An ancient burial ground
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.
The stone at Killean commemorating Charles MacLaine of Callachally.