Yesterday, I had the privilege of being invited along to Aberlady Conservation Society’s unveiling of a beautifully sculpted reproduction Northumbrian cross. A good turnout, despite a bitingly cold December wind saw Historic Scotland, a partner in the careful recreation of this beautiful piece of history, unveil it to assembled locals, schoolchildren and sundry dignitaries.
As a community event, it was both touching and inspirational to see what enthusiasm from locals teamed with support from specialists and the local council can lead to. But it seemed especially poignant because the fragment of original cross, discovered in 1875, represents the twisted petal designs that characterised the gospels written and illustrated by the monks of Lindisfarne in the 8th century. At that time, Christianity had barely taken hold and was dependent on the dedicated work, hardy travels and bravery of the early monks.
At the time, East Lothian was sliding from Brythonic control and beginning several centuries of being the melting pot of North Britain as Celts, Picts, Norse and Anglian cultures intersected along the south shore of the Forth. In the seventh century a struggle between the Anglian kingdoms of Deira and Bernicia had forced a Prince Oswald to seek refuge among the Scots in far Dalriada. There, he was converted to Christianity by St Aidan on Iona. Soon, Northumberland was united under Oswald who invited monks to found Lindisfarne and his subjects to embrace Christ as he extended his control over Lothian’s original Welsh-speaking Goddodin inhabitants. Aberlady became a key transit point for monks coming ashore in their small coracles to make the overland trek via Yester and Abbey St Bathan’s to their new ecclesiastic centre.
Partly to support this traffic, a key settlement grew up on what is now Kilspindie golf course. The original fragment of the cross was found below the manse garden. Many other fragments, brooches and remains have been discovered. But the cross was both distinctive in its design and dominant in its size. It would have been the pivot of the settlement, the equivalent of the national flag flying over the fort in hostile territory.
To be there was to imagine Aberlady (or Pefferham, as the Northumbrians probably knew it) as a beacon in the Dark Ages, a key point on the necklace of points of culture and civilisation that stitched the kingdoms and peoples of North Britain together. It was a time barely recognisable from today’s perspective—a time long before national identities like “Scottish” or “English” had been even imagined, let alone achieved.