Celtic Christianity – Visiting some early Christian sites in the Hebrides

Iona – Eilean I Cholm Chille

Was St Columba a Protestant? This was one question that was raised at a recent conference on the Hebridean Island of Iona. The 1450th anniversary of the saint’s first landing there was a huge celebration. Ahead of the big day Historic Scotland which owns the site was encouraging research in preparation for new interpretation of the abbey. Folklore, archaeology and the many carved stones and crosses were among the subjects discussed. One lecturer suggested the Viking raid of 1209/10 was in fact originally planned as a trip by the Norwegian king and archbishop in order to ensure the continuous allegiance of the Hebrides. The brutal attacks that followed were not planned.

Iona Abbey
Iona Abbey

Most monks fled to Ireland after that, but in 1203 Benedictine monks founded another monastery on the island. Augustinian nuns followed suit. By the early 20th century the abbey and nunnery had fallen into disrepair. The Iona Community was founded in 1938 and it restored the abbey. The ecumenical institution today works for social justice and will celebrated their 75th anniversary not long ago. Apparently many denominations claim St Columba as one of the founding fathers of their tradition. Presbyterians say that he never was a bishop, and suggest that this must have meant his disenchantment with the Catholic Church. Catholics respond that the life of the monastery was indeed following Catholic traditions.

Scottish Gaelic bard Aonghas MacNeacail recently raised the question whether St Columba was already a Christian when he came to Iona, pointing out that he came from Derry (Gaelic “Doire” = thicket) and went to Iona (Gaelic “Idhe, “probably from “iubhar” = yew). My impression was that he was alluding to possible Pagan origins of the place names. In any case it was a truly memorable event which certainly strengthened the Scottish-Irish connection.

Tiree – designated monuments of national importance

Kirkapol - Isle of Tiree
Kirkapol – Isle of Tiree

Only a short distance away is the Isle of Tiree. St Columba didn’t only found the monastery on Iona but built a monastic cell on Tiree as well. Campus Luinge or Magh Luinge is said to have been at Soroby, but there is no evidence of it and so it could well have been at Kirkapol. The ruins of two chapels are still to be found there and the place has a special holy feeling about it. They are situated next to the former parish church and one of them was built on a large rock. Nowadays there is only one Church of Scotland left. Tiree doesn’t seem to be quite as spiritual anymore as there were less than twenty people attending the Sunday morning service recently. The island doesn’t have a Catholic church.

But the ruins of the four temples are an indicator that things weren’t always like this. They are are designated monuments of national importance. Originally founded in the 6th century the stone structures are thought to have been built in the 10th century. Viking place-names are common on Tiree and Kirkapol translates as Kirkton. The cell was run by St Baithane, a cousin of St Columba’s. St Oran’s cemetery is situated close by and it used to contain a chapel as well.

Gott Bay - Isle of Tiree
Gott Bay – Isle of Tiree

There are ruins of two other temples: St Kenneth’s and St Patrick’s at the other end of the island. It is not thought that St Patrick visited the island, but St Comgall is said to have built this cell. A heritage trail connects all the chapels and other sites of historic interest. Local retailers have information leaflets. Remember that ferries to Tiree and accommodation on the island can be in short supply in the summer, so book early.

Isle of Oronsay – grave slab schools

Oronsay Priory
Oronsay Priory

To the south lies the Isle of Colonsay. According to tradition St Columba founded a monastery on it’s smaller sister, the Isle of Oronsay. But a monastic settlement is thought to have been established on the island by St Oran in 563. Oronsay was possibly named after him. The remains of an Augustinian Priory from the 14th century, which are thought to have been built in the same location, are today well preserved. It was possibly set up by Iain I, Lord of the Isles, who was at the time based in Finlaggan, Isle of Islay. A letter from the Pope to one of the monks in 1353 confirms the existence of the priory at the time.

High cross, Isle of Oronsay
High cross, Isle of Oronsay

The high cross next to the church was made on Iona, but the Oronsay monks developed their own school which is characterised by a sailing boat with its sails spread rather than folded away as was the case in most other places. There is an impressive collection of grave-slabs in one of the buildings. Some show men in armour, others a sword and others again a clergyman. The last monk is thought to have left around the time of the reformation in 1560.

Grave slab in the Augustinian Priory, Oronsay
Grave slab in the Augustinian Priory, Oronsay

The island had a population of five at the last census. It can be reached on foot at low tide from neighbouring Colonsay. The walk to the priory takes about 45 mins so you should leave yourself at least two hours for the round trip allowing for a good look around at the priory. It is worth wearing wellies and exact local tide times are available on Colonsay. The two islands will soon also be a honey bee reserve as 50 colonies of the only native British species are to be found there. They already are a protected area for choughs and corncrakes though, several good reasons for a visit.

Isle of Lismore – rivalry of St Columba and St Moluag

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Window in the Lismore Parish Church

“Grian Lissmoir di Alba” (The Sun of Lismore in Scotland) is a description of St Moluag according to a wee booklet which I picked up at the St Moluag Centre on the Island of Lismore. It has recently been updated by its author who calls himself “Niall, Coarb of St Moluag.” A Coarb is a person who is not a clergyman and who looks after a church.

Amongst the well known facts is the explanation of the saint’s name: He was called “Lughaidh.” The prefix “mo-” was a sign of respect whereas the suffix “-ag” is a common Gaelic term of endearment. He was born at the start of the 6th century in Ulster and became a bishop in 552. St Moluag founded over 100 monasteries of which place-names such as Kilmoluag and Kilmalu bear witness. The author claims that the first syllable of the island’s name (“Lios” in Gaelic) means monastery. According to Dwelly’s dictionary of the Gaelic language, the most authoritative of its kind, it symply means “garden.”

562 is said to be the year of foundation of the Lismore monastery. According to a well known legend St Moluag, on approaching Lismore, cut off a finger and threw it onto the island while proclaiming that he had taken possession of it. He feared that St Columba was going to reach the island first in his boat. The author doubts that this actually happened. Lismore apparently was a holy island for the Picts whom St Moluag is said to have converted.

Who was more important St Columba or St Moluag? The Coarb argues that St Columba only became famous because he had a biographer: St Adamnan. I have heard this argument before and it isn’t surprising if we remember that oral tradition was more important in those days than writing, despite the fact that Gaelic is the oldest written vernacular north of the Alps.

The Coarb, who is also a priest in the Episcopal Church of Scotland, strongly believes that the saint still performs miracles today. The booklet reads: “As this ancient office of Coarb of St Moluag predates the major schisms in Christ’s Church I hope to be able to use this office to … work towards one holy catholic and apostolic Church.”

So what is left of the Catholic tradition on Lismore? According to an article by the Very Rev. Alexander S. MacWilliam, which I was recently given to me by the St Moluag Centre on the island, no Catholics were left there after the reformation. Nevertheless Bishop Chisholm decided at the beginning of the 19th century to move the Highland seminary from Samalaman in the Rough Bounds of Moidart to Lismore. It seems it wasn’t warmly welcomed on the island and some Catholic clergy had their objections, too, remoteness and Presbyterianism being two of them. Bishop Chisholm, who was based on Lismore himself, replied that travelling to Moidart was just as difficult as getting to the island and that the tranquility provided an excellent location for studying.

It is from letters between bishops that we have most of our information. We know that the Gaelic language was taught at the seminary. But Sir Walter Scott had his doubts regarding the quality of the teaching there, though the question is whether he was in a position to judge. At one point there were eight students based on Lismore. They also had to work in a lime kiln, although it seems the business wasn’t very profitable. In 1815 the building was renovated. When the debt burden following the works became too big, the Bishop was forced to reduce the number of students. The seminary shut in 1827 and the remaining students were transferred to Aquhorties in Aberdeenshire before going to Blairs the following year. Two bishops are buried in the grounds at Kilcheran House on Lismore, overlooking the Lynn of Lorne, where the current Cathedral is only seven or eight miles away in Oban.

Kilmun on the Holy Loch

Kilmun Church
Kilmun Church

The Argyll Mausoleum in Kilmun on the shores of the Holy Loch is an interesting place in its own right. The Dukes of Argyll were buried here from the 15th century. The local Church of Scotland is adjacent to it. But there were always rumors of a much longer history of the site. Archeologists have now confirmed that part of the bell tower dates back to the 12th century. Furthermore there is also a circular stone structure from the 8th century which is believed to have been a monastic cell. A grave stone from around that time could be that of St Mun who came from Ireland to settle in 597 AD. He was initially going to join St Columba on Iona, but then became known as the most austere Celtic saint, willing to accept great suffering so that souls could be saved. He died in 635 AD.

A visitor centre is situated in the church. During the winter it is only open three days a week, but there are also information panels outside. Restoration work at the Mausoleum was completed recently. The Campbells have often been regarded as controversial in history, and it doesn’t at first seem obvious why they would choose such a remote location for their mausoleum. There were many suitable sites closer to their ancient homes at Loch Awe or Inveraray. But the trustees now think Kilmun on the Holy Loch must have been considered a special place of holiness already in the 15th century.

Muckairn – another unlikely place for a cathedral

Taynuilt, east of Oban, was once known as Muckairn as the Brigadier John MacFarlane told me when we had a walk around his home turf. The Church of Scotland parish is still called just that. But John also has ancestors from across Loch Etive where the ruins of Ardchattan Priory are still to be seen. At the back of it are what is left over of a much older Church and the area there used to be known as Baile Bhaodainn. There is a well there which is thought to have healing power.

Grave slabs at Ardchattan Priory
Grave slabs at Ardchattan Priory

Back on the other side of the loch next to what is today the Kirk there are the ruins of what used to be a Catholic Church. It was the site of the first Cathedral of Argyll and the Isles when it split apart from the Diocese of Dunkeld in 1222 AD. Pope Innocent II is believed to have said that it must have been a “rara avis,” a rare bird meaning the bishop who wanted to downsize his area of influence. But maybe it was felt necessary due to the language barrier. The new Bishop Harald of Argyll is said to have been fluent in Gaelic and Norse. The cathedral wasn’t in Taynuilt for long before relocating to Lismore where it was felt to be safer at the time. Some academics believe the first Church in Taynuilt, called “Kilespikerill” was named after Saint Cyril others say it could refer to Harald himself. Canon William Fraser of the Visitation, Taynuilt, has suggested it could mean “Cill Easbuig Earra-Ghàidheal” or the church of the bishop of Argyll. The Church of Scotland, which is there today, is the 7th church in this location.

Monessag Stone, Taynuilt
Monessag Stone, Taynuilt

John gave me a little tour of Muckairn. Our first stop was the Monessag Stone in Airds Bay. Iain believes this could have been the seat of an early saint (indicated by the prefix “Mo-“) whose name might have been Nessa. Given that many monks came from Ireland originally there could well be a connection to King Conchobarr’s mother by the same name. This seems to be the oldest Christian place in Muckairn.

Cnoc Aingeil with Cruachan in the background
Cnoc Aingeil with Cruachan in the background

Another part of it, Balindore, refers to a “deòir” or a keeper of an abbot’s crook who used to live there. The early Church is said to have been based more on abbots rather than bishops. And there is evidence of pre-Christian places, too, such as “Allt a’ Bhile,” the burn of the tree of worship. “Cnoc Aingeil” near the present day Church of Scotland refers to a hillock where fires would be lit at Beltane and this could have been a place of druidism.

Who was St Conan? According to the website of St Conan’s Kirk in Lochawe he is the patron saint of the Lorn area in Argyll. Born in the 7th century he lived in Glenorchy. There is a well in Dalmally named after him. He is said to have blessed it and often sat nearby. When a wolf came one day he managed to make it disappear just as the wolf was about to attack.

St Conan watches over Robert the Bruce

St Conan's Kirk, Lochawe
St Conan’s Kirk, Lochawe

St Conan’s Kirk in the village of Lochawe is a remarkable church – big and beautiful – in a very small place. It has an effigy of Robert the Bruce. The Scottish King won the Battle at the Pass of Brander in the Wars of Scottish Independence in the 14th century.

Effigy of Robert the Bruce, King of Scots
Effigy of Robert the Bruce, King of Scots

Not surprisingly St Conan also has a place in the church. Following in the tradition of St Columba, although he didn’t know him personally, he later became a bishop on the Isle of Man. He died in 684, although the exact date is a matter of debate. An Irish monk who researched his earlier colleagues set the day as 13th January. Iain Colgan published his book, Acta Sanctorum Hiberniae, in Louvain, in Belgium in 1645. The saint’s feast day is thus celebrated on 13th January.

St Conan, Lochawe
St Conan, Lochawe

Apparently St Conan wasn’t afraid of meeting the Devil face to face. One day the two met to decide the future of the souls of the people of Lorn. They went about this in a business-like manner. The good people were to be the saint’s, the bad the Devil’s and the middling were to be shared equally. This, they agreed, would happen by choosing in turns. But allegedly the Devil got too excited and stretched out his hand when it was the saint’s turn. St Conan though would have none of this and exclaimed, “Na, na, fair play, paw for paw.” This phrase has apparently passed into proverbial use.

Mariota Stone returns to Isle of Mull

The Mariota Stone captured many people’s imagination. For around 500 years it lay in a graveyard near Bunessan on the Isle of Mull so its origins are likely to precede the reformation. The inscription (originally in Latin) apparently reads: “Here lies Mariota, daughter of…” and the rest is illegible. Over the centuries rain and roots had damaged the stone but it has been restored by Historic Scotland. It is now sheltered in a wooden box. It is thought that Mariota was a Christian as there is a cross on the stone. Mary MacDonald’s grave is also said to be in the graveyard. She wrote the famous tune “Leanaibh an Àigh” which later became known all over the world as “Morning has broken.”

Locals showed me a Sheelanagig on the outside wall of the ruined 12th century church. I remembered having seen another one at the nunnery on Iona. They are small sculptures of women showing their genitals – not something you would expect to find on a church wall. Their origins are unknown, yet they are found in many places in Britain and Ireland. Some can be found in mainland Europe as well. The most common explanation is that they were Celtic Pagan symbols incorporated into Christianity.

Davaar and Sanda Islands

Causeway to the tidal Davaar Island
Causeway to the tidal Davaar Island

Davaar Island can be reached at low tide via a causeway in about 20 minutes. It takes another 20 minutes to a cave containing a painting of Jesus on the Cross. The last 10 minutes are a bit difficult to walk over stones.

Jesus on Cross inside a cave on Davaar
Jesus on Cross inside a cave on Davaar

Local resident, Archibald MacKinnon, had a dream in 1887 to paint Jesus on the Cross in this cave and so he did. On its discovery, people in Campbeltown thought it was a sign from God and when they found out who has painted it he was expelled from the town. It is well signposted and the timings of the tide can be found here as well as at Campbeltown tourist office.

Nearby is Sanda Island which is also well worth a visit. It is privately owned, but the owners usually welcome visitors. There is a ruin of a chapel there, which St Ninian founded. The first evangeliser north of Hadrian’s wall is said to be burried on the island, too. Legend has it that his grave is marked by an alder tree and that whoever stepped on it would die.


2 thoughts on “Celtic Christianity – Visiting some early Christian sites in the Hebrides

  1. Hello traveler. Lovely photos of some places I’ve been to.
    No, St. Columba wasn’t a Presbyterian or Catholic since neither existed as independent entities during his era.
    The center of the ‘Church’ was still Constantinople with Patriarchs in various locations such as Rome. The Western Patriarch in Rome (Pope) placed a Bull on the high Altar of Hagia Sophia during the Pascha (Easter) Liturgy, excommunicating the Eastern Ecumenical Patriarch (1054).
    Interesting to the Hebrides is the Egyptian influences in monks beehive cells, and manor of decorating objects. The Spirituality was very different than what missionaries from Rome brought to England. More organic.
    My great grandparents came from Mull (MacLeans) and I went on a Pilgrimage there with Mull Monastery. I’m Orthodox (you might have guessed) and have been reading about those early Saints.


    1. Hi Bonnie, Thanks for your comment. Always good to hear from folk. Interesting to hear as well that there is another take on St Columba. I heard about the Mull monastery and indeed tried to contact the Orthodox priest, but sadly have had no reply. Do you know how to get in touch with him? I was hoping to report on his plans not just on this blog on other media. Kind regards.


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