A break in the weather and we were off to Eilean Fir Chrothair The Island of the Men of Crotar, a tiny island which lies about 800 feet off Bearnaraigh Beag, Little Bernera. Under the steady hand of Donald Macaulay the journey took about 20 minutes by rib and we landed on the east side of the island. Jim Crawford, who has made a lifetime study of bothan or beehive sites on Lewis, took us to the putative remains of a chapel and a beautifully preserved bothan or beehive cell.
The island, although close to the shore of Little Bernera is far enough away to give a sense of “in oceano desertum” a place of island retreat and contemplation used by the anchorites of the early Celtic church. Made of the stone from its immediate surroundings, there is an almost translucent quality to this solid structure as it emerges from the landscape around it. Perhaps this notion of the external structure merging within the landscape was echoed within, as the cell’s occupant sought their connection to God through a solitary and contemplative experience of landscape.
The 2005 Lewis Coastal Chapel survey records 37 such sites and this plethora of coastal and island sites reflects the spread of the early Celtic church and the influence of Iona on her northerly neighbours. The island looks out to the Flannan Isles, a group of seven islands, the largest of which has a chapel dedicated to St. Flannan. However, in his book, The Scottish Islands, Hamish Haswell Smith suggests that Flann, son of an Abbot of Iona may have loaned his name to these isolated islands.
The trip really placed Iona within a wider context in terms of the ecclesiastical terrain of the Hebrides; a tracery of cells, chapels and land ownership which speaks as much about the poetical relationship as the political relationship that we have historically had with this landscape.
Many thanks to Jon Macleod, Donald Macaulay of Seatrek and Jim Crawford for their nautical and archaeological skills; their generosity of time and knowledge made this a great afternoon.