It is easy to overlook because of surrounding vegetation, but the ruin of St Maol-luag's Chapel, also sometimes known as St Moluag's Chapel, stands on the north side of the public road that runs behind the grounds of Raasay House. Entry to the surrounding graveyard is via a gate near its south west corner, and once inside you find yourself on a steeply sloping site with a remarkably tranquil atmosphere. Nowhere on Raasay could really be called "bustling", but even on this island the chapel and graveyard feel like an oasis of calm.
The remains of the main chapel, comprising the gable ends, south wall and part of the north wall, are substantial enough to give a sense of its ecclesiastical past. The interior is home to a number of graves and memorials, and on the inside of the south wall is what appears to be a tomb recess, at a height that suggests that the original floor of the building was several feet below what you see today.
Just down the slope to the south of the main chapel is a memorial chapel, also roofless. The highlight here is very easy to overlook. Set into the wall above the east window is a small carving of a face, thought to have been reused from an earlier building on the site. There is another smaller, and also ruinous, building, known as the Lady Chapel, on the west side of the graveyard. Taken as a whole the churchyard offers a variety of interesting gravestones, plus hints of earlier grave slabs beneath a heavy growth of moss. (Continues below image...)
It is believed that there has been a place of Christian worship on this site since the latter half of the 500s. Folklore has it that this was founded by the Irish monk St Moluag, which explains the dedication of the chapel to him. The main ruin you see today is of a chapel built in the 1200s. This appears to have fallen out of use after the Reformation of 1560, and by the time it was visited by Boswell and Johnson in 1773 it was "unroofed and ruinous".
At the time of their visit there was a MacLeod family burial enclosure here. This may have been the Lady Chapel at the west end of the graveyard, which is believed to date back to two centuries before the main chapel, or it may have been on the site of the memorial chapel built to the south of the main chapel in 1839. It was in this earlier enclosure that Boswell noticed that "Above the door, on the east end of it, is a small bust or image of the Virgin Mary, carved upon a stone which makes part of the wall." It is this carving which appears to have been reused above the east window in the 1839 chapel.
Boswell went on to comment: "There is no church upon the island. It is annexed to one of the parishes of Sky; and the minister comes and preaches either in Rasay's house, or some other house, on certain Sundays." Given that the population of the island at the time was over 400, or much more than twice the size it is today, this seems surprising, but certainly helps explain why there was no use for St Maol-luag's Chapel.
A visitor in 1935 recorded that there was at that time a decorated cross-slab in the graveyard. Early records also suggest that there were originally eight erect stones or crosses marking the boundaries of the precinct surrounding the chapel, an area traditionally said to offer sanctuary. It is possible to believe that one of the stones still standing in the graveyard might have once been the base of a cross, but the suggestion has been made that the best preserved of these stone crosses was moved to a new site beside the road a couple of hundred yards to the north west.
If so, then it may be what we have referred to as the Raasay Pictish Stone in our feature about it. The graveyard story seems difficult to square with a story of the roadside stone being found near the harbour at Clachan in 1800, and with its being carved with Pictish symbols as well as a Chi Rho cross. Sometimes it's nice that loose ends are left hanging and there are mysteries that have yet to be resolved.
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Grid Ref: NG 548 367