The township of Eoropaidh (Europie) lies close to the west side of Lewis a mile south of its northern tip at the Butt of Lewis. As you drive back towards Eoropaidh from the Butt of Lewis, your attention is caught by a lone stone building standing in the fields to your left. This is the unique and beautiful St Moluag's Church.
Access to the church is from the main road through the township. A narrow, fenced, grass path leads for 100 yards to the church, which is closely surrounded by a stone wall.
The church is a very unusual t-shape. The combined nave and chancel is an oblong, which is dark because of the very limited number of windows, and full of character. On the north side of the east end of the main building is a small chancel. This is reflected on the south side by a tiny chapel, connected to the main church only by an unusually large squint through which the service in the main church can be seen.
This site is believed to have been consecrated since St Moluag, a contemporary of St Columba, built a chapel here in the 560s. The present building is of unknown age, with estimates of its build date ranging from the 1100s to the 1500s. At the time of the Reformation it was said to have been dedicated to St Maelrubha.
As a result the church had become a centre for pilgrimage by those seeking healing, and it seems likely that the squint from the side chapel was constructed to allow pilgrims with communicable diseases (such as leprosy) to take part in services without coming into contact with those in the church itself.
The Reformation in 1560 seems to have brought traditional Christian worship at the church to a temporary halt. A visitor in 1695, Martin Martin, reported that the church had, within the living memory of those he met, been the focus of a pagan fertility festival each year on All Saints' Day (1 November). This was dedicated to the sea-god Shony.
Islanders from across Lewis came to the Church of St Mulway, where ale was brewed from that season's grain. Some of this was offered up to Shony by an islander standing up to his waist in the sea at night. Those present then returned to the church where the light provided by a single candle was extinguished and islanders went into the surrounding fields and spent the rest of the night "in dancing and singing, &c." Presumably the local birth rate peaked around the beginning of August each year.
Martin Martin goes on to report that by the time of his visit, more Presbyterian elements in Lewis society had stopped this annual festival. It is tempting to wonder whether what he was told was actually true, or just an early example of urban mythology in action. What is more certain is that the church's traditional role as a centre for healing and pilgrimage continued into the 1600s, and possible well beyond.
By the mid 1800s the church stood as a roofless ruin. An appeal was launched by the Scottish Episcopal Church to fund its restoration in 1910, and the funds were assembled and the work complete by 1912. For the time, the restoration work was of remarkably high quality and done with great sensitivity. Stone and slate for the work was brought from Orkney and the end result is a church with a very special atmosphere.
St Moluag's remains without electricity or water. Lighting is by oil lamp and candle. The access path was fenced in 2002, keeping it clear of sheep, but it is still of grass: the eventual aim is to give it an all weather surface.