A glass-fronted porch at the west end of Kirkmadrine Church in the Rhins of Galloway is home to a collection of the oldest known Christian monuments in Scotland outside Whithorn.You reach Kirkmadrine Church along a minor single track road which runs west from the A716 a little to the south of Sandhead.
Parking is in a pull off beside the road, and from here you walk the three hundred yards or so along a delightful woodland track to reach the gate of the churchyard. As you will probably have seen when driving along the last stretch of the road, the modest sized church is accompanied by an extremely tall stone cross on a mound. This is an impressive memorial to John McTaggart, who died in 1810 and was buried in Kirkcowan, and to his family.
The memorial seems to have been built to accompany the medieval Toskerton Parish Church which stood on this spot at the time. The church you see today was built in the late 1800s, possibly incorporating some of the medieval masonry, as a mortuary chapel by Lady McTaggart Stewart of Ardwell, presumably a member of a later generation of the McTaggarts recorded on the memorial. The design of the current church was said to have been based on the Romanesque Cruggleton Church near Whithorn.
It became clear during the building of the current church that the history of Christian worship on this site went back far beyond the building of the medieval church it was replacing, perhaps to a monastery established here in the 400s. During construction, someone noticed some unusual stones in the vicinity, especially two pillar stones serving as gateposts and another which was being used as a stile stone in the churchyard wall. More ancient stones were later uncovered in the churchyard itself.
The earliest of these stones is a pillar dating from the 400s or 500s which carries a six line Latin inscription commemorating three bishops, Ides, Viventius and Mavorius. Another pillar stone of a similar date remembers Florentius, plus someone whose name has been eroded. A third, dated to around 600, carries the inscription "Initium Et Finis", which translates as "the beginning and the end". Other stones on display at Kirkmadrine include five cross fragments dated to between 700 and 1100. Not only was this site in use for Christian worship at an exceptionally date, it seems to have remained in use continuously through the dark ages to the medieval period and then into modern times.
It is excellent that these remarkable stones remain on view so close to the location in which they were found. The fact that they have to be viewed through glass can be a drawback, especially on a bright day, because the reflections of sunlight on the woods behind you can overpower visibility of the detail of the stones within the alcove: but you can't have everything.
Kirkmadrine Church itself appears to be kept locked, but there are some interesting gravestones on view in the churchyard, some almost at the point of being reclaimed by the encroaching vegetation. As you wander around, you inevitably hope you might just stumble over an ancient stone that's been overlooked, and just as inevitably you don't: but the possibility you might certainly adds an extra dimension to a search for old gravestones.