Posted by: christinelaennec | May 5, 2014

Rodel, Isle of Harris

This is my next-to-last post about my recent trip to Harris.  I wanted to show you a very special place:  Rodel.  It lies at the south-eastern tip of the island.  In the days when water was the highway, Rodel was an important port and haven along the Minch.  If you go there by car, it’s a short drive from Leverburgh.  As you come into the village, you can see the tower of St. Clement’s Church.  On the day I was there, you could also see across to the mainland, if a bit hazily.

Coming into the village of Rodel, with St. Clement's Church on the horizon.  Isle of Harris, April 2014.

Coming into the village of Rodel, with St. Clement’s Church on the horizon. Isle of Harris, April 2014.

St. Clement’s Church is a magnificent late medieval church.  It was built in the 1520s by the clan chief of the MacLeods, known in Gaelic as Alasdair Crotach because of his hunched back.  The church was finished just before the Reformation and (according to the entry by the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland) was abandoned thereafter.  It fell into disrepair, and was subsequently restored, several times over the centuries.  It is now owned and managed by Historic Scotland.

St. Clement's Church, Rodel, Isle of Harris.  April 2014.

St. Clement’s Church, Rodel, Isle of Harris. April 2014.

Although the church hasn’t been used as a place of worship for most of its life, its churchyard has continued to be a burial place.  You can see below a grave from World War I.  The inscription reads “A. MacLeod, Deck Hand … HMS Victory 1, 28th October 1918 Age 23.  Gradh a’s mo’ na so chan eil aig neach air bith gun leigeadh duine anam sios air son a chairdean  John XV”.  The Gaelic quote from the Bible is from John 15:13:  “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”  I was interested to see that the Gaelic on the tombstone uses the word “anam” – usually translated as soul – for “life”.

Graves in the churchyard of St. Clement's Church, Rodel.  Isle of Harris, April 2014.

Graves in the churchyard of St. Clement’s Church, Rodel. Isle of Harris, April 2014.

The day I visited was a fine day, and there was hardly a breath of wind in the warm, protected churchyard.

St. Clement's Church, Rodel, Isle of Harris.  April 2014.

St. Clement’s Church, Rodel, Isle of Harris. April 2014.

On the outside of the tower, there are some interesting carvings.  Below you can see a female form showing her “lady bits”.  The Dafter asked, “So is that like medieval porn?”  Not quite: it’s an ancient fertility symbol, called a “sheela na gig”.

"Sheela-na-gig" on side of St. Clement's Church, Rodel.  Isle of Harris, April 2014.

“Sheela-na-gig” on side of St. Clement’s Church, Rodel. Isle of Harris, April 2014.

There’s also a man’s half-naked figure flying across the side of the tower.  I’ve read that his bits were a little easier to remove, whenever the reformers came along:

More interesting medieval statuary on the outside of St. Clement's Church, Rodel.  Isle of Harris, April 2014.

More interesting medieval statuary on the outside of St. Clement’s Church, Rodel. Isle of Harris, April 2014.

I tell you these things not out of prurience but because I think it’s important to remember that earlier forms of Christianity were close to some pagan practices.  What Christianity has meant, even in this single place of Rodel, has changed a lot over the past 600 years.  I think it’s quite amazing that St. Clement’s has survived so well all this time, what with the Reformation and the weather conditions alone.

I’ve climbed up the tower stairs on a few occasions.  Once, I joined the rest of my family in reaching the very topmost level, which requires going up (and subsequently coming back down) a ladder.  The tower makes St. Clement’s a great rainy-day destination if you’re visiting Harris with children.  And there’s quite a view from up there on a fine day.  On this visit, I didn’t have time to go up the tower, but the view from the highest part of the churchyard was nearly as good:

View from St. Clement's churchyard, Rodel.  Isle of Harris, April 2014.

View from St. Clement’s churchyard, Rodel. Isle of Harris, April 2014.  The Isle of Skye in the distance.

I believe those bare branches are the huge fuschia bushes that grace the churchyard.  I never would have believed it possible for a fuschia bush to reach those proportions, but they are spectacular in the summertime.

The inside of the church is stunning as well:

St. Clement's church, Rodel.  Isle of Harris, 2014.

St. Clement’s church, Rodel. Isle of Harris, 2014.

There are several medieval tombs in St. Clement’s.  The most famous of these is the tomb of its founder patron, Alasdair Crotach MacLeod:

Tomb in St. Clement's church, Rodel.  Isle of Harris, April 2014.

Tomb in St. Clement’s church, Rodel. Isle of Harris, April 2014.

The carvings are very interesting.  The RCAMHS website says that the tomb was made in 1528, two decades before Alasdair’s death.  Forward planning and pre-payment, so long ago!  It says that the carvings above the tomb “fuse Gothic and Celtic motifs”.

Close-up of carvings on the tomb, St. Clement's church, Rodel.  Isle of Harris, April 2014.

Close-up of carvings on the tomb, St. Clement’s church, Rodel. Isle of Harris, April 2014.

You can see the carving of the Viking longship, which has remained the symbol of the Outer Hebrides.  There are also carvings of angels weighing up souls.  I was reminded of the sermon that I’d heard in Tarbert on Sunday, telling us that, however close we might be to our friends and family in this life, we might be separated from them in eternity.

An interesting story connected to St. Clement’s church concerns the 17th-century Gaelic bardess (female poet) Mary MacLeod, who died ca. 1709.  The information plaque in the church says that: “At Màiri Nighean Alasdair Ruaidh’s request, she was buried face-down, perhaps, in her own words, to keep ‘her lie-telling mouth to underside’.” I wonder!

I left St. Clement’s Church and drove the very short distance down to the harbour.  If I’d had more time, I would have walked, as it’s another one of my favourite walks in Harris.  By the pier you will find the Rodel Hotel.  Its exterior may look a bit forbidding to you, but its small windows become more understandable if you remember that it’s in an exposed place on the coast, and was built in the 18th century.   Although I’ve never stayed there, the public areas inside are lovely, and it has been run by the same local people for a good long time now.

The little plaque on the front of the hotel commemorates a visit by Queen Elizabeth in 1958.  Her visit was pre-arranged and covered by the newspapers at the time.  But as I wrote in this post I’ve heard various stories about how, when the Royal Family holidayed in the Royal Yacht Britannia, locals used to happen upon them picnicking on various beaches in the Outer Hebrides.

The Rodel Hotel, Isle of Harris, April 2014.

The Rodel Hotel, Isle of Harris, April 2014.

From in front of the hotel, Skye was clearly visible.  I think the cliffs you see are “MacLeod’s Tables” near Dunvegan.

The Isle of Skye across the Minch, from Rodel.  Isle of Harris, April 2014.

The Isle of Skye across the Minch, from Rodel. Isle of Harris, April 2014.

I had a quick but delicious lunch of soup and scone.

View to the harbour from the Rodel Hotel, Isle of Harris, April 2014.

View to the harbour from the Rodel Hotel, Isle of Harris, April 2014.

It was just a beautiful day.  Some customers had bought food and drink and taken it out to eat on the harbour wall.

The harbour at Rodel, Isle of Harris, April 2014.

The harbour at Rodel, Isle of Harris, April 2014.

I was very touched that the man who runs the hotel recognised me from our previous visits, even though it had been three years since we were last there.  He was extremely kind when he heard about the Dafter’s ME/CFS, and wished us all well.  It was yet another friendly encounter in Harris that made me very happy.

I had to leave all too soon.  On the road back up to St. Clement’s (it’s a circular route), you pass this lovely spot.  I believe the water in the foreground is a freshwater loch, but you can glimpse the sea beyond the house.

Freshwater loch at Rodel, with the sea beyond.  Isle of Harris, April 2014.

Freshwater loch at Rodel, with the sea beyond. Isle of Harris, April 2014.

Rodel is a beautiful and special place – I hope you can go someday.

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Responses

  1. I just love this blog. I had no idea there was a church like this on Harris, and I’m thrilled to know about it. I’ve seen a sheela na gig on a church near the English/ Welsh border, but I’m delighted to know there’s one on Harris too.

  2. Interesting reportage!

  3. I have never yet been to Harris, but I have seen it from the other side of the Minch, on Skye! In good weather you can see the outer isles easily from many places in the north of Skye: not only Harris, but the Uists and Benbecula too. They say on Waternish that if you can see the Hebrides, it’s raining, and if you can’t see them, it’s about to. Certainly, from those top fingers of land on Skye, you can literally see the weather coming as the westerlies blow squalls across the Minch. A beautiful, beautiful part of the world.

  4. Another beautiful post.

  5. Lovely photos and so nice to find the church open. So many of them are closed nowadays but perhaps it’s not like that on the islands. Have you ever found one locked up in the outer isles?

  6. Holy cow! Being recognized by and engaging with the man who last saw you over three years ago would have been the highlight of my day. But that said, there’s a lot of competition for the highlight of this visit, isn’t there? St Clement’s church – with the guided tour by you – will definitely be on my to do list when I’m next there.

    I’m not sure if it’s just Scotland or just this part of Scotland, but from this distance it seems that your historical sites are managed very well.

  7. Thanks for your comments, everyone! I’m glad you found it interesting.

    Flora – glad to let you know about another sheela-na-gig!

    Lorna – the reason that St. Clement’s is open is that it’s run by Historic Scotland and isn’t a place of worship. I imagine most churches, as on the mainland, are closed most of the time, to protect the few removeables inside. Insurance premiums are very high, although sadly nowadays the thing thieves value the most is the lead on the outside of churches. (If you google “thieves strip lead church” you’ll see that this has happened at least twice in the past few weeks in Scotland.) I believe that insurance companies require a special coating to be applied on the lead before they will insure the church. Crazy world! Some churches, such as St. Machar’s Cathedral, are open and staffed by volunteers. There are also a few churches of historical interest that are open and unsupervised (Kinneff and Arbuthnott spring to mind).

    oldblack – being recognised by the hotel owner really did make my day! I think the management of historical sites in Scotland varies a lot, according to who manages the site. There are many listed sites with no marking or supervision. Sadly, one such place in Lewis was recently painted with white stripes by vandals.

  8. The old stone church is wonderful – so much history. If only walls could talk! The views are so lovely and restful for the eyes, too. I can imagine the sound of the wind and the sea, with the salt air, so fresh, and perhaps a sea bird or two calling. I am not surprised that you were fondly remembered, even after 3 years. I took a little scroll down to see your previous post, which was equally lovely and so nice to have a little visit with old friends, too. The last photo (of this post) is so beautiful with the blue water, green hills and solitary house looking out to sea. xo Karen

  9. I was here only 3 days ago during a visit ‘home’ to Steornabhagh! Sadly our day in Roghadal was more typical so I am glad to see what it looks like in finer weather! Your report if spot on. I took all these photos but yours are much better. In recent years it was possible to go to the top of the tower but now the wooden ladders have been removed from the top of the stone steps. The old church (Urras Eaglais na h-Aoidhe) at Aginish, Point, Lewis is also worth a visit. More amazing tomb carvings of the Chiefs of the MacLeods. The Rodel hotel looked closed when we were there. Maybe we should have tried the door?

  10. Dafter’s question tickled me, but was really thought-provoking! It is interesting to consider how standards are formed, isn’t it.


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