ROAN & RUFUS
We are away on Harris, cycling round the East road of the island. As we round the corner, a church appears, perched on a hill. We dismount our bikes and set them in the grass. We read the sign: ‘St Clement’s Church’. We enter the church.
Like many churches, the stone building is cross-shaped, with a tower at the west end of the cross. Inside the church, a wooden door opens onto a set of stairs up the tower. In each transept of the cross are carvings. As you face the altar, the right arm has a stone box with a carved figure on top, while the left arm has a series of carved stone slabs displayed against the wall. Throughout the nave, wooden boards give information about the history of the church and the carvings in it. At the top of the cross, on the right-hand wall just before the altar, is the tomb of Alasdair MacLeod.
[Roan] I open the worksheet for this week’s reading on ‘Highland Sculpture’ for one of the classes in my master’s degree. The PDF is comprised of a series of pictures of stone carvings, sourced from the western Highlands and Islands of Scotland. I peruse the document, trying to match text to picture, and come across something familiar: a carving from St Clement’s Church, Rodel, Harris. My memory is fuzzy. Was the church we visited called St Clement’s? I check my phone and look at my photos from the summer — sure enough, I match the photo I took this summer with the worksheet’s picture of the tomb of Alasdair MacLeod. I read on.
Alasdair MacLeod was the chief of the Clan MacLeod in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. Throughout his lifetime, Clan MacLeod held land on several of the outer Hebridies, including Harris and Skye. At the time of Alasdair’s rule, most of Scotland’s western islands and some of the Highlands were under control of the ‘Lordship of the Isles’, “by far the largest and most powerful province of Scotland”¹. Alasdair’s ancestors had been clan chiefs for six generations before him, and all of them were buried on Iona. Alasdair is the first to be buried elsewhere. This is perhaps because in 1498 the king of Scotland gave Alasdair a crown grant of the lands that Alasdair’s father had held for the Lord of the Isles (at this time John MacDonald, Earl of Ross)². The change in ownership of the land might have motivated Alasdair to commission a tomb on his lands. Furthermore, St Clement’s, located as it is near the southern point of Harris, was an important church on the island—many living there at the time would have visited the church, and thus seen the stonework built for Alasdair’s glory. It may have been a way for Alasdair to ensure that future generations remembered his power and leadership. Indeed, the teacher leading the class tells us, there are still stories and legends circulating about Alasdair on Harris today.
There is one more note about Alasdair: he is frequently referred to as ‘Crotach’, or ‘Humpacked’. In the early 1480s (the date is unclear), Alasdair fought on the side of the Lord of the Isles in the Battle of Bloody Bay. He was wounded in the back by opposing forces, an injury that was apparently clearly visible for the rest of his long life (he died in 1547).
I project the knowledge learned in November on my earlier self—there is no doubt that a great deal of this information is displayed on the signs throughout the church, but I can’t recall specifics. The church itself was built around Alasdair’s time, with Alasdair commissioning his tomb in 1528. The tomb comprises a stone coffin with Alasdair’s effigy on top, under a roof-shaped set of carvings which arch above Alasdair’s pseudo-body. Images carved into the stone include a hunting scene, a ship called a birlinn, bishops, various nobles, and an angel and a demon fighting. There is a panel with a Latin inscription, which reads ‘Hic loculus co[m]posuit p[er] d[omi]n[um] Allexa[n]der filius Vil[elmi] MacClod Anno Do[mi]ni M˚ CCCCC˚ XXVIII˚’ (‘this place made by Lord Alasdair MacLeod, son of William MacLeod, AD 1528’).
Rufus and I explore the body of the church and both transepts. The church is cool, but a refuge from the sky, which can’t decide whether or not to soak us (it does, later, as we hurry into a tiny art cafe down the road). I take the stairs at the end of the church, and, climbing, find an alcove in which previous visitors have left tiny relics, icons, trinkets. I touch the coin-shaped icon of Joan of Arc that I always carry, consider leaving it behind. Outside the window, there is a grassy field which leads down to the ocean. I take Joan away with me, but I’m sorry I haven’t left anything else behind. Descending again to the nave, I pass a few other visitors. I know that there are a few others in the church during the visit, but I remember the church as a quiet, empty place, which Rufus and I are able to explore alone.
I put my hands on the slightly green walls of the church. The moss and lichen and stone grow together, one un/living thing carrying the weight of human signification. A few days later I hear that a traditional Highlands clothes-dye method uses lichen to make a dull green, a practice which is now discouraged in the more recent knowledge of how long it takes for lichen to regrow. I listen for the ‘delicate transient lyrics’ of the lichen on the wall in harmony with the ‘wholly atemporal, cold, volcanic poetry’ of the Lewisian gneiss.³
Now, knowing what I’ve learned in the past year, I wonder about Alasdair’s eponym, the ways it places Alasdair’s injury in inevitable conjunction with his name. I wonder what Alasdair himself thought or felt about his body. I wonder if his injury was seen as a flaw or as proof of heroism or a mixture of both. I wonder about Alasdair’s motivation for building the tomb, about the fear of mortality and/or ego that drew him to order such a magnificent burial place. Supposedly Alasdair was religious, just as much as he was vicious: he ordered the massacre of islanders on Eigg, which he apparently ordered based on a change in the weather, interpreting it as a sign from God. St Clement’s Church feels like a nexus of bigger questions; Alasdair’s tomb remains an important piece of evidence about West Highland carving, and thus in the debates about categorising variations in this art style.⁴ Likewise, Alasdair participated in the power structure of the Lordship of the Isles, and its tangled relationship between local clan chieftains and the Scottish crown. Clan MacLeod is itself not a single body, with two other lineages sharing the same name. Traditionally believed to have been founded by a Viking, Clan MacLeod also points to the history of linguistic complexity in the Highlands and Islands, and to the history of Norse invasion, which is also borne out in local place-names, some of which are Gaelic, others Norse. Alasdair’s eponym also draws me towards disability studies, and makes me question how his body was perceived by those around him, and how our continued use of ‘Crotach’ changes our own understanding of him.
A year later, Rufus is on tour with the Nevis Ensemble, who have commissioned it to write a piece of music for their summer tour of the Outer Hebrides. I get a text from it telling me that today it will hear a performance of its piece, GEILT (a number of ways), in St Clement’s Church. I remember the church, its closeness to the water, the green grass and the graveyard outside, the greening walls and emptiness, a seashell perched among other offerings on a windowsill in the tower. I remember cycling away from the church with Rufus, trying to let go of the brakes on steep downhills as we went north, back to Tarbert. I remember our lunch of soup in Skoon Gallery. It was the first time I’d been on a cycle this long since I cycled between Achadh na Sìne train station and Torridon in March to visit Rufus at its job.
Writing this, I’ve been listening to the recording of Rufus’ piece GEILT being played in St Clement’s.
[Rufus] This is a kind of Coda, part of the reason why St Clement’s came back to the fore of our conversations.
I learned about Buile Suibne from Ronan. The 12th- or 13th-century Irish text became a supportive frame as I worked on my commission for the Nevis Ensemble, Scotland’s street orchestra.⁵
GEILT comprises 18 tiny movements that can be arranged, repeated, rearranged, and omitted as required. At St Clement’s, the ensemble performed all the movements, 1—18, in order for the first time: a kind of weird ritual, an invocation, a summoning. The church is dark, and the musicians are reading by the light of phone torches. Later, I am standing just outside the door during one of the orchestra’s folk tune arrangements. The sound spills out of the chapel into the summer evening, disappearing into the hills, strangely still.
Geilt is an Old Irish word used to refer to the character Sweeney, and other wanderers and outsiders. Sweeney, the cursed king of Dál Araide, experiencing PTSD-like symptoms following a battle, transforms into a bird or a bird-like creature, and flits around the wilds of Ireland as an outcast, telling in verse of the places he drifts through. The clearest account of his story is found in the Middle Irish text; however, the story seems to have its origins in the medieval kingdom of Strathclyde.
GEILT calls out to the places the Nevis Ensemble would pass on their journey — places which brought with them an ephemeral life of moving on. The music drifts between love and violence, and the places and weathers they happen(ed) in.
St Clement’s Church sits strangely in this context. It is not one of the locations that GEILT references, which are instead all wild, open places, outside in the sun and rain. St Clement’s seems closer to the end of Sweeney’s life in St Mullins: Sweeney dying, with his wandering done, rather than Sweeney ‘Summering where herons stalk / Wintering out among wolf-packs’. Later, the orchestra tried to take the work to the Callanais stones, only to be fittingly confined by stormy weather to a performance in the visitors’ centre — a reminder of the raw force of the world where the piece began, and where it could not also be finished — a critique of our egoism.
A year until last night
I have lived among dark trees,
between the flood and ebb-tide,
going cold and naked
with no pillow for my head,
no human company
and, so help me, God,
no spear and no sword.
No sweet talk with women.
Instead, I pine
for cresses, for the clean
pickings of the brooklime.
No surge of royal blood,
camped here in solitude;
no glory flames the wood,
no friends, no music.
Roan is a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge, writing about animal transformation in medieval Irish literature. They also love old stones and seaweed. @stone_grunge
Rufus (http://ambf.co.uk) is a musician originally from Tower Hamlets, now based in Glasgow. Rufus has written funerary music for doomed spaceships and orchestral music about rotting seaweed. In 2019, it was composer-in-residence with Scotland’s street orchestra, the Nevis Ensemble, creating a new work for their summer tour of the Outer Hebrides.
1 – John Bannerman, ‘The Lordship of the Isles’, in Scottish Society in the Fifteenth Century’ ed. by Jennifer M. Brown (London: Edward Arnold, 1977), 209-240, p. 211.
2 – See K. A. Steer and J. W. M. Bannerman, Late Medieval Monumental Sculpture in the West Highlands, p. 98.
3- Ursula K. Le Guin, ‘The Author of the Acacia Seeds’, in The Compass Rose.
4 – See, for example Steer and Bannerman, and the criticism of their work in David H. Caldwell, Fiona M. McGibbon, Suzanne Miller and Nigel A. Ruckley, ‘The image of a Celtic society: medieval West Highland sculpture’ in Celts in Legend and Reality: Papers from the Sixth Australian Conference of Celtic Studies ed. by Pamela O’Neill (Sydney, N.S.W.: Celtic Studies Foundation, University of Sydney, 2010).
5- See J. G. O’Keefe (ed. and trans.), Buile Suibne: The Frenzy of Suibhne. Irish Texts Society 12 (London: Irish Texts Society, 1913); Seamus Heaney, Sweeney Astray (Derry: Field Day Theatre Company, 1983; rev. edn. London: Faber and Faber, 2001).