Posted by: pirliebraes | May 27, 2011

Flotta Stone

The Flotta Stone, held by the National Museums of Scotland in Edinburgh, is unquestionably Flotta’s most cherished artefact. It is a sculptured slab which was found in the site of a ruin which was supposed to have been an ancient church.

After having been in possession of Mr George Petrie of Kirkwall for a number of years it was bought for the Edinburgh Museum of Antiquities in 1877. It is thought to date from the 8th Century.

It is a rectangular slab of grey sandstone, 5 feet 5 inches long by 2 feet 8 inches wide by 3 to 4 inches thick, having two vertical grooves at the back, showing that it probably formed one side of an altar tomb. On the front there is a raised border round the edge of the slab and, in the centre, within a square panel, a cross of the usual Celtic shape with four round hollows in the angles formed by the intersection of the arms. The top, bottom and right arms of the cross are ornamented with interlaced work, consisting of a six-cord plait on the narrow parts of the arms, and on the ends of the arms ten-cord plaits with breaks in the centre and at the edge.

In his Description of the Orchadian Islands Jo Ben, who stayed here in 1529, had this to say about Flotta:

Flotay, this island is level with the sea and very pleasant. There is an old house here, demolished to the ground, which some call a church or others a presbytery, of great length, where each year the assemblies of priests were held. Three memorials were erected here, which we call “crosses”, they were overturned by a workman building a wall, and he dreamt that night indeed of ghosts, and thereafter he was plagued by wonders but by staying awake the effect was less. And he was ill in bed for the space of eight weeks, by his own account. Digging afterwards indeed he found a tabernacle in a tumulus, candlesticks, belts, and other marvels which it is not useful to recount in this place.

We hope that someday the Flotta Stone will be returned to its rightful place -Flotta!

Thanks to Donald Sutherland, Edinburgh, for additional information:

A wee bit on the Flotta cross slab. This came into the possession of the National Museum as part of the collection of George Petrie, Orkney lawyer and antiquarian, which was purchased by the Museum in 1877. How it came into Petrie’s possession is a mystery (to me at least). At the suggestion of Fraser Hunter, who’s a curator in the Museum, I looked through Petrie’s notebooks in the Museum Library but there was nothing I could find on the Flotta cross. There is also a quantity of Petrie’s correspondence in the RCAHMS in Edinburgh which I’ve also looked through with a similar result. There is a brief file in the Orkney Archives which has correspondence that notes that the cross slab decorated Petrie’s garden in Kirkwall for a number of years. It would be good if anyone had any information on how Petrie acquired it and from whom.

Sir Thomas Smith Clouston was a notable Orcadian and a leading light in 19th Century British psychology (see profile in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography) but in Orkney he is at least as well known as the father of Storer Clouston, the historian and novelist. T S Clouston is buried in Dean Cemetery in Edinburgh and the relevance here is that the central panel on his very grand gravestone is clearly a direct model of the Flotta cross slab. I can only presume that this was modelled by Storer Clouston for his father.

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