CHRISTIANS & PAGANS IN SOUTHERN DUMFRIES: 8.Ruthwell Cross, 9.Brow Well & 10.Clochmaben 2018-04-15T21:50:04+00:00

Christians & Pagans in Southern Dumfries

8. Ruthwell Cross 9. Brow Well & 10. Clochmaben

Listen to an Introduction:

Ruthwell cross dates from the late 7th century. Tradition has it that originally this was simply a column which stood closer to the Solway shore at Priestfield.

Local lore says that it was probably intended for a site further down the coast – perhaps Whithorn – but the ship carrying it ran aground and so the column was brought ashore. It is believed that the actual cross was mounted on top of the column later and that sometime before the 17th century, the whole thing was moved up to Ruthwell Church.

One theory is that the column was created as a protest by Celtic monks following the Synod of Whitby when Celtic Christian practice was replaced by Roman Catholicism. This would suggest that the cross was made in 664AD when Colman, Bishop of Lindisfarne and his followers, left Whitby and returned home. Full of dismay at the triumph of the Catholic bishops at Whitby, they may have erected this as a preaching cross, designed as an educational tool, with the carvings as a picture book for the ‘humble’. On the broad faces of the cross are carved scenes that illustrate Christ’s divinity, the Holy Trinity and the four Evangelists who wrote the gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Latin inscriptions around the carvings tell the story of what is pictured on the cross but were probably only readable by the monks – the only people with a Latin education.

A second set of inscriptions was carved in runes, used by Germanic peoples like the Norsemen and the Angles. These are fragmentary quotations from one of the oldest of Old Anglish poems ever written: ‘The Dream of the Rood’ (‘rood’ means cross). The cult of the Holy Rood developed in the Mediterranean at about this time. On the narrow sides of the cross there is vine tracery which features birds feeding. In this symbolism, is there any connection with an earlier Pagan significance of larks as the heralds of enlightenment?

Christianity imposed itself alongside important Pagan sites but often in close proximity rather than on top of them. Brow Well is in the parish of Ruthwell, and may be the ‘Well’ linked into the name.

The Brow Well - Images

Brow well is fed by a chalybeate spring. Two similar springs are on the west bank of the burn. In the 18th century this was a poor man’s spa and Robert Burns came here to take the waters in the last months of his life.

But the healing properties of the spring were known long before that. The spring is rich in iron and other minerals. It is surrounded by thorn bushes and may well have been a clootie well dating back to the cult of Mabon (see site 10). In Scots, ‘clootie’ means ‘cloth’. The cloth was usually part of the supplicant’s clothing dipped in the water of the holy well, before being tied to the branch of a nearby bush. As it rotted, so the malady would fade. The erection of the Ruthwell cross and the name Ruthwell (Well of the Cross) hint strongly at an important pre-Christian site for healing and fertility.

Clochmaben Stone: Cloch is old Welsh for ‘stone’ so the name means Stone of Maben. Radiocarbon dating of material beneath the stone indicates it was placed here around 2500BC as part of a stone circle, originally of nine stones.  

The granite boulder stands over 7ft high with a girth of about 18 feet. Most of the others were removed by ploughing but one still remains (about 3 feet high) in the nearby hedge. Mabon or Maponus was a Celtic God. There is Mabie forest south-west of Dumfries and Lochmaben, 29 miles north-west of here, is listed in the 7th century as Locus Maponi in the Ravenna Cosmography.

Map or mab in Old Welsh means “son” and there are hints that he was the son of the Earth Mother. His youth made him important in fertility and virility rites and he also seems to have been linked with sun worship. Healing, dream interpretation and shape shifting were all important elements of the cult. He was a sort of Celtic Apollo. Dedications have been found all along Hadrian’s Wall (Birrens, Brampton, Vindolanda, Corbridge, and Ribchester) and he was also known in Gaul (where they also spoke a form of Old Welsh).

According to St Samson, who died in 563AD, his parents made the journey to Clochmabon from South Wales in around 485AD because they were infertile. The druid told Samson’s mother to sleep in the sacred enclosure where she dreamed that she would have a son of great renown. The next morning she found the druid was already aware of her dream. He confirmed that her son would grow up to do good works for many people. Samson took holy orders and ended up as an archbishop in Brittany where he is buried in the cathedral of Dol. It is likely that nearly a century later, Merlin may well have participated in traditional rites here until his clan was massacred at the Battle of Arfderydd (Athuret) in 573AD. This was fought only seven miles from Gretna, at Liddel’s Strength.

The harvest festival of Lughnasadh occurred halfway between the summer solstice and the autumn equinox, when night and day are exactly equal and would have been particularly important.  It was the season for match-making and fertility rites. Mabon is said to have been the patron divinity of Rheged and as late as about 560AD, the marriage of Urien of Rheged is said to have taken place here with the marital vows sealed by a public bedding of his bride. Over the next couple of decades Rheged appears to have been converted to Christianity but old customs survived.

Handfasting (trial marriage) continued well into the age of the stagecoach. In the 19th century a parish minister recorded that he could not remember the last time he married an unpregnant bride. Handfasting, non-church marriages before witnesses, and the fact that Mabon was the god of blacksmiths, are all very ancient folk memories which have lived on in Gretna’s modern romantic tradition.


How to get here

Christians and Pagans in Southern Dumfries

Ruthwell Cross is off the B724 (on the north side) eight miles south-east of Dumfries (inside the parish church).

Brow Well: From Wardlaw, follow the B725 to Bankend and continue in the direction of Annan. About half a mile before it joins the B724. Brow Well is a hamlet with a couple of old cottages. The well is by the bridge and marked with a Robert Burns Trail sign.

Clochmaben Stone: Follow the B725 west to join the B724 and continue east to Annan. Keep on the B721 coast road towards Gretna. Turn right to Rigg and continue to old Graitney where a road on the right leads down to the shore. The stone stands in the corner of a field on old Graitney Farm on flat ground about 300 yards above the high water mark. It is nearly a mile west of where the River Sark enters the Solway Firth and east of Kirtle Water.

Places to Visit and Things to Do

Devil’s Porridge Museum
Devil’s Porridge Museum
Our new museum has something for everyone. Discover what life was like for soldiers in the World War One trenches and for the thousands of Munitions Girls who flocked to work at HM Factory Gretna.
Savings Bank Museum
Savings Bank Museum
The original Ruthwell Parish Bank is now home of the Savings Banks Museum. The eighteenth century building houses a collection of early home savings boxes, coins and bank notes from many parts of the world. Photo: Colin Kinnear
Brow Well
Brow Well
Brow Well has become a place of pilgrimage for Robert Burns’ ever growing army of fans from around the world. Photo: Rosser1954
Blacksmiths Shop Gretna
Blacksmiths Shop Gretna
The Famous Blacksmiths Shop is the ancient building that made Gretna Green famous. It has stood in Gretna Green since 1712. It was also one of the earliest destinations for runaway couples fleeing to marry in Gretna Green.

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Buy the Book by Robin Crichton


The History behind the Legend

This is the true story behind the legend of Merlin. Born of a royal family to a life of privilege and luxury, his place in society was ordained until he lost everything in a bloodbath of pillage and genocide. Forced to live on the run he survived as an outlaw hiding out in a cave, living off what the forest could provide.

It is the story of the clash between Christianity and traditional belief – a duel between St Mungo the priest and Merlin the pagan, played out against a webs of late 6th century political intrigue and the strife of a land tearing itself apart.

Until now, our Early Dark Age heritage has been largely ignored by historians because of the lack of cross-checkable written data. This book combines history, archaeology, etymology, topography, botany and folk memory in a giant jigsaw. With nearly 150 colour illustrations and maps, the book is accompanied by a gazetteer of 28 Dark Age sites. It presents the evidence, suggests various interpretations and invites the reader to be the historical detective.

For further information: contact Robin Crichton – Email


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