Early 16th century church, the outstanding medieval ecclesiastical
building in the Outer Isles, 1528 (dated) monument inside to the
probable founder, Alasdair Crotach (Alexander MacLeod), is one of the most ambitious and richly-carved funerary works of the period in Scotland.
Kirkyard contains series of family aisles and monuments. Also
burial place of several of the MacLeod chiefs, and at least two
poets, the better-known being Mairi Nighean Alasdair Ruaidh.
INTRODUCTION: Founded, it is said, by Alasdair Crotach
builder also of some work at Dunvegan including the "Fairy
Tower" (W D Simpson Guide to Dunvegan, p9). Late Gothic
and influenced by work in contemporary Ireland and more
obviously of slightly earlier work at Iona rather than that of
contemporary Lowland Scotland - for the common cultural link
between the Gaidhealtachd in Scotland and in Ireland was in the
period still intact.
Design is unique for its date in the West Highlands, being
cruciform-plan, with square tower at west end where the
ground/rock is anyway raised: conceivably not all of one
continuous build for there are inconsistencies - eg the use of
different freestones for the transept arches (though both have
similar profile mouldings to their shafting) and a pre-existing
chapel might have been incorporated - but much of these
inconsistencies more probably point to the work having been
ongoing for perhaps several seasons, perhaps also to
reconstruction work necessary when repairs were carried out.
Some exterior sculptural ornament, in the manner associated with
Ireland, including female figure of the type known in Ireland as a
"sheela na gig" and male counterpart.
Repaired/restored in 1784 and again in 1787 (inscription panel
within church) by Alexander MacLeod (who had in 1779
acquired Harris at a cost of ?15,000 from General Norman
MacLeod of the Siol Tormod ie the ancient line of Harris
MacLeods). The new owner was brother and successor to
Norman MacLeod of Bernera and he had settled on the island in
about 1782/3, but died in about 1790. Rodel was again restored
in 1873 at the expense of the Countess of Dunmore (inscription
panel over main entrance), lesser scheme of renovation done
under the supervision of Alexander Ross of Inverness in 1880's.
The extent of work done in the 1780's is uncertain. In 1786
Knox (op cit p 159) wrote "He [ie MacLeod] has raised, or
rather repaired, a very handsome church, out of the ruins of an
old monastery, called St Clements". Suggesting that Knox
understood the building to have been quite ruinous prior to
restoration. The report in the Old Statistical Account (pub 1794)
relays a tradition that Rodel was an early foundation repaired by
Alasdair Crotach, burned by the early Reformers: it then reports.
"The walls... of this venerable pile remained almost entire: and
were repaired in 1784 by the late patriotic Alexander MacLeod
Esq of Harris. After the church was roofed and slated and the
materials for furnishing it within laid up in it to a considerable
value, it unfortunately took fire, at night, through the carelessness
of the carpenters who had left a live coal in it among the
timbers... it was soon after this accident roofed: and it is now,
though left unfinished since the time of his death used as one of
the principal places in the parish for divine service".
The work by Ross is documented by him in a brief paper (see
References below) - principally a re-roofing, cleaning of the walls
and general clearing up.
Tower is a 4-storeyed entrance on west above ground level
because of sloping site: undivided stages excepting stepped cable
moulding at mid-height; corbelled and crenellated parapet of
Scots type (though repaired and conceivably modified),
pyramidal roof rises from within. Sculptured panels (these are
discussed in Inventory), particularly over the west door, but also
placed central on each elevation with cable moulding stepped
over. At 3rd tower storey, a doubled roll-moulding of Irish type
at each angle terminated at 3rd/4th floor division by a projecting
animal head on 3 of the 4 corners (the 4th presumably worn
away); the detail picked up intermittently at top floor and on
parapet but as a single roll-moulding and this inconsistency,
combining moulded/unmoulded stones is difficult to explain.
Body of church is a rectangular plan without architectural
distinction between nave and chancel: narrower transepts (similar
to one another in scale and design but not set directly opposing
each other) reach only to below main eaves level, their roofs
integrated with and subordinate to continuous main roof. Main
entrance is at west end of north flank.
Built of pinned rubble, roughly-coursed in areas: intermittent
splayed base course (possibly an indication of pre-existing work
re-used), eg at north flank of Nave: some of the freestone is
black and of a type occurring locally [Steer and Bannerman
p198] (conceivably imported; cf font from Borline, Skye, dated
1530 and made for the same MacLeod family and now in
National Museum of Antiquities) - but not seen on lower parts of
tower and on much of the walling, suggesting that black freestone
was available in quantity at latter stages of building: used to
polychrome effect on 3rd storey of tower at angles and on
windows), and on the stepped cable moulding below: also used
on the sanctuary south window and on the traceried east window
which comprises a spoked wheel set above 3 lights with cusped
heads. Simplified variant of eg the south choir-aisle east window
at Iona Abbey (a replica is installed in Iona the original being at
St Conon's Loch Awe); its carved label stops and arch-crown
are in light-coloured ashlar, but the pattern is Irish in derivation
(cf for example Kinawley Co Fermanagh). Also comparable
with Iona are the small cusp-headed lancets used throughout built
for the most part of light-coloured freestone imported (possibly
from Carsaig in Mull, the quarry that provided the freestone at
Iona). Remaining windows, eg those on south flank, flat-lintelled.
Slate roofs of a pinkish colour, dating from 1873 as do the oak
doors at main entrance and at tower latticed glazing skews and
rainwater goods. Larger openings are pointed or flat-lintelled
narrow lights either as noted above or else flat-lintelled and
without freestone dressings. A single lancet on the east end of
north wall has curious double-pointed head; lintel and sill of
blocked lancet on main walling to west of north transept flat-
headed window alongside above the splayed base course may
be an insertion to judge by surrounding stonework patterns
(which would accord with the suggested re-use of an earlier
Exposed bare rubble walls, openings flat-lintelled or arched
above ingoes; timber arch-braced roof presumably dates from
1873 and rests on corbels of contemporary date: early corbels in
sanctuary area. Floor laid with flagstones of uncertain date but
again likely to date from 1873.
There are two medieval mural monuments each a tomb recess on
the south flank one each side of the south transept.
Monument to Alasdair Crotach is dated 1528, though he lived
until about 1547. Its design is often compared with that of the
O'Cahan tomb, Dungiven, County Londonderry, of at least a
generation earlier, but the similarity is little more than conceptual -
an arched recess above a tomb chest on which rests an effigy
and the formula was well-used elsewhere: Irish examples
favoured the use of traceried heads which was not done at Rodel
and certainly not for reasons of economy as testified by the
wealth of sculptured oranment. The Rodel tomb is unusual in
having a series of high-quality carved mural panels depicting Holy
figures, scenes, images, etc including a stylised castle with
stepped crenellations of Irish type, a hunting scene, a Highland
galley, ornament both on the wall beneath the arch and on the
alternate voussoir stones - the intermediate stones being narrow
and black, giving a polychrome effect like that on parts of the
tower. The gable-shaped hood-mould over is also black as is
the effigy. Sculptural work has justifiably been described as
".....the masterpiece of medieval West Highland sculpture".
(Companion to Gaelic Scotland, p 7).
"hic loculus co(m)posuit/p(er) d(omi)n(u)m allexa(n)der filius
vil(el)mi/ MacClod (omilno de du(n)began/anno d(omi)ni m
'This tomb was prepared by Lord Alexander, son of Willelmus
MacLeod, Lord of Dunvegan in the year of Our Lord 1528'.
Names of saints represented on the arch stones are also
inscribed (Steer and Bannerman, inscription 2).
Alasdair Crotach was breaking with tradition, by choosing to be
buried here rather than in Iona, where the previous chiefs of his
clan had till then been buried.
The second tomb-recess is anonymous, doubtless another
MacLeod, but "....there can be little doubt that the person
commemorated was William, son and successor to the
Alexander MacLeod of Dunvegan commemorated... [above]
(Steer and Bannerman, p98). Black freestone throughout: a
round arch (as is the above monument). Moulded, topped
centrally by a gablet, an effigy below (which in c.1780 was in the
south transept - see view referred to in Nat Galls). A black band
of masonry on the otherwise plain rubble back wall of the recess
contains the following inscription:
"hi[c es]t loculu[s co(m)p]osuit p(er)/d(omi)n(u) [m].../[a]nno
d(omi)ni m [cccc]c xx[xi]x"
"This is the tomb prepared by our Lord... in the year of Our Lord
1539" (Steer and Bannerman, inscription 3).
(Square brackets represent illegible lettering, rounded brackets
abbreviations used in the texts).
Other carved stones lie within the church, including a third effigy
(also in the south transept formerly), now in the nave north west
corner) - possibly John MacLeod of Minginish (d.1557), cousin
of Alasdair Crotach, who succeeded as chief on the death of the
William whose (probable) tomb is noted above. (There is no
guarantee that the correct effigy was replaced on the tomb). A
series of late medieval West Highland carved stones is
incorporated in the floor among the flagstones and a 1725
memorial. Also kept within the church is a wheel-headed cross.
As noted above, the two transept arches are not identical: black
freestone is used for the north transept, light-coloured stone
opposite. Whilst the vertical profile mouldings used on each are
similar, the arch profiles and profile mouldings are not, the south
arch being steeper-sided: a blocked window immediately to its
west (and not visible on the outside) also has black dressings.
The south transept contains the burial place of the poetess Mairi
Nighean Alasdair Ruaidh (c.1615-c1707) (Mary MacLeod),
who was born at Rodel and connected with the MacLeod
aristocracy. She is, traditionally, buried face downwards.
(Carmichael Watson, pxix) the burial place of the hereditary
standard bearers bearers of the MacLeod "Fairy Flag" is also
reputedly within the church.
A mural stair, entered from a pointed doorway near-centre in the
church gable, gives access to the tower, whose ground floor level
is several feet higher than that of the nave. An opening above,
now blocked, formerly opened from the tower into the nave. A
marble panel commemorates the 1787 restoration by
Contains a series of burial aisles mostly 18th century, others
towards the north west/north are 19th century. Two aisles linked
to one another at one corner are similar, ashlar, topped by low
balustrades: the first (closest to kirkyard west wall) to the
MacLeods, probably early 18th century, or in existence at least
by 1738, the date of one recorded death on a marble side-panel
- the centre panel is in a corniced and bolection-moulded frame.
Its inscription much-worn; also memorial to Donald MacLeod of
Berneray d.1738 aged 90 who had been out in 1745-6. Interior
walls harled rubble, balusters diagonally-set. The second aisle is
harled with ashlar dressings also 18th century (? c.1709) and
contains 19th century (?replacement) panel to Sir Norman
MacLeod of Berneray (1614-1709) who had fought at
Worcester (in 1651, when the MacLeods were decimated
fighting on the Royalist side to the extent that the MacLeods
were excused military duty for a generation): also inscribed "a
generous patron of Gaelic culture, closely associated with the
bardess Mary MacLeod" (that part of the text is unlikely to date
from c.1707). Balusters are mostly replacements, presumably
installed when panel was made.
Aisle of similar type at south end of kirkyard, commemorates
MacDonald family. Plain enclosure to south east of church is of
uncertain date. Also 19th century enclosures with cast-iron
Close to the east end of the north wall is the headstone of the
bard and evangelist Iain Gobha na Hearadh (Iain or
John Morison), born at Rodel [in 1790, according to his
headstone, which was erected long after his death: date c.1796
suggested in the Companion to Gaelic Scotland, p204]; died
1852 at Leacklee.
Rubble dyke encloses kirkyard and may at least in part -
preserve medieval precinct boundary.