Crossraguel Abbey - a Cluniac site on the Ayrshire Pilgrims' Trail to Whithorn
Crossraguel is pronounced Kross-ray-gill to rhyme with bagel. It is a scheduled ancient monument in the care of Historic Scotland.
Baltersan Castle (above left in distance) is about half a mile from the Abbey.
In the etching below by John Clerk of Eldin, brother-in-law to the neo-classical architect, Robert Adam, Baltersan is on the right, middle distance.
Origins of Crossraguel
With a name that is found in only one other place in Scotland (a farm in Lanarkshire now called Hiecorsehill - high cross hill) it is no surprise that scholars have been uncertain of its origins. One theory is that the abbey was built near a high cross dedicated to St Riaghail or Rule. A possible explanation is that the patron saint of the abbey church was once St Riaghail, an Irish monk who along with others, accompanied St Columba to Iona in the year 563. Could it have been St Rieul of Senlis, near Paris who is remembered here? See St Regulus below in relation to St Andrews.
View an interactive 360 degree panorama from the abbey gatehouse.
Hold down the left mouse button to navigate. © Bill Ward Crossraguel
Riaghail is Irish Gaelic for Rule or in Latin, Regulus. Now St Andrews comes into the picture. According to legend, a monk, Regulus was instructed in a vision to carry the relics of the apostle, St Andrew from his burial-place in Patras, Greece to the furthest west point he could reach. He was shipwrecked off the coast of Fife, and later the relics were miraculously discovered and a great cathedral arose in the town now called St Andrews. Formerly know as Kinrymont (meaning the end of the King's muir), the place had probably been an important Pictish site, pre-dating the arrival of the relics.
The cult of St Andrew may have been introduced in the middle of the 8th century by Bishop Acca of Hexham in northern England. It was initially a local one but by the year 967, Kinrymont was taking on national significance as a place of pilgrimage. There were only two places in western Christendom that pilgrims could come into contact with relics of a martyred apostle of Christ; here and at the shrine of St James the Greater in Compostela. St Andrews cathedral, for many years the largest building in Scotland, is now a much-diminished ruin, dominated by the tall square tower known as St Rule's Tower.
Although by the end of the 11th century, the saint with the widest following in Scotland was Columba, it became inevitable that St Andrew would become the nation's patron saint and that his saltire cross would form the style of the national flag. In July, 1318, King Robert the Bruce witnessed the consecration of the completed cathedral.
Scotland's national flag is the oldest in the world.
Connecting Andrew and Rule with Ayrshire's Crossraguel Abbey
One obvious connection to rule out, so to speak, is that of Bishop Kennedy of St Andrews. He was born about 1406 as the third and youngest son of Sir James Kennedy of Dunure, Ayrshire (about 7 miles from Crossraguel) and cousin of James II, King of Scots. He celebrated his first Mass as Bishop of St Andrews on 30th September, 1442. Another close connection was the discovery over 100 years ago of a hoard of coins, dubbed "Crossraguel pennies". It was believed that these had been minted at the abbey but later research re-attributed them to Bishop Kennedy. As we shall see below, Bishop Kennedy's time was much later than the foundation of the abbey.
With Crossraguel being closer and more accessible to Ireland and Iona than St Andrews, it seems unlikely that the abbey's patron would be St Rule. However, Robert the Bruce had one of his main castles (possibly his birthplace) at Turnberry, just six miles from the abbey, so he may have had a hand in influencing the choice of patron saint. King Robert the First lived from 1274-1329, becoming King of Scots in 1306, about half a century after the founding by Duncan, Earl of Carrick, of Crossraguel as a daughter house of the great Cluniac abbey of Paisley.
An earlier possible connection is via David I, King of Scots (1124-1153) who was married to Maud of Senlis. David's capital was in Carlisle and his rulle scarcely extended further north than the Central Belt of Scotland. David founded the Priory on the Isle of May which was, for a time, a Cluniac House. There is a clue to a possible St Rieul of Senlis connection in the direct alignment of the abbey church to the point of sunrise on the Feast Day of St Rieul (30th March).
Traces of the cruciform stone church of the middle to late 13th century can still be seen and they indicate that the surviving church which probably dates from the 15th century, retained the same alignment and that is the key to unlocking some unrecorded history of the abbey.
Sunrise on the patronal feast day
It is widely believed that Mediæval churches were aligned in such a way that the High Altar faces the point of sunrise on the feast day of its patron saint. This was even the basis of a poem by William Wordsworth. However, an English historian, Ian Hinton has surveyed 1,747 sites in every rural Mediæval parish in 13 counties of England and Wales. He concludes that this does not hold true.
A similar survey was carried out in Aberdeen and Banffshire at the beginning of the 20th c. by F.C. Eeles and published in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in 1914, vol. 12, p. 169-183.
At Crossraguel the church, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, is aligned about 7 or 8 degrees north of east to the point where the sun rises at 05:57 hrs on 30th March, the feast day of St Rieul of Senlis (Regulus) according to the Calendar of the Aberdeen Breviary!
But sunlight plays a further part in the ritual of worship. A rectangular window below the abbey belfry (see picture top of page, right) allows sunbeams to play directly on to the High Altar at 5:30 pm on two particular days of the year; 1st May (start of the month named for and dedicated to, the Blessed Virgin Mary) and on 10th August, feast day of St Oswald, king of Northumbria and St Blane, born on the Isle of Bute. Abbey sun experiment 2008 PDF download (205 Kb).
Apse at Crossraguel: It is possible that sunlight was directed through a crystal or prism in the middle of a cross on the Choir's balcony to radiate light throughout the Choir. Similarly, early morning sun on St Rieul's Feast Day would be projected on to such a cross.
Group of patron saints
Paisley Abbey which had been established by monks from Much Wenlock, Shropshire in England, had several dedications; the Virgin Mary, St James the Greater of Compostela, St Milburga and St Mirin, whose burial site became the focus for the founding of the monastery in 1163 by Walter Fitz Alan, High Steward of Scotland and founder of the royal house of Stewart.
St Milburga was Abbess of Wenlock in the 8th century and St James was patron saint of the Stewarts.
Similarly at Crossraguel we find a local saint, Bláán (Blane) and a minor saint from further afield, St Oswald. Their links are reinforced with two place-names within two miles of Crossraguel; Auchinblane (Gaelic for field of Bláán) and Kirkoswald (church of St Oswald). The original gift of land by the Earl of Carrick to the monks of Paisley Abbey for the founding of Crossraguel Abbey mentiones 'Southblane' which is almost certainly derived from the Gaelic, Suidhe Bláán (the "seat" of Blane). But that leaves the controversy over Riaghail and Regulus. Did either ever exist? Were they one and the same person?
Confusion is compounded by the dates given for each saint's feast day. Depending on which calendar is consulted, Riaghail's is given as 13th April, 11th June and 16th October. Regulus (or Rule) is given as 30th March and 16th October. The latter date is an alternative if the former date fell within Lent.
Secret tunnel to Baltersan?
The fascinating subject of church alignment with the sun is part of ongoing research into the hidden history of Crossraguel which includes possible Knights Templar connections and the local legend of a secret tunnel from the abbey to Baltersan Castle. Download PDF here Secret tunnel (843 Kb)
Ayrshire Pilgrims' Trail
Cormack Brown Ltd is currently developing the Ayrshire Pilgrims' Trail which forms an ancient pilgrimage route from Glasgow via Paisley Abbey to Whithorn, the cradle of Christianity in Scotland. Crossraguel Abbey sits half-way between Paisley and the shrine of St Ninian in Whithorn. The Trail will be sign-posted route from Largs and West Kilbride southwards and from Lochwinnoch via Beith, Dalry, Dundonald, Troon, Alloway, Crossraguel, Girvan, Pinmore, Pinwherry, Barrhill, Ballantrae and on to Galloway via Glen App. The Ayrshire Coastal Path and other path and cycleway networks will be utilise as much as possible but the routes will also be appropriate for pilgrims travelling by road and rail.
The St Ninian Ways European Cultural Route
The Ayrshire Trail is just one of several to Whithorn which is being considered by Cormack Brown for development as a European Cultural Route recognised by the Council of Europe. This is in its early stages in discussion with The Whithorn Trust and several other organisations and individuals.
European Federation of Cluniac Sites
This modern cultural, social and educational body is based in the town of Cluny, Burgundy, France. The Benedictine monastic Order of Cluny was abolished by the French Revolution when the abbey was cruelly dismantled, leaving a mere 8% of its original glory intact. Prior to the construction of St peter's in Rome, the church of the Abbey of Cluny was the largest in Christendom. The Order too was the greatest with about 1,400 houses in Scotland, England, France, Spain, Switzerland and Germany. Scotland has the distinction of having the two most farthest-flung sites from Cluny and both were abbey. Historically, there should have been only one abbey with adherent monasteries never above the status of priory. Both Paisley and Crossraguel won the right to elect their own abbots.
Although Crossraguel never had more than ten monks, Paisley was once the tenth richest in the whole European network of Cluniac sites. While Crossraguel is but a ruin, albeit the most complete Medieval abbey in Scotland and the most complete Cluniac site in the UK, Paisley still has a vibrant community as a Presbyterian Church of Scotland and is a member of the European Federation of Cluniac Sites.
Image from the augmented reality film of a reconstructed Abbey of Cluny.
Research funded by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland
In 2010 as part of the celebrations of the 1,100th anniversary of the Abbey of Cluny, there was an opportunity to digitally record Crossraguel Abbey to produce a virtual reality film of the abbey as it may have looked in the first half of the 16th century. That project failed to materialise but James Brown received sponsorship funding to produce a bibliographical record for Crossraguel Abbey. His research continues on a pro bono basis to add to the original report, a PDF copy of which can be downloaded here. Crossraguel Bibliography JB Nov 10 (3.6 Mb)