Gaut the Sculptor

Gaut the Sculptor

Of the men who worked on the series of carved crosses left on the Isle of Man as a memorial of the Viking Age, only one name has come down to us, that of Gaut Bjørnson, who inscribed a record of himself in runes on two of the earliest Scandanavian stones there. On that from Andreas (Kermode’s No.73) we are told that Gaut, son of Bjørn fra Kuli, carved the cross which was set up as a memorial to a dead father by someone whose name can no longer be made out. On the cross from Michael (No.74) the additional information is given, after a somewhat cryptic recording of the erection of the cross, that ‘Gaut made this, and all in Man,’ a statement generally assumed to mean that Gaut was the first of the Norse settlers to carve stones in Man and was not taking into account the pre-Norse stones of Celtic workmanship which already stood there, and with which he must have been familiar.

As the first and only Norse sculptor whose name is known, Gaut Bjørnson has been the subject of much discussion and speculation. Probably a number of other crosses were worked by his hands, though they carry no helpful runes to tell us so. Prof. Shetelig would include Andreas (No.83), Michael (No.75 and No.85), Nappin Chapel, Jurby (No.78), German (No.81), Braddan (No.86) and possibly Bride (No.92) as the work of either Gaut himself or of a pupil of his imitating his master closely. These crosses are for the most part badly preserved, but general characteristics of decoration and in particular, the use of the ‘linked band’ design and of interlacing, relate them closely to the two signed crosses. The type of cross Gaut chose was Scottish rather than Irish: a wheel headed cross standing out in low relief on a rectangular block of stone, although Shetelig has shown that the treatment of the ornamentation is characteristically Norse and not Celtic, revealing the influence of the Borre style of the early 10th century.

The words ‘fra Kuli’ on the Andreas cross are clearly important, for this little phrase supplies all the biographical detail which we possess about Gaut. Kermode suggested that ‘Kuli’ might stand for Cooley, the name of a farm in Michael, however, Prof. Marstrander suggests a new home for the sculptor.

He begins by testing Kermode’s identification of the ‘Kuli’ of the inscription with the Manx farm name Cooley in Michael, which had not previously been questioned. This is by no means an isolated example of the name which means ‘nook’ or ‘sheltered corner,’ or ‘hiding place.’

Marstrander gives as many as eleven names formed from ‘cooill’ from the farms listed in the Lord’s Rent Books:

• Quoole Ulist, Braddan
• Balla na Quooley, Michael
• Quoole Shallagh, Michael
• Ballanaquooley, Ballaugh
• Coilbane, Lezayre
• Coolcam, Malew
• Cooil Injel, Marown
• Croit na Cooily, Santan
• Quoole Darragh, Michael
• Cooil Dhoo, Jurby and
• Crot a Chule, Lonan

The first seven are quarterland farms and the rest divisions of quarterlands. He gives other instances of the name employed for tiny holdings, fields and so on, which need not be considered here. Presumably the home of Bjørn would have to be among the quarterland estates and of those on the list, only Cooil Injel can be proved to go back to Viking times, although it is quite possible that some of the others have as long a history.

Now the Cooley mentioned by Kermode in Michael is not a large holding, and in 1511 there were as many as three in that parish with the same name. None of these, or indeed any of the names on the list, could have been the residence of a Norse landowner of any importance. Marstrander emphasises the fact that a sharp distinction can be made between the farms of the Norse names and the smaller Celtic tenements with Celtic names. If Bjørn really came from Cooley, then he was of humble origin, and there were a great many small holdings bearing the same name as his. Thus if Gaut described his father as ‘from Cooill’ he was conferring on him no special mark of distinction, nor was he using a phrase which would serve as a clear identification.

Marstrander therefore, offers a new interpretation of ‘fra Kuli’; he wishes to interpret the runes as ‘fra Kolle’; (neither the length of a vowel nor the doubling of a consonant are indicated in runic inscription), and to take ‘Kolle’ as the dative of ‘Kollr’, the Norse form of ‘Coll’, an island in the Hebridies. This would make Gaut the son not of a Manxman but of a Hebridean, coming from his father’s home on the little island northwest of Mull, where the remains of carved stone crosses are still to be seen. Gaut, according to Marstrander, has used the Scottish type of cross as a base on which to work out a markedly Scandanavian system of ornamentation, strongly influenced by the techniques of wood carving of the kind so richly represented in the finds of Borre, Oseberg and Gokstad. He suggests that this new departure in stone carving probably had some political reason behind it, though our knowledge of the complex movements of the Viking settlers in the west is too scanty to elucidate it further.

Marstrander’s article has put the whole question of Gaut’s origin on a firmer and more interesting basis. As an arrival from the Hebrides it is natural that he should inscribe ‘fra Kuli’ on one of his crosses, and the entry of an outsider familiar with the Scottish crosses is the most likely explanation of the appearance of the new type of runic memorial stones in the Isle of Man.

If Gaut indeed came from the Hebrides, then it may be possible to suggest a solution to the question raised by Marstrander at the end of his article. Before Godred Crovan’s time (i.e. before CE 1080), Man and the Hebrides were for the most part dominated by Scandinavian colonies in Ireland and, in particular, by the Norse kingdom in Dublin. There was one period, however, when the political centre of gravity moved northward and the Irish influence was temporarily eclipsed by the power of the great Earl of Orkney, Sigurd the Stout, and for a short period by his son after him.

Earl Sigurd it was who led the Vikings against Brian Boru, High King of Ireland, in the famous battle of Clontarf (CE 1014). Succeeding to the Earldom of Orkney in the year 980, Sigurd attacked the Isle of Man two years later and extorted from the inhabitants a heavy ransom which was to be paid in pure silver. Following two defeats at the hands of Sigurd’s vassals in the Hebrides, the warlike King of Man and the Isles, Godred Haraldson, was eventually killed at Iona (or by the men of Dal Riada) in the year 989. In the very same year Earl Gilli of Coll married Sigurd’s sister and ruled the Sudreys at least for the next 25 years. Not only does this seem the most likely period for a Norse sculptor to travel to Man ‘fra Kuli’, but it even looks as if Gaut’s island home and Earl Gilli’s place of residence may possibly have been one and the same.

As the headquarters of the governor of the Western Isles and their natural centre, Coll would be quite an obvious place for Bjørn to settle in and one such as his sculptor son would be likely to record on his cross.

The new interpretation of ‘fra Kuli’ opens up promising lines of research. Gaut Bjørnson is no longer merely a name. He seems to have been a craftsman of good Norse family (possibly associated in some way with the founder of the remarkable Somerledian dynasty), who came to Man from the Hebrides at a time when Christianity was reviving among the Celtic peoples in the West and was also gaining many adherents among the Scandinavian settlers. Gaut may perhaps have learned sculpture and the secrets of the runic art in Scandinavia rather than in the treeless Hebrides, for the bold ornamentation which he chiselled on long slabs of Manx slate reminds one forcibly of the wood carver’s technique.

One last thing at least is certain…the crosses have still more to tell us about life in the 10th and 11th centuries in the Western Seas if only we can learn to read them aright. Both in written words and carved designs, they record passages from forgotten sagas which are not necessarily locked away from us for ever.


(source: by HR Ellis Davidson and Basil Megaw, The Journal of the Manx Museum Volume V, June 1944, No.70; painted cross and runic stone by Maureen Costain Richards from her book The Manx Crosses Illuminated; background photo http://bit.ly/1R0b5fx)

Bernadette Weyde

Bernadette Weyde

I'm a web designer, amateur historian and keen gardener and I enjoy bringing Manx history, folklore and poetry to a modern audience.


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