We had spotted the ruined church as we drove down through Kilmuir and into Dunvegan, earmarking the place for a visit on the way back. Not only was there a church, but a standing stone behind it too… and a pair of very big birds of prey circling the hill.
Granted, these, at least, could have been buzzards… but the information board at the foot of the hill had pictures and descriptions of the local wildlife and included both sea eagles and their golden cousins. We had already seen eagles on the journey and these, if eagles they were, would not be the last… but each time was a thrill, especially now that England has no golden eagles of her own. And anyway, we know from experience that where the great birds of prey lead us, we will always find something extraordinary.
The church of St Mary, in spite of its appearance, is not all that old, being built only in 1694, according to the date over the north door. Like most Scottish cemeteries, it is situated on the edge of the village, away from the lands of the living, echoing what we believe to be an ancient tradition.
Christianity came to the islands in the sixth century, when St Columba left Ireland to found a monastery on Iona. The faith spread from there and monks serving the local community built round huts here to serve as their cells. The name of the village below the church, Kilmuir, or in Scottish Gaelic, Cille Mhoire, means the ‘cell’ or church of Mary.
The present building, now in ruins, would once have been thatched with heather. It was erected at the end of the seventeenth century and fell into disuse after a new church was built to replace it at Diurnish, in 1832, by the twenty-fourth Chieftain of the MacCleods.
Within the grounds and the shell of the old church are many memorials to the MacCleods, including the monuments of several clan chiefs. Beside them is a memorial to ten generations of the clan’s hereditary pipers, the MacCrimmons.
Many of the grave slabs are carved with memento mori motifs, such as skulls and crossed long bones. We see so many of these and there is a common misapprehension that all of them are either Templar or Masonic. These reminders of mortality and death as the ‘great leveller’ were quite common on many graves, especially in the 1600s. Templar graves are much rarer and usually less ornate than these simple reminders of our common destiny. Masonic graves generally have far more obvious and complex symbolism carved into their stones.
One feature we found curious was the prevalence of family enclosures, walled off from the rest of the burials. Doubtless this was for practical purposes, as much as anything, but it rather felt as if the fences and forbiddings we had sensed on the island were epitomised by this custom.
The most striking monument in the cemetery is the pyramidal obelisk of known as the Lovat Memorial. It was erected by Simon Fraser in memory of his father, Sir Thomas Fraser, the tenth Lord Lovat, who married into the Clan MacCleod, wedding Sybilla, daughter of the clan chief. Thomas and Sybilla had fourteen children, but it was Simon who caused them the most heartache and who was the reason Thomas was buried in 1699 at Dunvegan, rather than in his own clan’s ancestral burial grounds. Thomas had fled to exile at Dunvegan when he was placed under sentence of death for his son’s exploits.
Fans of Outlander will be wondering about the Fraser name and yes, this is the same family as is portrayed in Diana Gabaldon’s books, where Simon is Jamie’s grandfather. Simon, a highly intelligent and erudite young man, was also both politically inclined and violent. He changed sides depending upon which way the wind seemed to be blowing, supporting first the Jacobite cause, then William and Mary. He always had an eye for advancing his own interests. At one point he decided to wed young Amelia Murray, but she was already promised to Alexander Fraser. He dissuaded Alexander from marrying Amelia by the simple expedient of kidnapping him, building a gallows outside his window and offering to hang him.
There was a public outcry at this behaviour, which was as nothing compared to the scandal he caused when, unable to wed the young lady, he kidnapped, raped and married her mother instead. In later years, he ignored the marriage and wed two other wives. It is perhaps only fitting that he met a traitor’s end, beheaded after trial in London and interred at the Tower. It is said that the monument he raised to his father at the clan’s ancestral burial ground of Wardlaw was his way of making amends.
Climbing the cemetery wall, we walked up the hill towards the great standing stone, silhouetted against the clouds. To see bluebells in full flower mid-June was surprising and beautiful. The seasons run differently this far north. If nothing else, the hill would have served as a lookout across both the island and the sea, but it feels to have a more vibrant history than that. Perhaps it is the presence of the standing stone… though it has stood here for less than twenty years.
The stone itself was found on one of the island’s beaches. In form, it looks exactly right, unlike many a modern menhir, echoing the shape and aspect of stones familiar from ancient places. Many building projects now seem to be incorporating standing stones. Some even erect stone circles. But they are never quite ‘right’ and the feel of the place is always off-key. This stones feels right.
To celebrate the millennium, on Midsummer’s Day, the people of the parish of Diurnish manually dragged the five ton, seventeen feet tall stone up the hill and erected it, using the old ways, to honour the ancestors. I wonder what that says about the way the old ways are still respected in these islands?
It was a day of poetry, music and art, with bardic competitions. Beneath the stone, a time capsule was buried, relics of today for tomorrow. And, speaking of tomorrow, it was fast drawing close… and we still had to find a bed for the night…