This is a tale about a chapel, a saint and a bishop and rather surprisingly in that context, a tale about destruction, castration and a proud heart. The Isle of Skye at its wildest!
The tale unfolds on graveyard on a small island in the river Snizort , just a few miles off Portree, and it starts a long, long time ago.
cathedral of the Bishop’s of the Isles
Here on this peaceful island (St Columba) on an island (Isle of Skye), St Columba preached Christianity over a thousand years ago. He also founded a church as he did all over Skye and Scotland. A holy man by all accounts, in a way the godfather of Christianity. Later in the Middle Ages, this was the site of Old Snizort Parish Church– “which served as a cathedral church of the Bishops of the Isles, as did its predecessor”. Canmore.org.uk
The Archbishop of Trondheim
The remains of several chapels are still recognizable in the oblong burial ground. This was a bishopric, an ecclesiastical centre, founded under the Archbishop of Trondheim, Norway being the seat of the archbishop until the Norse rule over the Kingdom of the Isles came to an end in the 15th century. The Eilean Chaluim Chille, St. Columba’s island, and its cathedral played an important part in the history of Christianity on Skye until the building was destroyed like so many others during the Scottish reformation in the 16th century.
To the west lies the ruin of the older but more intact Chapel/Teampall of St. Columba (also known as Nicolson’s Aisle), possibly contemporary with the original 11th century Episcopal seat here, although an early 13th century date is suggested by an unearthed fragment of an ornamental nook shaft capital identical to work on Iona of that date. Tradition claims that 28 Nicolson chiefs are buried in this mortuary chapel. Of various important carved grave slabs found on the site, a 16th century effigy of a knight still reclines inside. Canmore.org.uk
the clan Nicolson
The Nicholsons must be one of the oldest if not the oldest clan on Skye.
Here they appear to have shown their piety, prevision, or ostentation by benefactions to the religious house, of which the ruins may yet be seen on an island, at the head of Loch Snizort.
William Mackenzie: Old Skye Tales. Traditions, Reflections and Memories. Edinburgh; Birlinn; 2002 p. 16
In Skye the name is commonly Nicolson, while in Argyll where the clan is quite numerous, the form MacNicol is almost invariably used, often with the inclusion of an h in either case.
Grace Campbell: Highland Heritage; Glasgow; Collins; 1962, p. 202
More information on the clan and its history: clanmacnicol.org
wild bishop Wimund
Whereas the Nicholson side of the story is benevolent and pious, the tale of wild Wimund, Bishop of the Isles, is rather not. Here was his seat in the 12th century. But he wasn’t just a bishop, he was a warlord and a seaman. A wild one as a contemporary account of historian William of Newburgh states:
“Of bishop Wimund, his life unbecoming a bishop, and how he was deprived of his sight”
John of Fordun: Chronicle of the Scottish Nation. Reprinted, Llanerch Press, Lampeter, 1993.
Wimund was Bishop of the Isles from 1134 – 1140, he claimed valuable family connections but was probably an illegitimate son of a prince, he held extensive lands in Cumbria and wasn’t happy on this small island on the Isle of Skye. As William of Newburgh states he was:
“[n]ot content with the dignity of his episcopal office, he next anticipated in his mind how he might accomplish great and wonderful things; for he possessed a haughty speaking mouth with the proudest heart.”
castrated and blinded
He was a wild one in a time, when bishops were wild and often had more fighting spirit than meekness. A quarrel over land with the Bishop of Whithorn was fought with weapons and not words. Wimund was taken by the Bishop’s men; he was beaten, castrated and blinded. Wimun survived this ordeal and spent the rest of his life in a monastery near York.
As peaceful and idyllic it might seem today – St Columba’s Isle has seen harsher days. As have the knights and chiefs buried here. Men who fought in many a battle and prayed in many ways, some wilder than others.
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Scotland is a country full of history, stories and secrets. Often, the three cannot be separated. That is what makes this country so wonderful and unique. The stories of this book have been discovered and gathered for Erkenbach’s blog, Graveyards of Scotland, over many years.
Her main sources were historical travel guides from the 18th and 19th centuries, where the finds were scary, beautiful, funny, and sometimes, cruel.This unusual approach to a country’s history has produced amazing results. You don’t have to share the author’s passion for cemeteries to enjoy this book; only a small number of the stories in this collection take place in graveyards, though they do all end in them, so perhaps it helps.
The fairy hill in Inverness, a nitrate murder on Shetland, a family of left-handers, wolves, Robert the Bruce and William Wallace shown in a new light, the secret bay of the writer Gavin Maxwell, a murdering poet and so many things you didn’t know about Scotland, its clans and its history.