The Cursing Stone

The Cursing Stone

The Cursing Stone

A stone discovered by chance in a graveyard on the Isle of Canna in the Inner Hebrides is Scotland’s first known example of a bullaun “cursing stone”, researchers and archaeologists have revealed.


The cursing stone fits into a stone base

The cursing stone fits into a stone base

Isle of Canna

Isle of Canna

The cursing stone dates from approximately 800 AD. Interestingly, these cursing stones are sometimes linked with the earlier forms of Christian crosses. The cursing stone itself was found by a National trust for Scotland farm manager Geraldine MacKinnon. Cursing stones were used by Christian pilgrims more than a thousand years ago to bring harm to their enemies.

The inscriptions on the stone include an engraving of the early Christian cross. It is also approximately 25cm in diameter. After measuring the diameter of the stone, BBC reported that it “was later found to fit exactly into a large rectangular stone with a worn hole which was located at the base of the Canna cross.”

This finding proves to be a remarkable one as it provides new information pertaining to older religious practice in old Scotland. Furthermore, it sheds light on the fact that there is still plenty to learn in this field. Apart from that, it is amazing to note that the cursing stones which were recently found are commonly discovered in Ireland. However, this is the first of its kind to be discovered in Scotland. During the earlier stages of Christianity, Canna had been a part of a monastery in Iona.

Geraldine says “It would be extremely interesting to find out what the exact purpose of the cursing stone is. Discoveries such as this one help people like us understand the origin of our ancestors and why religion is being practised the way it is practised today. Ancient history, mysteries and legends never fail to fascinate me. There’s just so much to learn from the people of the past, it’s practically invigorating.”

‘Cursing stones’

Using a Cursing Stone

Using a Cursing Stone

Katherine Forsyth, an expert in the history and culture of early Celtic-speaking peoples, based at the University of Glasgow, described it as an “amazing find”.

“Stones like this are found in Ireland, where they are known as ‘cursing stones’, but this is the first to be discovered in Scotland,” she said.

“They date from the early Christian period but have continued to be used by pilgrims up to modern times.
“Traditionally, the pilgrim would recite a prayer while turning the stone clockwise, wearing a depression or hole in the stone underneath.”
Dr Forsyth said bowl-shaped lower stones had been found elsewhere in Scotland, including on Canna, but this was the first discovery of a top stone.
She added: “This exciting find provides important new insight into religious art and practice in early Scotland and demonstrates just how much there is still to be discovered out there.”
In the early-Christian period, Canna belonged to the monastery on Iona.
The island was gifted to the National Trust for Scotland in 1981 by Gaelic scholar John Lorne Campbell.

About Amanda Moffet

I run with Rodger Moffet. Live in Edinburgh and love travelling around Scotland gathering stories.

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6 thoughts on “The Cursing Stone

  1. Becka Cross

    So sad. True Christians (yes, we still exist!) don’t curse their enemies, but pray for them. Scotland had such a marvelous Christian heritage about the time of the Reformatuon, and I pray those times come again.

    • Merlijn

      Really… just like the Christians that started crusades and killed thousands and those who persecuted ‘witches’. It is just like any other monotheistic faith claiming there is one truth and thus excluding (and very often eradicating) people who think differently. But okay, I’m not trying to start a religious discussion – we’ve enough of that already.

      Anyway, Christian religion has a long history of using curses and spells. Even the popes did stuff like anathema and excommunication (a common method of cutting off heretics). Using curses was not that uncommon for Christians, as long as it did not attack the believes of the Bible.

      Bullauns might have been used for both curses and curing. Scientists think people used to turn the stones around (in water) saying a cure or curse. Bullauns are also called Cure-stones. People used to do this in ancient times (in the good old megalithic and neolithic days) and it may have well been connected to purifying rituals (which is often the case when water is being used). Some other old stories tell us these ballauns were used to offer ceremonial gifts to the spirits of the deceased (more or less like burning a candle or incense in a church) and thus it is a way of both mourning the people you once loved and trying to remember the dead.

      Bullauns and cursing stones are found in the ancient Celtic, Frisian, Germanic and Norse territories. It is very common for Christianity to adept ‘pagan’ elements in there own culture. The Roman church did this very consciously and deliberately (they called it compunctio). Just like adapting the Christmas tree, 25th December as birthday for Christ et cetera. Some argue ballauns were used as baptistry/font: thus turning a pagan symbol into something Christian.

  2. Caitlín Matthews

    Would the stone not be turned widdershins for cursing purposes? I would be interested in the literature and research concerning this practice, as I’ve done a lot and have never discovered any known use of this. As a leabhar, or place of prayer, this stone with a cross upon it could have been turned sunwise as a blessing.


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