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Mausoleum of the MacLeods
St Clement’s Church (Tur Chliamainn) was built in the early 1500s. Its founder was Alasdair Crotach MacLeod of Dunvegan and Harris, 8th Chief of MacLeod. ‘Hunchbacked Alasdair’ also built the ‘Fairy Tower’ at his ancestral seat of Dunvegan Castle, across the Little Minch in North Skye.

When Alasdair died in 1547, his body was laid to rest in St Clement’s, in a splendid tomb he had built on the south side of the choir in 1528. His son, William, 9th Chief, was buried in another fine tomb in the nave in 1552. A third effigy used to be in the south transept but is now in the nave. It may be that of John MacLeod of Minginish, 10th Chief, who died in 1557.

A remarkable church
St Clement’s has rightly been praised as ‘the grandest medieval building in the Western Isles’ (John Gifford, The Buildings of Scotland: Highlands and Islands, 1992).

Donald Monro, Archdeacon of the Isles, who visited Rodel in 1549, described St Clement’s as ‘a monastery with a steipill’, but there is no evidence that it was ever served by a monastic community. The church seems to have been abandoned at the Protestant Reformation in 1560.

The church is cross-shaped, with transepts to south and north and a five-staged tower at the west end. Sculpted panels appear on each face of the tower. The west face shows a bishop, perhaps St Clement, who was third bishop of Rome after St Peter (west face). On the east face panel are two fishermen in a boat, perhaps St Peter and St Andrew. The north face panel features a bull’s head. And the south face depicts a female nude nursing a child. The last might appear strange to the modern eye, but such sheela na gigs, common in Ireland, were intended to ward off evil. (Iona Nunnery has another, very eroded, example.)

The church’s interior is quite plain, other than its tombs, but the east end is graced by a fine three-light window.

A remarkable tomb
The tomb of Alasdair Crotach MacLeod is by far the finest in the Western Isles. The arched recess bears a feast of carved ornament above the effigy of the chief himself, dressed in plate armour and guarded by crouching lions.

Symbolism abounds. The arch represents the arc of the firmament, with God at its apex holding the crucified Christ. To either side are symbols of the four Evangelists and the 12 Apostles (with Paul replacing Judas). Within the recess, below the sun, are angels blowing trumpets, more saints and the Virgin Mary flanked by bishops (including St Clement). There are also symbols representing the MacLeods – a castle, a galley under sail and a hunting scene.

Highlights
  • The location – in a quiet corner of Harris, surrounded by rugged mountains
  • The tower – dominating the little church in its shadow
  • The founder’s tomb – wonderfully carved, with symbols representing Heaven and the MacLeods.