In "The Builder" magazine of 3o September 1893 Archibald Knox wrote an article entitled "Ancient Crosses in the Isle of Man"

He was 29 years old and still living on the Isle of Man.

In 1892 the highest possible grant was awarded for the works of Mr Archibald Knox, to whom the examiners had awarded a silver medal for studies of Celtic ornament.

His silver medal of 1892 may have been in whole, or in part, due to the content that was reproduced in this article.


These ancient crosses are apparently the work of one maker, of the name of Gaut. His name, that of his father and of his home, the names of contemporaries and of patrons, remain authentic from a period of the history of the little Kingdom of Man, from which few other authentic names survive, and the crosses that he made are also among the few substantial survivals of that faraway time.

The name of Gaut occurs on two of the Manx crosses. The inscription on a cross at Kirk Michael is, that “ Bridson, the smith, the son of Alhacan, raised this cross for his own soul and of his faithful friend, Gaut, who made it, and all in Man.” On another cross at Kirk Andreas it is slated that “Gaut, the son of Biarn of Cooiley, made it.”

Of the locality of Cooiley little can be determined. “Cooiley,” which is Manx, is in English the place of a dwelling that is “hidden” from the wayfarer among hollows in the land. There are many Cooileys in the island. The relation of Gaut and Bridson which the cross of Bridson indicates suggests that the home of Gaut may be found in the district where Bridson’s Cross now stands.

On a terrace in the hills above Kirk Michael is the little farm of Balla Cooiley. The dwelling-house is unchanged from the style of house which prevailed in the island three centuries ago. A roof of thatch covers its low solid walls. One wall contains the doorway, the opposite wall the small openings which light its small interior. The house is not without dignity, and it is almost grim in its great simplicity of art. From this place the whole north of the island may be seen stretching out level and blue into the blue sea and sky. Within the palpitating blue of this plain are the abiding settlements of the people, and among them are to be found the crosses which are to be considered the work of Gaut. Higher in the blue are the clear forms of the countries of Scotland and Ireland. Twenty miles away, the southern part of the island is in most outward things similar to the north, but the work of Gaut does not extend there.

Over the hills, about three hours’ walk, on the eastern coast, is a small district where are crosses which differ largely from those in the north. Sentiment would indicate them to be of earlier and of independent origin. There the crosses are in pairs, in the north this would seem to be not so. The stones have the form of a circular head on a narrower shaft. In the north they are rectangular and oblong. They are carved on one face only, and on the other are rough as when broken from the quarry: in the north they are carved on both faces and polished. The pattern where it occurs is of no motive but lineal. In the north the pattern has almost always evidence of and reference to motives and inspiration from things real or imagined outside its own limits.
There is common to the crosses of both east and north the conception and treatment as of a painter’s. There is common also in all the ornamentation, taking the design on each cross as a whole, evidence of a feeling for rightness of structure which seems personal in its origin. The arrangements at the feet of the Onchan cross and of Olaf’s cross at Kirk Michael, and the position of the smaller cross on the slab of Olaf’s cross at Kirk Ballaugh, are examples of conscious perception and deliberate aim with regard to the mass of the design.

Nowhere in the island is there a cross which is conceived independently as a cross. Seen from a little distance they are long, narrow slabs of blue stones. Always, with the exception of Thorlaf Neaci’s Cross at Kirk Braddan, the cross, in relief about half an inch, extends over the surface of the slab and terminates usually at the foot in no definite design, but passes into the ground. The crossing is usually surrounded by a nimbus.
The great length of shaft on the northern crosses does not occur in the east. In the east, where the Greek form of cross is used, it is with a feeling for its deficiency in this respect, so that the cross is supplemented underneath by an otherwise independent extension of pattern down the shaft of the slab. In all cases the patterns are carved on the cross itself, and on the spaces between the cross and the edges of the slab, and sometimes on the sides of the slab. In the spandrels and on the sides of the slabs are cut the inscriptions, where they occur, and the figures and animals sometimes added for the enrichment of the slab. The patterns, almost always extending continuously over these parts, are cut with a sharp chisel, whose marks remain fresh and distinct. The treatment is charming, and never spoiled by notions of symmetry, always direct, and the pattern has practically no other relief than that given by the cut which delineates it.

Ancient Crosses in the Isle of Man - Drawn by Mr. Archibald Knox


  1. in.

Fig. 1, Thorlaf Neaci’s Cross, Kirk Braddan        Width          1   0

Fig. 2. The Lonan Cross, Kirk Lonan                         “              3   0

Fig. 3. The Braddan Cross, Kirk Braddan                  “             1   8

Fig. 4. The Glen Roi Cross, Lonan                             “               2   6

Fig. 5. St. Katherine’s Cross, Onchan                        “               2   6

Fig. 6A. The Onchan Cross, Kirk Onchan                 “               1   6

Fig. 6B. Olaf’s Cross, Kirk Michael                          “                  1   8

Fig. 7. Olaf’s Cross, Kirk Michael                             “                  1   6

Fig. 8, “The Cross of Bridson the Smith, which

Gaut made,” Kirk Michael                            “                               1   4

Fig. 9, Olaf’s Cross, Kirk Ballaugh                            “                 1   4

Fig. 10. A pattern on Thorlaf Neaci’s Cross. Width at base    0   4

Fig. 11. Malumkun’s Cross, Kirk Michael                                   1   4

Fig. 12. A cross at Kirk Maughold                                                1   8

Fig. 13. A cross at Kirk Maughold                                                1   2

Fig. 14. St. Peter’s Cross, Kirk Onchan                                       2   0

Fig. 15. St. Peter’s Cross, Kirk Onchan                                       2   0

Fig. 16. St Michael’s Cross, Kirk Michael                                   1  10

Thorlaf Neaci’s Cross at Kirk Braddan is in its contours and proportions different from all other crosses in Man, and its mass suggests a conception different from and better than what its decoration indicates. Bridson’s cross is the grand type of practically all the crosses, In structure Thorlaf Neaci’s Cross has the incomplete conception characteristic of the eastern crosses. The pattern on it is identical with that on Bridson’s Cross.

The pattern is the only one Gaut uses, and it occurs in its simplest form on the Bridson Cross. It consists of two waved lines crossing and recrossing, locked at each crossing by a ring, which, independently, or in some not readily distinguishable motive, grows out of one wave and in a symmetrical arrangement encircles the crossing and attaches itself to the other.

It expresses the very elementary sentiment of stability out of which the art of the builder grows.

The cross and its encircling nimbus, which is the subject of his art and the symbol of his salvation, he adopts as a form which he makes to constantly recur in one guise or another. This is the essential principle of his art.

There are some half-dozen variations of this arrangement of Gaut’s pattern. Of these, the one on Thorlaf Neaci’s Cross of the adder winding through the curling grass is the most important among them. The accident of style, which limits expression, does not control fancy nor prevent sympathy for spectacles such as this indicates.

In a recent summer among the mountains that lie between Kirk Braddan and Michael, I saw the same pattern which Gaut uses on Bridson’s Cross used by a young girl for the decoration with whitening stone on the threshold stone of her house.

The accommodation of pattern to the shape of the arms of the cross, as in the cross of Bridson, is good; but on all crosses where pattern occurs the device used does not vary from this, nor do the patterns on the shafts often have any organic relation to the arrangement in the head of the cross. Of further value in determining the sense in which Gaut’s declaration that he made that all crosses in Man is to be understood, is the use of spirals, as on Olaf’s Cross at Kirk Michael, and on the Onchan Cross, and, of equal importance of their use, the blank space on the shaft of Malumkun’s Cross at Kirk Michael.

Fig. 16

On all the crosses, howsoever they seem to differ locally to differ from the remaining are to be found many similarities of pattern and fancy, which lead the mind only to the conclusion of the common and personal origin of them all.

The past history of the crosses is hardly known, Some now serve a common purpose – for the market and the wayside; most are gathered into the churchyards of the parishes; and it cannot be said of any stone that it stood here or there. All may have been memorial in their origin, and would have seemed once to have crowned the crown of tumuli, which yet, green and round, are real against the ever hopeful sky. Some of these mounds have been, and some still are, the common burial-places of the people of the district.

Druian’s cross at Kirk Bride, though now in the churchyard, is still within a district that bears the name of Druian.

On the banks of the Santon burn was until about two years ago, a cross which was apparently in its natural environment. From its station could be seen along the river banks from its source to the sea, remains to the number of twelve or more of chapel and mound for burial, fort and mill, and many places whose names mark the time when the Island was named in admiration the Holy Island. This cross has recently been removed, and its location is unknown to those who formerly knew it and lived near it. It was without skill or imagination, the very rudest of workmanship, and in itself of little consideration.

Reasons for retaining relics such as these amidst their rural surroundings, are not demonstrable like a theorem in arithmetic, but while “practical” reasons for storing them in a museum or show-place are always at hand, the land is piece by piece becoming poor indeed.

The figures, and the incidents of which they are the subject, which in a few cases are found on the spandrels of the slab and in two cases on the cross itself, are of little direct artistic interest.

The dresses in which they are clothed are of two kinds, of which the dress of the harper on Malumkun’s cross is a complete example of one kind. In some cases the breast and waistband of this suit is are ornamented and in the case of the figure below the harper, the cloak, which also occurs on other crosses, seems to cover a dress similar to that of the harper. Of the other kind is the kilt, which in the case of Gunnar seems to hang from the shoulders, and in other figures is also confined at the waist by a band.

Beyond this broad delineation, nothing can be seen of aspect of man, The treatment of the figures are only as a silhouette. Occasionally a head-cover, a basket or a sword is to be seen, but that is all.

Of what they are the subject is not easily to be discovered. Popular knowledge, connects them with Norse work, and it is probably among such work that a solution of some of the subjects on the crosses will be found. There is a common subject on all the crosses, that of the hunt of the deer by dogs and a rider on horseback or by men on foot. This is accompanied by various incidents apparently incongruous, and it is impossible to separate the elements of the episodes. There are the subjects, several times repeated, of a man stabbing a serpent with a sword, a man with a bird on his shoulder, a group of men under the feet of an animal, but what they refer to has disappeared from popular tradition.

But what is absent from the crosses is as much a matter of wonderment as what is on them. More still a matter for wonder is the fact of the existence of the crosses. The exuberance and humour of them, as much in the fancy of the persons for whom they were made as of their maker, are, amidst the simpleness and austerity which have always distinguished the life of the island people, like a cloud which for a short time appears in the blue depths of the sky.

Such is the work of Gaut, the son of Biarn, of Cooiley, and the faithful friend of Bridson the smith.                                                                                                     ARCHIBALD KNOX,

     Douglas, Isle of Man.