Work on St Magnus cathedral started in 1137. The Cathedral’s founder was Earl Rognvald who supervised the earliest stages of the building during the bishopric of William the Old of Orkney (1102 – 1168). Between 1154 and 1472, Orkney was ecclesiastically under the Norwegian archbishop of Nidaros (Trondheim). Interestingly Nidaros cathedral also has a sheela na gig figure.
The figure is situated on the on the south west pillar of the presbytery. It is quite worn but originally would have been quite grotesque with a gaping toothless oblong mouth and what may have been a pointed head. The remains of the eyes suggest that they would have orginally been wide and staring. The remains of the right arm gesture towards the vulva. The figure’s hand is damaged but may have obscured the upper part of the vulva. The right hand gestures towards the head in a gesture not dissimilar to that of Roman depictions of the goddess Venus. Unlike the Venus figure however the sheela does not appear to have hair.
‘A figure preserved in the crypt of Glasgow Cathedral was noted in 1894’.
Glasgow Cathedral has a history going back over 1600 years, when the site was first blessed for burials by St Ninian around 397 AD. Later in the 6th century, Kentigern popularly known as Mungo was selected as bishop by the King, and the people. St Mungo was born on the shore of Fife near Culross. He trained for the priesthood at Culross by St Serf. Later St Mungo founded a monastic community, in Glasgow, and built a cathedral. St Mungo died in 603AD. St Mungo’s Cathedral was destroyed or severely damaged by fire, and the older building was rebuilt, and dedicated in 1136. The Lower Church, which houses the figure, was created during the 12th century by Bishop William de Bondington (1233 – 1258). Further developments to this part of the Cathedral occurred during the 13th and 15th century, when the Blacader aisle of the Lower Church was added by Archbishop Blacadere (1483 – 1508).
The figure is located in the crypt, or Lower Church. In the far left-hand (northeast) corner of the Lower Church, is the doorway to St Nicholas Chapel. The figure is located on the bottom left of the frieze, which surrounds the doorway. The arch of the doorway is richly carved and for some reason very worn despite it being in the crypt. This wear is at odds with most of the other carving in the crypt which could mean that the door was originally an external one.
The Glasgow figure is very odd indeed, and difficult to say what it originally represents. The large triangular shaped head with a central groove sits on Herculean shoulders. Two powerful arms come to rest on the lower abdominal area, and the broad ill-defined legs are held in an open manner. The figure has a central ridge on the torso, running up from the pelvic area to the chest and two lower ridges either side.
Speculatively, the two lower ridges could represent, the vulva, while the large central ridge, a penis. To conclude could this figure represent a Sheela na Gig, a male phallic figure, a penis sucking hermaphrodite, or even a very worn minstrel figure playing some type of pipes?
The following information and photographs were kindly supplied by Marc Calhoun.
“This figure is located 10 feet above the ground on the west end of the south wall of Muckairn Church in the village of Taynuilt (NN 005 310). The figure is roughly 2 feet high, and 1 foot across. The arms are missing, the eyes are closed, and its mouth appears to be open. The stumpy legs make it appear to be squatting, and there is a hole at the base that may mean it is an anus shower.
Referred to as a Sheela in The Sheela-Na-Gigs of Ireland & Britain (item 45 in the Scotland section of the catalogue), where the figure is described as a ‘plump and undemonstrative goddess figure.’
Referred to as a Sheela in Argyll and the Islands; An Illustrated Architectural Guide, (item 115). This source dates it to 13th century and says it was removed from the late medieval church of Killespickerill which once stood on the site.”
This figure though damaged and worn does have some evidence to indicate that it was originally an exhibitionist of some sort. A hole presumably indicating the anus is very much in evidence and there is some damage around the groin area. The figure has the remains of two fairly thick legs and is quite rotund. The face is still evident and the head appears to be round and hairless. It is hard to say whether or not this was once a sheela na gig or a male exhibitionist but its reasonable to assume that it was an anus shower of some type. If we surmise that this figure is a survival from the earliest church “Killespickerill” dating from around 1228 then it would put the figure just outside the correct period for a sheela na gig yet not so far outside to make it impossible.
This figure is located on Rodel Church at the southern tip of the Isle of Harris in the Western Isles of Scotland. The current church is thought to originate from the early 1500’s but it is believed that it was built on the site of an older church of unknown date. The church is associated with the Augustinian nunnery at Iona which also houses an alleged sheela na gig.
The Rodel figure is carved on a roughly square block on the east side of the tower, surrounded by a weathered string course.It is in a seated position with both legs bent and wide apart. The left leg is slightly more extended than the right. The vulva is represented by a small but definite cleft between the legs. The right hand holds a now worn object which has been described as a baby but looks more like an animal such as a dog or lamb. Intriguingly the left hand points to, or is holding a raised rectangular section stone which has a worn and rough surface. The face of the figure is turned towards this object. This rectangle is deliberately carved but it’s function is not immediately apparent. It would appear that the face was originally fairly detailed and the head is covered in what appears to be styled hair. Even though the figure is worn the vulva is still apparent and the splay legged nature of carving would definitely seem to put this figure in the exhibitionist category. On the south side of the tower lies an almost modern jacketed male exhibitionist figure known as “The Lewd Man”. This figure appears to be holding his penis in both hands.
Mairi Kidd writes about the figure on the Flickr Sheela na gig group
“According to Lesley Riddoch’s Hebrides bike-tour programme, Countess Dunmore had her ghillie shoot off this poor wee mannie’s wee mannie. Luckily he missed his clachan! Tradition has it that he is known as Seumas a’ Bhuid, which would be James of the willy in English. Rhymes with ghillie; maybe there’s a limerick in there.
This carving is housed in the Edinburgh’s Royal Museum and is described as “a woman giving birth”. The figures originate from a 12thC church in Kirknewton which was demolished in 1780. The piece is a voussoir which possibly formed part of an arch or doorway. The sign next to the figure notes the close links between Scottish and English church architecture in the 12th and 13th centuries.
Having now seen this figure close up I’m more convinced that the carving has sexual overtones. There are a number points that would possibly put the “birth” theory into doubt. Firstly the piece originates from the 12th century where we know there is a tradition of exhibitionist carving on churches. Birthing scenes are virtually unknown the only other example being a corbel in Romsey which is thought to be a Victorian copy of a 12thC corbel. This corbel however is completely different in style being a head protruding from between the corbels legs. Secondly the female figure is smiling, it’s more likely that birth would be portrayed as a painful experience in line with the bible.
Genesis 3:16 To the woman he said, “I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children.”
Thirdly the female figure has her hand between the other figure’s legs on the groin. On the underside of the sculpture the legs of the figures are intertwined, this would be a little strange if it were a birthing scene. The left hand figure is almost certainly male. The striations on the head of the left figure indicating hair stretch up to the lip and chin representing a beard. The lack of breasts, which are present on the right figure, would also seem to indicate that the figure is meant to be a male.
Whereas no doubt men did play a part in births in medieval times depictions of birth would be far more likely to display a midwife rather than a male figure. We also have to remember that a male figure in a birth scene is perfectly reasonable from a 21stC viewpoint, however what we are looking at was carved in the 12thC. Taking this into account along with the prevalence of sexual imagery in 12thC church carving a sexual interpretation would seem to make more sense than a birthing one.
The ruined chapel at Kilvickeon, dedicated to Ernan, son of Eoghan nephew of St. Columba, near Scoor on the Ross of Mull is thought to date from the late 12th or early 13th centuries. This places it just in the time period when most UK mainland sheelas seem to have been carved. If this figure is a sheela then it would be a fairly late example. The figure is embedded eight-feet above the ground on the east wall of the church The figure is about 16 inches high and around 4 inches wide at the bottom. The remains of the head extend forward several inches giving the figure a feeling of depth. The right side of the head appears to be missing. What appear to be the weathered remains of arms reach forward to a hold an shallow oval depression on the front of the figure.
Is this a sheela na gig?
Once again we have a very worn figure which is very hard to interpret due to the weathering. However the oval depression held open by the vestigial arms and the seemingly hunched shoulders do indicate that the figure may have once been an exhibitionist. However in it’s current state it is impossible to state with any certainty that it was orginally a sheela na gig but it does have more going for it than a lot of other worn figures.
My thanks go to Marc Calhoun for supplying the above information and the pictures of this less well known and remote figure.
The following information comes from Marc Calhoun who very kindly allowed the use of his picture left.
“First recorded position of this stone was that it was embedded in the north wall of Killevin (Cill Eibhinn) burial ground near Crarae (NR 987 973). It is a pillar stone that stands some 3.5 feet high, 9 inches wide, and 8 inches deep. Incised in the top of the pillar is a figure that, to me, resembles the Janus figure on Boa Island. It is a head, possibly bearded, with worn arms that appear to cross below the face. Below the head is double circle (or boss), and below this is an equal armed cross. There is a transverse hole through the pillar behind the boss, which may have been used to place cross arms, or as a way to carry the stone.
Described by K M Dickie (1962) as “A stone, 3’ high and 9” to 10” wide, in the N wall of the graveyard is a Sheela-na-gig (a grotesque female figure, Irish in origin).”
The stone fell from the wall of Killevin cemetery in 1991, and was subsequently moved to Cumlodden Parish church (Furnace) for safekeeping (NS 015 998). A plaque in the church dates it to the 8th or 9th century, but it makes no reference to the possibility of the stone being a Sheela, and instead refers to it as a cross-shaft, and that the figure may be that of Christ. The plaque also has a drawing of the figure that includes detail not easily visible on the worn stone today. I do not think this is a Sheela. Possibly the circle (boss) positioned at what may be taken to be the crotch of the figure could lead someone to think it is.”
Despite this figure being recorded as a sheela na gig there is no evidence of genitalia even taking into account the worn nature of the carving. The figure appears to have a “hands in lap” stance and the pointed chin seems to indicate a beard making the figure male. All in all I find it hard to see why this figure was recorded as a sheela na gig given the lack of vulva or anything that could be interpreted as such.
This figure is located in the ruined church at Kildonan on the Isle of Eigg (pronounced Egg) in Scotland. The church is named after St Donan a contemporary of St Columba. St Donan was martyred in his monastery on Eigg either by Viking raiders or the local queen in 617 or 618. His death was either by beheading or fire depening on which account you read. The church which currently houses the alleged sheela sculpture is thought to be a 16th century construction but there is evidence of earlier religious settlement in four cross slabs which date from the early medieval period. Records also list a religous settlement here in 725 so it would seem that the monastery continued after St Donan’s death.
Is this a sheela na gig?
According to the plaque on the wall of the ruined church it is a sheela and also according to the book “Eigg The Story of an Island” by Camille Dressler (Polygon, Edinburgh 1998) where Ms Dressler titles it a “Carving of the sheela na gig, an aspect of the Celtic mother goddess”. Unfortunately as you can see on the exceptionally clear photograph by Sarah Price on the right, there is little evidence of a vulva on display. In fact the sculpture seems more to be “hands in lap” than exhibitionist. The raised area either side of the head seems to suggest wings or possibly a pillow. In fact if you take the head on its own then the figure becomes more like the winged angels heads you see on 18th century tombstones. The overall shape of the sculpture is also suggestive of a tombstone. The lower part of the slab is damaged and while there is a depression it is distinctly un-vulva like and seems to be more case of damage due to weathering. In its favour the site of the church seems to have been in use throughout the period when most sheelas were carved and there are also the figures on Rodel and Iona which also would lend weight to this figure possibly being a sheela. However like this figure on Eigg neither of these figures is unequivocally a sheela na gig. So taking into account all the evidence it would seem the definition contains a fair amount of wishful thinking.
Thanks go to Sarah Price for the photograph and the information on the plaque.
This figure lies six feet high on the south wall at the ruined nunnery on Iona. Reginald son of Somerled Lord of the Isles introduced Benedictine monks and Augustinian nuns around 1203. The nunnery is one of only two Augustinian sites in Scotland. Destroyed during the reformation the nunnery has not been restored and still lies in ruins. The building is noted for it’s pink walls (some of the pink stone can be seen in the above photograph). The abbey ruins consist of both Romanesque and later architectural features. Irish masons were employed in the building of Iona abbey so it seems likely that they also had a hand in building the Nunnery as well.
Is this a Sheela Na Gig?
The figure is very worn so it is very hard to tell whether or not it was once exhibitionist. However there does seem to be a small cleft at the bottom of the carving and a suggestion of splayed legs. In fact the figure seems to have a similar stance to the figure at Rodel which is connected to the nunnery. Despite the weathering we can still determine a number of features. The arms of the figure seem to folded acrosss or at least pointing inwards to body. The figure is also quite “fat” with the “belly” projecting outwards.
This can be interpreted a number of ways :
1.The figure was holding something (Similar to Rodel)
2.The figure was depicted as being fat (For another plump sheela see Whittlesford)
3.The figure was depicted as being pregnant. If this is the case then it is possibly unique.
The figure also has a flat head or appears to be wearing a headdress. The head is also much smaller in proportion to the rest of the body.
Strangely a number of sheelas have flat heads (Stanton St Quintin, Etton and the questionable figure at Donyatt)
So is this a sheela na gig? Unfortunately its too weathered to tell.
Thanks go to Marc Calhoun for supplying the picture.