Balnakeil Church, Durness

Balnakeil Church (also called Durness Old Church, and Baile na ceille in Gaelic, meaning "Bay of the Church") is a beautiful ruin and I had to explore it for research purposes. I have a couple of scenes set inside it.

Balnakeil Church and cemetery
One interesting thing about the church is that Donald McMurdo is buried inside. He was an infamous highwayman and assassin who lived in the Durness area in the early 1600s. He is said to have murdered eighteen people, throwing some of them down the blow hole of the nearby Smoo Cave. He sounded so interesting and chilling, I had to incorporate him into my novels as one of the villains. Standing beside his tomb and reading the inscription was a fascinating experience for me, both unsettling and enlightening.

Donald McMurdo is known by a few different names—Donald Macmurchow, Domhnull MacMhurchaidh, or Donald MacLeod. One source indicates he was a henchman to the chiefs of Clan MacKay. It is said, in his later years, Donald McMurdo helped finance the building of the church by donating a thousand pounds so that he could be buried inside. Some say his employer paid for the tomb (and the inscription seems to back this up). There is much speculation about why he wanted to be buried inside the church, but no one really knows. One of the more popular ideas, and the one I used in my books, is that he feared that the people of Durness, who hated him so badly for his murderous ways, would desecrate his remains and his grave after his death if not sealed up in the church.

Donald McMurdo's tomb.
Donald McMurdo's gravestone. Click to enlarge.
 The inscription reads (with modern spellings): "Donald Makmurchou here lies low/ Was ill to his friend, and worse to his foe/ True to his master in prosperity and woe. DMMC 1623"

It is said McMurdo's grave is situated halfway in the ground and halfway above ground. In this way, his remains are protected within the church, but his eternal soul is exposed to the Almighty.

The church was built in 1619 (another source says 1617) on the foundation of an older church that was here during the crusades. And it was rebuilt in 1690. Balnakeil is considered a center of Christianity since the 8th century. It was founded by St. Maelrubha and was an important Celtic monastery. The church was abandoned in the mid-1800s when the present day church was built.

Gaelic poet, Rob Donn (born near Durness in 1714) is buried in the cemetery outside the church and so is Elizabeth Parkes, aunt of John Lennon. Also the unmarked mass grave of the crew of a ship that sank off Faraid Head in 1849 is located here.

View of Faraid Head on the other side of the bay.
One of the scenes I set in Balnakeil Church, from My Brave Highlander, is of Dirk visiting his father's tomb.

Upon entering the building, he paused in the silence and cold still air. The place smelled of fresh mortar and rock dust. Of a sudden, he missed the ancient chapel that had been here before he'd left. It was several hundred years old, but in poor condition. Walking up the aisle, he saw they had reused the colorful stained glass window. It had not been too many years since the whole of Durness had converted from Catholicism to Protestantism, and he was glad to see they'd recognized the value of the window.
He found his father's tomb near the front but off to the side. The gentle light of sunset gleamed through the gold and red stained glass, highlighting Griff MacKay's name and the carving of his visage—a high proud forehead, a strong brow, a firm mouth that had issued many a stern order but also enjoyed a good laugh. It was a good likeness of him.
"I'm sorry I didn't return before you passed, Da," Dirk whispered.
If only he could've seen his father alive one last time. He had never regretted anything so much. Tracing his fingers over his father's face in the stone, he wondered what Da would've thought of him now. Would he have been glad to see he hadn't died twelve years ago? Would he be proud of the man Dirk had become during those absent years?
Aye, Dirk had to believe he would. He'd want a detailed recounting of all Dirk's adventures during his travels. He'd want to know about each of the battles he'd fought.
"You have returned, my chief."
His thoughts scattering, Dirk jerked around. The minister, black-clothed and gray-haired, stood behind him.
Chief? Not yet, but soon.
Dirk strode toward him. "'Tis good to see you again, Reverend."
"I'd heard you were back. I cannot believe how like Griff MacKay you look," Reverend MacMahon said, his mouth agape as he shook Dirk's hand.
"That's what I've been told." Dirk was proud that he resembled his father in some small way, even if they did differ in personality.
The minister turned serious. "A few weeks ago, your Uncle Conall told me what happened when you were a lad." He shook his head. "Such greed and evil I can hardly fathom."
The minister's expression eased into what might be considered a faint grin for the stern man. "It appears we'll have to remove your memorial plaque."
"Memorial plaque?"
"Aye, 'tis outside on the kirk wall, with Faraid Head in the background. Your father wanted it there. Sometimes he would come here and stare at it for a long while. Or 'haps he was staring toward Faraid Head, hoping to see you returning from amongst the dunes."
Dirk frowned. Guilt cut through him when he imagined his father's grief at thinking he'd died. "I hate that I caused him pain, but it couldn't be helped."
"'Tis true. You did what you had to in order to survive. He sent search parties around the shoreline, looking for you. After many weeks, he gave up the hunt and accepted that you must have died. Then we had a memorial service for you. 'Twas lovely, I must say." Reverend MacMahon gave a wry grin.
"Well, I thank you for that, then." Uncomfortable with the subject at hand, Dirk scanned the walls and the lofty ceiling. "The new church is beautiful. Well built."
"Aye. Your father was determined to finish the project before he passed, and thanks be to God he did see it completed. He enjoyed coming here and watching while the craftsmen and stonemasons worked. We kept the original stone floor."
Dirk nodded, noticing another new tomb off to the side, but it contained no plaque. "Who is interred there?"
"No one yet, but it is reserved for Donald McMurdo. He donated a substantial amount of money for the rebuilding of the church."
Disbelief and outrage clawed through Dirk. "McMurdo? That murdering highwayman?"
A regretful expression crossed the reverend's face. "Aye. The very same."
"He has killed an untold number of innocent people."
"I have no doubt he has. And finally, it seems he has grown concerned about his immortal soul. That's why he donated so much."
"Blood money," Dirk muttered, feeling suddenly that the church was tainted.
"The good Lord is forgiving."
"And are you certain McMurdo has repented of all the murders and crimes he's committed?" Surely 'twas the same man who'd held Dirk and his party at gunpoint just before they'd reached Durness.
"God only knows, but he wanted to be buried within the church walls. I think he fears the MacKay clan and the people of Durness will desecrate his remains after he dies if he is not buried in a protected place. As far as I'm concerned, he bought a tomb, not his way into heaven. His fate is in God's hands."
"Indeed." But to have a murderer's future tomb so close to his father's and all his ancestors' grated on Dirk's already frayed nerves. If McMurdo tried any more deadly tricks he might find himself occupying his fancy tomb sooner rather than later.
"Aye, I definitely see your father in you." The minister gave another one of those near imperceptible grins. "You have his temper and his sense of right and wrong. He never could stand injustice. You will make a formidable chief. A brilliant leader. Your father would be proud." He gave a brief bow. "If there is anything I can do to assist you, let me know."
"I thank you, Reverend. There will be a hearing in two days at the castle. The clan will decide who the rightful chief is. If you would be willing to testify that you remember me and know me to be Dirk MacKay, eldest son of Griff MacKay, that would be a great help to me."
"I'll be glad to. I bid you good evening."
Dirk bowed, and the minister retreated out the side door, likely headed to his nearby cottage.
A memorial plaque? Dirk had to see this.
He gave the new chapel one final glance and left by the front door, still feeling disturbed that it was built with a murderer's money. Why would his father allow such a thing… unless the clan was having financial difficulty? Had Maighread and her fancy manor house bled them dry? He'd have to talk to the steward soon after he was installed as chief.
Outside, Dirk meandered between the grass-covered graves with their old tombstones. The sun, having dropped behind the hills, stained the sky orange, pink and violet. The whole of the north wall faced the bay and Faraid Head beyond, depending on where an onlooker might stand. Halfway along, he noticed a carved gray stone plaque set into the wall. It measured about a foot in height. He moved forward to stand before it.
To honor the memory of Dirk MacKay, brave and noble son of Chief Griffin MacKay. Born 1591. Died 1606 Faraid Head. We miss you.
Of a sudden, he felt the finality of his death just as his father and clan did. It could have so easily been true.
A few feet away stood the grave marker for his cousin who truly had died that day, William MacKay.
His stepmother was a murderer in truth.
Something thumped behind him and he whirled, hand on his sword hilt, alert and ready to lash out.
The dark-clothed figure from the beach stood ten feet away.
My Brave Highlander copyright 2012 Vonda Sinclair

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Thank you!


Ella Quinn - Romance Novelist said...

Lovely photos. I so wish many of these old buildings would be restored. Tweeted.

Vanessa Holland said...

That's so cool to see McMurdo's grave. After reading your books, I feel like I know who he was in real life. The inscription is chilling.

Lani said...

I LOVED the photos too! And I loved learning about the highway man. Very interesting!

The excerpt is AMAZING!

Paisley Kirkpatrick said...

The history here is unbelievably interesting. One thing about Scotland is there great history and how much of it is preserved...not like here where old means to tear it down for modern. Thanks for sharing - yep, I am homesick again. :)

Lana Williams said...

If you only knew how much I appreciate all your amazing pictures! It's almost as good as having the chance to visit! Love the excerpt too!

Vonda Sinclair said...

Thank you, Ella! I wish they could be too!

Vanessa, thanks! I thought it was really cool to visit, although a bit creepy. I agree about the inscription.

Lani, thank you re: the photos and excerpt! So glad you liked them!

Vonda Sinclair said...

Paisley, thanks! But I'm sorry to make you homesick again. Scotland has some fascinating history.

Lana, thank you so much! I'm thrilled you enjoy the pics and excerpt! :)

Ttami Dee said...

Great post and photos. I loved the book also. :-) You really bring the past to life.

Vonda Sinclair said...

Thank you so much, Tami! I'm thrilled you liked the book! :)

Carly Carson said...

"Ill to his friend, and worse to his foe" That says a lot in a few words! Creepy.

Vonda Sinclair said...

Absolutely, Carly! How could I resist putting him into my books as a villain? :)