Three miles east of Port Ellen the main road to the three Kildalton distilleries reaches its conclusion at Ardbeg Distillery. Beyond it the road along Islay's south-eastern shore continues in single track form for a further five miles to Claggain Bay. This is a road worth following, at least for the four miles to the ruin of Kildalton Old Parish Church. Standing in the churchyard is the Kildalton Cross, the finest intact early Christian "high cross" to be found anywhere in Scotland.
And if this was not enough of an attraction in its own right, the church and churchyard is also home to a superb collection of at least seventeen West Highland style grave slabs; and there is a second stone cross standing nearby that anywhere else would be considered important in its own right.
The Kildalton Cross is sometimes called the Kildalton Great Cross or the Kildalton High Cross and stands 2.65m high by 1.32m wide. It is made from a single piece of a grey-green coloured stone known as epidiorite, probably quarried at Port na Cille on the coast just under a mile to the south-east of where it now stands.
The cross was carved towards the end of the 700s, almost certainly by the same artist or artists who created the larger but much less well preserved high crosses on Iona. The cross stood in its current location until 1882, by which time the socket stone in which it stands had become damaged and the cross was recorded as leaning at a perilous angle. When the cross was removed a small stone cross was found in the ground beneath, together with the remains of the burial of a man and a woman. The cross was re-erected in the same location, with the socket stone set into a new and much larger plinth to ensure future stability. While it was down, a cast was made of the cross and a concrete copy is now housed in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.
The standard of the carving on the cross is simply magnificent, and its state of preservation is little short of miraculous given that it has been exposed to the elements for over twelve centuries. The east face of the cross carries a series of biblically inspired characters and scenes. Above the central boss are carvings of angels; of David killing the lion; and of peacocks eating grapes. The left hand arm when viewed from this side depicts Cain murdering Abel, while the right hand arm shows the sacrifice of Isaac. Below the narrowing of the shaft and beneath the "ring" which links the arms together is a depiction of the Virgin and Child flanked by angels.
The west face is equally elaborately carved, but with the exception of a lion on each of the four projections from the central boss, the patterns are more abstract. Especially striking is the size of the decorative bosses, which extend 95mm from the west face and 50mm from the east face: implying that the stone from which the cross was carved was much thicker than the cross which eventually emerged.
The second cross stands a short distance to the north-east of the churchyard in an enclosure defined by decorative but rusty railings. This is known as the Kildalton Small Cross or, more popularly, as the Thief's Cross, because of the theory that as it stands in unconsecrated ground it must mark the grave of a criminal. This is difficult to reconcile with the effort and expense which must have gone into making the cross, and it seems more likely it was placed here in the 1300s or 1400s by a local lord as a private shrine.
The ruin of Kildalton Old Parish Church was heavily repaired in 1925 and again in the 1970s. It is probable that the church you see today dates back to the late 1100s or early 1200s. Internally it was a simple oblong, which was probably divided into a nave and a sanctuary by a wooden screen. In the ground within the church and around it are at least seventeen West Highland style recumbent grave slabs, in a range of patterns in common use during the 1300s and 1400s. Especially striking is the grave slab, now set into an interior wall of the church carrying a deeply and beautifully carved effigy of a knight in full regalia with a second smaller figure hovering above his left shoulder. This smaller figure, sometimes found on grave slabs carrying effigies of knights, may be an indication that the knight's wife was buried alonside him.
The presence of the Kildalton Cross in the churchyard shows that there was a religious foundation at Kildalton for many centuries before the church whose remains still stand was built, and the grandeur of the cross is a strong indication that Kildalton was home to an important early monastery.