THE world’s first Celtic high cross is being reassembled in the Borders before being returned to its home on the island of Iona, ahead of a special anniversary.
St Oran’s cross dates back to the eighth century and is being carefully cleaned and put into a specially-designed steel structure before the 1,450th anniversary of the arrival of St Columba on Iona.
It is to be re-erected for the first time in centuries to celebrate the occasion and will feature in a new museum display on the island.
The work to create the steel support for the cross is being carried out in the Selkirk workshop of freelance museum mountmaker Richard West.
Mr West has been working with Historic Scotland since September last year, creating mounts for other carved stone pieces in the museum on Iona.
His work on the steel structure for St Oran’s cross will enable it to be free-standing in the refurbished museum, due to be reopened later this year.
Peter Yeoman, Historic Scotland’s head of cultural heritage, said: “The complete cross originally weighed in excess of one tonne and was 4.4 metres high. We believe it was commissioned by a king around the mid-700s.
“It is beautifully carved with biblical scenes and Celtic interlace patterns. Just below the centre of the cross arm is an extremely rare and early image of the Virgin and Child sheltered by the wings of angels.”
Mr Yeoman added: “This monumental, powerful and decorative use of the Christian cross had never been seen before anywhere in western Europe. It’s one of the largest and finest in the collection of early medieval carved-stone grave slabs and crosses to be found at Iona Abbey.”
The cross, in five large pieces, had been displayed horizontally in the island’s museum. It has now been pieced together with matching, but uncarved, stone to give visitors an idea of the scale of the cross.
Once Mr West completes his work, the cross will be transported 160 miles from Selkirk to Oban before two ferry crossings take it back to the island ahead of the anniversary celebrations in May, when the Iona Community also celebrates its 75th anniversary.
Historic Scotland’s experts have been cleaning, studying and conserving the museum’s carved stones before they go back on display in a new exhibition in time for the anniversary. In addition to the work on St Oran’s cross, Historic Scotland is investing in new interpretation and visitor facilities at Iona Abbey and for the carved-stone collection.