Inside the 16th Century church of a '˜humpbacked' clan chief

It is the grandest medieval building in the Outer Hebrides and was built by a humpbacked clan chief as a place to bury his kin and exert his status over the islands.

The church was  founded by Alasdair Crotach MacLeod of Dunvegan and Harris, 8th chief of Clan MacLeod, who died in 1547. PIC: F.Mira/Flickr/Creative Commons.
The church was founded by Alasdair Crotach MacLeod of Dunvegan and Harris, 8th chief of Clan MacLeod, who died in 1547. PIC: F.Mira/Flickr/Creative Commons.

St Clement’s Church in Rodel on the Isle of Harris, was founded around 1520 by Alasdair ‘Crotach’ MacLeod of Harris and Dunvegan, the 8th chief of his clan.

The chief’s back injury was caused by axe at the Battle of Bloody Bay, a sea battle off Mull, around 1480, according to accounts, with ‘crotach’ translating as crooked or humpbacked in Gaelic.

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St Clements Church is regarded as the grandest medieval building in the Western Isles. PIC: Malcolm Manners/Flickr/Creative Commons.
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MacLeod, who also lost his father in the Bloody Bay encounter, broke with tradition and chose to spend his final years on Harris. He was also buried here following his death in 1528.

“The building of the church by the chiefs of Clan MacLeod, and its use as the family mausoleum, provides evidence for the importance its Gaelic lords placed on the Church as a means of reinforcing and articulating their authority, as well as being a medium for their religious devotion,” a statement from Historic Environment Scotland said.

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“The mountains of Harris are clearly visible from Dunvegan Castle, on the Isle of Skye, their chief secular

The church is decorated with remarkable stonework, including this depiction of stags. PIC:Savagecat/Flickr/CreativeCommons.

seat, and the two centres - spiritual and temporal - served to underpin their control over their maritime lordship.”

Unusual given its prominent tower, which is clearly visible from land or sea, the church holds three wall tombs, the oldest and the grandest being the tomb of Crotach.

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Other beautiful stonework depicts the symbols of a Gaelic lordship, including running stags and the birlinn boat - the vessel of choice for this fearsome and often waterborne clan.

The effigy of the 8th chief depicts him in plate armour and guarded by crouching lions.

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Coins and a shell left as offerings at St Clements on Harris. PIC: Savagecat/Flickr/CreativeCommons

St Clement’s ceased to serve as a place of worship following the Protestant Reformation in 1560 and crumbled away over the next 200 years.

According to accounts, the church was taken into the care of Captain Alexander MacLeod when he bought the estate of Harris with the building restored in 1787 after it was accidentally destroyed by fire.

It was again restored in 1873 by Lady Catherine, Dowager Countess of Dunmore, widow of the 6th Earl

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of Dunmore, the owner of Harris.

The tomb of Alasdair Crotach MacLeod whose humpback was caused by an injury received in a clan battle against the Macdonalds, according to some accounts. PIC: John W. Schulze/Flickr/Creative Commons.
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Lady Catherine, who is credited with creating the world famous Harris Tweed brand, has the church extensively repaired and re-roofed.

It is now one of the most popular tourist draws on Harris, with public toilets built nearby to cope with visitor demand.