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History of Eaglais Na H-Aoidhe
By Colin Scott MacKenzie


Eaglais na h-Aoidhe or St Columbaís Ui in the Isle of Lewis, Scotland lies at the eastern end of the Braighe (a narrow isthmus of land between the peninsula of Point and the rest of Lewis). It has a beautiful location, originally at the centre of a large graveyard, but which, due to coastal erosion over many years, is now beside the sea.

VERY EARLY HISTORY

There is archaeological evidence of occupation in this area since the Bronze Age. Tradition tells us that an early Christian called Catan arrived on Lewis in the late 6th century. He was Irish, like his contemporary St Columba. He is known to have travelled extensively around Scotland and is believed to have built a monkish cell on the site where Ui Church now stands. There is a strong local tradition that he was buried with his relics at Ui. However there is a similar tradition in the Isle of Bute!

It is not known exactly when the Ui Church was dedicated to the great Gaelic missionary St Columba, but it is so recorded in a papal letter of 1433. There are many churches dedicated to St Columba in both Ireland and Scotland

THE CURRENT BUILDING

Most of what we can now see dates from the 14th or 15th centuries. The main church (the eastern chapel) comprises a nave and chancel in a rectangular building 20.75m long and 7.0m wide still with intact walls and gables. That is entirely of pre-Reformation construction. An Archaeological Survey (Knott and Thacker, 2011) suggests that that part was deliberately de-roofed, the wallheads and gables being capped with turf, thus preserving them to the present day. Attached is a western chapel, 8.25m long by 6.4m wide. It is thought that that latter chapel may have been built after the Reformation of 1560.

THE 13TH Ė 15TH CENTURIES

Probably from Norse times, Lewis was possessed by the Nicolson family. Recent archaeological evidence suggests that part of the north wall of the eastern chapel may date back to before the 14th Century and during the Nicolson ascendancy, suggesting that they may have been responsible for building an earlier church there.

The Macleod dynasty of Lewis, themselves of Norse descent (and not to be confused with the Macleods of Harris and Skye) obtained possession of the island through marriage to a daughter of Torquil, last of the Nicolson line. The eastern chapel was probably built at the start of this period. Torquil Macleod, the son of this union was the 4th chief of these Macleods but the first to hold the island. He probably died around 1380 and his descendants retained control of Lewis until the late 1590s. Ui is thought, Macdonald (1967), to be the burial place of no fewer than nineteen Macleod Clan Chiefs. A surviving effigy commemorates Roderick Macleod, 7th Chief of Macleod who held Lewis during the latter part of the 15th Century and died in 1498.

THE 16TH CENTURY

Before the Reformation of 1560, Ui Church was the parish church of Stornoway and Uig. After 1560, unlike many other churches and chapels in the islands, it continued to be used as a place of worship, although now under the auspices of the Reformed church. The church retained its important role not least because of its continuing significance as the burial place of the chiefs. Roderick 7thís successors proved unruly and rebellious subjects of the Crown, which finally lost patience with them forfeiting their title to the island in the 1590s. King James VI then sold the island to a company of entrepreneurs from Fife (The Fife Adventurers) with full permission to develop and civilise the place through ethnic-cleansing of the natives if persuasion failed.

THE 17TH CENTURY

Both development and persuasion failed and the Adventurers were extruded by force. The king eventually employed the neighbouring Mackenzie clan just across the Minch to pacify the islanders which they being themselves Gaels and understanding of the language and culture were more able to do than the Fifers. In 1610, partly in consequence, the king granted Lewis to the chief of the Mackenzies - who had in any event a legal claim of his own to the island.

The final development of the church probably took place around this time with the addition of the western chapel which recent archaeological evidence suggests may in part, at least, date from this period. The Mackenzies were very much in the ascendancy during this period, nationally as well as locally, and their chiefs were created Earls of Seaforth, taking their title from the sea loch of that name. They were well placed to have built or improved the western chapel. They also built churches elsewhere on the island including St Lennanís in Stornoway but it is probable that the western chapel continued to function as the parish church. According to Knott and Thacker (2011) the eastern chapel may have been de-roofed in the 17th or early 18th century

THE 18TH CENTURY

It seems likely that the western chapel gradually became neglected as services moved to St Lennanís. Latterly services were only held in Ui every six weeks. Prominent members of the Macleod clan continued to be buried at Ui but so were an increasing number of Mackenzies of whom the most important was William, the fifth Earl of Seaforth, who was buried there in 1740.

In 1794 a new parish church dedicated to St Columba was built in Stornoway and around the same time a new cemetery was opened in Sandwick just outside the town. Stornoway burials now generally took place there, although Point people continued to be buried at Ui until the opening of a new Aignish cemetery in the 1920s.

MORE RECENT TIMES.

The local congregation moved to a new nearby Telford church in 1827. It may be that the western chapel was used by a small Episcopalian congregation thereafter until their own St Peterís Church was built in 1836 in Stornoway.

The direct line of the Seaforth Mackenzies became increasingly strapped for cash and sold Lewis to James Matheson, a very wealthy Taipan from Hong kong in 1844. In 1845 the last recorded service was held in the still slated western chapel. Little money, if any, was spent on it thereafter. By 1850 it appears to have been de-roofed. Matheson probably intended great things for Ui as he started to build a family mausoleum beside the church but he died before that was completed. The Matheson line then faltered and 1917 the island was sold to William Hesketh Lever (later Lord Leverhulme) who in 1924 gifted the whole Parish of Stornoway including Ui church to the parishioners as administered by the Stornoway Trust

In 2001 Urras Eaglais na h-Aoidhe (the Ui Church Trust) was established to save the building from final dissolution and bring it back into some form of community use. In 2011/2012 over £300,000 has been spent to consolidate and stabilise Ui Church. For further information please visit www.uichurch.co.uk.
 

References:

Knott, CM and Thacker, M (2011) Eaglais na h-Aoidhe, Isle of Lewis Archaeological Survey, accessed via www.uichurch.co.uk.

Macdonald, D (1967) Tales and Traditions of the Lews; Stornoway

Mackenzie, CS (2012) St Columbaís Ui Church otherwise Eaglais na h-Aoidhe: an Historical Perspective; Isle of Lewis


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