Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Celtic Relics - The Kingoldrum and Guthrie Bells

   This post concentrates on those evocative but elusive ancient items associated with the ancient church in Scotland, Ireland and elsewhere, hand bells.  Previous posts have mentioned several of these which were located in Angus.  St Medan's Bell was associated with Lintrathen and Airlie and there are records of its hereditary keeper, who resigned it to the Ogilvy family, in the 15th century.  Tragically, it was mistaken for scrap metal in a local sale in the 19th century and destroyed.  The Lindsay family owned St Fillan's Bell, though its hereditary keepers were the Durays of Durayhill, dempsters of the Laird of Edzell.  Sadly, this bell has also been lost.  Francis Eeles described the two forms of early bells from the Celtic tradition.  The first type was formed from a sheet of iron bent into a quadrangular shape, with rivets up one or two sides, coasted with bronze or copper, with a handle on the top.  A later type was more regularly bell-shaped, made by a complete casting.  Around 20 early quadrangular bells made of iron or bronze have been survived in Scotland, and around twice as many from Ireland, and the consensus among scholars is that they were brought into north and eastern Pictish territories by the family of Iona.

   Hand-bells were the only type known during the early medieval period as the technology necessary for casting free hanging bells such as were later used in church towers etc. was not known.  Hand-bells, whatever their precise use, were rung by striking, rather than being made with clappers.

The Kingoldrum Bell

Detail of crucifixion from sculptured stone at Kingoldrum.

      The church and lands of Kingoldrum, north-west of Kirriemuir, were one of the early royal grants to Arbroath Abbey  in the early 12th century and seems to have been an established power centre as there are fragments of sculptured stones there (though there are no records of the site in earlier records). While the kirk of the parish  (which is no longer in use) was built in 1840 it sits roughly on the same site as its medieval predecessor, on a prominent mound and within a large, circular graveyard, which may indicate a very early date, though to my knowledge there has been no archaeological investigation to confirm this.  Like Airlie, Kingoldrum was dedicated to St Medan, who had an attested early cult locally, and there was a well (now lost) dedicated to this cleric nearby.  Gaelic seemed to flourish alongside Scots for a long period in this locality.

 In 1843 an old scellach or bell, made of sheet metal, was found here.  A bronze chalice and glass bowl were recovered beside it. Warden reports that:

A curious bronze cross and chain were found in a stone cist near the Church.  These and the bell were presented to the Museum of the Society of Antiquaries by the Rev. Mr Haldane, the minister of the parish, but the chalice and bowl have disappeared.  In another cist was a skeleton doubled up, with a rude bronze armlet on one of its wrists.

   The Kingoldrum Bell is now housed in the National Museums of Scotland (NMAS KA3).  Incidentally, the Rev. James Ogilvy Haldane was minister of the parish from 1836 and died in 1891. The enthusiastic minister also donated other finds from his parish to the Museum of Antiquities:  an axe and urn (in 1880 and 1887 respectively), fragments of sculptured stones and metal relics (1867), and, most significantly, a beautiful carved stone ball in 1884, further enhancing the rich archaeology of the area.  His father, William Haldane, had been minister of Kingoldrum before him.

Ball of conglomerate (3" diameter) found in Kingoldrum by the Rev. Halldane.

   Daniel Wilson reports the finding as follows:

This ancient bell was dug up in 1843, and contained, in addition to its detached tongue, a bronze chalice, and a glass bowl - the latter imperfect.  the bell is of the usual square form, made of sheet iron, which appears to have been coated with bronze, though little of this now remains.  It measures 8 by 7 inches at the mouth and 9½ inches high, exclusive of the handle.  Unfortunately the value of the discovery was not appreciated, and both the chalice and the bowl, it is feared, are now lost.

     In Scotland in Early Christian Times, Anderson adds the following, lamenting the loss of the other unique items found:

A curious cross-shaped ornament or mounting, decorated with enamel and a portion of a bronze chain of S-shaped links, dug up near the place where the bell was found, and three sculptured stones from the same site, are also in the Museum.  It is impossible to determine with certainty what the two articles, which are described as a chalice of bronze and a bowl or goblet of glass, may have been.  We can only regret their loss, all the more to be deplored that nothing answering to this description has ever been found in connection with any other remains of the Christian period.  No chalice of the early church exists in Scotland. [The  metal finds mentioned here were donated by Haldane in 1867.]
Kingoldrum finds, illustrated in Scotland in Early Christian Times.


The Guthrie Castle Bell

   The ancient bell which was kept (for centuries, one assumes) at Guthrie Castle is now in the National Museums of Scotland (NMAS 1922: 40). It is interesting that we have another example here in a church relic in the hands of a secular landowning family, which means that the sacred object was intimately connected with the hold a particular kindred had over the land they owned. Unlike Kingoldrum, there does not seem to be much evidence that Guthrie was an important focal point of secular or ecclesiastic power in the Pictish era or immediately afterwards.  The Guthries, like the Ogilvys, were a family whose name originated in Angus. However, although they held Guthrie itself and various other local estates, they did not become enobled or play such a prominent part in national events like either the Ogilvys or the Lindsays.
  The Guthrie Bell is one of only two enshrined bells which have survived in Scotland.  (The other was from Kirkmichael-Glassary and is also now in Edinburgh.)  Eeles confirms this bell is of the earlier type, described above, and must have been both early in date and associated with an important early saint, from the 8th century or earlier.  His unsupported claim that the bell and shrine must have originated in either the west or the north of Scotland can certainly be challenged. 

   The bell itself is made from iron and stands 8 and a half inches high.  Its shrine completely covers it  and is made up from four plates richly decorated by ornaments.  There are indications that the shrine has been renovated several times. There is an inscription on the shrine which reads Johannes dlexandri me fieri feisit, and made have been made in the 15th or 16th century reconstructions.  Francis Eeles summarises his thoughts on the history of the two objects:

The bell itself is probably the relic of some important saint whose
fame came down till late in the mediaeval period. It may well date from
before the ninth century.
It was probably enshrined early in the twelfth century, to which
period the figure of our Lord crucified and the small apostle, probably
St John, belong.
In the fourteenth century the silver plate with its embossed decoration
was made and the crucifix and attendant figures were remounted upon it.
Late in the fifteenth century or early in the sixteenth, John the son
of Alexander made a second reconstruction, changing the position of
some of the figures and adding others.
In the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries the loss of some figures may
have occasioned a further re-arrangement of the rest in the manner
in which they now exist, including the refixing of the inscription plate
upside down.

The Guthrie Bell shrine, based on illustration in Anderson's Scotland in Early Christian Times.

Selected Works and Sites Consulted

Anderson, Joseph, Scotland in Early Christian Times, The Rhind Letters in Archaeology, 1879 (Edinburgh, 1881).

Bourke, Cormac, 'The Hand-bells of the early Scottish Church,' Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 113 (1983), 464-8.

Catalogue of the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland (revised edition, Edinburgh, 1892).

Eeles, Francis C.,  'The Guthrie Bell and its Shrine,' Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 60 (1926), 409-20.

Laing, Lloyd, Late Celtic Britain and Ireland, c. 400-1200 AD (London, 1975).

Warden, Alexander, Angus or Forfarshire, volume 4 (Dundee, 1884).

Wilson, Daniel, 'Primitive Scottish Bells,' Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, volume 1 (1851-54), 18-23.

Silver plate attached to front face of the Guthrie Bell.

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