Feral Words

Blog posts/essays & photos by William A. Young, linking travel, hiking, mythology, and some associated odds-and-ends

The Endless Knot- Edinburgh’s Forgotten Celtic Art

McGlashen High Cross, Warriston Cemetery, Edinburgh

High Cross

Edinburgh is a place for secret things. The city feels like a labyrinth; a maze of tangled stone in which the works of generations hide themselves. They pile up, layer upon layer, filling an unseen underworld with dust and memories. On its crags perch the relics of forgotten peoples; forts and stones with names in now unspoken tongues. It is an endlessly entwining pattern of ever-increasing complexity, that pulls you in and binds you to it with unbreakable knots. I may occasionally travel, but I know that I can never really leave.

One of the city’s secrets is this; along the banks of the Water of Leith, there hides in plain sight a gallery of art that no visitor visits and few residents remark. It starts but metres from the National Gallery of Modern Art, where afficionados of imagery daily congregate in numbers to gaze upon the artistic achievements of the modern age. As they do so, nestled in warmth and under the blaze of electric lights, nearby the wind is whistling through trees and tugging at ivy that together shelter a display as abstract, as complex and as coursing with meaning as anything held within the gallery walls. A forgotten thing, locked out in the cold.

McGlashen carving, Celtic art, Dean Cemetery, Edinburgh

The images in question are sculptures, executed in the Celtic style during the years of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Their drew their inspiration from an upsurge in enthusiasm for the native, Celtic school of art- an upsurge that emanated from two wildly contradictory sources. The first was called the Celtic Revival; the resurgence of interest in their own past that took hold among the minority peoples of the British archipelago during the 19th century, and which was ultimately to culminate in the independence of Ireland in the years following the First World War. The second, and entirely opposite influence derived from the patronage of the British Royal Family; Queen Victoria toured the Scottish Highlands extensively during the course of her reign, and her enthusiastic appreciation for its landscape and culture grew ever-greater as her reign drew on. Her interest made Scotland fashionable, and occasioned the spread of its traditional arts into elite circles. Tartan-clad ghillies and deer-stalking upon the moors became signifiers of artistocratic status; and the highborn of the land were soon very happy to patronise en-masse the resurgence of Scotland’s old Celtic aesthetic. The distinction in the treatment meted out to the two Celtic nations, Ireland and Scotland, may explain much about why one became independent, while the other did not.

McGlashen crosses, Celtic Art, Warriston Cemetery, Edinburgh

So it was, with the backing of fashion and finance, that a school of art which had for centuries been the sole property of the tribes of the Highlands, suddenly began to appear in the heart of neo-classical Edinburgh. The nation’s long-running love affair with the strict lines of the Graeco-Roman world had grown stale, and it started instead to mark itself with swirling patterns akin to those that once adorned the faces of the tribes beyond the Wall. A minor Celtic Renaissance occurred, with intricate stone-work in the old, native style appearing in a volume and on a scale not seen since the end of the Dark Ages. It partook of the energies of Romanticism and Art Nouveau; but also remained true to a native tradition that preceeded and, indeed, helped to inspire both of those movements. It’s intricacies were at once modern and ancient; an expression of their time, and of a time long gone.

McGlashen carving, Celtic Art, Dean Cemetery, Edinburgh

Such a climate created a gap in the market, ripe to be filled by artists skilled in the techniques of the Celtic tradition. Talented Highlanders, were they sufficiently enterprising, found they might turn their cultural inheritance to some profit; and a small stream of creative Gaels began to flow out of the mountains to the cities below.

The particular Highland artist whose legacy is relevant, above any other, to the work shown in this piece was a man called Stewart McGlashen. McGlashen hailed originally from Campbeltown, a township on the far western peninsula of Kintyre. Here the majority of the population were Gaelic speakers well into the 20th century, and the coast of Ireland lies closer in distance than the lowlands of Scotland. The son of a builder, McGlashen trained as a stone-mason; in the course of his work, he developed a rare facility for the entwining symmetry of Celtic patterning. He left the Highlands as a young man to seek his fortune in the cities to the east, finding a wife in Glasgow in the 1830s, and a home in Edinburgh in the 1840s. He and his wife Mary had 9 children all told, and established a family firm of masons that was to continue to turn out exceptional stonework for over a century. Not all of the work shown here is theirs- some is by other masons of a similar inspiration- but the greatest of the productions featured were all hewn by their hands.

McGlashen high cross, Celtic Art, Dean Cemetery, Edinburgh

There are two reasons the work of the McGlashens is not well-known to us today. The first is that simple universal of 19th century Britain; class. The McGlashens, for all their talent, were working class. They were not polished speakers, and could not discourse on the theory or practice of art. Lacking the skills to interact with the world of the cognoscenti, their productions filled no galleries, and no great exhibitions of their sculptures were launched. They were, instead, consigned to the role of artisans; and were employed to erect monuments in commemoration of the names of others, rather than works that could commemorate their own. The vast majority of their output consisted of grave-stones, erected principally in two cemeteries in Edinburgh to mark the resting places of wealthy merchants and politicians. They did not operate from a studio or a salon frequented by the fashionable sections of society; rather, they ran their business from a humble workshop, located beside the gates of the cemetery they served.

This matter of location is the second reason the McGlashens were condemned to obscurity. Cemeteries were not, a century ago, seen as appropriate places for exercises in artistic appreciation; even today, they are seldom viewed as pleasant places in which to spend an afternoon. Surrounded by the bones of the dead, the works of the McGlashens were for many years viewed by no-one but for occasional mourners- and their sombre gaze had little time for the intricate stones. As the years passed the ivy took hold, and the knots of the carvings were embraced in knots of green, the laboriously crafted surfaces fading from view. The work of the McGlashens was forgotten, and their name with it.


Today, the two principal locations featuring the work of the McGlashens are the cemeteries of Dean and Warriston, both sited along the banks of the river known as the Water of Leith. They are but two miles apart, with a footpath along the riverbanks rendering the journey between them a quick and pleasant one. The former now lies just behind the National Gallery of Modern Art, and has been carefully restored to a pristine condition. The latter is, in stark contrast, a nature reserve; and the stones that sit within remain entangled the grip of ivy and brambles that will never be cleared away. Their mysteries are forgotten and indiscernible; reduced (or transfigured?) into the ghosts of monuments, clad in shrouds of green.


The contrast between secrecy and openness, neatly-trimmed honesty and verdant occultation, has by by blind luck helped to create an appealingly varied platform for showcasing the work of the sculptors. Though they attract few visitors, both locations have a considerable degree of character. The Dean Cemetery features sweeping views over the west of the city, while Warriston is full of hidden corners and over-grown ruins. The latter is best avoided when it grows dark, however, as its solitude provides nocturnal succour for a variety of forms of urban iniquity.

These, then, are the forgotten galleries of Edinburgh; the exhibition halls of a dynasty of artists who resurrected the aesthetic of ages past. Their style itself, in a way, speaks of the possibility of a life after life has gone. Perhaps it has found its rightful place; as a secret promise of resurrection, guarding over old bones.

McGlashen cross, Celtic Art, Dean Cemetery, EdinburghMcGlashen cross, Celtic Art, Dean Cemetery, Edinburgh

McGlashen crosses, Celtic Art, Warriston Cemetery, Edinburgh

The legacy of the McGlashens sits unnoticed in plain view, transforming two quiet cemeteries into repositories of the art of the Celtic Revival. Their work’s appearance in Edinburgh marks a portion of the return of the Celtic culture from the lonely hinterlands of the Highlands into the intellectual heart of the nation. This revival is all the more inspiring in that it was not simply a case of an urban elite appropriating ideas from the fringes, but was instead occasioned by a family from the Celtic west moving from the fringes to the centre. They found themselves able to win their prosperity with the tools handed down to them by their forefathers; shaping a life in the modern age from the inheritance of the old. It is a tale that intertwines sadness and hope; complex as the crosses they carved, ambiguous as the ivy-clad shapes that are their relics. They deserve to be remembered.

McGlashen cross, Celtic Art, Dean Cemetery, Edinburgh

Footnote: I am curious to know what became of the McGlashen stonemasons. Their business closed sometime between the 1950s and 1970s; it strikes me that somewhere in Edinburgh there is perhaps still an archive of their old papers and designs. If this is the case I’d be keen to find out, and to help try and secure their preservation for posterity. If anyone has any information, please do get in touch.

© William Young and Feral Words, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to William Young and Feral Words with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


7 comments on “The Endless Knot- Edinburgh’s Forgotten Celtic Art

  1. lexklein
    November 17, 2014

    Ahh, another post that grabs me on several levels!

    I am drawn to the endless knot motif (as you can see from my gravatar, which is actually a photo of a necklace I bought in Kathmandu and wear constantly!) and feel a further connection with the knot(s) and your post because of my own Greek and Scottish heritage, as well as my fascination with Eastern religions in general, and Tibetan Buddhism in particular. (I also have a weird attraction to tombstones, which I also documented in a post not nearly as interesting as yours!)

    But about the knots … I know the Buddhist endless, or eternal, knot is one of the eight auspicious symbols of Buddhism, and it certainty bears much similarity, in terms of both appearance and underlying meaning, to the Celtic knot, but what is the historic connection? Do you know? My limited knowledge of Celtic knot history would place its origins (or at least its growth and development) in early Christianity and later, the Book of Kells, and I’ve read of connections with Byzantine, Cretan, Islamic, Mayan, and other cultures, but never with Buddhism. I have also read that the Celtic knot did not have religious or mystical origins but, rather, served a simple artistic or decorative purpose early on whereas the Buddhist symbol has always been rooted in spirituality.

    Regardless of origins, it seems their current meanings are similar, primarily in the theme of interconnectedness, with the Celtic knot depicting the continuity of life or the idea of no beginning and no end, and the Buddhist endless knot representing the interconnectedness of wisdom and compassion, emptiness and dependence, opposing forces, etc. Visually, there’s no denying the Celtic shield knot pattern very closely resembles the Buddhist (especially what I know as the Sherpa symbol) endless knot’s most common design. I am now on a mission to research this link!

    Liked by 1 person

    • williamayoung
      November 19, 2014

      It’s certainly quite a mystery; and not one to which there is any definite answer, as far as I’m aware. Finding out would be fun, though…

      I’ve found knotwork in quite a few places. Jain monasteries in India have some particularly elaborate examples, while the woodcarvings in Kinnaur in the Himalayas are covered in them. In Europe, the Dark Age art of Scandinavia and Germany is full of knots. Probably the most elaborate form I’ve come across is on carvings from Armenia called Khachkars. In some cases, their knotwork’s so intense you have to look closely to realise it even IS knotwork.

      In Britain, the particular style of art generally described as Celtic- and which I described in my post as such- takes shape during the Dark Ages. The swirl motifs and the primacy of the circle are inherited from the older Celtic art of Antiquity; a school of art described as ‘La Tene’ by archaeologists. Some of the La Tene patterns in bear similarities with older patterns still, such as swirls that appear in association with ‘cup and ring’ marks as far back as the Neolithic.

      These elements are combined during the Dark Ages with the interweave pattern, that most properly deserves the name knotwork. This occurs both in the Germanic world, and in the Eastern Roman empire. Whether it was trade with tribes to the east, the arrival of Christians, or a combination of both that introduced the interweave to the Celts isn’t clear. However it happened, it was combined with the pre-existing circle/swirl forms and emerged as the Celtic art we know today. The monks of the Celtic church then adopted the motifs and covered their Christian art in them. This art was allowed to survive, in contrast to idols of Odin further east that may well have been covered in knotwork more elaborate still. Surviving, it inspired continuity of tradition, and knotwork carried on being produced right through the Middle Ages in the Celtic west, when it had died out in other regions of Europe.

      If this links to Buddhism- who knows? Probably, somehow, even if just through trade between the east and west during late Antiquity. The iconoclasm of the Byzantine Empire and the Muslim Caliphates means that an awful lot of the art of that era, in the regions that would have bridged the divide, has been destroyed. All that remains are hints; one of the most intriguing being the story of the Prophet Mani, one-time rival to Christ and Mohammed, who was known by the name “The Painter” because of the illuminated holy books he produced. Much of Vajrayana Buddhism evolved in areas of northwest India in close contact with regions further west, and its complex iconography was no doubt influenced by the visual traditions of those regions. It may well be that both Tibetan and Celtic art are but echoes reverberating in the distant corners of an immense chamber; while the voice in the centre that first cried out to set them in motion has long since been silenced. Whose that voice was is anyone’s guess…

      Liked by 2 people

  2. darwinontherocks
    November 23, 2014

    I saved the page, because I’ve missed that the last time I visited Edinburgh. But we will probably do another road trip to Scotland next year, and I will definitively have a look ! It looks so pretty.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. martinkbaillie
    January 5, 2016

    Reblogged this on Subversive Structures.


  4. restlessjo
    February 17, 2016

    The delights of Edinburgh! Too numerous to mention. I have some walking planned along the Water of Leith… one of these days. 🙂
    Many thanks for the follow. I’m not a history buff but I do like to wander.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. thefirstdark
    March 16, 2016

    Reblogged this on The Darkness in the Light.


  6. Dr Allan Dodds
    June 30, 2022

    When I was an infant I lived across the road from McGlashen’s mason works at Canonmills. All night long we could hear the rasping swish, swish if the huge stone saw that was used to cut huge blocks if granite that would be fashioned into gravestones. By morning the saw had done it’s work and relative silence then prevailed until the following evening when it was set to work overnight.


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This entry was posted on November 16, 2014 by in Celtica and tagged , , , , .
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