragment of stone also at Kirk
Michael[29] sculptured with a rude representation of the crucifixion.
These knots are doubtless the origin of the richly ornamented bosses
often covered with basket-work, so frequently met with in exactly the
same positions on the Irish and Scottish crosses.

Some of the human figures sculptured on the Scottish and Manx stones,
are so executed as to suggest that they also are reproductions from
originals formed of twigs. This is particularly the case with a fragment
at Forteviot,[30] the ancient Celtic capital of Scotland, on which four
men, some animals and a cross are carved with curious rudeness; and with
a portion of another crucifixion from the Isle of Man.[31] Both of these
have a considerable resemblance to the rustic work of rough twigs with
which many gardeners of the present day delight to ornament their summer
houses and garden seats. These examples suggest a common origin with
the extraordinary illuminations which Mr. Westwood has reproduced from
ancient manuscripts, particularly with those engraved in the _Journal of
the Archæological Institute_,[32] it being remembered that the sculpture
and the illuminations were both probably enriched with colour and gilding.

I have made careful copies of very numerous examples of ancient
interlaced ornaments, and placed them in the hands of various artisans,
particularly basket-makers, straw-plaiters, wire-workers, and plaiters
of ornamental hair. They all inform me that with a few exceptions the
devices may be worked out in their respective materials, and several
thanked me for putting new patterns before them, which they said would
be useful in their business. Some of these drawings I gave to my own
workpeople, who reproduced the devices very effectively in braid-work and
embroidery. They tell me they could, with time and patience, copy many of
the most elaborate devices.

I must guard myself, however, against being supposed to assert that
_all_ the interlaced devices found on the old crosses may be reproduced
in modern plait work; such is not the case. Many of them may claim some
other and very different origin, and there are others which the sculptor
has doubtless modified and altered. The first Corinthian capital is said
to have been modelled from a flower-pot covered with a tile between which
the leaves of an acanthus had forced themselves, an arrangement which
skilful architects have varied a hundred different ways, though retaining
still the expression of the original idea. In the same spirit the ancient
Briton treated the panels of basket-work, when he reproduced them on his
crosses of stone.

There are many other branches of British and Irish art which may have
been influenced in their origin by the long established basket-work
of these islands, such as the early enamelling of metals, the Norman
arcades, especially those found on very early fonts, the branching
arrangement of the oldest window glass, as well as the reticulated manner
of placing glazing quarries, and very numerous varieties of mediæval
diapering; but I omit farther notice of these. My purpose in this paper
is merely to call attention to the probable origin of one branch of
ancient art which I believe to have escaped previous notice. If I have in
any degree established my position, or even excited curiosity respecting
it, it will doubtless induce further inquiry and discussion, since it is
beyond doubt a subject of very considerable interest.


_Charles Simms and Co., Printers, Manchester._


[1] _Archæological and Pre-historic Annals of Scotland_, pp. 221, 504,

[2] _The Sculptured Stones of Scotland_, privately printed by the
Spalding Club, and liberally presented to many antiquarian societies.

[3] _The Sculptured Crosses of Ancient Ireland_, by Henry O’Neill.

[4] _The Runic and other Monumental Remains of the Isle of Man_, by the
Rev. J. G. Cumming.

[5] _Annals of Clanmacnoise_, quoted in notes to the _Annals of the Four
Masters_, vol. i. p. 181.

[6] _William of Malmesbury_, book i. c. 20.

[7] _Pre-historic Annals of Scotland_, p. 76.

[8] Information from Mr. Hughes, of Chester, 1858.

[9] McIan’s _Highland Clans_—_McNiel_.

[10] _Essay on Custom and Education._

[11] Thomas Dinley’s _Journal of a Tour in Ireland: Proceedings of the
Kilkenny Archæological Society_, vol. i. p. 180, New Series.


    Adde et bascaudas et mille escaria.

                    _Juvenal_, Sat. 12, v. 46.


    Barbara de pictis veni bascauda Britannis
    Sed me jam mavult dicere Roma suam.

                    _Martial_, lib. 14, epig. 99.

[14] In the Saxon poem _Beowulf_, translated by the late Mr. Kemble,
there occurs this passage:—“He went to the hall, stood on the steps, and
beheld the steep roof with gold adorned.” Line 1844.

[15] See on Plate No. 6, examples of British urns, copied from Plate iii.
of the _Archæological Index_, by J. Y. A. Kerman Esq., F.S.A.

[16] _History of Ancient Pottery_, vol. ii. pp. 381-384.

[17] Bede’s _Ecclesiastical History_, book i. chap. 12.

[18] _De Bell. Gal._, lib. vi.

[19] _Strabo_, lib. iv.

[20] Plate xxvi. _Sculptured stones of Scotland._

[21] Plate No. 3.

[22] Plate No. 4.

[23] _Pinkerton’s Vitæ Sanctorum Scotiæ_, pp. 286-7, quoted in the
preface to the _Sculptured Stones of Scotland_, p. 5.

[24] _Ulster Journal of Archæology_, vol. v. p. 81.

[25] From _Patricius His Purgatory_, attributed to Spottiswood Bishop of
Clogher, and also to his successor Bishop Jones, quoted in the _Ulster
Journal of Archæology_, vol. v. p. 71, and in Carleton’s tale of “The
Lough Derg Pilgrim.”

[26] Though a poetical authority is of no weight in antiquarian argument,
it would be wrong to omit quoting Sir Walter Scott’s account of the
famous fiery cross formed of twigs.

    “The grisly priest, with murmuring prayer,
    A slender crosslet framed with care,
    A cubit’s length in measure due;
    The shaft and limbs were rods of yew.
    The cross, thus formed, he held on high,
    With wasted hand and haggard eye.”

                    _The Lady of the Lake_, canto iii. stanza viii.

[27] Plate No. 2.

[28] Plate No. 5. I am indebted to the Rev. George Cumming M.A.
for permission to re-engrave this and plates Nos. 6 and 8 from his
interesting work on the crosses of the Isle of Man; and to my nephew and
assistant, Mr. W. E. Brown, for drawing all the illustrations of this
brochure on stone.

[29] Plate No. 6.

[30] Plate No. 7. From _The Sculptured Stones of Scotland_.

[31] Plate No. 8.

[32] Vol. vii. pp. 17-19, 23, 24.

[Illustration: No. 1













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[Illustration: No. 5



[Illustration: No. 6



[Illustration: No. 7


[Illustration: No. 8


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