Friday 12 April 2013

Objects in Focus: Stone Font

In the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh a handful of objects collected by Carmicahel are on display: a baptismal font, a stone font and a Pictish stone. Carmichael's own notes explain where the stone font was found and the particular curing beliefs associated with it.  
Stone font
The small primitive porous looking font is from Christ's Burying Ground (Cladh Chriost) in the Island of Pabbay, Barra. 

Like the other islands of Barra, Pabbay is extremely rugged and precipitous and except during settled weather inapproachable on account of the Atlantic surf. On the south east side of the island there is an open bay. Behind this surf-beaten bay and in front of this glaciated hill beyond is a semicircular valley the bottom of which on the north side is composed of deep accumulated sand drift. 

This was formerly covered with bent (muran) and other grasses but the surface breaks caused by the winter storms have been inattended to of late years, the winter winds have swept away the sand to a great depth leaving studded over the valley high cone-like mounds as monuments of neglect. Cladh Chriost is one of these cone-like mounds. It is about thirty feet high and composed or built up of many successive and distinctive layers of sand, like so many different pieces of bleached and unbleached cotton on a drapers shelf and pointing to different periods of formation. 

Its base has already become considerably hard and solid thus affording us the late and interesting opportunity of examining the slow and silent yet sure and inevitable process by which Time converts the flying particles of sand into hard and solid rock. Had no fortuitous circumstances prevented this sand mound would be converted into sand stone rock, in which would be embedded at various distances from the surface well preserved human remains, some of them surrounded by rows of carefully selected polished pebbles from the strand, and others by irregularly coarse common moor stones from the hill; innumerable bits of cinerary urns, of different manufactures and evidently of different periods with pins and needles, of bone, bronze and brass.

Stone font
And in the event of these hard memorials of man surviving like the tender lady from the process of petrefaction, perchance some future Hugh Miller might arise in the distant ages to draw therefrom lessons of utility instruction and wisdom.

A stream flows from the scariated hill behind which strikes during spates with considerable force against the rear of Cladh Chriost after which it skirts round the base thereof undermining and carrying in its sacrilegious course, the crumbling mound of sand, human remains, and human memorials, in one confused mass, into the continuous and tumbling, toiling, troubles sea below.

Embedded in the grassy sandy summit of this disused and neglected burying ground, this simple font rested for ages. But having been lost to sight of late, a search was made for it two years ago, at my request which resulted in finding it in the bed of the stream beneath, upon which it was obligingly transmitted to me to Lochmaddy.

This font was for centuries an object of credulous belief to the inhabitants of Pabbay and the other southern Isles of Barra. These simple people implicitly believed that the touch of this font like that of another stone in S. Mary’s burying ground (Cladh Naomh Moire) in the neighbouring island of Bearnaray (Barra-Head) was efficacious in preventing and removing many mental and physical disorders incident to themselves and their flocks. The lixivium found in the font was considered doubly consecrated, firstly through contact with the already consecrated font, and secondly through the friendly agency of some invisible and mysterious power that presided over the scene. The virtues of this salinated water were deemed secondary only to those of the water consecrated by the priest. 

The people rubbed their bodies and their cattle with the font and sprinkled themselves and their flocks with the water contained therein, for the cure of certain bodily ailments and for the prevention of specific acts of witchcraft. And when this ceremony was duly performed with the necessary amount of formality and with the necessary admixture of pagan and christian rites, the people firmly believed that creative spirits of the air, nor the witches of the earth, nor the mermaids of the deep surrounding sea could infuse or molest them. 
Pabbay, Barra
A charm so potent could not be otherwise than an object of deep awe and interest among the hardy, simple and kind hearted people possessing it nor do I doubt but an attempt to remove it eighty or a hundred years ago would have been stoutly resisted and would probably result in serious consequences. But – “Old times are changed, old manners gone, A stranger fills the Stewarts’ throne; The bigots of an iron time, Had called these harmless acts a crime.” 

For a number of years past the belief in the virtues of this charm has been falling into abeyance and now only two old men as far as I know can give an intelligible account of the faded glories of the primitive little font. 

Now, the next time you visit the museum on Chambers Street keep an eye out for this font!

GB 237 Coll-97 CW457
Font: © National Museums of Scotland
Pabbay: © RCAHMS

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Stone whorls WHM 1992 13 2.4

Stone whorls WHM 1992 13 2.4
Stone whorls collected by Alexander Carmichael, held by West Highland Museum (ref. WHM 1992 13 2.4). [©]