Morvern Lines with Iain Thornber

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One of many old gravestones on Mull dominated by a sword. Photograph: Iain Thornber
One of many old gravestones on Mull dominated by a sword. Photograph: Iain Thornber
Some lived and died by the sword

It was good to read in The Oban Times recently that something is to be done to prevent St Columba’s Ui Church (Eaglais na h-Aoidhe) on the Aignish peninsula, Isle of Lewis, from slipping into the sea.

I have no doubt many important local families are buried in the foundations of the church on this ancient site, but I would seriously question the assertion that the memorial being referred to as ‘the sword stone’ marks the exact spot of the clan chiefs of the Macleods of Lewis.

Long ago the heads of important local families and the chief heritors in the parish were, on payment of a fee to the local clergy, permitted at death to be buried inside churches. They did so in the belief that the prayers of those coming to kneel to the saint, or holy man who founded the original cell, would somehow or other be transferred onto them and help fast-track their ascension to Heaven.

Eventually, however, the practice was banned and the decomposing bodies were lifted and reburied outside for obvious health reasons. The movement of corpses and headstones around a graveyard was far more regular than one might imagine today.

A good example is the whereabouts of the body of Simon 11th Lord Lovat of the ’45 who was executed in London in 1747 and buried in the city Tower, even though he had requested his body was to be taken north to be placed in the family vault at Wardlaw near Inverness. Until recently, a lead coffin inside the Wardlaw mausoleum was pointed out as his final resting place but, when opened by experts a few months ago, the skeleton inside was that of a young woman.

Where Simon’s head and body are is still a mystery.

As late as the 19th century, wonderful carved 500-year-old grave slabs were being broken up and used for making the wall rounding Kiel cemetery in Morvern. At least one other was used as the base for the headstone of a local builder called Samuel Barham who died in 1910.

A further example can be seen in a collection of medieval stones at Kilmartin which were defaced before they were brought from the surrounding graveyard into a purpose-built shelter beside the church with names and dates of a later period, apparently with the approval of the local laird and the parish minister.

The polite name for this at the time was ‘appropriation’; today we might well call it recycling or, dare I say, vandalism.

In his fascinating book, The Limping Pilgrim (1883), Edwin Waugh (1817-90), the Lancashire poet who visited Rum in the 1880s as a guest of its owner, John Bullough, provides us with a glimpse of a simple but dignified island burial before the arrival of the black, frock-coated, cane-swinging undertaker brigade: ‘There was neither bell, book, nor candle used when the remains of old Malcolm [Maclean] were laid down in the graveyard of Kilmory, where generation after generation of the inhabitants of the Isle of Rum have been buried during the last thousand years.

‘The soil of that lonely weed-grown “God’s Acre” is thick with mouldering relics of the wild forefathers of the island. When the body of the “old Captain” was brought by his neighbours to mingle with the rest in this last gathering ground of mortal decay, no prayers were said, no funeral rites were observed, nor was there a word spoken in sorrow by the simple shepherds and fishers who brought him there.

‘When they got to the Kilmory shore, the coffin was lifted out of the boat and carried by six men, over slippery rocks, to a green place, where they set it down, and rested, and smoked for a while; and then they took it up again, and went on with it about half a mile further, which brought them to the graveyard.

‘They set the coffin down by the side of the readymade grave, and rested, and smoked, and talked about sheep for nearly half an hour. Then, all at once, without a word they got up, and lowered the coffin into the grave; and then, one after another, in turn, slowly dropped a spadeful of earth upon the coffin.

‘Whilst they were doing this, they began to find amongst the earth with which they were filling the grave, rotten bits of old coffins, and fragments of mouldered bones; and they stopped, now and then, to talk about them, and to measure them. When they had filled up the grave, they got green sods from the hill side, and laid them carefully upon the earth; after which they began to look round the burial ground for a stone to lay on the old man’s grave.

‘At last they found a gravestone, the quaint lettering upon which was almost worn away by time. It belonged to somebody else; but that didn’t matter. “Oh, this will do,” said they; and, forthwith, the old stone was laid upon the new grave, and left there.

‘After this they went and sat down upon a green spot a short distance from the graveyard, where they smoked, and chatted, and drank three bottles of whisky, and ate some oatcakes to it, and then they came away home again. And there was an end of old Malcolm Maclean.’

It is not surprising that there is a sword on a stone of some age in Ui church but it has nothing to do with the Knights Templar who caught the public imagination from the recent Da Vinci Code pot-boiler and film.

Swords were one of the favourite decorations of West Highland masons and appear on crosses, effigies and grave slabs throughout the Highlands and Islands. Some historians maintain those represented exact copies of the deceased’s own weapon but this can hardly be true because masons in different areas repeated the same pattern over and over again.

We know, though, from swords which have survived and can be seen on various monuments, including the stone found in Ui church, that they were based on weapons actually carried in the late Middle Ages. In some instances, the detail is so accurate that the mason must have been working from a model which may have been laid on the slab and marked off by chalk.

After 1500, the dominant sword on West Highland carvings is the claymore, the Scottish version of the European double-hander which is thought to have originated in Germany. It appears to have been introduced to the Highlands about 1490.

The earliest illustration of this design, with its distinctive hilt, can be found on a grave slab made by masons on Iona in 1495 and now in a burial ground on Tiree. The stone has a Latin inscription which reads: ‘Fingonius, Prior of Iona, gave me to Philippus, son of Iohannes, and to his sons in the year of Our Lord 1495.’ Philippus was not an uncommon forename in the West Highlands from which MacKillop and MacGilp, two Argyll surnames, emerged.

Iain Thornber