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Scots: Rival
Ruthwell Kirk
Grid reference: NY099674
Location: 54°59’36"N, 3°24’27"W
Post town: Dumfries
Postcode: DG1
Dialling code: 01387
Local Government
Council: Dumfries and Galloway
Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale
and Tweeddale

Ruthwell is a village in Dumfriesshire, on the Solway Firth between Dumfries and Annan. It is a quiet place, but famous for the Ruthwell Cross; the finest remaining example of an Anglo-Saxon standing cross, now in the parish church, bearing Old English poetry in runic writing. It also has a Savings Bank Museum, as commercial savings banks were invented in this village.

Brow Well

The name of the village is Old English, from "Red Well". The Brow Well 2 miles west of the village of Ruthwell still shows the qualities which named Ruthwell – its water is stained red by the high levels of iron salts in the water. This red well is now most noted as the place where Robert Burns hoped to cure his final illness by drinking the iron-rich water.

The village was once served by Ruthwell railway station.

Dr Henry Duncan

Ruthwell's most famous inhabitant was the Rev Dr Henry Duncan (1774–1846). He was a kirk minister, author, antiquarian, geologist, publisher, philanthropist, artist and businessman. In 1810, Dr Duncan opened the world's first commercial savings bank, paying interest on its investors' modest savings. The Savings Bank Museum tells the story of early home savings in the United Kingdom.

In 1818, Dr Duncan restored the Ruthwell Cross, which now stands in Ruthwell church, which had been broken up at the Reformation. This cross is remarkable for its sculpture and inscriptions in Latin and Old English, some in Anglo-Saxon runes, which include excerpts from The Dream of the Rood, an Old English poem. After the Disruption of 1843 in the Church of Scotland, Dr Duncan became one of the founding ministers of the Free Church of Scotland.

During his youth, Robert Murray M'Cheyne, the minister and missionary whose work and writing has had a great deal of influence in Evangelical Christianity, spent summer holidays at Clarence Cottage in the hamlet of Clarencefield near Ruthwell, the home of his maternal aunt. During these visits he would often call to see "Uncle" Henry Duncan at the manse. M'Cheyne's parents were born in this part of Scotland.

Parish church

The parish church stands at the heart of the village and of the village community.

The famous Ruthwell Cross is housed in an apse specially built in the kirk.

The Ruthwell Cross

The Ruthwell Cross

The Ruthwell Cross is a stone Anglo-Saxon cross 18 feet high, probably dating from the 8th century or earlier. It is both the most famous and elaborate Anglo-Saxon monumental sculpture,[1] and possibly the oldest surviving "text" of English poetry, predating any manuscripts containing Old English poetry, depending on the date of the cross. It has been described by Nikolaus Pevsner thus; "The crosses of Bewcastle and Ruthwell ... are the greatest achievement of their date in the whole of Europe."[2]

The cross was broken up by Presbyterian iconoclasts in 1664, and the pieces buried until they were restored in 1818 by the Rev Henry Duncan. In 1887 it was moved into its current location in the parish church when the apse which holds it was specially built.[3]


The Ruthwell Cross features the largest figurative reliefs found on any surviving Anglo-Saxon cross and has inscriptions in both Latin and, unusually for a Christian monument, the runic alphabet, the latter containing lines similar to lines 39-64 of The Dream of the Rood, an Old English poem, which were possibly added at a later date.

Christ as judge, with two animals

The two main sides of the cross (north and south) feature figurative relief carvings, now considerably worn, that depict Christ and several other figures; their subjects and interpretation have been much discussed by art historians, and the cross continues to be "one of the most extensive and most studied of all surviving visual programs of the early Middle Ages."[4]

  • North side panel:
    • Either Christ treading on the beasts, a subject especially popular amongst the English of the age, or its rare pacific variant Christ as Judge recognised by the beasts in the desert, as suggested by the unique Latin inscription surrounding the panel: "IHS XPS iudex aequitatis; bestiae et dracones cognoverunt in deserto salvatorem mundi" - "Jesus Christ: the judge of righteousness: the beasts and dragons recognised in the desert the saviour of the world." Whatever the subject it is, it is clearly the same as the very similar relief that is the largest panel on the nearby Bewcastle Cross which, subject to dating, was probably created by the same artists.
    • Saints Paul and Antony breaking bread in the desert ("Sanctus Paulus et Antonius duo eremitae fregerunt panem in deserto")
    • Either the Flight into Egypt or the Return from Egypt
    • At the bottom a scene too worn to decipher, which may have been a Nativity of Christ.
  • South side panel:
    • Mary Magdalen drying the feet of Christ, inscribed "Attulit alabastrum unguenti et stans retro secus pedes eius lacrimis coepit rigare pedes eius et capillis capitas sui tergebat" (Luke 7:37-38 and John 12:3).
    • The Healing of the man born blind from John 9:1, inscribed: "Et praeteriens vidit hominem caecum a natibitate et sanavit eum ab infirmitate,"
    • The Annunciation ("Et ingressus angelus ad eam dixit ave gratia plena dominus tecum benedicta tu in mulieribus")
    • The Crucifixion, which on stylistic grounds is considered to have been added at a considerably later period.

Above the large scene on the north side is either John the Baptist holding a lamb, or possibly God the Father holding the Lamb of God, who opens a book as in Apocalypse 5:1-10. Above this (and another break) are two remaining figures of the Four Evangelists with their symbols that originally were on the four arms of the cross-head: St Matthew on the lowest arm, and St John the Evangelist on the top arm. The side arms and centre roundel of the cross are replacements with speculative designs added.

Destruction and restoration

The cross escaped injury at the time of general destruction during the Reformation in the sixteenth century, but in 1662 the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland ordered the "many idolatrous monuments erected and made for religious worship" to be "taken down, demolished, and destroyed." It was not till two years later, however, that the cross was taken down when an Act was passed "anent the Idolatrous Monuments in Ruthwell."[5] The usual account is that the cross was taken down in the church or churchyard soon after the 1642 order and broken up. It was hidden in the clay floor of the Church by the Rev Gavin Young, to prevent its total destruction.

In 1818, Henry Duncan collected all the pieces he could find, and put them together, adding two new crossbeams (the original ones were lost), and having gaps filled in with small pieces of stone. In 1887 Rev James McFarlan moved the cross into a specially built apse in Ruthwell Church to protect it from further weathering.

It has been suggested that the work was not in fact originally a cross. In a 2007 journal article, Patrick W Conner, a professor of English, wrote that he will not call the structure a cross: "Fred Orton has argued persuasively that the lower stone on which the runic poem is found may, indeed, never have belonged to a standing cross, or if it did, that cannot be asserted with confidence now. For that reason, I shall refer throughout to the Ruthwell Monument in preference to the Ruthwell cross."

Runic inscription

Ruthwell Cross inscription
Translation of Ruthwell Cross Inscription[6]

At each side of the vine-tracery runic inscriptions are carved. The runes were first described around 1600, and Reginald Bainbrigg of Appleby recorded the inscription for the Britannia of William Camden. Reading the runestaves has not been simple and agreed. John Mitchell Kemble in 1840 advanced a reading referring to Mary Magdalene. The better known Dream of the Rood inscription is due to a revised reading of Kemble's in an 1842 article.

The inscription is translated as:

ᛣᚱᛁᛋᛏ ᚹᚫᛋ ᚩᚾ ᚱᚩᛞᛁ ᚻᚹᛖᚦᚱᚨ / ᚦᛖᚱ ᚠᚢᛋᚨ ᚠᛠᚱᚱᚪᚾ ᛣᚹᚩᛗᚢ / ᚨᚦᚦᛁᛚᚨ ᛏᛁᛚ ᚪᚾᚢᛗ
Krist wæs on rodi. Hweþræ'/ þer fusæ fearran kwomu / æþþilæ til anum.
"Christ was on the cross. Yet / the brave came there from afar / to their lord."

Kemble's revised reading is based on the poem of the Vercelli Book, to the extent that missing words in each are supplied from the other. Its authenticity is disputed and may be a conjecture inserted by Kemble himself: O'Neill (2005) notes Kemble's "almost pathological dislike of Scandinavian interference in what he sees as the English domain." Kemble himself notes how the inscription may be "corrected" with the help of the Vercelli Book.


Vine scrolls and creatures on the west side


Ruthwell Savings Bank Museum

Outside links

("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about Ruthwell)
("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about Ruthwell Cross)


  1. Wilson, 72.
  2. Pevsner - Introduction.
  3. Information boards, Ruthwell Church.
  4. Farr, 45.
  5. It has usually been assumed that this was the Ruthwell Cross, but this cannot be known with certainty. See Ó Carragáin, Ritual and the Rood, 15.
  6. Browne 1908:297.


  • Bammesberger, Alfred (1994). "Two archaic forms in the Ruthwell cross inscription," English Studies Vol. 75, Issue 2, pp. 97–103.
  • Cassidy, Brendan (ed.), The Ruthwell Cross, Princeton University Press (1992).
  • Conner, Patrick W. "The Ruthwell Monument Runic Poem in a Tenth-Century Context." Review of English Studies Advance Access. (2007): 1-27. Print.
  • Kelly, Richard J. (ed.), Stone, Skin and Silver, Litho Press / Sheed & Ward (1999). ISBN 978-1-871121-35-3
  • Hawkes, Jane & Mills, Susan (eds.), Northumbria's Golden Age, Sutton Publishing Ltd (1999).
  • Royal Commission on Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland, County of Dumfries, (1920).
  • Saxl, Fritz, "The Ruthwell Cross," Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 6, (1943), pp. 1–19, The Warburg Institute, JSTOR
  • Swanton, Muichael James, The Dream of the Rood, Old and Middle English Texts Series, 1970, Manchester University Press