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Rodel St Clement's Church and Churchyard

A Category A Listed Building in Na Hearadh agus Ceann a Deas nan Loch, Na h-Eileanan Siar

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Latitude: 57.7409 / 57°44'27"N

Longitude: -6.963 / 6°57'46"W

OS Eastings: 104773

OS Northings: 883184

OS Grid: NG047831

Mapcode National: GBR 9868.7FS

Mapcode Global: WGX3W.0PKL

Entry Name: Rodel St Clement's Church and Churchyard

Listing Date: 5 October 1971

Category: A

Source: Historic Scotland

Source ID: 345848

Historic Scotland Designation Reference: LB12912

Building Class: Cultural

Location: Harris

County: Na h-Eileanan Siar

Electoral Ward: Na Hearadh agus Ceann a Deas nan Loch

Parish: Harris

Traditional County: Inverness-shire

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Early 16th century church, the outstanding medieval ecclesiastical

building in the Outer Isles, 1528 (dated) monument inside to the

probable founder, Alasdair Crotach (Alexander MacLeod), is one of the most ambitious and richly-carved funerary works of the period in Scotland.

Kirkyard contains series of family aisles and monuments. Also

burial place of several of the MacLeod chiefs, and at least two

poets, the better-known being Mairi Nighean Alasdair Ruaidh.


INTRODUCTION: Founded, it is said, by Alasdair Crotach

builder also of some work at Dunvegan including the "Fairy

Tower" (W D Simpson Guide to Dunvegan, p9). Late Gothic

and influenced by work in contemporary Ireland and more

obviously of slightly earlier work at Iona rather than that of

contemporary Lowland Scotland - for the common cultural link

between the Gaidhealtachd in Scotland and in Ireland was in the

period still intact.

Design is unique for its date in the West Highlands, being

cruciform-plan, with square tower at west end where the

ground/rock is anyway raised: conceivably not all of one

continuous build for there are inconsistencies - eg the use of

different freestones for the transept arches (though both have

similar profile mouldings to their shafting) and a pre-existing

chapel might have been incorporated - but much of these

inconsistencies more probably point to the work having been

ongoing for perhaps several seasons, perhaps also to

reconstruction work necessary when repairs were carried out.

Some exterior sculptural ornament, in the manner associated with

Ireland, including female figure of the type known in Ireland as a

"sheela na gig" and male counterpart.

Repaired/restored in 1784 and again in 1787 (inscription panel

within church) by Alexander MacLeod (who had in 1779

acquired Harris at a cost of ?15,000 from General Norman

MacLeod of the Siol Tormod ie the ancient line of Harris

MacLeods). The new owner was brother and successor to

Norman MacLeod of Bernera and he had settled on the island in

about 1782/3, but died in about 1790. Rodel was again restored

in 1873 at the expense of the Countess of Dunmore (inscription

panel over main entrance), lesser scheme of renovation done

under the supervision of Alexander Ross of Inverness in 1880's.

The extent of work done in the 1780's is uncertain. In 1786

Knox (op cit p 159) wrote "He [ie MacLeod] has raised, or

rather repaired, a very handsome church, out of the ruins of an

old monastery, called St Clements". Suggesting that Knox

understood the building to have been quite ruinous prior to

restoration. The report in the Old Statistical Account (pub 1794)

relays a tradition that Rodel was an early foundation repaired by

Alasdair Crotach, burned by the early Reformers: it then reports.

"The walls... of this venerable pile remained almost entire: and

were repaired in 1784 by the late patriotic Alexander MacLeod

Esq of Harris. After the church was roofed and slated and the

materials for furnishing it within laid up in it to a considerable

value, it unfortunately took fire, at night, through the carelessness

of the carpenters who had left a live coal in it among the

timbers... it was soon after this accident roofed: and it is now,

though left unfinished since the time of his death used as one of

the principal places in the parish for divine service".

The work by Ross is documented by him in a brief paper (see

References below) - principally a re-roofing, cleaning of the walls

and general clearing up.


Tower is a 4-storeyed entrance on west above ground level

because of sloping site: undivided stages excepting stepped cable

moulding at mid-height; corbelled and crenellated parapet of

Scots type (though repaired and conceivably modified),

pyramidal roof rises from within. Sculptured panels (these are

discussed in Inventory), particularly over the west door, but also

placed central on each elevation with cable moulding stepped

over. At 3rd tower storey, a doubled roll-moulding of Irish type

at each angle terminated at 3rd/4th floor division by a projecting

animal head on 3 of the 4 corners (the 4th presumably worn

away); the detail picked up intermittently at top floor and on

parapet but as a single roll-moulding and this inconsistency,

combining moulded/unmoulded stones is difficult to explain.

Body of church is a rectangular plan without architectural

distinction between nave and chancel: narrower transepts (similar

to one another in scale and design but not set directly opposing

each other) reach only to below main eaves level, their roofs

integrated with and subordinate to continuous main roof. Main

entrance is at west end of north flank.

Built of pinned rubble, roughly-coursed in areas: intermittent

splayed base course (possibly an indication of pre-existing work

re-used), eg at north flank of Nave: some of the freestone is

black and of a type occurring locally [Steer and Bannerman

p198] (conceivably imported; cf font from Borline, Skye, dated

1530 and made for the same MacLeod family and now in

National Museum of Antiquities) - but not seen on lower parts of

tower and on much of the walling, suggesting that black freestone

was available in quantity at latter stages of building: used to

polychrome effect on 3rd storey of tower at angles and on

windows), and on the stepped cable moulding below: also used

on the sanctuary south window and on the traceried east window

which comprises a spoked wheel set above 3 lights with cusped

heads. Simplified variant of eg the south choir-aisle east window

at Iona Abbey (a replica is installed in Iona the original being at

St Conon's Loch Awe); its carved label stops and arch-crown

are in light-coloured ashlar, but the pattern is Irish in derivation

(cf for example Kinawley Co Fermanagh). Also comparable

with Iona are the small cusp-headed lancets used throughout built

for the most part of light-coloured freestone imported (possibly

from Carsaig in Mull, the quarry that provided the freestone at

Iona). Remaining windows, eg those on south flank, flat-lintelled.

Slate roofs of a pinkish colour, dating from 1873 as do the oak

doors at main entrance and at tower latticed glazing skews and

rainwater goods. Larger openings are pointed or flat-lintelled

narrow lights either as noted above or else flat-lintelled and

without freestone dressings. A single lancet on the east end of

north wall has curious double-pointed head; lintel and sill of

blocked lancet on main walling to west of north transept flat-

headed window alongside above the splayed base course may

be an insertion to judge by surrounding stonework patterns

(which would accord with the suggested re-use of an earlier



Exposed bare rubble walls, openings flat-lintelled or arched

above ingoes; timber arch-braced roof presumably dates from

1873 and rests on corbels of contemporary date: early corbels in

sanctuary area. Floor laid with flagstones of uncertain date but

again likely to date from 1873.

There are two medieval mural monuments each a tomb recess on

the south flank one each side of the south transept.

Monument to Alasdair Crotach is dated 1528, though he lived

until about 1547. Its design is often compared with that of the

O'Cahan tomb, Dungiven, County Londonderry, of at least a

generation earlier, but the similarity is little more than conceptual -

an arched recess above a tomb chest on which rests an effigy

and the formula was well-used elsewhere: Irish examples

favoured the use of traceried heads which was not done at Rodel

and certainly not for reasons of economy as testified by the

wealth of sculptured oranment. The Rodel tomb is unusual in

having a series of high-quality carved mural panels depicting Holy

figures, scenes, images, etc including a stylised castle with

stepped crenellations of Irish type, a hunting scene, a Highland

galley, ornament both on the wall beneath the arch and on the

alternate voussoir stones - the intermediate stones being narrow

and black, giving a polychrome effect like that on parts of the

tower. The gable-shaped hood-mould over is also black as is

the effigy. Sculptural work has justifiably been described as

".....the masterpiece of medieval West Highland sculpture".

(Companion to Gaelic Scotland, p 7).

Main inscription:

"hic loculus co(m)posuit/p(er) d(omi)n(u)m allexa(n)der filius

vil(el)mi/ MacClod (omilno de du(n)began/anno d(omi)ni m

ccccc xxviii".


'This tomb was prepared by Lord Alexander, son of Willelmus

MacLeod, Lord of Dunvegan in the year of Our Lord 1528'.

Names of saints represented on the arch stones are also

inscribed (Steer and Bannerman, inscription 2).

Alasdair Crotach was breaking with tradition, by choosing to be

buried here rather than in Iona, where the previous chiefs of his

clan had till then been buried.

The second tomb-recess is anonymous, doubtless another

MacLeod, but "....there can be little doubt that the person

commemorated was William, son and successor to the

Alexander MacLeod of Dunvegan commemorated... [above]

(Steer and Bannerman, p98). Black freestone throughout: a

round arch (as is the above monument). Moulded, topped

centrally by a gablet, an effigy below (which in c.1780 was in the

south transept - see view referred to in Nat Galls). A black band

of masonry on the otherwise plain rubble back wall of the recess

contains the following inscription:

"hi[c es]t loculu[s co(m)p]osuit p(er)/d(omi)n(u) [m].../[a]nno

d(omi)ni m [cccc]c xx[xi]x"


"This is the tomb prepared by our Lord... in the year of Our Lord

1539" (Steer and Bannerman, inscription 3).

(Square brackets represent illegible lettering, rounded brackets

abbreviations used in the texts).

Other carved stones lie within the church, including a third effigy

(also in the south transept formerly), now in the nave north west

corner) - possibly John MacLeod of Minginish (d.1557), cousin

of Alasdair Crotach, who succeeded as chief on the death of the

William whose (probable) tomb is noted above. (There is no

guarantee that the correct effigy was replaced on the tomb). A

series of late medieval West Highland carved stones is

incorporated in the floor among the flagstones and a 1725

memorial. Also kept within the church is a wheel-headed cross.

As noted above, the two transept arches are not identical: black

freestone is used for the north transept, light-coloured stone

opposite. Whilst the vertical profile mouldings used on each are

similar, the arch profiles and profile mouldings are not, the south

arch being steeper-sided: a blocked window immediately to its

west (and not visible on the outside) also has black dressings.

The south transept contains the burial place of the poetess Mairi

Nighean Alasdair Ruaidh (c.1615-c1707) (Mary MacLeod),

who was born at Rodel and connected with the MacLeod

aristocracy. She is, traditionally, buried face downwards.

(Carmichael Watson, pxix) the burial place of the hereditary

standard bearers bearers of the MacLeod "Fairy Flag" is also

reputedly within the church.

A mural stair, entered from a pointed doorway near-centre in the

church gable, gives access to the tower, whose ground floor level

is several feet higher than that of the nave. An opening above,

now blocked, formerly opened from the tower into the nave. A

marble panel commemorates the 1787 restoration by

Alexander MacLeod.


Contains a series of burial aisles mostly 18th century, others

towards the north west/north are 19th century. Two aisles linked

to one another at one corner are similar, ashlar, topped by low

balustrades: the first (closest to kirkyard west wall) to the

MacLeods, probably early 18th century, or in existence at least

by 1738, the date of one recorded death on a marble side-panel

- the centre panel is in a corniced and bolection-moulded frame.

Its inscription much-worn; also memorial to Donald MacLeod of

Berneray d.1738 aged 90 who had been out in 1745-6. Interior

walls harled rubble, balusters diagonally-set. The second aisle is

harled with ashlar dressings also 18th century (? c.1709) and

contains 19th century (?replacement) panel to Sir Norman

MacLeod of Berneray (1614-1709) who had fought at

Worcester (in 1651, when the MacLeods were decimated

fighting on the Royalist side to the extent that the MacLeods

were excused military duty for a generation): also inscribed "a

generous patron of Gaelic culture, closely associated with the

bardess Mary MacLeod" (that part of the text is unlikely to date

from c.1707). Balusters are mostly replacements, presumably

installed when panel was made.

Aisle of similar type at south end of kirkyard, commemorates

MacDonald family. Plain enclosure to south east of church is of

uncertain date. Also 19th century enclosures with cast-iron


Close to the east end of the north wall is the headstone of the

bard and evangelist Iain Gobha na Hearadh (Iain or

John Morison), born at Rodel [in 1790, according to his

headstone, which was erected long after his death: date c.1796

suggested in the Companion to Gaelic Scotland, p204]; died

1852 at Leacklee.

Rubble dyke encloses kirkyard and may at least in part -

preserve medieval precinct boundary.

Statement of Interest

Property in the care of Historic Environment Scotland. Whilst the portrayal on the monument of an Irish-type tower with stepped crenellations suggests its possible use on the tower, it may be that the craftsman/men responsible for the monument were not those responsible for the church. Alasdair Crotach is known in legend for entertaining King James V in 1536 to dinner on one of the 2 flat-topped mountains (the lower, and broader) close to Dunvegan and known as "MacLeod s Table".

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