An an­cient burial ground

The Oban Times - - Districts - Iain Thorn­ber iain.thorn­ber@bt­in­ter­

AR­GYLL has many old grave­yards which have pro­vided his­to­ri­ans and ge­neal­o­gists with in­ter­est and in­for­ma­tion for gen­er­a­tions. None more so than Kil­lean, five miles south-west of Duart Cas­tle on the Is­land of Mull over­look­ing Loch Spelve. It is a lonely spot, now sel­dom vis­ited and guarded by thick bracken, many adders, bogs, sheep and wild goats.

In the mid­dle of the burial ground are the re­mains of the me­dieval church of the par­ish of Kil­lean and Torosay. Ded­i­cated to St John, this church was once listed among the rev­enues of the Ab­bot of Iona, and first ap­pears in doc­u­ments in 1393 when a Pa­pal In­dul­gence was granted to any­one vis­it­ing it and mak­ing do­na­tions.

Kil­lean dis­ap­pears from the records some­time dur­ing the 17th cen­tury and is not of­ten heard of again un­til the sum­mer of 1973 when it was sur­veyed by field staff of the Royal Com­mis­sion on the An­cient and His­tor­i­cal Mon­u­ments of Scot­land, who were on Mull gath­er­ing in­for­ma­tion for their mag­nif­i­cent Ar­gyll in­ven­to­ries.

Dur­ing their sur­vey the com­mis­sion lo­cated only part of a 600-year- old grave-slab, a dec­o­ra­tive sand­stone win­dow-head and a head­stone com­mem­o­rat­ing Charles MacLaine, ten­ant of Cal­lachally who died in 1773.

Some years ago, I vis­ited Kil­lean be­fore the bracken ap­peared, and found a herd of sheep from the ad­join­ing farm ly­ing in­side the walled en­clo­sure. It was ap­par­ent that many of them had been shel­ter­ing there for some time and, in the process, had knocked over a num­ber of mod­ern head­stones and ex­posed five ad­di­tional flat stones as they scraped away the earth to lie on. By care­fully brush­ing away months of ma­nure and dead grass, I saw they were ob­vi­ously very old.

Mea­sur­ing around five feet long by 17 inches wide and four inches thick, these stones be­long to a dis­tinc­tive art style that flour­ished be­tween the 14th and 16th cen­turies. Man­u­fac­tured by crafts­men from ‘schools’ of carv­ing started in Iona Abbey in the first half of the 14th cen­tury and con­tin­ued in Kin­tyre, Loch Awe and else­where in Mid-Ar­gyll, they show weapons, gal­leys, plant scrolls, cas­kets, myth­i­cal beasts, shears and combs, and are to be found scat­tered through­out the West High­lands and Is­lands. Those ex­posed by the Kil­lean sheep all have these sym­bols, in­clud­ing one with two dif­fer­ent types of ham­mers, a pinch (or chisel) and a pair of tongs (or pin­cers). This com­bina- tion on the same slab is highly un­usual and, from the tools, sug­gest that it was in­tended for a black­smith or, more likely, an im­por­tant ar­mourer or sword-maker. Two oth­ers in the group are out­stand­ing.

One has a gal­ley with two fig­ures in it, a mas­sive two-handed sword, a su­per­nat­u­ral beast, a mir­ror, a cas­ket and a pair of scis­sors. It also con­tains a twoline Latin in­scrip­tion, the up­per line of which reads: ‘Hic Iacet’ (Here lies), but the lower, with the name of the per­son the stone was cre­ated for, has yet to be de­ci­phered.

An­other, in four pieces, lies a few yards be­low and to the east of the ru­ined church. It is a mas­sive seven-foot slab of green-chlo­rite. On one side is a war­rior hold­ing a spear and a sword within a small canopied niche in a style used by crafts­man from the Loch Awe ‘school’. On the other, is a life-size ef­figy of a sol­dier in full ar­mour with sword and buckle. His head rests on a tas­selled cush­ion and his feet on an an­i­mal.

With re­gard to the Iona con­nec­tion, there is a tra­di­tion, still cur­rent on Mull, about two priests hur­ry­ing from the is­land to Kil­lean to fill a va­cancy. The cleric who was in the lead stopped to re­fresh him­self on a rock by a well near the sum­mit of Glen More. While he was rest­ing, the sec­ond priest came up be­hind, knifed him and threw his body in the well and went on to take the par­ish which was con­sid­ered to be one of the rich­est on Mull. The place is still known in Gaelic as ‘An To­bar Leac an t- Sa­gairt’ (The Well of the Priest’s Stone).

About the time the church dis­ap­pears from records, there was a resur­gence of Ro­man Catholi­cism on Mull. In 1624 and 1625, two Fran­cis­can mis­sion­ar­ies, Cor­nelius Ward and Paul O’Neill, failed to con­vert the Protes­tant Hec­tor Mor Maclean of Duart but suc­ceeded with his brother Gil­lean and the MacLaines of Lochbuie. Per­haps they adapted the church for their form of wor­ship which, in turn, made it a tar­get of icon­o­clas­tic van­dal­ism by those who de­manded re­li­gious free­dom for them­selves but de­nied it to ev­ery­one else. We shall prob­a­bly never know the truth, but one thing is cer­tain from the con­di­tion of the stones and the bro­ken ar­chi­tec­tural frag­ments scat­tered around the site: Kil­lean was de­lib­er­ately laid waste and sys­tem­at­i­cally looted.

Built on clan land, it is not un­rea­son­able to as­sume the stones com­mem­o­rate im­por­tant Ma­cleans. His­toric En­vi­ron­ment Scot­land (HES) has now des­ig­nated Kil­lean a sched­uled mon­u­ment pro­tect­ing it from any unau­tho­rised dis­tur­bance. It, and other lo­cal stake­hold­ers, are con­sid­er­ing what can be done to pre­serve the site and the stones for the fu­ture.

Kil­lean grave­yard.

The stone at Kil­lean com­mem­o­rat­ing Charles MacLaine of Cal­lachally.

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