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Recording Your Heritage Online

Event ID 567069

Category Descriptive Accounts

Type Recording Your Heritage Online


St. Clement's, 1520s The finest pre-Reformation church in the Western Isles, best known for its astonishingly well preserved funerary monuments. This magnificent group of canopied wall tombs represents the flowering of late medieval carving in the Hebrides.

The church was built, probably in several phases, by Alasdair Crotach (humpbacked) Macleod, 8th Chief of the Macleods of Harris and Dunvegan, who broke with tradition in choosing to spend his final years in Harris and to be buried here. Abandoned after the Reformation, it was ruinous by 1705, repaired twice (owing to an intervening fire) by Capt. Alexander Macleod in the 1780s - the enlarged, square-headed windows and crenellated tower parapet are of this period - but by 1841 was again dilapidated. Alexander Ross restored it for the Dowager Countess of Dunmore in 1873 (the timber arch-braced roof and oak door are his), and further repairs were made in 1913 by W. T. Oldrieve, who stripped off the harling. The church is cruciform in plan, with a continuous nave and aisle, unaligned transepts, and a four-storey tower rising from higher rocky ground at the west end. The pinned rubble is of local gneiss, combined with dressings of greenish Carsaig sandstone and ornamental details in black schist, for polychrome effect. The east end is lit by a traceried late gothic window with three cusped lights and a wheel window, above; other windows are trefoiled lancets. A cabled string course works its way round the tower's midrift and round a sculpted panel on each face: on the north, a black bull's head (the Macleod crest); above the door on the west a bishop, probably St. Clement, in a canopied niche supported by another bull's head; on the south wall a shiela na gig fertility symbol, and on the east a panel depicting fishermen in boat. Other carved panels inset in the Irish manner (and possibly earlier than the church) include a kilted figure, formerly mounted on the medieval parapet. Alasdair Crotach's magnificent table tomb, made in 1528, two decades before his death, lies in an arched recess in the south wall of the chancel. Its richly carved mural panels fuse gothic and celtic motifs. Nine voussoirs frame the tomb, with the Trinity at the centre, flanked by figures of the apostles and angels. Inside the recess, three rows of panels carved with religious and secular subjects surround the central figures of the Virgin and Child. The other notable tomb, with a triangular pediment in the nave's south wall, is probably that of Alasdair Crotach's son, William, 9th Chief, who died in 1551 (although the fire damaged inscription probably reads 1539). Other memorials include a cruder effigy at the nave's north end, probably commemorating John Macleod of Minginish (d. c.1557), a series of 15th and early 16th century carved slabs formerly over tombs in the sanctuary, and one dated 1725. Born at Rodel, the poetess Mary Macleod (Mairi Nighean Alasdair Ruaidh, c.1615-1707) is buried in the south transept. In the graveyard, burial place of several Macleod chiefs and poets, some 18th century Caibeals (small burial enclosures/chapels).

Taken from "Western Seaboard: An Illustrated Architectural Guide", by Mary Miers, 2008. Published by the Rutland Press

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