Kayaking and Epigraphy: A Match Made in Heaven?

A few months ago, the Historian and I were on holiday in Mull, bouncing along sheep-strewn single-track roads in our aging but faithful Honda Jazz in search of whatever antiquities we could find.  We found plenty, including a possibly unrecorded boat graveyard, dozens of pre-Clearance settlements, and a Victorian country house with a particularly delectable vegetable garden, but the most exciting discoveries weren’t on the mainland of Mull itself but in the waters to the west.

The island of Inch Kenneth (Innis Choinnich) lies at the end of Loch na Keal, off the west coat of Ulva, where the loch meets the open sea.  Visited by Johnson and Boswell, it was later the home of Unity Mitford, whose utterly disgusting mansion continues to survive on the island’s south side, and is now home more or less entirely to sheep.  It’s also the site of a medieval church and that was the goal of our visit.  We kayaked over from the sound of Ulva – a slightly nerve-wracking experience, even in reasonably good seas – and spent the better part of the morning exploring the island and its antiquities.

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And such antiquities!  There were beautifully carved funeral monuments dating from the late middle ages to the nineteenth century, a sample of which you can see in the photo above.  In this post, though, I want to talk about three heavily worn but spectacular carved stones which currently lie in the midst of the Victorian graveyard and which have not, I think, been written on before.  Their inscriptions are enigmatic at best, entirely non-existent for two out of the three.  How do we interpret these stones?

The answer is through heraldry.  Each stone contains weathered but still discernible coats of arms and it is these which allow us to make some educated guesses as to their period and subjects.  Hebridean heraldry is rather unusual compared to most western European heraldic traditions but its oddity helps in this case.

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To begin with the first, and easiest, above.  We have the partially damaged initials and date (“HML”, “1676”) as well as a quartered shield of which quarters two, three, and four are a tower, a birlinn, and a hand holding a cross, respectively.  These arms match those of the Macleans of Lochbuie as recorded in 1672, but the date makes me suspect that instead it belongs to a cousin of the Lochbuie family, Hector Ruadh Maclean of Coll who died in that year.

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The second stone presents more of a challenge.  Once again, we’re presented with the characteristic quartered shield of Hebridean heraldry, but only the first quarter (two towers) is immediately recognisable.  Had that been all, it would have been impossible to identify this tomb, but we’re fortunate to have notes on Inchkenneth made by Duncan Macleod of Salen, Mull, in 1897 which gives us the remaining quarters (a triskele, second; a deer’s head, third; and a repeat of the two towers, fourth) as well as the now obliterated date “1758”.  The presence of the Macleod triskele may suggest that this stone belonged to a later Hector Maclean of Coll who died in 1754 and whose mother was a Macleod.

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The arms are better preserved on the final stone in this sequence and appears to show a fess chequy in the first and fourth quarters, a triskele in the second, and a heart in the third.  The combination of the fess chequy of the Stewarts with the triskele common to the Macleods in a Mull context may suggest that this stone belonged to a child of Robert Stewart, 8th of Appin (died by 1739) and Isabel Macleod.  Robert’s mother was a Maclean of Coll, one of Hector Ruadh’s daughters, providing a connection to the Inch Kenneth burial ground.

What initially appeared to be three disparate stones turn out to be linked by familial ties and to represent a larger pattern of burials on the part of the Maclean family of Coll.  In turn this encourages us, I think, to consider the remarkable richness of these stones’ carvings as evidence of an island visual culture which is all too often neglected.  In 1897 Duncan Macleod saw several more stones in the vicinity which are now vanished or buried and commented on the presence of others which even then were “so worn as to render them wholly illegible”.  Instead of surprising outliers, these monuments are the fragmentary relics of an largely lost Baroque material culture of commemoration common to the gentry families of the Inner Hebrides.

Copyright © 2017 Kelsey Jackson Williams

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