Re Soundings – The Conch, Isle of Lewis

In Island Spirituality, Alastair McIntosh talks about the sacred landscape of Lewis as evidenced through place names and oral histories, imbued with sanctity and extant for us to trace through the landscape, guided by their names.[1]

For the past few days we have been walking in the landscape, guided by such place names and aided by some generous local knowledge. We have visited a network of medieval chapels, evocative of St. Oran’s on Iona and also areas of landscape, such as Am Beannachadh, The Blessing Place, where the whole landscape holds a tangible atmosphere.

We are indebted to Dr. Findlay MacLeod of Shawbost, for sharing his knowledge of the early chapels and also for directing us to the “conachag”, or conch kept at Shawbost Heritage Museum. The conch was used in the village of Shawbost and the neighbouring township of Bragar in the 19th century and early 20th century as a way of calling in folk from the fields to the church at times of prayer and also at times of distress or to summon people to a wake. This is similar to how Adomnán describes the use of the hand bell in Columba’s time. Adomnán relates more than one incidence when, following a vision, Columba summons the monks with a bell to pray together to offer protection to their brothers, seen by Columba to be in great distress.[2]

We were shown the bell by Roddy Morrison who told us that it was called from two sites, one nearby known as Hill of the Bones (named as the site of a bloody clan battle) and the other site being the highest hill in the vicinity on the croft of the Macaulay family. So we went to speak to Iain Macaulay, whose Grandfather used to sound the conch. Iain recalled it being sounded when he was a young boy, but never after that. He confirmed what we’d been told at the museum, that it was used in place of a bell to call people in from the fields to prayer and in times of distress. Iain believed the conch had been brought to village by his Grandfather’s neighbor, Kenneth Macleod, who had been a merchant seaman and who also carried the duty of sounding it. The tradition seems to have died out when both men passed on and the conch now sits silently in the museum. It is brought out occasionally and we were told that some of the local school children have managed to sound it, as did Hugh.

[1] McIntosh, A. (2013) Island Spirituality: Spiritual Values of Lewis and Harris, The Islands Book Trust, Isle of Lewis.

[2] Sharpe, R. (trans.) 1995, Adomnán of Iona: Life of St. Columba, Penguin Books, London.

Hill of Bones & Macaulay Croft, Shawbost, Isle of Lewis
Hill of Bones & Macaulay Croft, Shawbost, Isle of Lewis

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