Outside the church buildings stand two stone crosses. The larger of the two is 3.7 metres (more than 12 ft) tall and upon one face, a carved interlace pattern threads its way towards the top of the column. There, suspended upon a stone disc at the intersection of the cross’s arms, hangs the body of Christ, sculpted with great tenderness. He looks wearily towards the west, the waves and the salt-lashed wind. This is a powerful religious icon, but it’s also an individual artistic statement. Etched into the stone at the base of the cross is a Latin inscription that identifies its maker: ‘Mael-Sechlainn Ó Cuinn, mason, made this cross’.
We know little about the nomadic sculptors of western Scotland in the late 15th century, when this was carved. But we do know that Mael-Sechlainn Ó Cuinn was Irish, one of a family of craftsmen who originally settled on Iona. For generations they plied their trade, sculpting effigies and stone crosses. Gaelic aristocrats employed them to commemorate their lives, and the reputation of the Ó Cuinn spread across the Western Isles.
I was born in Scotland, and I have painted since I was four years old. Most of my lessons were learned from my father, a painter before me. If Mael-Sechlainn was anything like me, he would certainly have watched his dad at work and been delighted by the faces and patterns, beasts and birds that emerged each day from the hewn stone. In a corner of the workshop, out from under his father’s feet, he probably chiselled his own efforts upon cast-off fragments, badgering him for stubs of charcoal to draw with. It’s how I learned, as a boy. Eventually Mael-Sechlainn grew up to become a master craftsman, presiding over a workshop on Iona. He used his hands every day, practised his skills, was fulfilled and frustrated by his craft. He was an artist.