• Gordon MacLellan

a lost font, a possible discovery?

is there a story behind a local church? Teampull na Trionaid, N Uist

Do you ever wander through a graveyard and wonder at the stories behind the things you find there? Not just the gravestones with their brief records of endurance or tragedy or love but those

a richness of elderberries, Contin Church, Contin

odd bits of stone work, stray arches, a gargoyle that looks suspiciously like a portrait. There are yew trees, too. Always worth checking out: some of our oldest yew trees – and consequently some of the oldest trees in the country – grow in church yards and might even predate the church standing there now

Across the UK, churches and their associated grounds offer refuge for wildlife, underpin local history and afford us peace and quiet. If you don’t like graveyards, you could always lean on the wall and look in, making helpful comments to anyone at their ease inside

But do look. There is so much to see, so many questions to ask. You may not know the answers. You may not ever find the answers but take the mystery as seasoning and enjoy the mysteries that even familiar places may still hold.

St Wystan above the door of his church, Repton

Names: check your local church’s name – and explore the saint if there is one. Is there an implication there about the history of the building and your neighbourhood (St Giles, for examples, is the patron saint of cripples and his churches were often built beyond city walls to offer succour to the sick). Names. In North Uist in the Outer Hebrides, at the Church of Scotland’s Carinish Church you can look across the fields to the ruins of 12th Century Teampull na Trianaid (Temple of the Trinity: a 12th century monastery and school). But to take the easy walk along the boardwalk and across the fields to an Teampull is to step over Feith na Fala, the ditch of blood, where a battle in 1601 with the MacDonalds left the MacLeods lying in their blood in the ditch….

There are always stories….they may be puzzles you can solve, they may be puzzles solved long ago by everyone else. They may be completely spurious and based on misunderstanding. It doesn’t really matter: it is the challenge and the inspiration that the curve of rock half hidden by moss brings that is most important here!

Originally written for St Magnus Day, (16th April), this investigation, discovery, adventure is exactly what we are thinking of i this post....thank you, Fran!

St Magnus Day Special!

St Magnus Cathedral, a side door

Water has played a major part in many spiritual traditions – sacred springs and water spirits of the Old Ways became holy wells and saints; churches, abbeys and cathedrals were often built on or nearby to running water. There is a belief that there is a spring running directly underneath the nave of St Magnus (Cathedral). Fonts filled with holy water are rich in symbolism – they are often octagonal, possibly to represent the half-way shape between a circle (the Divine) and a square (the Temporal world). Thus a font is a point in space and time where Heaven and Earth meet. Here people are baptised into the church, and the pure water is said to wash away sin. The wooden font inside the cathedral dates from the 19th century, and came from another now-defunct Kirkwall church, but there would have been one in Medieval times. What happened to it? I know of at least two cases (Birsay and Rousay) in Orkney where an ancient red sandstone font was discovered, having been previously broken up or ‘drowned’ in a ritual decommissioning of a sacred object. On one of my very last Kirkwall walks before lockdown, I was wandering through Copland’s Lane, the alley between the cathedral graveyard and the St Magnus Centre….and I saw this. I’ve passed it a hundred times before….and now my mind is racing. Could this be the medieval, pre-Reformation cathedral font? That’s a lovely thought for this St Magnus Day.

Fran Flett Hollinrake: historian, storyteller, and custodian of St Magnus Cathedral

Fran's possibility

  • St Laurence Church: a beautiful tiny anglo-saxon chapel (built somewhere between 7th and 11th centuries) unearth from a clutter of buildings in Baradford-on-Avon

  • The visual language of tombstones: St Mary’s Church, South Ronaldsay; St Michael's, Resolis stonemasons reproducing medieval carving

  • Do the tombstones all face the same way? A good sign of age: they’ll probably face east so the faithful can rise with the sun of the final dawn on their faces

  • You might just find fascinating tombs….Church of Ss Mael and Sulien, Cwm Dyserth N Wales

  • Wildlife wall: a feast for nesting for roosting, for hiding, for lurking, for loitering, for hoping, for hiding, for preying for……

Resources to draw upon!

The God's Acre Project: https://www.caringforgodsacre.org.uk/


  • Francesca Greenoak: God's Acre: the flowers and animals of the Parish churchyard, Dutton, 1985

  • Martin Palmer: Sacred Land: decoding Britain's extraordinary past through its towns, villages and countryside, Piatkus 2012 (Martin is the Director of CelebrationEarth!)

  • Peter Stanford: How to read a graveyard, Bloomsbury 2013 1985

  • Betty Willshire and Doreen Hunter: Stones: a guide to some remarkable Eighteenth Century Gravestones, Taplinger 1979


To Fran for her lovely font-puzzle

Images: all c. G MacLellan other than

the possible font c F Flett Hollinrake

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