The monument is the remains of the Early Christian monastery founded at Applecross by Maelrubha in AD 673, preserved mostly as buried archaeological features. The monastery is surrounded by an oval enclosure that was visible as an earthwork feature in 1964. Within the enclosure, a D-shaped bank is visible in the field east of the churchyard and a curving bank is visible as a low earthwork at the southwest end churchyard. A tall, Early Christian cross-slab known as Cloch Mhor Mac Cuagan stands next to the churchyard gate. Several 'cist' graves lined with stone slabs have been seen during excavations in the northeast part of the modern churchyard, the best constructed beneath a flagged floor. At the north end of the churchyard stands a small, later chapel, traditionally said to be of 15th century date, used as a family burial vault in the 19th century. The monument lies 10m above sea level at the foot of a southeast facing slope, about 200m from high water at Applecross Bay and 200m west of the Applecross River.
The core of the monastery may lie beneath or close to the church of 1817 that stands on the site of an older church that stood until 1792. The monastic enclosure survived as a faint earthwork in 1964 when it was recorded and planned by Charles Thomas. It encloses an area measuring 190m north-northeast / south-southwest by 140m transversely, containing most of the modern churchyard and land to the northwest, northeast and southeast. Within the enclosure, a separate D-shaped enclosure is visible on 1947 aerial photographs and this appears to correlate with an intermittent bank 0.5m high that survives as an earthwork. The curvilinear bank at the southwest of the churchyard is 16m long, spread to 3m wide and is less than 0.5m high.
The cross-slab is 2.63m in visible height, 0.99m in maximum width tapers upwards in thickness from 100mm to 75mm, and has the outline of a ringed cross on the southeast face. The best constructed of the cist graves lies about 5m beyond the east gable of the small chapel, and was unearthed then covered over in 1934; three walls of a building were visible in the vicinity at that time, apparently overlaid by the chapel. Several cists, including one two storey structure, have been seen just southwest of this area. The chapel has internal measurements of 4m northwest / southeast by 4.5m transversely, but walls seen during grave digging imply the west gable has been repositioned and the structure was originally 12m long.
The scheduled area is irregular on plan to include the remains described above and an area around in which evidence for the monument's construction, use and abandonment is expected to survive, as shown in red on the accompanying map. The scheduling specifically excludes: plots where rights of burial exist; all memorials in the churchyard except the Cloch Mhor Mac Cuagan cross-slab; the above ground elements of the church of 1817; the above ground elements of the churchyard walls and of all modern boundary walls, fences and gates; the above ground elements of electricity poles; and the top 300mm of all paths and paved areas.
Statement of National Importance
The cultural significance of the monument has been assessed as follows:
The monastery survives largely as buried archaeological remains. The exposure of features such as cist graves and a floor surface, in 1934 and on other occasions in the 20th century, demonstrates that the buried remains are complex and well-preserved.
It is probable that the monastery was of comparable importance to Iona, indicating a very high level of archaeological and scientific interest and research potential. Applecross was one of a group of major monastic centres in western Scotland, founded independently from Iona and not as prominent in contemporary documentary sources which were often concerned to promote the influence of St Columba, Iona's founder (Fraser 2009, 337-8; Stancliffe 2005, 456). Excavations at other sites such as Iona, Portmahomack, Whithorn and Hoddom (O Sullivan 1998, Carver et al 2016, Hill 1997, Lowe 2006) demonstrate the range and interest of the archaeological remains that can be expected here.
Although the monastic enclosure or 'vallum' is no longer visible as an earthwork, its position was recorded in 1964. Evidence from contemporary monastic sites (noted above) indicates the vallum probably comprises a bank alongside a deep ditch, a robust feature that will have survived surface disturbance. There is also high potential for the survival of monastic buildings, as at Portmahomack and Whithorn, and for buried deposits containing artefacts and ecofacts that can provide evidence for daily life, trade and exchange contacts and economy. The Cloch Mhor Mac Cuagan cross-slab and fragments of other early medieval carved stone found on the site are likely to date from this period of the site's occupation. Historical sources suggest the monastery was occupied for some 150 years indicting that there will be a development sequence. Monasticism appears to have ended subsequently, limiting the extent of later disturbance.
The site continued to have a religious function after monasticism ended becoming the location of Applecross Parish Church. There is potential for the buried remains of a succession of parish church buildings and associated graves below or close to the church of 1817. A test pit excavated in 2011 showed human remains close to the church, apparently disturbed when the present building was erected. The chapel to the northeast also provides evidence for later use of the site, as does a late medieval grave slab with the burial ground.
Historical sources suggest the site is a rare example of a major Early Christian monastic centre, founded in AD 673 by St Maelrubha. Because the site has not been subject to archaeological excavation and is well preserved, researchers do not have detailed information about its layout. However, the identification of a large, oval vallum suggests the monument is a good example of an Early Christian monastery reflecting Irish influence. The area enclosed by the vallum at Applecross is very similar in size and layout to the Northern Irish monastery of Nendrum. The inner D-shaped enclosure at Applecross is also similar in size and plan to the inner enclosure of Nendrum (the central cashel) and may have served a similar function housing the early monastic church and graveyard.
In western Scotland, Applecross can be compared with Iona, prominent in the historical record (Canmore ID 21664, scheduled monument reference SM12968), but also with Kingarth, on Bute (Canmore ID 40292, scheduled monument reference SM90264), and Lismore, at the mouth of Loch Linnhe (Canmore ID 23100, scheduled monument reference SM286), which may also have been major monastic centres. The monastery at Applecross probably lay in an area of Pictish control, and can be compared with Portmahomack, a major monastic centre on the eastern seaboard that also lay within Pictland (Canmore ID 15662, scheduled monument reference SM12793). Applecross is also comparable with the Anglian monasteries at Whithorn (Canmore ID 63286, scheduled monument reference SM12992) and Hoddom (Canmore ID 69504, scheduled monument reference SM2690) in Dumfries and Galloway.
The Annals of Ulster demonstrate continuing contact between the monastery at Bangor, in Northern Ireland, and Applecross (Reeves 1859, 261). The founder of Applecross, Maelrubha, is one of the early saints most widely commemorated by church dedications and place names across northwest Scotland, probably indicating the influence and connections of Applecross; for example, he is said to have founded the church on an island of Loch Maree (Canmore ID 12049, scheduled monument reference SM3752).
Applecross therefore adds to our understanding of the early Christian communities in Scotland, helping us to understand national similarities and regional diversification. It offers the potential to examine the connections between ecclesiastical sites and the ways that Christian culture was dispersed.
The site of the monastery lies close to Applecross Bay, a sheltered bay with sandy beach that would have offered easy links up and down the west coast and across the sound to Skye and the Hebrides.
The name Applecross relates not just to the monastery but to the whole peninsula south of Loch Torridon and west of Glen Shieldaig. It derives from the Pictish name Aporcrosan, 'confluence of the [river] Crossan'. The Gaelic name for the area is A' Chomraich, meaning 'The Sanctuary', probably reflecting the monastery's immediate area of influence.
The form of the monument, including the oval enclosure, almost certainly reflects the influence of Irish monasticism. The Annals of Ulster record Maelrubha's arrival from Bangor in Northern Ireland to found the monastery (Reeves 1859, 261), as well as continued contact between the two centres. The cross-slab at the churchyard gate is traditionally associated with Ruaraidh Mor MacAogan, perhaps the Abbot of Applecross mentioned in the Annals of Ulster, who died as Abbot of Bangor in 802 (Reeves 1859, 261). The spread of dedications to Maelrubha across northwest Scotland suggests his importance in the conversion, an importance that is not reflected in historical sources that were often associated with Iona.
Statement of National Importance
The monument is of national importance as a rare example of a major Early Christian monastic centre. As such it makes a significant contribution to our understanding of the past, particularly the development of Christianity and monasticism in Scotland. It has high potential for complex and well-preserved buried archaeological remains that can enhance our understanding of such monastic settlements. The foundation of the monastery and links with Bangor are documented in the Annals of Ulster, which adds to understanding of the monument's context. The cross-slab in the burial ground is also traditionally association with a former abbot of Applecross who became abbot of Bangor. Our ability to understand Early Christian monasteries in Scotland would be diminished if the monument was lost or damaged, because the site represents one of a small group of monastic centres in Western Scotland that may have been comparable to Iona. Applecross and its founder Maelrubha probably played a prominent role in the conversion to Christianity of northwest Scotland, as reflected in the number and spread of Maelrubha dedications.
Historic Environment Scotland http://www.canmore.org.uk reference number CANMORE ID 11734 (accessed on 07/02/2017).
Local Authority HER Reference MHG7685 (accessed on 07/02/2017).
Carver, M, Garner-Lahire, J, and Spall, C, 2016 Portmahomack on Tarbat Ness: Changing Ideologies in North-East Scotland, Sixth to Sixteenth Century AD 2016, Society of Antiquaries of Scotland Monograph
Fraser, J E 2009 From Caledonia to Pictland: Scotland to 795. Edinburgh
Hill, P, 1997 Whithorn and Saint Ninian: The Excavation of a Monastic Town, 1984–91. Stroud
Lowe, C, 2006 Excavations at Hoddom, Society of Antiquaries of Scotland Monograph
MacLean, D, 1997 'Maelrubai, Applecross and the late Pictish contribution west of Druimalban' in D Henry (ed) The Worm, the Germ and the Thorn: Pictish and Related Studies Presented to Isabel Henderson, 176-8. Balgavies
O'Sullivan, J, 1998 'More than the sum of the parts. Iona: archaeological investigations 1875-1996', in Church Archaeology 2, 5-18.
Reeves, W, 1859 'Saint Maelrubha: his history and churches', PSAS 3, 258-86
Stancliffe, C, 2005 'Christianity amongst the Britons, Dalriadan Irish and Picts' in Fouracre, P (ed) The New Cambridge Medieval History, vol 1, Cambridge, 426-461
Thomas, A C, 1971 The Early Christian Archaeology of North Britain; the Hunter Marshall Lectures delivered at the University of Glasgow in January and February 1968. London
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Printed: 07/12/2023 21:07