Scottish Market Crosses:
The development of a risk assessment model

by Dr. Lindsey J Thomson
Doune market cross





The project was being undertaken as a PhD research degree with the Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen. The School of Surveying and the Masonry Conservation Research Group each funded half of the Studentship, but the work was undertaken from the point of view of an archaeologist. Historic Scotland are collaborating in the project as external advisors.

The project assessed the condition and analysed the erosion and conservation of Scottish market crosses, and recommended management strategies based upon a risk assessment. In order to monitor the condition of such monuments, an effective mapping methodology was developed. This could be applied to recording the condition of stone surfaces on other similar monument and building types. The collected data was analysed and a 'risk assessment model' developed for Scottish market crosses. The research commenced in November 1996 and the PhD was completed by September 2000.

The thesis is entitled: "Scottish market crosses: The development of a risk assessment model."

What is a market cross?

Aberdeen market cross

Historically, the market cross (Scots = 'mercat' cross) was the symbol of a burgh's right to trade and was located centrally in the town's market place. Documentary evidence suggests that this monument type existed by at least the 12th century in Scotland, although it is thought that these early examples were wooden. Many of the standing examples date from the 16th and 17th century, but there are also several more elaborate Victorian examples. Some burghs are recorded as having more than one market cross according to the produce sold around their base (eg - the 'Fish Cross' and 'Flesh Cross' in Aberdeen). Documentary evidence, particularly in town council records, also refers to all manner of announcements, celebrations and grizzly punishments carried out at the market cross, prompting Small (1900, 5) to describe their site as 'the dreaded theatre of public punishment and shame'! Today they are a symbol of the burgh's heritage, often seen, little contemplated.

Morphologically, the essential element of the market cross is not a cross, but a shaft crowned with an appropriate heraldic or religious emblem. Heraldic beasts (eg the unicorn), armorial bearings and sundials are popular subjects of sculpture for the capital and finial of market crosses. Few actual cross-shapes appear as finials, and where they occur they tend to be stylised. Typically, the earlier, more simple constructions consist of a polygonal shaft with capital and finial, rising from a solid, stepped base (see drawing above). Some of the later examples are more elaborate, according to the available funding within the burgh for their construction. There are five standing examples of the round tower-based type. These consist also of a shaft crowned with capital and finial, surmounting an understructure which can be in the form of either an open, vaulted understructure (see photo below), or a tower with internal stairs providing access to an elevated, parapeted platform. Later, Victorian examples (see drawing below) are often based upon a square-shaped pedestal, sometimes tiered, and usually with quite elaborate carving. All of these types tend to be of sandstone.

Geographically, market crosses are situated in many town centres in mainland Scotland, with a distribution that tapers to the north and west, according to the existence historically of burghs. There are around 126 standing examples in Scotland. While market crosses are found in other parts of Britain, the architecture of the Scottish examples tends to differ from these in form, style and iconography.

The need for research

Cullen market cross

The market cross today is frequently still located in town centres and has thus been vulnerable to a range of damage types, including human agencies such as vandalism, re-siting, and motor vehicle and atmospheric pollutants generally. Many market crosses have been destroyed or moved around, sometimes to inappropriate sites, over the years in the name of urban redevelopment, and past conservation measures have often resulted in further damage. The deterioration in their condition has been shown lately by the number of projects involving their repair. Relatively little synthesised study has been undertaken on the subject of market crosses since Small presented his catalogue of these with an introduction exploring their history and stylistic development in 1900. Market crosses are not included in the current research being undertaken by Historic Scotland into the decay of carved stone surfaces in Scotland and there is thus an urgent need to review the management strategy for this monument type.

Until recently, the survey of historic buildings and monuments was concerned more with recording architectural form than the condition of stone surfaces. While contemporary conservation records are now attempting to remedy this through more detailed description and an increased level of photography, there are generally no mapped illustrations to detail the forms and distributions of decay interpreted across the stone surfaces.

Detailed records from close-range examination of the condition of individual stones in a representative sample of Scottish market crosses allows a greater understanding of the decay processes, and provides a visual record of applied conservation measures, and will also enable future monitoring of decay rates. The research involved examining variables similar to Fitzner's classification and mapping technique(1993), but additionally explored diachronic elements, taking into account the role of changing structural and environmental factors for each market cross. The distribution of various types and intensities of weathering and soiling across their stone surfaces was interpreted and mapped in an interactive and easily 'readable' visual format. The model constructed from an analysis of the collected data enabled future predictions to be made regarding the dynamics of their condition in various environments, and allowed the definition of criteria for gauging when intervention is required. Ultimately, it is hoped that this model will be heeded so that the future management of such monuments might be better informed.

Research aims and methodology

Inverbervie market cross
1. To develop a method for mapping stone surfaces, in order to record the nature and level of their decay


2. To establish a record of the current condition of a representative sample of market crosses in Scotland


3. To assess the extent to which market crosses are at risk from weathering and human agency


4. To propose effective strategies for the care of Scottish market crosses, based upon a risk assessment model



Fitzner, B., Heinrichs, K. and Kownatzki, R. (1993). Classification and Mapping of Weathering Forms. Proc Seventh International Congress on the Deterioration and Conservation of Stone, LNEC, Lisbon, 1992, 957-68.

Small, J.W. (1900). Scottish Market Crosses. E. Mackay, Stirling.

Thomson, L.J. (2000). Scottish market crosses: The development of a risk assessment model. PhD Thesis. The Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, Scotland.

Thomson, L.J. and D.C.M. Urquhart (1998). Scottish Mercat Croces. Their spiritual and secular significance. In: J.M. Fladmark (Ed.). Proceedings of the Robert Gordon University Heritage Convention. Aberdeen, UK. 1998. pp 461-472. ISBN 1-873394-24-1

Thomson, L.J. and D.C.M. Urquhart (1999). Scottish market crosses: Towards the development of a risk analysis model. In: Aspects of Stone Weathering, Decay and Conservation. M.S. Jones & R.D. Wakefield (eds.), Proceedings of Swapnet 1997. At, The Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, UK, 15-17th May 1997. Imperial College Press, pp 138-146.

How to contact me

Please contact: Dr. Lindsey J. Thomson
Tel: 01224 263710
Mail: Masonry Conservation Research Group
Scott Sutherland School
The Robert Gordon University
Garthdee Road
Aberdeen AB10 7QB

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