Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Tobar Odhran and an Image of Sloth

Over a year has passed since my last visit to the Hebrides, and another may pass before I return. I have spent some of the year writing, but most of it relaxing on my recliner. And as I do so I am the perfect image of sloth. 

Would an image of sloth be worthy of a statue? I hope so. I can see myself being immortalized in stone; resting comfortably in front of the TV, a beer in one hand, a remote in the other. I wonder if I can find an artesian with the skill of Michelangelo to chisel my lazy image in stone. Probably not. But someone centuries ago did immortalize two images of sloth in the Hebrides. They are known as Dealbh na Leisg, which can translate as either the image of laziness, or the image of sloth. Sloth, laziness, either would be appropriate for how I’ve spent much of 2020.

But I have to say my form of laziness is not quite like that depicted on these stones (not for many years, anyway). One of them is mounted high on the tower of Rodel Church on Harris. It shows a man laying on his back, passing the time, not with a beer in hand, but grasping his manhood. In the nineteenth century the Countess of Dunmore, not caring for the explicit nature of the stone, had it used for target practice. As a result the three-dimensional aspect of the stone has been, shall we say, circumcised. The stone is an odd thing to find on a church, but not this church. Just around the corner is the carving of a naked woman.

The second carving of sloth is on the island of Colonsay. It is a stone pillar that dates to the 8th century. Originally placed next to the chapel of Riasg Buidhe, a village abandoned after WWI, it was moved to Colonsay House garden in the 1890s.  The carving on the front of the stone is exquisite: at the top is the face of a monk, whose body is created by whirling designs similar to the rock art of Dalraida, terminating in what looks like a fish tail. The end result is an enigmatic fish-cross crowned by the head of a bearded monk.

The front of the stone is shown in countless books on the sculpture of the Hebrides. What’s never shown is the back side. That’s not just because of the subject, but also because the image is so worn it does not show up well in photography.

At first glance, aside from a lozenge shaped object near its rounded tip, the back of the cross appears undecorated. But there is a faded image, perhaps purposely worn off; one hinted at by its name, Dealbh na Leisg, the image of sloth. The subject of the decoration is further hinted at in this excerpt from Kevin Byrne’s book Lonely Colonsay; Isle at the Edge: “The reverse seems to be associated with a more virile tradition, possibly a symbol of fertility or potency.” Byrne goes on to quote a writer from the 1880s, who slyly remarked that “the stone is dressed only in front, undressed on the back.” This bit of undressed stone is a phallic symbol. A mixture of Christian on one side, pagan on the other. You can see a line drawing of the stone at this CANMORE link.

I wanted to see this unusual stone up close. So on a visit to Colonsay long ago I made my way to the garden. Looking over the garden wall I could see the stone, twenty feet away, standing watch over Tobar Odhran, St Oran’s Well. The holy well is covered by an old millstone, and if you lift it (which I did not do) you will discover the well is constructed of coursed and mortared rubble masonry, with steps leading three-feet down to the water. Set in the eye of the millstone cover is something odd. It may have been part of the axle for the millstone, but to me it looked like one of the pre-Christian water-worn bodach and cailleach stones, such as those found on Gigha and in Glen Lyon.

St Oran’s Well, in its garden setting under the watchful eye of the monk-stone, is one of the sacred sites of the Hebrides. I am no expert in what defines a thin place, where the border between this life and the next mingle; but whoever placed the stone here created a divine space: the cross with the face of a monk watching over the well, while the powerful image of Dealbh na Leisg wards off those who might not be intimidated by a cross; an example of a merged Christian and pagan talisman, all the protective bases covered in case one fails the test.  Maybe. Perhaps. Read into it what you will. 

Even though thirty years have passed, the fragrances of the Colonsay gardens pop into my head whenever I think back to the day I hopped over the garden wall (shame on me) to see Dealbh na Leisg. I will surely return to the isles of the west, but right now I’m going to recline in my chair, grasp something with one hand, a beer, and with a remote in the other see what’s on.


  1. David & Margaret GartsideNovember 24, 2020 at 11:26 PM

    Greetings form Spain, Marc. I have visited Colonsay House 5 times, but did not know of St Oran's Well or the stone. The garden and cafe are delightful. Now you have given us another reason to visit in 2021. We are already relishing the prospect. Colonsay and Oronsay are sometimes missed by travellers, but access is easier nowadays. The Kennacraig/Port Askaig/Colonsay/Oban/Colonsay/Post Askaig/Kennacraig ferry now operates on Saturdays as well as Wednesdays. It makes a great day out, with the option to send 7 hours on Colonsay - just enough to explore by bike or the hop-on/hop-off minibus. We may do the trip twice, staying on the ferry all of one day for great views of The Garvellachs, The Slate Islands, Scarba, Kererra etc. Can't wait. Thanks for whetting our appetites!

    1. You're welcome. Another option to get to Colonsay is flying. Hebridean Air goes there from Oban and Islay. I did that last year, and the views from the plane were stunning.