St Clement’s church, Rodel, Isle of Harris
St Clement’s was built as a catholic church under David I, probably by one of the MacLeods of Harris but falling into disuse soon after completion. The Reformation had put an end to Catholicism on the island. It had most likely been a priory, two allegedly excisted on the Longisle, one in Rodel on Harris and one in Ui on Lewis. It is believed they were both Augustinian and Rodel belonged to Holyrood House. The dedication to St Clement is a rather unusual one and probably dates back to a short Danish occupation of Harris during the Viking invasions.
an axe in the back
The church’s ground floor plan is cruciform with a tower at one end. Inside is the grave of Alasdair Crotach MacLeod, the 8th Chief died short after the Battle of Pinkie where he fought with his men in 1547 and his grave (for some reason dated 1728) is truly remarkable. Considering his name one would think her had a humpback but it was an injury sustained in a battle by a battle axe. He killed his assailant with his dirk. More chiefs were buried in Rodel after him. Before him the chiefs had been buried on Iona.
Crotach was a powerful magnate in times of trouble and frictions between the Macleods of Harris and those of Lewis as well as the nobles of the other isles and the crown. Parts of the Isle of Skye belonged to him. He retired to the monastery after his son William succeded him as a chief. William carried out the killings in the massacre of Eigg where the entire population of the island was annihilated, retaliation for the killing of one of his ship’s crew by the islanders. The order for the killings of the people of Eigg was given by Alasdair Crotach.
The church was restored by Captain Alexander MacLeod in the 18th century after a fire had caused great destruction. In the 19th century the Dowager Countess of Dunmore restored it again. It was until then mostly approached from the sea.
Intriguingly striking are some of the stone carvings on the outside of the tower: the sheela-na-gigs. The name meaning Cecile’s bits.
These are comic like carvings of women displaying their vulva. A rather unusual theme on a church tower on first thought but they have indeed been known all over Europe. Not in the Outer Hebrides though. But what are they?
Pre-Christian fertility symbols? Means to fight off evil forces? Goddess figures celebrating birth? Or simply a warning of the consequences of lust?
sources and further reading:
W.C. Mackenzie: History of the Outer Hebrides. Paisley, Gardener, 1903