The Journal Of Antiquities

Ancient Sites In Great Britain & Southern Ireland


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St Columba’s Chapel at Skeabost, Isle Of Skye, Highland Region, Inner Hebrides

Ruined Chapel on St Columba’s Island, Skye, by Gordon Hatton (Geograph)

OS Grid Reference: NG 4177 4852. On the little island of Skeabost in the Snizort river, near Ken-saleyre, Isle of Skye, Highland Region, are the ruins of St Columba’s Chapel, an 11th century building, and there is a cemetery with  interesting 16th century gravestones. Near the ruined chapel is St Columba’s Rock from which the saint is said to have preached. The first chapel here at Eilean Chaluim Chille (St Columba’s Isle) on the Snizort river was founded in the 6th century by St Columba (521-97) whilst visiting Pictish settlements, and probably after founding his famous monastery at Iona (563 AD).  He also founded a chapel at Kilmuir a few miles to the north.  The larger ruined chapel at the eastern side of the island was known as ‘Skeabost Cathedral’. However, St Columba’s Chapel was partly destroyed in the early 16th century after which it fell into ruin – although the graveyard has been restored. The A850 from Portree to Uig runs just southwest of the island, which is  6 miles northwest of Portree. You can take the car ferry from Fort William or Mallaig to Armadale to reach Skye, or by car on the Skye Road Bridge from Kyle of Lochalsh to Kyleakin. A footbridge over the river Snizort gives the visitor or pilgrim access to this “holy” island.

There are two medieval chapels on the island, the 11th century chapel at the western side lies in ruins, whereas the other chapel ruin over to the east has a large rectangular enclosure surrounding it; this was probably the old parish church or Cathedral and of a 14th-15th century date? There is a third building at the southeast which was an enclosure.  The ruined chapel of St Columba, with its roughly built walls is now roofless, but its end gables still stand up to 11 feet high, and the building’s inner space measures 16 feet in length and 9 feet in width. The walls in between are 6-7 feet high. Only one window remains; and 13th century carved stonework can be seen higher up in the walls. There might have been a monastery here at some point, but more likely a bishop’s residence; the little island apparently being the seat of ‘the bishops of the Isles’. The larger chapel and its associated buildings in their heyday would have been the size of a small cathedral – hence the name Skeabost Cathedral. We know the first chapel here was established by St Columba (Columcille) after 563 AD, but the chapel that we see today was built either in the late 11th or the early 12th century. Columba was thought to be visiting Pictish settlements on Skye around this time and no doubt on a mission to Christianise them; the saint apparently preached from a large rock near his chapel.

Aerial view of St Columba’s Island by John Allan (Geograph)

Jonathan MacDonald tells us more about the place saying that: “On an island in the Snizort river is an ancient cemetery and site of Saint Columba’s Chapel, which is believed to have been built by Saint Columba during his visit to Skye and to have been the first Christian church on the island followed by the chapel at Eilean a’ Loch in Kilmuir. The biographer Adamson records how Saint Columba saw a vision before arriving in Skye of being greeted by an old man who would ask for baptism and on receiving it would die. The story goes on to tell how the Saint and his monks were met on landing near Skeabost by a group of men carrying an old and feeble man called Artbrannan who had heard of Columba’s message of Christianity and who was determined to be alive until he could meet the saint. Saint Columba duly took water and with the assistance of his monks baptized Artbrannan who, as soon as the sacred water touched his forehead, fell dead at the saint’s feet. His body was soon carried on a bier to the little island on the river and buried there by Columba and his men. It is said that this was the first Christian burial in Skye. Today, through the efforts of local people and organisations the old churchyard where countless local people including many chiefs of the Nicolson clan lie buried has been brought into a presentable appearance thus making it possible for people to visit this sacred and historical spot.”

Norman Newton (1992) tells us about St Columba’s monasticism on offshore islands. He says that: “Many traces of early Christian monasteries survive on our offshore islands, which were established by Columba and his contemporaries, for he was only one of many men who were spreading the Christian message. Undoubtedly, he was the most charismatic of the early English saints and, from the point of view of posterity, the most fortunate, because it was one of his successors at Iona, the abbot Adomnan, whose Life of St Columba, written in the 680s, is distinguished from all the other lives of early saints by its racy style and fascinating detail of the people and places of Columba’s time. Adomnan was supremely skilled in public relations, for he purveyed a heady mixture of fact and the supernatural which is compelling reading even in these skeptical times.”

There are some interesting graves in the ‘now tidy’ churchyard on St Columba’s Isle, but those in St Columba’s Chapel which was put in to use as a Mortuary Chapel, are of the clan chiefs MacNicol (MhicNeacail) or Nicolson, 28 of whom apparently lie here in what has been called ‘The Nicolson’s Aisle’. Most of the graveslabs, some of them having carved effigies, are probably of the 16th century. There are said to be gravestones here that date from earlier times maybe the 11th century? And there are are other clan graves out in the cemetery and in the second ruined chapel although these are probably not of the clan Mac Nicol.

Sources and related websites:

MacDonald, Jonathan, Discovering Skye – A Handbook of the Island’s History and Legend, J. MacDonald, Upper Duntulm, Kilmuir, Skye.

Newton, Norman, The Shell Guide To The Islands Of Britain, David & Charles, Newton Abbot, Devon, 1992.

The AA, Illustrated Road Book Of Scotland, The Automobile Association, 1963.

Photo (top) by Gordon Hatton:  https://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/3956554

Photo (middle) by John Allan:   https://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/4844681

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Snizort_Cathedral

https://www.britainexpress.com/scotland/Skye/skeabost-chapel.htm

http://www.theskyeguide.com/see-and-do-mainmenu-35/42-interesting-places/110-st-columbas-isle

https://canmore.org.uk/site/11282/skye-skeabost-island

https://www.scorrybreac.org/st-columbas-island.html#

https://www.clanmacnicol.org/saint-columba

http://www.academia.edu/20262543/From_cathedral_of_the_Isles_to_obscurity_-_the_archaeology_and_history_of_Skeabost_Island_Snizort

https://her.highland.gov.uk/monument/MHG5135

© Ray Spencer, The Journal of Antiquities, 2018.

 


Tinkinswood Burial Chamber, St Nicholas, South Glamorgan, Wales

Tinkinswood Burial Chamber, Wales. Photo: FruitMonkey, Wikipedia Commons.

OS Grid Reference: ST 0922 7331. In a clearing at the edge of a partly wooded field, just south of the village of St Nicholas, in South Glamorgan, Wales, there is a megalithic monument known as Tinkinswood Burial Chamber or Tinkinswood Chambered Cairn. This ancient monument which dates from the Neolithic Age has a long and quite enormous capstone weighing 40 tons or more, and also an unusually low entrance (portal). It is known by several other names including: Tinkinswood Long Barrow, Tinkinswood Cromlech and, also Castell Careg, Llech-y-Filliast, Maes-y-Filiast and Gwal-y-Filiast, to name but a few. It is sometimes also called a dolmen. The stones that lie scattered around close to the monument are, according to legend, some local women who had danced around the burial chamber on the Sabbath day and were turned to stone! You can reach the monument on a footpath running south towards Duffryn House for about ¾ of a mile from Duffryn Lane in St Nicholas (Sain Nicolas).

Christopher Houlder (1978) tells us that: “John Ward’s excavations here in 1914 were outstanding for their time, and the careful restoration does justice to the importance of the monument. The enormous capstone, estimated to weigh 40 tons, was locally quarried along with its supporting slabs, to form a simple end chamber in a dry-walled cairn of the typical Severn–Cotswold wedge-shaped form. The back of the funnel-shaped forecourt was walled to the chamber roof, leaving only a low entrance gap at one corner. At least 50 individuals were represented by the mass of bones recovered, along with several fragments of plain pottery and Beaker ware. A slab-lined pit in the body of the mound was not part of the original layout, but internal lines of upright stones are either ritual in purpose, or a practical demarcation of family shares in the building of a communal tomb.

“Settlements of the Neolithic period are usually found only by chance, as happened when a Bronze Age cairn was com-pletely excavated at Sant-y-nyll in 1958. An oval ring of post holes 4.6 m by 3.7 m across represented a hut succeeding two smaller ones, amid domestic refuse which indicated a sheep-farming economy. Pottery was of late Neolithic type distinct from that of the long-cairns, and probably represented a phase of peasant life transitional to the Bronze Age proper.”

Barber & Williams (1989) write that: “It is marked as Cromlech on the one inch Ordnance Survey maps of 1833 and as Long Barrow on maps of 1947 and 1956. This dolmen is sometimes confused by writers with the dolmen at Duffryn in the adjoining parish of St. Lythans. The capstone itself is 22 feet by 3 feet and weighs over 40 tons.” The authors go on to say that R. E. M. Wheeler (1925) mentions that the old belief that anyone who slept within the dolmen on a spirit nightwould suffer one of the following calamities — he would either die, go raving mad or become a poet. Marie Trevelyan (1905) relates several stories about the dolmen.” Chris Barber (1982) has a photograph and mentions various legends including one which says that around the cromlech are stones said to be women who had danced on a Sunday and were turned into stone.”

Tinkinswood Burial Chamber at St Nicholas, South Glamorgan.

Jacquetta Hawkes (1975) tells us more of the site and its surrounds. She says: “About five miles out of Cardiff on the south side of the Cowbridge road there is a remarkable concentration of long barrows and other megalithic tombs. The doubtful Coed y Cwm barrow lies closest to the road, but of far greater interest is the well-known chambered long barrow in Tinkinswood just to the south of it. This St Nicholas is obviously of the Cotswold family—that is at once shown by the long wedge-shaped mound with its containing drystone walls and horned forecourt. The chamber, reached through the forecourt, is a large but plain box-like chamber covered by one colossal rectangular capstone measuring as much as twenty-two by fifteen feet. The entrance is at the side, and not in the centre, of the front wall and therefore lacks the usual architectural formality of jamb-stones; the whole of the front wall is screened by drystone walling of considerable thickness, but with a slab-lined opening leading to the entrance.

“About a mile to the south-west is the St. Lythans long barrow; the mound (or rather cairn, for as in the Cotswolds these Welsh examples are of piled stones) has almost disappeared leaving the megalithic chamber with its cover-stone standing naked; there is no question, however, that it was originally very similar to that of St. Nicholas.”

Timothy Darvill (1988) gives some in-depth info on this site, saying: “This partly restored Neolithic long barrow lies about 1 mile north of the St Lythans barrow. It is approached from the east across fields by way of a footpath (signposted). The mound, roughly rectangular in plan and now a little overgrown in places, is about 40m long and 17.8m wide. It is composed of limestone rubble, and is neatly revetted on all sides by a drystone wall. At the eastern end is a shallow funnel-shaped forecourt flanked by two slightly flattened horns. The wall of the forecourt is rather unusual in that the stones are set at an angle in what is known as herringbone style.

“The chamber, which is roomy and can still be entered, opens almost directly out of the rear of the forecourt. The walls are of large orthostats with dry-stone walling filling the gaps between the main uprights. The massive capstone measures 7.1m long, 4.5m wide, and is up to 0.9m thick. Its weight is estimated at 40 tons. Excavations in 1914 uncovered the remains of at least 50 individuals in a jumbled state in the main chamber, 21 were adult females, and 16 were adult males. Some pottery was also found in the chamber.

“About half-way down the mound on the north-side is a polygonal cist. At the time of the excavation this was thought to be a later addition to the barrow, but an alternative theory is that it is the remains of a small early Neolithic tomb that preceded the construction of the long barrow. CADW—WELSH HISTORIC MONUMENTS.”

The CADW site page tells that: “Parts of the site were reconstructed following its excavation in 1914. A supporting pillar was inserted in the chamber and the external walls were re-clad using a distinctive herringbone pattern.” See Link, below.

Sources and related websites:-

Barber, Chris & Williams, John Godfrey, The Ancient Stones of Wales, Blorenge Books, Abergavenny, Gwent, 1989.  

Darvill, Timothy, AA (Glovebox Guide), Ancient Britain, Publishing Division of The Automobile Association, Basingstoke, Hampshire, 1988. 

Hawkes, Jacquetta, A Guide To The Prehistoric And Roman Monuments In England And Wales, Cardinal, London, 1975.

Houlder, Christopher, Wales: An Archaeological Guide, Faber And Faber Limited, London, 1978.

Photo (top) by FruitMonkey:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tinkinswood#/media/File:Tinkinswood_Interior

https://cadw.gov.wales/daysout/tinkinswoodburialchamber/?lang=en

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tinkinswood

http://www.stone-circles.org.uk/stone/tinkinswood.htm

https://www.stonepages.com/wales/tinkinswood.html

http://www.megalithic.co.uk/article.php?sid=1471

© Ray Spencer, The Journal Of Antiquities, 2018.


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Churchyard Cross, St Nicholas’ Church, Grosmont, Monmouthshire, Wales

St Nicholas’ church cross.

OS Grid Reference: SO 40475 24302. In St Nicholas’ churchyard (north-side near the door) at Grosmont in Monmouthshire, Wales, there was a medieval preaching cross which had crudely carved depictions of Christ crucified and Mary the Virgin with baby Jesus. It was locally called Jack o’ Kent’s Cross. There was, and still is, some uncertainty about the age of the cross, but the carved section atop the shaft was thought to date from between the 11th to 13th century, whereas the shaft and eight-sided base are more recent, maybe 14 or 15th century? Due to ‘the recent safety concerns’ the carved fragment of the cross-head has had to be placed in the church, leaving the shaft and base out in the churchyard. Apparently the shaft was originally much taller. There may have been an earlier cross-head on top of the cross shaft. The 13th century parish church of St Nicholas at Grosmont looks rather like a small cathedral with its tall 14th century octagonal spire, which is a landmark for many miles around. It is to be found at the southwest side of the village, be-side the B4347 road, a couple of miles south of Kentchurch and about 6 miles to the northeast of Llanfihangel Crucorney.

Carved cross head at St Nicholas’ church, Grosmont.

Today, however, the churchyard cross looks rather forlorn with its chopped down shaft, but it still stands here on its octagonal base – alas though without the carved cross-head. But ‘this’ carved section is safe and secure in the south transept of St Nicholas’ church after it was stolen some years back. We don’t know with any certainty the age of the carved cross-head or where it came from: the thinking being that it is was perhaps carved between the 11th and 13th centuries, whereas the shaft and base are from the 14th or 15th century? with some damage caused to the shaft in the 16th. Could the carved section have come from a castle, an abbey, or some other church; that we don’t know, or do we* The carved section, now in the church, shows Christ crucified on one side and Mary and baby Jesus on the other with what could be the outline of a bovine animal lower down; the carving of Mary and Jesus seems to be ‘a crude affair’ compared to that on the opposite face suggesting, perhaps, that it was carved at a different date? It was probably a preaching or wayside cross. Locally, it is sometimes called ‘Jack o’ Kent’s Cross – after the giant and magician who lived at Kentchurch Court. He was not, however, buried beneath the cross. In fact, Jack’s body was buried only just outside Grosmont church!

*Chris Barber (1992) alludes to the following bit of interesting information regarding a carved stone found at Llanfihangel Crucorney, 6 miles southwest of Grosmont. He tells that: “When the church was being rebuilt in 1834, with money raised by public subscription, an ancient stone was revealed. On one side is a representation of the Virgin Mary with baby in her arms and on the reverse side is Christ on the cross between two thieves.” 

Cross Ash School children (1985) tell us in their delightful booklet about the local giant, saying that: “Under the wall of the South Transept, according to legend, lies the body of the giant, Jack of Kent, buried half inside the church and half outside the church, where his tombstone can still be seen.” The school children also mention that: “the font probably dates back to 1150. It is one hundred years older than the church itself. This could mean that at one time there was another church on the site. There is a pattern of a rope on the font, which was common in 1150.”

Donald Gregory (1991) says of St Nicholas’ church that: “This non-Celtic dedication probably indicates that this was the first church to be built on that site. Certainly most of what is still visible in the church and churchyard dates from the same time as the stone castle. Gregory adds that: “Near the entrance gate in the northern consecrated part of the churchyard is an early medieval preaching cross, part of whose shaft remains, firmly secured and — unusually — into an octagonal base; it may be noted, though no known inference may be derived from the observation, that the stout tower of the church is likewise octagonal. The shaft was lopped in the sixteenth century, but curiously enough the carved capstone, which was later placed upon it, is definitely of medieval origin, although where it came from no-one knows.” 

Chris Barber (1984) tells us more about the church. He says: “Go into the church and you will immediately feel an atmosphere of antiquity, peace and mustiness. The floor of the now disused nave is well illustrated with engraved stones and there are many interesting tablets to read on the walls. In a corner of the nave can be seen a wooden chest known as the ‘”Grosmont Hutch”‘ and a half finished effigy of a knight, which is reputed to be that of Jack o’ Kent who once resided in this corner of Gwent. Numerous stories are told about his deeds and adventures. Some claimed that he was Owain Glyndwr in disguise.; others accused him of being a wizard in league with the devil. A legend tells that Jack made a pact with Satan that he should have his soul when he died, whether he was buried inside the church or outside. However, Jack cunningly fooled the devil by arranging for his burial to take place under the very walls of the church at Grosmont, so that he was neither inside nor outside. An old tombstone in the churchyard close to the east wall is said to cover his remains and it is claimed that he died at the age of 120 years. A proverb once used in this neighbourhood would describe someone “‘as clever as the devil or Jack of Kent”‘.

Sources and related websites:-

Barber, Chris, The Seven Hills Of Abergavenny, Blorenge Books, Abergavenny, Gwent, 1992.

Barber, Chris, Exploring Gwent — A Walker’s Guide To Gwent Land Of History And Legend, Regional Publications (Bristol) Limited, Clifton, Bristol, 1984.

Cross Ash School, Churches And Castles — Within the Grosmont Skenfrith and White Castle Trilateral, 1985.

Gregory, Donald, Country Churchyards In Wales, Gwasg Carreg Gwalch, Capel Garmon, Llanrwst, Gwynedd, Wales, 1991.

The Church In Wales, Great Churches in the Diocese of Monmouth — a Visitors Guide (Transl. by Sian Edwards), June 2005.

St Nicholas Church

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Church_of_St_Nicholas,_Grosmont

http://www.coflein.gov.uk/en/site/221965/details/st-nicholas-church-grosmont

https://www.britainexpress.com/attractions.htm?attraction=571

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_o%27_Kent

https://www.spookyisles.com/2014/07/jack-okent-the-welsh-doctor-faustus/

© Ray Spencer, The Journal Of Antiquities, 2018.