The Old Cross at Canna

editors note: a reader of Scotia News sent this very interesting article and we are happy to include it in this issue.

From Knots to Notes

by Mark Siegeltuch

The Celtic use of mnemonic knots to record music was first noted by John Cargill [Fig. 1], a memorial designer for the Charles G. Blake Company in Chicago.1 Cargill had a keen interest in all aspects of Celtic culture and was clearly a man of uncommon intelligence whose work has been sadly neglected.

John Cargill

Fig. 1 - John Cargill
The statement must at first seem fantastic that musical compositions may be deciphered from a number of designs that ornament Celtic works of art, especially sculptures. Nevertheless, the proper analysis of these designs discloses Celtic melodies that were current during the ninth, tenth, and eleventh centuries. These melodies, locked in design, have waited a thousand years for the necromancer that would unbind them, and lay them open once more for the living ear. Ironically, though the necromancer appeared, his discoveries have passed unnoticed; it is forty years since John Cargill published his brief pamphlet titled Notes on the Old Cross at Canna.2

Cargill had made a study of Celtic stone crosses and reached the conclusion that their designers used “the intervals of the musical string to fix the outlines of monuments.”3 These rectilinear crosses exhibited the same regularities of proportion observed in Greek temple architecture, both having been derived from the numeric intervals of the diatonic scale [Fig. 2].

Celtic stone cross

Fig. 2 - Celtic stone cross
Take the stretched string for example. Everyone knows that the shorter the string the higher the pitch and each note requires its appropriate length and the differences between the various lengths are called intervals. If the full string measures 90 (inches, quarters or halves) then the intervals of the Diatonic scale would be 10, 8, 4 1/2, 7 1/2, 6, 6, and 3, and these sizes have been used in the construction of rectangles, Fig. 6. These rectangles have been used in cross design to give the ratio of width to height of the shaft.4

All of this “music in stone” was in keeping with the principles of Pythagoras, who saw numbers as the basic principle of order in the universe. How the Celts came into possession of these ideas is a matter of some debate, but it can be argued that the practical applications of geometry upon which Pythagorean speculation was based are older than the philosophy itself. John Burnett makes the point that the Greeks excelled at developing theories from the practices of others.

… and we can see how far the Greeks soon surpassed their teachers from a remark by Demokritos. It runs (fr. 299): “I have listened to many learned men, but no one has yet surpassed me in the construction of figures out of lines accompanied by demonstrations, not even the Egyptian arpedonapts, as they call them.” Now the word αρπεδοναπτησ is not Egyptian but Greek. It means “cord fastener,” and it is a striking coincidence that the oldest Indian geometrical treatise is called the Sulvasutras or “rules of the cord.”5

Once knotted, a cord can be chalked, hung by a weight, and then snapped like a stringed instrument to mark a stone for cutting.

Once Cargill had determined the principle involved in the design of stone crosses, he reasoned quite astutely that the designs on these stones might also contain musical symbolism. The idea came to him when he was considering a 10th century Celtic cross situated in the bottom of a glen on the Island of Canna, off the coast of Invernesshire, Scotland (Figs. 3 and 4). The cross’s central panel contained two crossed animals with interlaced lines coming from their mouths. Cargill recognized the animals as panthers, typifying the resurrection of Christ. He noted a Saxon Bestiary of the period that contained the following poem of the Panther:

When the bold animal
rises up
gloriously endowed,
on the third day
suddenly from sleep,
a sound comes
of voices sweetest through the wild beast’s mouth.”6
design on cross from the Island of Canna

Fig. 3 - design on cross from the Island of Canna

cross from the Island of Canna

Fig. 4 - cross from the Island of Canna

Beneath the panthers, a panel depicted two intertwined dragons, symbols of discord and strife. Cargill reasoned that the design as a whole was meant to illustrate the power of sacred song to overcome evil. Then, in a moment of insight, he realized the interlaced lines were musical notation [Fig. 5].

musical notation

Fig. 5 - musical notation

Now, if, at either panther, we trace along the line which springs from the animal’s mouth and count each intersection where this ornamental line crosses itself or another ornamental line as a musical note, and arrange the resulting progression of notes as a song, we may feel assured we are simply carrying out the old artist’s intention.7

And music it was, a recognizably Celtic melody intended for Easter according to the musicologist James Travis. Several other examples of this form of musical encoding were found subsequently in the British Isles.8 Certainly such practices were not common but it is worth noting that knotted cords were used in India and elsewhere as mnemonic devices to teach sacred music.


1. John Cargill, The Celtic Cross and Greek Proportion. Chicago, Charles G. Blake Co., 1930.

2. James Travis, “Old Celtic Design Music,” Miscellanea Musica Celtica, Musicological Studies, vol. XIV, p. 66. The Institute of Medieval Music, Ltd., Brooklyn, N.Y.

3. James Cargill, op. cit., p. 1.

4. Ibid., pp. 9-10

5. John Burnett, Early Greek Philosophy, p. 20, New York, Meridian. 1957. Burnett also notes that the word hypotenuse means “the cord stretching over against” (p. 105). More recent scholarship on the history of algebra and geometry has identified the use of Pythagorean triples in India, China, Babylonia, Egypt, and Neolithic Europe, suggesting a common origin in the 4th millennia B.C. See the work of the American mathematician Abraham Seidenberg and corroborating evidence from B. L van der Waerden and others.

6. James Cargill, op. cit., p. 2.

7. James Cargill, op. cit., pp. 2-4.

8. See James Travis, op. cit., p. 2.



Plant Badges of the Clans - Pamphlet

The pamphlet “Plant Badges of the Clans” was written by Donald Armstrong Ross © 1970, second revised edition 1976. Illustrations by J. Fairbairn (courtesy of The Scotsman Publications Ltd) and Maregaret E. Pullar Thompson. It was printed by John G, Eccles Longman, Inverness and was published by An Comunn Gàidhealach with whose kind permission we publish it here.

Let's explore the history of Scottish families and clans adopting various plants as symbols or badges for each family. Within is also a list of families and their plant badges. Find yours!

These pamphlets have been scanned and therefore are large image files.

Click each link to read one page at a time



collected by cecilia