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Mystery of the Murkle cross


By David G Scott

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A Thurso man was out with his two dogs on Murkle beach when he found, what appears to be, a very old crucifix lying on the shoreline.

Mike Ross was doing a spot of beach cleaning on Wednesday as his Jack Russell dogs Buffy and Sirius played about, when he came across the small metal cross.

"I found it on low tide at West Murkle. It was just lying on top of the sand," said Mike.

One side of the small cross found at Murkle beach shows Jesus crucified. Pictures: Mike Ross
One side of the small cross found at Murkle beach shows Jesus crucified. Pictures: Mike Ross

Mike said he goes to the area most days to exercise his dogs and pick up plastic and other rubbish for the Caithness Beach Cleans group.

The pictures he took of the artefact show it is approximately one-and-a-half inches in height with an image of Christ crucified on one side and what appears to be Jesus ascending to heaven on the other side or perhaps the Virgin Mary or another saint.

The other side of the artefact appears to show Jesus ascending to heaven but could also represent His mother Mary.
The other side of the artefact appears to show Jesus ascending to heaven but could also represent His mother Mary.

He said that the metal object is fairly light and could be made from pewter. It appears to be crudely made but its appearance has probably been adversely affected by years of weathering and the action of the sea. A small hole at the top may have meant it was attached to a necklace at one time and perhaps broke free and was lost. Mike thought it may have been uncovered by recent storms in the bay.

"I've been told there was a nunnery and a monastery there at one time," he added.

On the Canmore archaeological map it states that at an area called Mains of Murkle it is believed a "nunnery of very ancient date and extensive buildings" appears to have stood there in medieval times.

A 19th century document mentions that a queen of Norway died in it and that an Earl of Caithness was buried there in 960.

Mike set a pen beside the cross as a size comparison.
Mike set a pen beside the cross as a size comparison.

On social media several commented thinking it could be a "fairly modern" devotional item related to the Catholic faith. One Twitter user said: "Looks modern-ish to me as well – it looks like a version of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal on the back, which archetype is from the 1830s."

Iain Maclean from the Caithness Broch Project said a similar object was recovered, however, that dates from the 15th century.

"[They were] often hung on coffins rather than worn as a necklace. There was a nunnery just along the coast from the find spot near Murkle that it may be tenuously linked to. Reporting it to Treasure Trove Scotland would also help to get the information cross-referenced and confirmed, also properly documented and archived."

Murkle Bay where the cross was recovered. WW2 era tank traps appear in the foreground. Picture: Alan Hendry
Murkle Bay where the cross was recovered. WW2 era tank traps appear in the foreground. Picture: Alan Hendry

He added: "Personally, I see the depiction of Christ on one side and Mary on the reverse. This symbolism would more commonly be associated with Catholicism and that would fit nicely with the nunnery also."

A Highland-based archaeologist agreed with Iain and thought the cross could be "pre-Reformation" – dating from before 1500. She said: "[The] crucifix could be pre-Reformation, also the reverse face figure in the ora praying position and the fact that the crucifix appears to be made from lead suggest a maybe medieval date."

Mike said he will report it to Treasure Trove and donate it to a museum if it is of historical interest.

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