The Ruthwell Cross is the most magnificent Anglian cross in Scotland and is an early Christian monument of international importance. It was probably carved some time in the early to mid 700s at a time when this part of Dumfries and Galloway was under the control of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria.
The Ruthwell Cross is a dramatically imposing piece of stone. It stands some 5.2m or 17ft tall, which in itself presents something of an enigma. The crispness of the surviving original carving on the cross suggests it spent much of its life sheltered from the elements. Yet it is difficult to imagine a cross of this size being seen as a comfortable decoration in anything but an exceptionally large Dark Age building. There is a traditional story that the cross was originally sited on the shore of the Solway Firth at a place called Priestside, a mile and a half south of Ruthwell Church.
It is pure speculation, but it is tempting to tie the traditional location story with the placename and come up with the idea of an early Christian monastery on the shore of the Solway Firth at Priestside, with its location marked by a large cross of the sort that became such a feature of Columba's monastery at Iona.
Ruthwell Parish Church has at its heart a medieval building, and we know for sure that the Ruthwell Cross stood in the church in 1600. It is more speculation, but it seems reasonable to suggest that it had done so since the church was built, perhaps in the 1200s.
The early Presbyterian Kirk in Scotland took a pretty fundamentalist view of life, and it is of great regret that its major contribution to world art and culture was to destroy as much of it as was within reach. Much that was important and beautiful was lost during the latter half of the 1500s, following the Reformation, and in the 1600s, and succeeding generations in Scotland have been spiritually poorer as a result. In 1640 the General Assembly of the Kirk decreed that the "many idolatrous monuments erected and made for religious worship" should be destroyed. In response to this edict the Ruthwell Cross was defaced and broken up in 1642, its pieces being buried in the clay floor of the church.
The church was extensively remodelled in 1801-3 and it appears that during this process the pieces of the cross were recovered and placed in the churchyard. In 1818 the Parish Minister, the Reverend Henry Duncan, collected together all the available pieces of the cross and paid for it to be reassembled, with broken or missing pieces replaced. The most important of these was the cross beam, which was almost entirely absent apart from one fragment now shown beside the cross itself. This has led one modern authority to suggest the Ruthwell Cross was never actually a cross, but on purely aesthetic grounds that seems unlikely. In 1823 Duncan had the restored cross erected at the gateway of the manse.
By 1887 the importance of the Ruthwell Cross, and the need for an indoor location to protect it from the elements, was becoming better recognised. The result was the construction of a new north apse for the church, specially intended to house the cross. The cross is so large it had to be moved to its new home while the apse was being built, and so large that it was necessary to lower the central portion of the floor of the apse by several feet just to allow the cross to fit.
There are a number of reasons why the Ruthwell Cross is such an important monument. The most obvious is the sheer quantity and quality of the carving it carries. The second is that it serves as a scripture in stone, carrying inscriptions in Latin around the carved panels which tie in with the subjects of the panels. Meanwhile the side panels of the shaft carry largely decorative carvings, and their borders contain runic inscriptions. These are thought to have been added some time after the cross was already standing, and may date to as late as the 900s. They set out the text of a well known early Christian poem entitled Dream of the Rood.
The many uncertainties, mysteries and academic disputes about aspects of the Ruthwell Cross only add to its fascination. Was it originally a cross or a pillar? Who added the runic inscription, when, and why? How accurate was the reconstruction: is it possible that parts could have been assembled the wrong way round? Why is the stone in the lower part of the actual cross head a redder colour than the rest of the monument? Is some of the carving too crisp to be 1400 years old, however well the cross was protected from the elements? Half the fun is in simply asking the questions in the knowledge that no-one really knows the answers.