Ruthwell and its Cross – Dumfries & Galloway

DSC03801Ruthwell Church is just north of the village – NY101682. What the OS map does not tell you, even with its “Selected places of tourist interest”, is that it contains the Ruthwell Cross. We parked and I entered the church. Other visitors gave me the key (if the church is locked the key lives outside the Manse). Having seen the cross I got Julie to come and see it too. The guidebook on sale is a book about the Cross by the Reverend John L. Dinwiddie. He was minister of the parish for 45 years from 1890 – apparently there were 113 applicants for the post! This is the 2014 10th edition of his book.

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The cross is in the care of Historic Scotland – website – which suggests you need an appointment to view it. You don’t. This website has some good images.

The Cross dates to the early C8 and many scholars link it to the Northumbrian Church – you can see links with Bewcastle – see my blog. The guide suggests links with Eastern Mediterranean craftsmen – perhaps from Syria.

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On the south face we have (top to bottom) the Archer, the Visitation, Mary Magdalene washing Jesus’ feet, Healing the Man born blind, The Annunciation, and the Crucifixion (much damaged).DSC03767

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On the north face two Evangelists, John the Baptist with the Agnus Dei, Christ Glorified, Breaking bread in the desert, The flight into Egypt.

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The runes down the side of the cross are the Dream of the Rood – a very old poem which tells the story of the crucifixion from the perspective of the cross. Here is one translation:

God almighty stripped himself,
when he wished to climb the Cross
bold before all men.
to bow (I dare not,
but had to stand firm.)

I held high the great King,
heaven’s Lord. I dare not bend.
Men mocked us both together.

I was slick with blood
sprung from the Man’s side…)

Christ was on the Cross.
But then quick ones came from afar,
nobles, all together. I beheld it all.
I bowed (to warrior hands.)

Wounded with spears,

they laid him, limb weary.

At his body’s head they stood.
They that looked to (heaven’s Lord…)

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The Cross has had an interesting life. It was presumably erected as a preaching cross, a place where the faithful gathered, and where they learned the story through the illustrations. Its exact site is not known.

In 1560 the Church of Scotland broke away from the Catholic Church, and in 1640 – as part of their return to their Scriptural roots – passed an “Act anent the demolishing of Idolatrous Monuments”. One assumes that this was not aimed at a Saxon Cross, and the Reverend Gavin Young, Ruthwell’s minister at the time, ignored it for a couple of years, but was then ordered to remove the Cross. Rather than have it destroyed by people with more zeal than himself, he took it down and buried it carefully. A trench was dug and what is now the west side of the cross (the narrow side) was lowered in. It was safe. Having become minister here in 1617 Young survived until 1671 – we owe him a great debt.

The church was refloored in 1780 and the Cross placed outside. The Reverend Henry Duncan had become minister the previous year, and he was fascinated by it. He collected the pieces together, had a new cross-head carved to replaced that which was now missing (he based it on other Cross-heads which were in the custody of Durham Cathedral), and in 1823 re-erected it in the garden of the Manse. In 1887 the Reverend James McFarlan returned it to the church. The church was rebuilt with a carved apse, and the stone was sunk into the ground. They debated raising the roof, but the bottom carvings are quite badly decayed, so sinking it down was a reasonable compromise. It looks very good.

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Behind the Cross are three stained glass windows, installed in 1906 in memory of Mr McFarlan. Aidan, Cuthbert and Hilda, with some lines from the Dream of the Rood.

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Another rather lovely window is in the main aisle – Nicodemus coming to Jesus by night. Early C20 I assume, no mention in the guidebook.

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The font is C13 and came from Mouswald church just down the road when that closed in 2011. The coat of arms is that of Sir David de Torthorwald who was killed in battle in 1296. Nice chair too.

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Outside we have some lovely gravestones. The Memorial Wall is to the Duncan family. Henry Duncan, the minister here, was the founder of the first Savings Bank in 1810. There is a Savings Bank Museum in the village, which we should have visited. It was established to encourage the habit of thrift among the ordinary man – and paid interest at 5%. Will we ever get back to trusting banks again? They seem to have far less stature than a solid stone cross.

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