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Balnakeil Church

Sited at the western end of Balnakeil Bay is the ruins of an old church. Founded in 722 by St. Maelrubha, the present building dates from 1619.


The old church stands on the site of one of the first Christian establishments and one of the oldest Culdee settlements in Sutherland Culdees were missionaries from Iona.


A definite place of worship since the 12th century for there is records in the Vatican archives that proves the church contributed to the third crusade in 1190. It is also on record that the church of Balnakeil was responsible for supplying oil and incense to Dornoch Cathedral from 1222 to 1245 during the episcopate of Saint Gilbert, Bishop Gilbert de Moravia.


It is likely that a Celtic church existed on this site for hundreds of years before Saint Gilbert. Tradition relates the ruins of the present church go back to 1619 when it was built on the ruins of an earlier one. In turn, possibly on an even earlier cell of Saint Maelrubha, the Red Priest as early as the 8th century. Saint Maelrubha of Applecross traveled north after evangelising most of Sutherland from Lairg. It is evident that the church at Balnakeil is very ancient and the three great persuasions, the Celtic, Roman Catholic and Protestant religions must have worshiped there.

The aisle was added in 1692. The church is L shaped and small. The nave measures seven meters by four point five meters and could not have accommodated more than a hundred of a congregation. When the church was obedient to the Roman Catholic authority, the High Altar was placed under the arched window at the east end of the chancel. An ancient stone font used to lie in the chancel called the font of the red priest and it is considered that this was the font used by Maelrubha to baptist his Pictish converts. The font disappeared without trace around 1984. The bell tower is on the south east corner of the building and was probably erected when the church was reconstructed in 1619. A sundial on the belfry casts quite an accurate shadow. In mid 1998 a report was made to Historic Scotland regarding a noticeable leaning of this wall into the church.

Beside a tomb of Domhnull MacMhurchaidh inside the church lies a hollowed stone that was split in two. Local folklore states that Maelrubha’s famous divining pearl was supposed to have rested on the stone. Anyone who could retain possession of the pearl for twenty four hours could have any wish desired. There were many who took the pearl but it was always back in the bowl before sunrise the following morning. The tale describes that the priests from Balnakeil ran a lucrative business with the pearl. They would sell it to merchants and sailors who were passing, certain in the knowledge that it would be back in the bowl the same day. One story tells of an Irish captain whose ship was anchored in Balnakeil Bay, met the priests and when told about the mystical pearl being brought from Ireland by Maelrubha was convinced of its magical properties. He had the pearl encased in a golden circlet from which it could not escape. The next morning the stone in Balnakeil Church was found lying split in two! Actually, the stone bowl was a knocking stone which was used to grind corn.

There are a number of interesting 18th and 19th century gravestones, notably the large stone to the Anderson’s of Keoldale


Within the old cemetery there is supposed to be a massed grave of the victims of the “Canton”, an emigrant ship which sank with the loss of all lives off Faraid Head in 1849.  There is nothing to mark this site. Research has uncovered very little except the below found on the internet

“22. 8.1847 “CANTON”, Hull barque, for America in ballast. Totally wrecked on Farout Head. All hands lost.

Storm as occurred on 9/8/06 with strong northerly winds caught unawre and not prepared for severe weather in August”

The walled cemetery is the present burial ground where ancestors for respective generations with families currently residing in Durness are laid to rest. The wall is kept in a good state of repair and periodic renovation work has been carried out. The most recent substantial repairs around 1980. At the entrance to the cemetery, the pillars at the gate bear the date 1857. There are a number of interesting 18th and 19th century gravestones. The most prominent is the large stone to the Anderson s of Keoldale. Around 1980, an extension was added to the cemetery.

In 1938, a report was made on recommendations for the preservation of Balnakeil church The building was reported to be roofless though at that time a lean to roof in the south west corner protected plants belonging to the County Council. The doors and windows opening in the south wall were built up and the whole building partly overgrown with ivy. Urgent treatment of the general condition of the building was recommended. The ivy to be carefully removed from the masonry. All the fractures were to be cleaned out and consolidated. The loose and overgrown stones forming the wall tops to be re-bedded and growth removed. The upper surfaces to be pointed with lime and mortar and an additional waterproofing compound. The voids in the masonry were to be cleaned and grouted. The north gable was considered to be dangerous, all the crow-steps had been removed and the seatings were loose.

These were carefully secured in position so as not to disturb the original arrangement. To prevent further collapse and deterioration urgent work was estimated to cost fifty pounds. Additional recommendations included removal of the lean to for greater access and the cleaning of all debris from the floor area to expose the stone slabs. Clear out all decayed mortar, re-point and consolidate. Remove the stone infilling from the two windows and doors in the south wall. It was also suggested that the modern pointing on the east gable and belfry be removed and re pointed with lime mortar, as it was unsightly. The west gable also needed to be re-pointed and consolidated with the added suggestion that the three entrances be fitted with simple wrought iron gates. The cost of this additional work was estimated to be one hundred and fifty pounds.

Around 1983 there was renovation work carried out on the steps descending into the church from the main doorway and the addition of a handrail. The district war memorial stood in the  churchyard until xxxxx when moved to the village square. The names of thirty five men who gave their lives in both world wars are inscribed on this Celtic cross.

Domhnull MacMhurchaidh

An engaging fireside tale about the tomb built into the niche on the south wall of Balnakeil church is said to be the last resting-place of a famous local villain, Donald MacMurdo, known as Domhnull MacMhurchaidh. He raided all and anyone from his den at, on the east side of Eriboll and was responsible for at least eighteen murders. He paid Uisdean Dubh MacKay the second Lord of Reay who was rebuilding the church in 1619 one thousand pounds on condition he was buried in a specially built vault in the church to prevent his enemies from interfering with his remains.


This man had two sons, men of giant physique and both with hearts as black as his own.

One occasion is related about an encounter with the minister of Durness Alexander Munro. Mr. Munro was detained for some time on pastoral duty in the eastern district of his parish being the guest of Sir Donald Mackay, afterwards the first Lord Reay, whose daughter his son was later to marry. When he left for home his host insisted that in view of the nature of the wildness of the times he should be accompanied by an armed attendant.


Coming to the banks of the River Hope the minister deemed this to be a suitable opportunity to wrestle with the soul of Donald MacLeod. The villain was believed to be ending his earthly journey and it might be that before he went to his grave he could be brought to a sense of his sins and need of a saviour and of genuine repentance of faith. At least the minister thought he could but try. When he came to the old mans' cottage he turned in at the door and started to tackle him. Donald however far from proving a subject of grace took deadly offence at being spoken to by the minister in this way and but for the presence of the armed guard from Tongue the worthy minister from Durness might have been Donald's Nineteenth victim.

Shortly afterwards the two sons who had been absent at the time of the call returned to their fathers house. They were then charged to follow the minister immediately and not to show face again without the heart of the man who so gravely insulted their father. The sons went off in pursuit but as they neared the minister, they were challenged by the armed escort. The story continues that now the sons fearing their father's wrath killed a sheep and removed the heart, that they pretended to be that of the ministers. The old villain is said to have viewed the heart for some time and said he always knew that Munros were cowards but never until then knew they had hearts of sheep.

Tradition has it that after some deed of violence more repulsive than previous he became so taunted and enraged by a prediction that his own remains would be thrown into a pit covered with sods and trampled upon by the lowest of gods creatures. To avoid such a fate Donald offered to build the side of the church at his own expense if he were allowed to make a vault in the recess for his own coffin. As already mentioned concerning the church the true fact of the tomb is disputed but is a source of fascination.

"Donald Makmurchou here lies lo w Was ill to his friend, and worse to to his foe True to his master in prosperity and woe. DMMC 1623"

Each alternate quarter has an upright hand, a ship in sail, a stag’s head and a fish. There is apparently scant evidence to prove this tail. It is thought the south wall was built long before the 1619 restoration. It would appear that the villain’s body might have been moved into the wall by the minister of the time, the Rev. Alexander Munro, after his grave in the churchyard had been desecrated by his enemies. Story has it that many of his victims received a much less quiet and dignified burial than he did. He is reputed to have flung them down the sinkhole through which the Alt Smoo plunges into Smoo Caves’ second chamber. There are various interpretations and theories about this villain. Periodically the stories are retold in the local press. In October 1998, the Northern Times carried an article and letters to the editor were printed in the preceding editions. The stone in the church reads the name as McMurchey and the debate is not so much about the actions of the man but about his name.

The Canton Emigrant Ship
Mrs. Jenny Mackay, nee MacDonald, and Donald MacDonald wrote this account in December 1968.

“At seven am on the twelfth of August 1849 women were herding cows at the back of Lerin. It was a flat calm day and there were innumerable midges. Two sailing ships were sighted, coming from the direction of Orkney. One was a three mast baroque ‘Canton’ an emigrant ship the other is not known. The Canton passed so close inshore that the women with the cows could hear the voices of people speaking on deck. By eleven a northerly gale had sprung up of such severity that the women could not keep their shawls on.

The unknown ship passed safely round the Faraid, but the Canton missed stays and was driven on to the rocks near Clach Mhor na Faraid with the loss of every one on board. Neil Mackay’s grandfather was herding cows near the Durine cross roads and heard the crash as she struck. The only creature to survive was a black pig, which swam ashore. A relation of Robb the Dyker, known as Dreely (Oystercatcher) from his habit of beachcombing saw the pig appear out of the waves and took it to be the devil. It survived for some time at Balnakeil Farm.

Two men from the parish of Durness were on board the Canton. It is presumed they were taken on board in Thurso at Scrabster, as there was not time from her first sighting to her loss, for her to have picked them up in Loch Eriboll. One of the men was a son of Anna Mather and Lachan Ross, and Grieve at Eriboll Farm who was going out to join his two elder brothers in Texas. He was identified (by his father) by the unmistakable wide gap in his front teeth. The brothers in Texas had been very poor when they arrived and joined the army. They then bought land in Texas and oil was discovered.

The bodies, which were recovered, were buried in the north east corner of the graveyard at Balnakeil, where a mound can be seen – unmarked. The captain’s wife had exceptionally beautiful long hair, which floated round her body as she was washed ashore.

Donald’s great-grandfather was an elder of the church. On the Sunday morning, a cask of brandy was washed ashore at Balnakeil. He said to his companion “May God forgive me, but lift it on to my back” There was also a good deal of money washed ashore – triangular paper money (Clydesdale Bank). George Mackay the weaver was seen by a visitor to have money spread out all over the floor, drying in the heat of the fire.

The chains and anchors of the Canton can still be seen at low water in what is still known as Canton’s Pool. The Indian teak from the deck house was used for many years as a lambing bothy at the Fharaid, and is still (1968) in good condition with small sliding windows.”

The bothy referred to is now absent from view. The sand dunes on Faraid Head are in constant motion and it is feasible to assume the hut is now buried under the sand or deteriorated and blown away in strong winds.

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