Past & Present

Scarista Grave Slab

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(Photo: Joan Cumming)

This very fine grave slab was brought to Harris over 500 years ago. It was commissioned in the 14th–15th centuries by a man of considerable wealth. Unfortunately we do not know exactly who this person was; like most of the other slabs of this period, there is no inscription. But he was someone of high status who was buried at the medieval church that once stood here. Cill Bride, St Bride’s church, was the focus of the Christian faith across Harris for over a thousand years.

Such grave slabs are not common. The decorative style is unique to the West Highlands of Scotland. The motifs usually include foliage, an interlaced cross, and perhaps strange beasts, a sword or a birlinn. There are variants on these designs across a region that stretches from Islay to Lewis and from the Mull of Kintyre to Spean Bridge and Mallaig.

The stone is a type of schist, and from the particular mineral composition of the stone, it is possible to say it was probably quarried from the eastern shore of Loch Sween on the mainland of Argyll. Having created the basic shape of the slab, the craftsman may have sailed over to Harris with it. Then he chalked up the design for his client’s approval and chiselled out its imagery. Or perhaps he carved it near the quarry, free to create the details as he wished, before it was shipped over the Minch. Whatever the link between craftsman and client, this certainly wasn’t his only product. There are a couple of very similar carved grave slabs on Oronsay and Islay.

The master craftsman who prepared and carved the grave slab may have originally been trained in a workshop, possibly on Islay or Iona. He may then have worked independently. For this commission he created a foliage design running down each side of the slab. It has its origins in the vine scroll of the early medieval period – it’s a symbol of Christ. The style of the sword is medieval, dating to before 1500AD – it’s the symbol of a powerful leader or warrior. The Christian cross at the head of the slab reflects the people’s faith. This particular design has what appear to be two leopards interwoven at each end of a grapevine scroll.

This grave slab is incredibly well carved. In the church at Rodel there are four other slabs, but they aren’t as exquisite as this. Two of them date to the 16th century – their swords are two-handed claymores. The other two may date to the 1400s. Perhaps they were moved to the new MacLeod church of St Clement’s following the collapse of the Lordship of the Isles at the close of the 15th century. But all of the Rodel slabs were carved by a far less competent craftsman than this example at St Bride’s.

The stone was discovered in the 1990s in the Scarista graveyard where it remains today, covered in a layer of turf. The community wishes to maintain the sanctity of the graveyard and the buried remains, so the stone has been covered over once more. A replica is currently being produced, to be displayed on the lawn by the Scarista Church, so this beautiful carved monument can be enjoyed and appreciated by the public.

By Jill Harden and Joan Cumming

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