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Issue 25 - Hidden away on Harris

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 25
February 2006


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Hidden away on Harris

In the latest in our series Ian Mitchell visits st Clement's Church, at Rodel, Harris

The turf around the grandest medieval building in the Western Isles is green and springy, but inside the great structure, the stone is grey, cold and very different from, say, the warm sandstone of Iona Cathedral.

Partly this is due to the grey, cold hardness of the rock beneath the turf, but partly it is because the whole structure was built as a symbol of power.

St Clement’s Church stands on the site of an Augustinian monastery founded by King David I. It is named after the first of the 15 Popes Clement. He was third Bishop of Rome and wrote an epistle, which still survives, to the Corinthians in 96 AD.

No trace of the monastery survives today, but the building erected by Alastair Crotach (the ‘Hunchback’) Macleod of Dunvegan and Harris, is intact, despite its chequered history.

Dunvegan Castle in Skye was – and still is – the impressive seat of Macleod of Macleod. St Clement’s Church was intended to be its ecclesiastical counterpart within the Harris possessions of the clan.

The visitor to Rodel today, at the extreme southeast corner of Harris, will wonder why so important a symbol was erected in so quiet a spot. The reason is that when St Clement’s was built Rodel was the opposite of a quiet spot. It was one of the busiest harbours on the Minch.

In the days when birlinns (Hebridean galleys) were the most efficient form of transport in the country, the Minch was the main highway of the western seaboard.

Rodel is one of the snuggest natural harbours anywhere on the west coast. One writer has observed that “vessels could lie there as safe as in Greenock Dock.”

Rodel has a further advantage: it is at the eastern mouth of the Sound of Harris, which is the only channel between the Butt of Lewis and the Sound of Barra, 100 miles south, which connects the Minch with the open Atlantic.

Something of Alasdair Crotach’s motivation for building the church can perhaps be inferred from the fact that the oldest and grandest of the tombs inside the church is his, erected in 1528.

Each end features the emblems of Clan Macleod, a castle and a galley, or birlinn. Between them are depictions of the Holy Trinity, Archangel Michael battling with the Devil, the Madonna and Child, the Apostles and the Macleod crest of the sun in glory.

The implication of imminent apotheosis is not understated.

In 1552 Alexander Crotach’s son, William, was entombed rather less elaborately in the church. But just eight years later, in 1560, the Reformation intervened and St Clement’s went out of use, soon falling into disrepair.

The structure was rescued two centuries later by Captain Alexander Macleod who bought the whole of Harris and its associated islands in 1772 for £15,000 from his cousin the financially embarrassed clan chief, Colonel Norman Macleod of Dunvegan.

The new proprietor had made a fortune in India and returned home – as so many other Scots were to do in 19th and 20th centuries – determined to spend his newly acquired capital reorganising and improving the lives of people he saw as backward but deserving.

Himself a native of Berneray, one of the islands attached to Harris, Alexander Macleod clearly came of vigorous stock.

His father, who had fought for Prince Charlie in 1745, married for the third time at 75 and, in the 15 years left to him before he died at the age of 90, fathered no less than 10 children. Back from India, Captain Alexander focused his improvement schemes on Rodel.

In addition to re-roofing and refurbishing St Clement’s, he built two quays and a graving bank, where ships could be brought alongside at high tide to have their hulls cleaned and repaired. He built storehouses and a small net-making factory for the fishing trade he encouraged.

He also built a school, new roads and a splendid house for himself overlooking the harbour. This is now the Rodel Hotel.

No visitor to south Harris should pass the hotel by. Inside they will be unlucky not to find the proprietor, Donnie Macdonald – known to all as Donnie Rodel – behind the bar, selling both drams and dreams, the latter in his case involving uncountable millions from quarrying royalties at Lingerbay, a mile or so from the hotel.

Here a large English company proposed taking 600 million tons of rock for motorway building, though without making any significant payment to the local community for the inconviences of noise, dirt or visual pollution.

Donnie is one of the principal owners of the land on which the quarry was to be sited. Unfortunately for his dream the Scottish Executive over-ruled the proposal, after the longest public inquiry in Scottish planning history, on the rather dubious ground of a couple of eagle nests on the site.

Rodel thus lost the chance of becoming as busy in the 21st century as it was in the 18th, for which most tourists will be thankful.

Alexander Macleod’s period of enterprise and improvement was short-lived. His son, also a successful Indian nabob, thought the weather on Harris not clement enough for his taste so he moved to England.

A grandson, also an absentee proprietor, was ruined by the collapse of the kelp market at the end of the Napoleonic wars and in 1843 his trustees sold the island to the Earl of Dunmore (whose current successor lives in Tasmania).

St Clement’s, which stands directly behind Donnie Rodel’s hotel, went out of use again, at one stage being used as a cow byre. In 1873 Lady Dunmore undertook a second restoration, and the church has been in use ever since.

Today it is cared for by Historic Scotland and is one of the main tourist attractions in south Harris. If the cold stone interior brings a chill to the either body or soul, the visitor can always nip round the corner to Donnie’s public bar, where the warmth of a dram is always available.

Ian Mitchell’s books about the Scottish islands, Isles of the West: a Hebridean Voyage and Isles of the North: a Voyage to the Realms of the Norse, are published by Birlinn at £9.99. Both include descriptions of visits to Rodel.