MHG42206 - Red Priest's Stone & burial ground 500m NNE of


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Type and Period (1)

  • CROSS SLAB (Early Medieval - 561 AD to 1057 AD)

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Full Description

re-scheduled April 2003, see SMR file for details - HAW 7/2003

NC74NW 2 7147 4722.
Burial Ground (NR) (NC 7148 4722) Red Priest's Stone (NR) OS 6" map, (1962)
Burial ground of Red Priest at Skaill is noted as site of a pre-Reformation chapel by Alexander Pope, minister of Reay, in his account published as appendix to Thomas Pennant’s travels in 1774 (Pope 1774, 326). Skaill is, like other names associated with religious sites in this part of Strathnaver, of Norse origin (Waugh 2000, 17-8). In contrast to Cladh Rivigill, the graveyard lies on level ground v close to River Naver (NMRS/SMR no. NC74NW2; NC 7147 4722), in a field known as Dalacsary, which is probably derived from Dal-an-tsagairt, ‘the Priest’s field’ (OPS, 708). Although banks of Naver are quite high along this part of its length, outside the present improved fields, the ground remains very marshy and it is likely that area flooded frequently prior to drainage schemes in last few centuries. The stones of enclosing wall of graveyard are said to have been removed c.1825 to form the embankment of river opposite Rhiloisk (NC 706 454). The font also found its way to Rhiloisk, being dumped on a grassy bank halfway to embankment (i.e. around NC 708 465) where it was seen in 1906 (Mackay 1906, 131); it has been recently re-discovered (Johnston 2001, panel 10). Graveyard has a far more rounded form than triangular shape visible on OS First edition map suggesting that further changes may have taken place since late nineteenth century. Although interior of burial ground is slightly raised above surrounding ground level, ensuring that its outline is still distinct, local knowledge of sanctity of site must be responsible for preserving what is little more than an unenclosed patch of rough pasture.

The cross-slab known as the 'Clach an t-Sagairt Ruidhe', 'the Red Stone of the Priest' (Name Book, Sutherland (1873), Book 20, 250) or 'the Stone of the Red Priest', stands towards northern side of the burial ground. It is described in this location by Name Book, although Joass states that it lay outside boundary of graveyard (1865, 359). Neither position seems typical of a grave-stone, especially as cross is on N face. This gives some weight to the proposition, first put forward in a letter from Reverend David M’Kenzie of Farr to James Loch, that slab was originally a girth-cross (OPS, 708). It now seems a distinct probability that stone was booty from St. Duthac’s chapel at Tain, which was sacked by Thomas McNeil, one of Neil Mackay of Strathnaver’s three sons around 1429 (Johnston 2001, 7). The stone is 0.7m high and 0.3m square, with a roughly incised, almost equal-armed cross with a rounded head, on its N face (Joass 1865, 359; Allen and Anderson 1903, 55). The stone has been very much chipped and broken by natives taking pieces as relics or charms’ (Scott 1909, 274). Although such simple crosses are difficult to date, it is possible that it belongs to seventh or eighth centuries (Henderson 1987, passim). There are a number of recumbent slabs visible in interior of burial ground; as at Cladh Rivigill, none of these seem to be sculptured (Joass 1865, 359), although raised quartz veins adorn their surfaces and seem likely to have influenced the choice of individual slabs.

Skaill is strongly associated with St. Maolrubha, founder of the monastery at Applecross and saint perhaps largely responsible for evangelisation of NW Highlands in later seventh century. The identification with Maolrubha, whose main sphere of influence appears to be Wester Ross, relies on the assumption that the Red Priest - around whom there are many traditions in Durness and in Strathnaver - is in fact Maolrubha, patron saint of parish of Lairg. Locally, the Red Priest is believed to have been killed by Viking raiders at mouth of his cell, which lay at the upper end of the wood below Skaill (Scott 1909, 273; Temperley 1977, 28; Johnston 2001, 7). Although it is probably more likely that Maolrubha’s death occurred either at Urquhart, near Conon Bridge in Easter Ross, or at Applecross, there is no question that there was a ‘Red Priest’ who was closely associated with this part of Sutherland. In local tradition, saint was believed to have prophesied that population of Strathnaver would be driven from the strath for their sins, and would not be able to return until his bones had been washed down to sea (Scott 1909, 279). Joass suggested that this belief was responsible for his grave being placed on the outside of the graveyard and therefore closer to the river (1865, 359). Around 1825, just as at Rhiloisk, a sheep farmer - who held the best land and was anxious that the people evicted during the Clearances never returned is supposed to have constructed a protective embankment to divert the river away from the graveyard (Scott 1909, 279; Johnston 2001, panel 10). These defences proved unsuccessful and, following a ‘great flood’, the burial ground was apparently submerged (Temperley 1977, 29). The strath has been partially repopulated, but not until the very beginning of the twentieth century (ibid.), probably long after the flood and the death of the sheep farmer.

The saint’s cell - which Scott refers to as the Teampull (1909, 273) - is in local tradition the chambered cairn just S of burial ground, from which a steatite cup was recovered at the beginning of twentieth century (NMRS/SMR no. NC74NW4; NC 7129 4690). Scott describes it, when viewed by a ‘skilled archaeologist’, thirty years before he was writing, as ‘a bee-hive shaped structure inside a rounded building of early Pictish type’ (1909, 273). The Teampull is unusual amongst the chambered cairns in Strathnaver in that the cairn material has been removed to reveal chamber itself (Johnston 2001, 7). The Secretary of State for Scotland called the crofters together to reprimand them for using the cairn as a quarry at the beginning of the twentieth century (Scott 1909, 273), while an excavation undertaken by a shooting tenant is also recorded as having taken place there (RCAHMS 1911, 80, no. 233). In consequence, the cairn is now in a heavily robbed state, but it is possible - as the description recorded by Scott and the presence of the steatite cup suggest - that initially this clearance was the result of re-use, perhaps as a dwelling or at least a shelter. Info supplied by J Hooper : 05/12/02

NC74NW 2 7147 4722.

(NC 7147 4722) Burial Ground (NR) (NC 7148 4722) Red Priest's Stone (NR) OS 6" map, (1962)

The site of a pre-Reformation chapel (Pennany 1774) and its burial ground, the only surviving evidence of which is a cross-incised pillar, 2ft 4ins high and 1ft 2ins broad, which is known as 'Clach an t-Sagairt Ruidhe', 'the Red Stone of the Priest' (ONB 1873) or 'the Stone of the Red Priest'. 'The Red Priest' was one of the names given to St. Maelrubha (d.722), from which it is assumed that the chapel was dedicated to him, nothing further is known of it except that its stones are said to have been removed c.1825 to form the embankment of the river opposite Riloisk (NC 706 454), and its font lay on a grassy bank half-way to the embankment (ie. C. NC 708 465) in 1906 (Mackay 1906). The outline of the burial ground is shown as triangular in 1873 (OS 6"map, Sutherland, 1st ed., 1873) and the cross-marked stone is said to have stood in the north angle (ONB 1873) or even outside the burial-ground (Joass 1865). Neither position seems typical of a grave-stone, especially as the cross is on the north face, so MacKenzies suggestion that it is a girth-cross (Information contained in letter from Rev D MacKenzie James Loch to OPS 1854) seems feasible. None of the other grave-slabs was sculptured but some bear natural tracery in the form of raised quartz veins.
T Pennant 1774; Orig Paroch Scot 1855; J M Joass 1865; Name Book 1873;
J R Allen and J Anderson 1903; A Mackay 1906

A small unenclosed area of rough pasture in the corner of an arable field. 'The Red Priest's Stone' is 0.7m high and 0.3m. Square, with a roughly incised, almost equal-armed cross with a rounded head, on its north face. A slab, now embedded in the ground, bears no inscription, but may be a grave-slab. The font was not located and local enquiries proved negative.
Visited by OS (J L D) 6 May 1960.

The Red Priest's Stone (name verified locally) and the graveyard are as described by the previous field investigator. The name 'Clach an t-Sagairt Ruidhe' and 'the Red Stone of the Priest' are not known locally. No further information concerning the chapel and font was encountered.
Revised at 1:10,000.
Visited by OS (J B) 21 July 1977.

Strathnaver, The Red Priest’s Stone (St Maelrubha), Sutherland, cross-slab
Measurements: H 0.70m, W 0.30m, D 0.30m
Stone type: granite
Place of discovery: NC 7147 4722
Present location: in situ.
Evidence for discovery: recorded for ECMS around 1900.
Present condition: top right corner damaged but carving good.
The north face of the slab bears a roughly pecked outline cross, with a round-topped upper arm, expanded side arms and an open ended shaft.
Date: eighth to tenth century.
References: ECMS pt 3, 55.
Early Medieval Carved Stones Project, A Ritchie 2016

Sources/Archives (10)



Grid reference Centred NC 7146 4721 (10m by 10m) (2 map features)
Map sheet NC74NW
Geographical Area SUTHERLAND
Civil Parish FARR

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