Living in country as young as America (and one that in most places has nearly obliterated the evidence of its pre-European past), the sense of deep time that permeates Scotland has always been striking to me.
You can find it in the rocks, many of which (like the gneiss of the Outer Hebrides) were already old nearly 3,000 million years ago when they, along with most of Greenland and North America, made up the continent of Laurentia.
There’s plenty of human history on display as well, much it also recorded in stone. It can be found in the nearly 6,000-year old house that is the Knap of Howar and the massive standing stones on Orkney and Lewis, progressing to the hundreds of Iron Age fortified brochs in the area, like Dun Hallin.
As a former anthropology major, I find the sheer abundance and breadth of ancient human history on display in Northern Scotland fascinating. But with our limited knowledge of the culture of this time, and the millennia that separates them from us, it’s tough to feel truly connected to these ancient people.
But as anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Scottish history knows, there have been plenty of tumultuous goings on in this beautiful land in the last 1,000 years, from historical triumphs like Bannockburn, clan clashes such as the Battle of the Spoiled Dyke, through to the Jacobite Rebellion and the Highland Clearances. The latter scattered many of our ancestors across the globe and left much of Scotland a land where the sheep greatly outnumber the people—a statistic that still holds true today.
All it takes to feel some connection to these historically recent events is a slow, curious stroll through one of Scotland’s many (many) ancient churches graveyards. Some of the best of those on Skye include St. Columaba’s Isle and it’s 1,000-year history, Trumpan Church with its sad connection to the above-mentioned Battle of the Spoiled Dyke, and St. Mary's Old Church (or Kirk), in Kilmuir. A small village, just a mile or so from Dunvegan Castle, Kilmuir has one of the highest percentages of Scottish Gaelic speakers outside the nearby Western Isles, and is also home to the burial place of Flora MacDonald.
While Flora’s memorial rests in the nearby Kilmur Cemetery behind the Museum of Island Life, St. Mary’s Old Kirk is well worth a visit on its own. The roofless church ruin itself dates to 1694, and is overlooked by a far-more-modern landmark, the 15-foot-tall Duirinish Standing Stone, which was erected by locals to commemorate the millennium in the year 2,000. In order to better appreciate the ancient peoples of the isles, the stone was erected using only ropes, human muscle, and ingenuity.
St. Mary’s Old Kirk is home to, among others, the graves of generations of MacCrimmons, hereditary pipers of Clan MacLeod. Some MacLeods rest here as well.
A few late-medieval gravestones with memento mori can also be found in the cemetery.
The graveyard itself is dominated by a large obelisk that dates to the early 18th century.
It was built in honor of Thomas Fraser, 10th Lord Lovat, who died (and is buried) at nearby Dunvegan Castle in 1699.
The church itself has long since lost its roof (records indicate it collapsed sometime in the mid-1800s), and so gave me no respite from the intermittent rain that was falling on my visit (and basically always). But a small secondary room to one side is sheltered by a lovely nearby tree.
In this room, along the rear wall, sit the well-preserved monuments to Anne and John Norman MacLeod. They are placed right next to each other, but I couldn’t get a good shot of both in the small space with the rain making its way through the leaves above, so I’ve spliced two photos together above. In the 360 photo (also above), you can see the monuments together at the back wall.
Other highlights here include a Celtic cross erected in honor of Malcolm MacLeod who (so the inset text says) was the founder and first president of the Celtic Club in Las Angeles, California sometime before his death in 1914.
There’s also a tablet commemorating (in both Gaelic and English) the ten generations of MacCrimmons laid to rest here, and the 300 years (1500-1800) the clan were said to be “distinguished for their gifts as composers, performers, and instructors of classical music of the bagpipe.” Apparently, the musical talents of any MacCrimmon born after 1800 wasn’t good enough to warrant a plaque.
Several other interesting tombstones and monuments are scattered about the grounds of the church. While you wander, the nearby sheep may help keep you from feeling too lonely. They certainly lighten the grim ambiance a bit.
Still, as I left the churchyard, the rain, and the past for my modern rental car, I was struck both with the narrowness of the window of human mortality, and the wide expanse of human history. This feeling has always been more comforting than frightening to me, and has only become more so as I get older.
That’s caertainly a part of why I’ve felt drawn to Northern Scotland, a place where the history is both wide and deep. In America, particularly in my native New York, the waters are much shallower. And many of our monuments are more about money and modernity, rather than culture and heritage.
I prefer the long view, which is something I found—along with my ancestors and my heart—in Scotland.