Sunday, November 6, 2016

The Broken Heads of Eilean Mor

It was the OS map that sparked my initial interest in Eilean Mor. Some 15 years ago I was perusing Landranger 61 (Jura & Colonsay), thinking about possible hikes on Jura. Off to the right of Jura I noticed a tiny island on the map. What caught my attention were two words printed on the island in the font they use for ancient monuments; the words were Chapel and Cross.

Eilean Mor is so off the beaten path that there are no regular boat trips to the island. And so to get there to see this Chapel and Cross I had to arrange a day-charter. That was way back in 2002, when Mike Murray ran the catamaran Gemini out of Crinan Harbour. In addition to Eilean Mor, over the following four years I would charter Mike to take me to Scarba, Northern Jura, Belnahua, Dun Chonnuill, Cuil-i-Breannan, Garbh Eileach, and Eileach an Naoimh.

Gemini at Eilean Mor
The first interesting thing I came across while wandering on Eilean Mor was a headless cross.

This cross is said to have marked the spot where St Charmaig is buried. Seton Gordon, in his Wanderings in the Western Highlands and Islands (1935), describes that the cross was broken during a failed attempt to steal it from the island.

Standing next to the headless cross is St Charmaig's Chapel. It is about forty feet by twenty, and at one time had a second story where the priest lived. The western half of the building contains the nave and the eastern half the chancel where, at some point in time, a fireplace had been installed. The chapel dates to the 12th century, and was operated as an inn in the 1600s; perhaps housing pilgrims to St Charmaig's Cave, which lies on the coast of the island, 300 yards south of the chapel.

St Charmaig's Chapel - summit cross at upper right
In the fireplace of the radically altered chapel there rests a thin, grey-stone coffin lid, with the effigy of a man in a cassock. The stone dates to the twelfth century and may have once covered St Charmaig’s coffin. Pilgrims were said to have dropped coins into his coffin through gaps around the lid. The stone certainly looks like the image of a saint, for in one corner is carved a chalice, and a nimbus surrounds the head.

Coffin-lid effigy
When MEM Donaldson visited Eilean Mor 100 years (or so) ago, she commented on how the effigy in the church was headless. As you can see in the next photo, the 'head' was subsequently found, and cemented back in place. (Note the seams in the stone at the shoulders.)

The repaired (once-headless) effigy
When MEM visited the island she also photographed a cross that stood on the highest point of the island. It, too, was headless for many years. TS Muir, in his Ecclesiological Notes on the Islands of Scotland (1885), describes how the cross-head was found in 1864 when he was on the island, and how he considered taking it away, but in the end set it in the chapel next to St Charmaig's effigy. The cross-head would lay there until it was stolen in 1924.

MEM Photo of the headless Eilean Mor Cross - c. 1900
I do not know how the cross-head was eventually recovered, but it was, and you can see the complete restored cross standing in the National Museum of Scotland. In its place a cement replica was installed on the island. The following composite photo shows the two sides of the replica, and a front view of the restored original.

Eilean Mor Cross - the original at right, and two views of the replica
It was good to see that two of the headless stones of Eilean Mor have been restored, but sad that St Charmaig's cross, the one that once stood over his tomb, will remain forever headless. See this CANMORE page for more on St Charmaig's chapel and cross.

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