The burial ground at Cladh Mhuire, located at Baile nan Cailleach, still exists and the remains of a building are visible in the church yard (see picture above). According to the OS Name Books (OS1/18/10/19) the name ‘is applied to a burying place, which is used at the present time, but is of ancient date, there is a small roofless building standing inside this graveyard which is supposed to have been a chapel at one time, (St. Mary's Chapel) hence the name given to the graveyard- Situated a short distance to the north-east of Nunton-’. Carmichael also writes that the ruins found in the burial ground are ‘the Ruins of an ancient Chapel’ and that ‘It is supposed to have been built in the time of St. Columba’ (OS Name Books OS1/18/10/19, added in 1873).
There are two key-issues to discuss in relation to the site: firstly, although Carmichael raises the possibility that this was an early medieval chapel, his statement needs to be treated with considerable caution and be evaluated in the context of other available evidence. Secondly, the sources are conflicting in what the name(s) relating to this site may have originally referred to. Although clearly ecclesiastical in nature, the accounts vary in their descriptions of what an original name may have represented.
The place-name Baile nan Cailleach ‘The Nuns’ Settlement’ which first appears in the sources in the late 16th century as Ballienamgalleath and Baillienangalleach is perhaps the most certain indication of the ecclesiastical nature of the site in the late medieval period. MacDonald (2010, 89) argues that both Baile nan Cailleach and Baile a’ Mhanaich were ‘probably gifted [to the nuns and monks of Iona] at the same time’, around 1440, as recorded in The Book of Clanranald which states that ‘Donald of Isla had another son, and it was in his time that Baile-an-Mhanuidh in Uist was given to the church, anno Domini 1440’. If this is the case, it is possible that the name Baile nan Cailleach and the association with the Iona nunnery does not pre-date the 15th century. Although there is a clear connection to the nunnery on Iona, this does not mean there was a nunnery here on Benbecula—it could merely be that the land here belonged to the nuns, and hence acquired the name ‘farm of the nuns’. On the other hand, several sources, including Martin 1703, 82 and NSA (see below) record that there was a nunnery here. If there is any truth in the story recorded by Carmichael (1900, 202) which describes two nuns who had visited a sick woman, it would also strongly imply that there was at least a small community of nuns present on Benbecula at some point in time (see story below).
Although the association with the nuns of Iona may not pre-date the 15th century, it does not exclude the possibility of an earlier site being located here which predates the grant to Iona. Several sources, including Martin (1703, 82), are consistent in stating that there was a chapel here, likely the structure which now remains at Cladh Mhuire. Only the name of the church yard now survives, but if the sources are correct in their assertation that there was an early church located here, it would imply a now lost *Cill Mhuire. Anderson (1881, 213) gives a highly dubious account of the existence of an ancient bell here, stating that: ‘Captain Thomas informs me that he was told that in the recollection of persons still living, an ancient bell used to lie in the ruins of the church of Kilmory, at Nuntown, in benbecula, but it was carried off by a tinker for old metal.’ It is noteworthy that he refers to the site as Kilmory, implying that at some point there was indeed a cill-name here. Carmichael (1872) also records a story about Baile a’ Mhanaich and Baile nan Cailleach in which it is referred to as ‘Caibeal Mhoire, Nunton’. Another story asserts that the chapel (caibeal) ‘was got up’ after Bàrd Dubh Mhic Mhic Neill Bharraigh was buried here (Carmichael 1871), but the historical accuracy of this account should be treated with caution.
Early map makers such as Ortelius and Mercator are not always reliable sources for place-names in the Western Isles of Scotland, but it is noteworthy that they all record a relatively early association with St Mary. Although none of these sources include a generic element, if accurate, they likely refer to the *Cill Mhuire recorded by Anderson. It may be significant that Blaeu only records Baile nan Cailleach (Ballinnagallach) and omits any dedication to Mary which may imply that by the 17th century the association with the nuns had superseded any earlier independent status a chapel located here had. In this context, we should note that both cill and caibeal are used to refer to the chapel and could indicate that caibeal replaced an earlier cill. A shift could reflect the status of the chapel as a subsidiary of Baile nan Cailleach rather than an independent church which would be consistent with the use of caibeal at Howmore.
The most likely conclusion is perhaps that this site became associated with the nuns of Iona in the mid-15th century, potentially representing a small community of nuns with a chapel dedicated to St Mary. However, the possibility that the name Baile nan Cailleach was coined to reflect the ownership of the surrounding lands should also be considered.
In terms of chronology, a date earlier than the 15th century must be treated with caution, but the chapel may have pre-dated Baile nan Cailleach. Although Carmichael asserts that the chapel was built in the time of St Columba there is little to support this. In fact, there is some inconsistency if we consider the local tradition he records where it was ‘got up’ after Bàrd Dubh Mhic Mhic Neill Bharraigh was buried there, an event which certainly would have taken place much later than the lifetime of St Columba. Like several other sites in Uist (see Kilmuir and Moire), an association with St Mary does not provide any firm dating grounds due to the universality of her cult. Nevertheless, it is important not to dismiss an early date since, as demonstrated by Clancy and Márkus (1995, 33-4), dedications to Mary were current as early as the 8th century (also see Kilmuir). If there was a shift from cill to caibeal as the generic element, it may indicate that the chapel pre-dated the association with the nuns of Iona, as argued above, but ultimately any conclusions must be tentative, especially since the forms in cill and caibeal are both 19th century.
RCAHMS (1928, 99) Chapel, Nunton: ‘Within a graveyard at Nunton is the roofless shell of a small church, oblong on plan, built of rubble in mortar. It measures 24¾ feet by 15¾ feet over walls 2½ feet thick. The entrance, centred in the west gable, is surmounted by a small square niche; in the opposite gable is a small narrow window, and there are two others similar in each of the side walls. The ruin is in fair condition, but the ground has silted up considerably.’
Carmichael (1900, 202): ‘There were many religious houses throughout the Isles. Two of these were in Benbecula–one at “Baile-mhanaich”, Monk’s-town, and one at “Baile-nan-cailleach,” Nuns’-town. These houses were attached to Iona, and were ruled and occupied by members of the first families of the Western Isles […]
It is said that two nuns had been visiting a sick woman. When returning home from the moorland to the townland, they heard the shrill voice of a child and the soft voice of a woman. The nuns groped their way down the rugged rocks, and there found a woman soothing a child in her arms. They were the only two saved from a wreck–the two frailest in the ship. The nuns took them home to Nunton. The woman was an Irish princess and a nun, and the child an Irish prince, against whose life a usurper to the throne had conceived a plot. The holy princess fled with the child-prince, intending to take him for safety to Scandinavia.’ (The full account of the story can be found here.)
Carmichael (1871): ‘Cladh-Mhoire Nunton had a roof which was burnt down in the sam [same] night with all the other churches in Scot [Scotland] – No such secret as this was ever Kept. Nothing is know [known] of it. Bard dubh mhic Neill Bharrai [Bharraidh] was the first bur [buried] there No cladh then. He came to see Nunton (Clanrand) [Clanranald] & fell ill in galara bhais He askt [asked] in such a hilloc [hillock] so that he might see Beinn Bhearnach Bharrai [Bharraidh]. This was done & so in course of time the caibeal was got up.’
OPS (370): ‘Two miles south from Baillvanich is Nuntoun (formerly Ballienangallich or Bael-nin-killach), where there existed till lately a building, probably a chapel of the nuns of Iona, but locally believed to have been a nunnery dedicated to the Virgin Mary.’
NSA (188): ‘In the island of Benbecula, there was a nunnery on the farm now called Nuntown.’
Martin (1703, 82): ‘There are also some small Chappels here [Benbecula], one of them at Bael-nin-Killach, id est, Nuns-Town, for there were Nunneries here in time of Popery. The Natives have lately discover’d a Stone Vault on the East-side the Town, in which there are an abundance of small Bones, which have occasion’d many uncertain Conjectures; some said they were the Bones of Birds, others judg’d them rather to be the Bones of Birds, others judg’d them rather to be the Bones of Pigmies. The Proprietor of the Town enquiring Sir Normand Mackleod’s Opinion concerning them, he told him that the matter was plain as he suppos’d, and that they must be the Bones of Infants born by the Nuns there.’
Grid reference: NF766538
G cladh ‘a burial ground, cemetery, graveyard’ + pn Mary (the Blessed Virgin)
(‘St Mary’s Burial Ground’)
1580 Ortelius* S. Maria
1595 Mercator St. Maria
1607 Hole St Maria
1610 Speed S. Maria
OS 6-inch Cladh Mhuire (Burial Ground) (and Chapel (Ruins))
[*Note that these earlier forms most likely refer to a lost *Cill Mhuire]