Medieval Boat Graffiti on Luing: the Fleets of Scottish or Norse Kings?

by Mary Braithwaite

Image provided by Mary Braithwaite

On the walls of Kilchattan church on the inner Hebridean Isle of Luing are boat graffiti, almost certainly 13th century in date. A fleet of longboats is depicted around an elaborate cross, perhaps an apotropaic symbol providing protection in bad weather. Two other boats have animal heads on their prows, similar to ones on the famous Bergen Stick from Norway, dated to between 1183 and 1248. Wind vanes and sails are depicted on others.

Kilchattan church was probably built at the end of the 12th century, when the diocese of Argyll was established under the influence of Ranald and Dugald, sons of Somerled, King of the Isles (d.1164). The dedication is to Saint Cattan, a 6th century Irish monk with connections to Dal Riatan royalty. The church overlooks a safe harbour, easily accessible from important sea routes through the Sounds of Jura and Firth of Lorn.

Medieval graffiti on the outer wall of Kilchattan Old Parish Church. The boat has a prominent left facing sail and an end post in the shape of an animal head. Cross like motifs are also incised into the wall face.

Image provided by Mary Braithwaite

Medieval graffiti depicting a sail boat and incised cross motifs at Kilchattan Old Parish Church.

The archaeologist Marion Campbell of Kilberry argued that the graffiti may record the passing of King Alexander II’s fleet in 1249 on his way to negotiate with Ewen MacDougall, Lord of Argyll and King of the Isles, on overlordship of the islands. King Alexander’s death on the isle of Kerrera facing Oban brought the negotiations to an abrupt end.

According to Denis Rixson, an expert on West Highland Galleys, “it is just as likely that they were carved at the time of King Hakon’s great venture of 1263, in the same way as the runes cut in St Molaise’s Cell, Holy Isles, Arran.' To assert his overlordship, King Hakon of Norway led an immense fleet to the Isles. Late Autumn weather delayed his fleet and then caused havoc in the Clyde, leading to a disastrous encounter with Scots forces at Largs. The fleet sailed up the Sound of Luing on its return voyage, the Kilchattan graffiti perhaps recording the event. The 1263 expedition, which is recounted vividly in King Hakon’s Saga, led to the end of Norse control of the Hebrides in 1266.


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