“Those bright ones? They ferry you over to the Feast.”
George Mackay Brown, Tryst on Egilsay
At first glance, the medieval church of St Clement at Rodel seems to be empty… apart from the art installation that fills the old stone interior with movement and colour. Seven Waves is a work by Erlend Brown and Dave Jackson, inspired by Orcadian poet, George Mackay Brown. The waves and poem together tell a story nine centuries old, of the betrayal and murder of Earl Magnus Erlendsson… but the church, a little younger than the tale the poet recounts, has its own stories to tell.
Even the walls speak, with the sparkling, dark stone of the arches into the side chapels contrasting with the sturdy masonry of the body of the church. Built to withstand gales from the sea, the thick walls have withstood storm and fire for five hundred years.
In the deep window embrasure opposite the doorway that leads into the nave, there is a medieval cross, carved from local stone. On one face is a depiction of the Crucifixion, while the other shows the kind of interlacing usually called ‘Celtic’. Near the base of the cross, the interlacing terminates in what looks rather like a shamrock, a symbol long associated with Ireland. I wondered if it was alluding to the Irish saint, Columba, whose path we have crossed so many times before, and who had brought Christianity to the Isles in the sixth century, or whether it symbolised the Trinity.
In a corner near the door, there are a few fragments of masonry, probably rescued from previous restorations. These are a common sight at medieval churches and we have found some wonderful things amongst old and overlooked piles of stone that have been tucked in odd corners.
Sometimes these fragments are far older than the church itself. The stone basin caught my eye… too small for a font, it was probably a stoup for holy water… but did it belong to St Clements or the place of worship that stood here before the current church?
From here, an arch leads to a stairway that climbs the tower. It was only partly open, so we could not scale the wooden ladders that lead to the top, but we were able to see how the great outcrop of stone we had noted outside the church had been incorporated into the fabric of the building. The little room halfway up the tower has a curious feel about it, something we both noticed, and can only ascribe to the presence of the stone.
Thwarted by locked doors, we descended once again into the nave, vainly hoping a few of the visitors might have left so we could have the place to ourselves. The church is built to a cruciform plan and, after we had read the poems and studied the Waves, and before we even attempted to tackle the sleeping knights, we ventured into the side chapels, where a number of medieval grave slabs were leaning against the walls.
One slab bears the familiar memento mori symbols and dates to 1725. The older slabs are medieval and bear carvings of swords, mainly claymores, the blade most associated with Scotland. Each stone is different, with intricate interlacing, which, on closer inspection, turns out to be more than just decoration. One slab has carvings of animals, another seems to have twin serpents flanking the blade. But our eyes and minds were drawn to the swords and their symbolism… perhaps making associations not intended by their designers, who were probably thinking in terms of strength, nobility and lineage. I, for one, could not help thinking of the Arthurian legends of the sword in the stone, which was odd, because we were not really in traditional Arthurian country … and yet the symbols of the legend had kept on cropping up and would continue to do so.
And we were certainly not lacking knights. In the south transept is the tomb of an armoured knight, believed to be that of John MacLeod of Minigish, who was clan leader of the MacLeods until his death in 1557.
Beneath a triangular pediment surmounted by a carving is another MacCleod, probably Alasdair Crotach’s son, William, the ninth clan Chief. But it is the tomb of his father, Alexander Macleod, known as Alasdair Crotach, for which the church is best known.
The reclining figure of the knight is carved from the same sparkling black stone as other details in the church. An inscription says that the tomb was ‘prepared by Lord Alexander, son of William MacLeod, Lord of Dunvegan, in the year of our lord 1528’. The effigy is surrounded by a magnificent series of medieval carvings, depicting everything from hunting scenes with dogs and stags, to a galley, saints and bishops and biblical figures.
One of my favourite panels sowed an angel and demon weighing the souls of the dead. Not only for the subject matter, but because the artist chose his stone carefully and the natural hue colours the demon red.
Another was the carving of the enthroned Virgin and Child, so reminiscent of the more ancient carvings of Isis and Osiris… and the ‘inner’ counterpart of the Sheela-na-gig on the outside of the church, perhaps… symbolism that reflects, in Christian terms, what the stone of Callanish and the goddess of the hills had shown at the other end of the island. A fitting journey through time and space for the final hours of our time on the island.