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The final resting place of clan chiefs of the Macleods of Lewis has likely been found in a church graveyard falling into the sea.
St Columba’s Church, or Ui Church from the Gaelic for isthmus, is a 14th century ruin sitting on the Aignish peninsula near Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis. It is also known as the Eye Church, or its Gaelic equivalent Eaglais na h-Aoidhe.
It was one of the most important medieval churches in the Western Isles, now it is in real danger of being lost to the sea.
The cemetery around the church once extended at least 10 metres further than it does now, providing a buffer for storm force wind and wave but over time this graveyard has been claimed by the sea, along with the human remains which it once held. Now, the waves of Broad Bay lap at the very foundations of the church.
The Ui Church Trust, Urras Eaglais na h-Aoidhe, was formed in 2001 to safeguard, consolidate and preserve it. Now its annual Colm Cille lecture has claimed a grave called the Sword Stone most likely marks the exact burial spot of the clan chiefs of the Macleods of Lewis.
This coffin-shaped stone, which is decorated with a faintly visible sword, had previously given rise to a theory that the Ui Church was linked to the Knights Templar. But all the research now points to it marking the final resting place of the Macleod chiefs, with the sword believed to be a reference to one particular chief’s reputation as an excellent swordsman.
The lecture on links between Ui and the Macleod chiefs was delivered by genealogist Andrew MacLeod, and sponsored once again by community wind farm charity Point and Sandwick Trust.
Colin Scott Mackenzie, honorary president of the Ui Church Trust, said the new information about the Sword Stone was ‘vastly important’, adding: ‘The site is itself important, particularly for the parish of Stornoway as it was the parish church. It was, in its day, the most important church in the Hebrides. It was the richest church in the Hebrides. It was burnt down twice in its early days, possibly by the Vikings, and that it’s here at all is a wonder.’
The extent of the erosion is clear from typical designs of medieval church graveyards, which tended to be circular, with the church in the middle of the graveyard – but Ui Church is now right on the perimeter, next to Broad Bay.
Ui Church Trust secretary Liz Chaplin said it was ‘a horribly exposed location’ and that waves came ‘right over’ the church in the winter. ‘We’ve had starfish in the church,’ she said.
Hundreds of bodies are known to lie at Ui – with a geophysical survey, a few years ago, establishing ‘layers upon layers’ of bodies. There are even bodies under the coastal footpath between the church and the sea, according to Mr Mackenzie, as this area would once have been close to the middle of the graveyard.
He said: ‘There’s been local people who’ve been anxious about it and it would seem that winter storms have been getting worse in recent years. The sea wall that protects it has been damaged severely half a dozen times in the last 10 years. We’ve spent what we could, and we protected the church. If we hadn’t done that, it wouldn’t be here now.’
Ms Chaplin added: ‘Now we have to decide, do we move the stone and put it under shelter or leave it as it is? Knowing the provenance of it is a huge thing for us. Tradition tells us the MacLeod chiefs were buried here but we never had the actual location for them until now.’