Kildalton High Cross and Old Parish Church
Kildalton Cross is one of the finest early Christian crosses in Scotland, the High Cross of Kildalton, is closely related to three major crosses in Iona, St John’s, St Martin’s and St Oran’s and dates from the second half of the 8th century. The cross stands 2.65 metres in height, with arms 1.32 metres across. It is fortunate the local grey-green epidiorite stone, a single slab of which was used for the Cross, is not only very hard rock, but also seems to be resistant to lichens for, although somewhat weathered, the main features can still be identified. On the east face (towards the sea), at the top are two angels with, below them, David fighting a lion. Further down, two birds feed on a bunch of grapes then on the shaft, a carving of Virgin with Child and angels. The right arm panel depicts Abraham about to sacrifice Isaac, while the left shows Cain murdering Abel. The central boss on the west side is surrounded by seven smaller bosses intertwined with serpents. In the construction of the cross arms are four lions (all with damaged heads) intertwined with more serpents, similar to those on the shaft of St Martin’s cross, Iona.
In 1862, because the cross was lying at a dangerous angle, it was taken down by the Ramsays of Kildalton Estate. Discovered, laid down under the foundations was a small cross and below that again, the remains of a man and woman, the man having appeared to have had a violent death. Before the High Cross was re-erected in position, concrete casts were made of both crosses, the High Cross replica being in the National Museum of Scotland and the small cross copy being in the Museum of Islay Life in Port Charlotte. The High Cross still stands in its original (damaged) socket-stone, but now incorporated onto a double-stepped plinth to give the cross stability.
Outside the wall of the churchyard stands a simple late-medieval cross possibly erected by some dignitary (while still alive) as a place for private prayer and for his own salvation. However, because this cross stands in non-consecrated ground, the story has evolved that it is the grave of a criminal and it has been nicknamed “The Thief’s Cross”.
Among the early Christian church sites in Islay, and there are quite a few worth a visit, the Old Parish Church of Kildalton is of special interest because of the above mentioned High Cross of Kildalton. However, the Old Church, and many of the carved medieval grave slabs in the graveyard or within the chapel itself, is also very worthy of attention.
The rectangular building, now roofless (probably roofed originally with thatch since there is no record of broken slates being found) has internal measurements of 17.3 metres by 5.7 metres – fairly large for an old highland church.
The Kildalton parish is medieval in origin – early documentary records suggesting from c 1425, but the church building is older than this, possibly dating from the late 12th or early 13th century. Following the 1560 Reformation, Kildalton Church continued to be used, for a parish which extended from McArthur’s head in the north, to the Oa in the south, until the drift of population towards Ardbeg caused change and regular public worship was discontinued in Kildalton and transferred to the Lagavulin area at the end of the 18th century.
The High Cross of Kildalton and the Old Parish Church of Kildalton can be found approx. 10km (7 miles) from Port Ellen towards Ardtalla passing the distilleries of Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg. A few miles further down the lovely single track road is the beautifully sheltered Claggain Bay.