The Church of St. Clement, The Only Intact Medieval Building In The Outer Hebrides

The Church of St. Clement at Rodel is situated at the southernmost tip of Harris, near Leverburgh. It was built in approximately 1520 by Alexander MacLeod, also known as Alexander Crotach (meaning humbpack), of Dunvegan and Harris as the burial place of the Macleod Clan. This building stands out as it is the only medieval building to remain intact on the Western Isles.

Following Alexander MacLeod’s death in 1547 and the Protestant Reformation of 1560, the church fell into ruin. It was rebuilt just over two centuries later but suffered substantial damage in a fire. In 1873 the building was once again restored by the Countess of Dunmore and it is now maintained by Historic Scotland.

St. Clement was a leading member of the Roman Church in the 1st century AD and the patron saint of mariners. It is unclear why this church was dedicated to St. Clement, as he is rarely honoured in Scotland and is more often associated with  a Danish, seafaring influence. It is thought that the connection may date back to  a short period in the 11th century when the Hebrides were under Danish control, or it may refer to earlier religious use of the site. Until recent decades the church was usually approached from the sea.

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Outside the church are a number of fine stone sculptures. One depicts the Feileadh Mor, a big covering traditionally worn by men and that evolved into today’s kilt. On the north is a bull’s head on the centrepiece of the Clan MacLeod crest, which is believed to symbolise strength and wealth. On the west there is a figure, who may represent St. Clement, with a bull’s head at his feet. To the east is the ‘sheela na gig‘, a carving of a woman exposing her genitals and holding a child, which thought to be a warning against lust, a ward against evil or a fertility symbol. Another theory is that this statue was intended to distract the evil, so that the faithful could carry on with their devotion free of Earthly temptation.

Inside the church are four stone carvings which date from the 1400s and 1500s. They once marked the burial places for members of Clan MacLeod, although the exact location of the graves is unknown. Elaborately carved grave slabs feature throughout Gaelic society and these beautiful decorations illustrate the high status of the family and their prominence on the island. The swords represent their strength and power.

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Also within the church is the tomb of Alexander MacLeod, one of the finest and best such sculptured 16th century tombs to survive in Scotland. Nine carved panels, depicting Christ and the apostles, are arranged between the upper moulding and the recess arch that encloses the tomb. Underneath are three rows of panels decorated with carvings of angels, the Virgin, the Child, bishops, a castle and a galley under sail. Below is a hunting scene where Satan and Michael weigh the souls of the departed. The inscription reads “This tomb was prepared by Lord Alexander, son of William MacLeod, Lord of Dunvegan in the year of our Lord 1528“.

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Seanchaidhs, or oral historians, were at the heart of Gaelic culture. They would compose and safeguard stories, songs, poems and tradition and at least two local poets are buried here.

One such poet, Máiri Nighean Alasdair Ruaidh (sometimes known in English as Mary MacLeod), was the leading figure in a group of female poets. She crafted fine poetry insisting on the importance of music and capturing themes of strength, wisdom and generosity. Máiri held a respected position, is reported to have enjoyed whisky and snuff, and carried a silver-headed staff. She died in approximately 1709 at a great age. Her actual grave-site is unmarked but traditionally believed to be inside the church, close to the four ornate grave-slabs in the north transept.

“With right good will I’ll sail to the land of MacLeod, steering a course for that man of great worth.” – Máiri Nighean Alasdair Ruaidh

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1 week camper van road-trip with Hebridean Campervan Holidays 

SOURCES: 

  • Information signs at St. Clements Church
  • The Outer Hebrides Guidebook Third Edition by Charles Tait
  • Explore Outer Hebrides 2016-2017

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The Church of St. Clement, The Only Intact Medieval Building In The Outer Hebrides

by Uncover Travel time to read: 3 min
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