Monday, January 23, 2017

Cille Chrìosd - Baile-na-Cille

The photo is of the burial ground of St Christopher’s at Baile-na-Cille on Lewis. The dedication to St Christopher is odd for a Hebridean island, so it's more than likely that the Christopher dedication is a corruption of the Gaelic name Cille Chriosd (Christ's Church). This old burial ground was once the site of a chapel, and the centre of an area of sanctuary.

Cille Chriosd - Suainabhal and Uig Lodge in the distance
The photo was taken from the hillside north of the burial ground and near the site of a blackhouse that, local tradition says, was the birthplace of Coinneach Odhar (the Brahan Seer). There are three interesting stories about Cille Chriosd that I've come across over the years.

The first one is told in Bill Lawson's Lewis: The West Coast in History and Legend. The Brahan Seer's mother was spinning wool late one evening near Cille Chriosd when she saw several graves open up, and spitits rise from them and fly away. Later she saw all but one of them return to their graves. To block the last ghost from returning she laid her distaff across the grave. The ghost turned out to be the daughter of the king of Norway, and she pleaded with the Seer's mother to remove the staff. In return for removing it the ghost told her where she could find a stone of vision. The Seer's mother told her son where to find the stone, and Coinneach went on to make many prophecies.

The second story is from Donald MacDonald's Tales and Traditions of the Lewis, and associates the burial ground with the builders of stone circles.

The conical mound wherein are buried the bodies of many Uig people holds a mysterious and sacred association still for those who come near it. For at least a thousand years they have gazed with reverential awe at this site, and before that there was a pagan temple. There is a legend that the mound was first built up by one called Elidhean, who carried the soil (with panniers) on two white horses, from a hill in the vicinity which still bears his name, “Cnoc Elidhean”. Some people say that the builders were the same Mediterranean incomers who built another conical mound like it on Silbury Hill in Wiltshire, and set up the standing stones which rouse in us feelings of awe and wonder.

The third tale is one of revenge carried out on the threshold of the sanctuary of Cille Chriosd. It is told in W C Mackenzie’s book The Western Isles, in a chapter called The Adventures of John Roy Macaulay. It recounts how the sons of MacLeod of Pabbay Mor murdered the family of John Roy Macaulay, following a dispute over the ownership of a cow. Thirteen-year-old John Roy was away at the time, living with his foster-father. MacLeod of Lewis, not happy with the Pabbay MacLeods, ordered that they take John Roy into their custody with a promise to keep him safe.

But his period of safekeeping was not to last long. On a snowy day the MacLeods took him on a hunting trip, and at Tota Choinnich, an old shelter south of Kinlochresort, they tied him to rocks in the snow and left him to the elements.
Ruin of Tota Choinnich
John Roy’s foster-father had a premonition something was wrong and was able to rescue him. Several years later John Roy had his revenge, when he pursued the eldest son of MacLeod of Pabay to the shores of Uig Bay, killing him just before he could reach the sanctuary of Cille Chriosd.

I have spent many nights just a stones throw from the burial ground of Cille Chriosd, for right next to it is the Balnacille Guest House, one of the best in the islands. Fortunately I never saw any spirits rising from the graves, but I did see several amazing sunsets. For more on Cille Chrìosd take a look at this Uig Historical Society page.

Cille Chriosd and Bailenacille Guest House

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