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Thurso I (SC 11)

A rather cruder cross slab, this stone was found near Old St. Peter's Church, Thurso (Caithness), in association with two cist burials around 11m to the east of the modern boundary of the graveyard. The cross is 0.83m long, 0.16m wide, and 40mm thick, and incised on flagstone. A smaller cross is incised within the centre of the narrow cross head, and the runic inscription is carved lengthways along the shaft of the cross, starting at the base, reading left-to-right. There are no framing lines, and the runes are placed irregularly, with no uniform size or arrangement. The base of the cross (and, hence, the start of the inscription) is missing.

...(r)þi:ubirlakþita:aft:ikulb:foþursin+

...gerði yfirlag þetta aft Ingólf föður sinn

'...?made this "overlay" in memory of Ingólfr, his/her father'

The runes used mix long-branch and short-twig forms, suggesting an early rather than a later date. The spelling of Ingólfr with the b-rune for /f/ is paralleled on Man (e.g. Ballaugh) and is also found on Holy Island V (SC 12, dated to the 13th century). The spelling of foþur with o for /o/ does not occur in the Manx corpus, but does appear on Cunningsburgh III (SH 4, tentatively dated to the mid-10th century). By comparing stones of known absolute date, introduction of o for /o(:)/ in Norwegian inscriptions has been shown to occur around 1020 (certainly no earlier than 1000, giving Thurso I a terminus post quem.

The memorial phrase used is ostensibly the canonical Scandinavian formula. This is primarily an 11th century feature, but the cross itself may be as late as the 12th century based on its overtly Christian nature in association with a nearby ruined 12th century church. However this date seems to be purely by association with what is assumed to be a contemporary Christian church. The formula is slightly modified, using the unique yfirlag, 'overlay' instead of the more usual stein, 'stone', and this introduces another interesting departure from the norm; in Scandinavia at least, inscriptions on recumbent stones set over tombs are a late development of the tradition. The association of runic memorials with graves is rare, and yet the text, and the circumstances of its discovery (overlying an adult male cist burial), would seem to suggest that this was also a grave marker. Unfortunately, the burial itself has no chronologically distinct features by which to date the assemblage as a whole. On the scant evidence available, I am more convinced by an earlier, 11th century date than anything later derived from an apparently baseless association with a proximal church, particularly given the runic parallels with Man and Shetland.

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