The ruins of Teampull Chaluim Chille are still visible, located south-east of Baile a’ Mhanaich. As depicted on Blaeu’s Atlas (see image), the church appears to originally have been located on an island in Loch na Cille, which according to Carmichael (1900, 81) was called ‘Loch Chaluim-chille’. By the 19th century the loch appears to have shrunk sufficiently for the church to be located on marshy ground to the west. OPS also records that it ‘appears to have stood on the north coast of the island’. Capt. Thomas (1890 (1871), 241) was convinced that the archaeological remains were of an early date, stating that: ‘The older building I believe to be of great age, possibly erected under the direction of St Columba himself’.
The entry in the OS Name Books (OS1/18/10/22) reads: ‘Signifies “St Columba's Church” and is applied to an ancient church, situated on the west side of Loch [na] Cille in the district of Bal[ivanich] Its walls stands about 8 feet [high] except the east end which has [fallen] down nearly to the ground, its [walls] are about 3½ feet thick.’
At best, a direct association with St Columba as proposed by Capt. Thomas (1890 (1871), 241). is extremely tenuous. Although the earliest structure may be of an early medieval date, there is little to suggest that St Columba was ever here. Rather, his conclusion reflects the scholarly consensus in the 19th and 20th centuries that saints of the ‘Celtic Church’ commemorated in places were often the founders of that church. In modern scholarship this has largely been disproved and ‘few church dedications in Scotland directly reflect an act of church-foundation by the person after whom they are named, or his/her disciples; almost all commemorate saints already dead, and often not of the immediate locality.’ (Clancy 2013-14, 1: also see for further discussion on saints’ cults). In contrast with Baile nan Cailleach, there are few traditions associated with Baile a’ Mhanaich asserting that there was a monastery here. Only OPS (370) mentions it, stating that the chapel ruins were ‘said to be those of a monastery, but probably the remains of a chapel belonging to the monks of Iona.’ It is therefore likely that the name Baile a’ Mhanaich (The monks’ Settlement) refers to the ownership of the lands surrounding Teampull Chaluim Chille by Iona and it is indeed likely that the name was coined around the time when the lands were transferred in the 1440s (see below).
In addition to the obvious association with St Columba, there are traditions asserting that St Torannán was the founder of Teampull Chaluim Chille. Perhaps the most extensive version recorded in written form is provided by Carmichael (1900, 80-1) who records a story where St Torannán is described as ‘the accepted missionary of the people of Uist’ (see below). If the story reflects any genuine early tradition (here it is important to note that the first surviving record of this story is from the 19th century), it would place the foundation of the chapel at a very early date since St Torannán was a contemporary of St Columba, placing him in the 6th century (Watson 2004 (1926), 298-99). It is presumably this Torannán who is described in the Martyrology of Oengus as:
‘Torannán buan bannach
tar ler lethan longach’
‘Torannán of the lasting deeds, (who came) over the broad, ship-abounding ocean’ (Ó Cróinín 1981, 105). However, there appears to be considerable confusion over who the Torannán in question might be. His name appears in various forms and he has also been confused with Palladius (Ó Cróinín 1981, 105; Watson 2004 (1926), 299; also see Clancy 1999, 84-5 and MacQuarrie with Butter 2012, 418-20 for further discussion on Torannán and Palladius), meaning that any firm conclusions based on an association with St Torannán would be problematic.
On the other hand, can the place-name Teampull Chaluim Chille tell us anything about the history of this site? Although in its current form the generic element is given as G teampull, Blaeu’s map form (Kilcholambkil) reflects an underlying cill which should be viewed in the context of other cill-names, particularly those dedicated to St Columba as ‘Calum Cille’. The earliest certain date for a direct association with Iona is in the mid-15th century when The Book of Clanranald records 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’. Therefore, we should consider the possibility that it was not until the later medieval period that Teampull Chaluim Chille became attached to Iona. Taylor (1997, 47) reminds us that ‘The fact remains that the area where the more important Columba-commemorations are found (cill-names, parishes etc.) reflects more than anything else the lands and influence of the Benedictine abbey of Iona in the later middle ages’, but that ‘ownership by Iona ‘may have been based on a much older paruchia or sphere of Iona influence’. One argument put forward is that ‘Kilcolmkill’ names, which can only be found in the Western Isles and on the west coast, may have been coined during the Lordship of the Isles (Butter 2007, 135; 139). Butter (2007, 139) notes that ‘Respect, at least, towards Iona is suggested in the family of Somerled by the personal names which they chose; Somerled's grandfather was Gille Adomnán, and this remained a popular name in his family’. Additionally, MacDonald (2010, 121) points out that several of the dedications to St Columba in the Hebrides were ‘in areas controlled by the descendants of Somhairle’, which was of course the case in the 15th century when the lands of Baile a’ Mhanaich were given to Iona.
Finally, the location of the chapel, originally on an island, may allow us to draw parallels with other ecclesiastical sites in Uist, in particular Cille Donnain. Fleming and Woolf (1992) have argued that Cille Donnain should be viewed within a late Norse context, comparing it to Finlaggan in Islay. Two of the key-factors in this comparison are the island location of the church and its proximity to a prestige residence (Fleming and Woolf 1992, 343). In addition to Teampull Chaluim Chille originally having been located on an island, it is notable that Dùn Buidhe (NF794546) lies just over a kilometre to the east of the chapel site. With its causeway from Dun Mhurchaidh facing west (towards Teampull Chaluim Chille) and ‘large rectangular building of late/post-medieval type’ it fits the template for the political centre described by Fleming and Woolf (1992, 347). Thus, a tentative suggestion that Teampull Chaluim Chille should be viewed in a late Norse political context can be made, but future, more focused research, may shed further light on its context. This proposal does not necessarily exclude the possibility of an earlier structure being located here but dating the dedication to St Columba to the 12th-14th centuries is tempting.
In this context, we might question whether the association with St Torannán could also have originated in the Norse period. One of the few hagiotoponyms coined in Old Norse in the Hebrides is Taransay (NB020013) near Harris, usually interpreted as ‘St Taran’s Island’ (pn Torannán/Taran + ON ey ‘an island’). There is also a Paibeil on Taransay, located near the chapel dedicated to St Taran (NG031991), further strengthening the Norse links. Thus, the two sites in the Hebrides that have an association with St Torannán arguably both have distinctly Norse characteristics. This could indicate different things; did an association with the saint in question originate in the Norse period or was a pre-existing dedication adopted by the Norse? The problem here is a lack of textual sources to support an argument which is largely based on contextual evidence. However, moving forward, as we begin to more fully understand other early Christian sites in Uist and the Hebrides, their role during the Viking Age should be considered.
Finally, several accounts (see below) state that according to tradition Teampull Chaluim Chille was founded by Amie, daughter of Rúaidrí in the late 14th century. Various ecclesiastical sites in Uist have similar traditions of being associated with Amie, often with very little substantial evidence (see for example St Michael’s Chapel and Teampull na Trionaid). If we favour an earlier date for the original structure, it may be more likely that if she did have an association with the chapel she contributed to repairs and/or extensions. If Capt. Thomas (1890 (1871), 241) was correct in his assertion that the chapel was originally of an early medieval date, it would be consistent with her later patronage.
RCAHMS (1928, 99) Teampull Chaluim Chille, Balivanich: ‘This ruin stands on a slight eminence in a marsh ¼ mile south-east of Balivanich. The church has been oblong on plan and, by a later extension, two-chambered, but the extent of the nave cannot be definitely ascertained, the side walls being breached. The lateral walls at the eastern end are 2 feet 2 inches and 2 feet 4 inches in thickness, while those of the nave are 4 feet and 4 feet 4 inches in thickness. The total internal dimension are 47 ½ feet from east to west by 14 ½ feet; the gables are 3 ½ feet thick, and the eastern is reduced to foundations, while the western remains to the height of the entrance lintel. The lateral walls, breached in places, stand on an average 8 feet above the present ground level.
The masonry is rubble, roughly coursed and built in mortar, which is used sparingly in the nave and more plentifully in the sanctuary. The entrance, a lintelled doorway 2 feet 1 inch wide, is centred in the west gable; in the lateral walls are narrow windows splaying inwardly. The interior of the church is filed with a dense growth of nettles, and the structure is in bad preservation.
West of the Teampull on a similar knoll are some indeterminate foundations.’
Carmichael (1900, 80-1): ‘The following tradition is current in Uist:–The Pope sent Torranan to teach the people of Ireland the way of salvation. But the people of Ireland would not receive Torranan, whom they beat and maltreated in various ways. Torranan prayed to God to deliver him from the Irish, and shook the dust of Ireland off his feet. He betook himself to his coracle and turned it sun-wise, in name of God, and in name of Christ, and in name of Spirit, praying the “Teora Naomh”, Holy Three, to send him when and where and whichever way they listed and had work for him to do–but not again to Ireland. The man was driven about hither and thither on the wild waves in his frail coracle no one knows how long or how far. But an Eye was on his prow, and a Hand was on his helm, and the tide, and the wind, and the waves combined to take him into the little creek of Cailigeo [NF767555] in Benbecula […] The man rejected of the people of Ireland became the accepted missionary of the people of Uist. He wished to build his prayer-house on “Cnoc Feannaig” [ca. NF772555], the knoll of the hooded crow, within sight and hearing of the wild waves of Cailigeo where he had been driven ashore from his perilous voyage. Accordingly he began to gather stones to build himself a prayer-house on the knoll. But the stones that Torranan collected on the knoll during the day, the spirits transferred by night to the island in the lake adjoining. After a time Torranan gave up the unequal contest, saying that it was not meet for him to set his will against the will of God as revealed by His angels. Then Torranan built his prayer-house on the little island within hearing but not within seeing of the green seas and white waves of Cailigeo. And when the house was made Torranan dedicated the labour of his hands and the subject of his prayers to God and to Columba.
The lake containing the islet on which the seafarer built his oratory is now lowered, and what was formerly an island is now a peninsula jutting into the lake. The oratory said to have been built by Torranan is a ruin. The ruin shows an extension of the original building. This extension is said to have been made by Amie, daughter of Ruairi mac Allan, High Chief of Lorn, and wife of John of Islay, Lord of the Isles […] The lake containing the peninsula on which Torranan built his prayer-house, dedicated to Columba, is called “Loch Chaluim-chille”–Columba’s Loch. It only covers an area of some few acres and is of no great depth. Cairns and crosses studded the many knolls and hillocks surrounding the lake. But no trace of cairn nor of cross now remains.’
Thomas, Capt. (1890 (1871), 241): ‘Such is the description of the ruined church of St Columba, which I cannot for a moment believe to have been built at the end of the fourteenth century; but the thinner walls at the east end are probably repairs made by the Lady Amie near that time, as stated by tradition. The older building I believe to be of great age, possibly erected under the direction of St Columba himself, but certainly prior to the Norse invasion at the end of the eight century.’
OPS (370): ‘The church of Benbecula, said to have been founded about the year 1390 by Amie or Algive, the wife of John Lord of the Isles, appears to have been included in the grant of the lands of Uist made in 1392 by that lord to Reginald of Yle his son, and confirmed in the same year by King Robert III […] The church, dedicated to Saint Columba, appears to have stood on the north coast of the island.
At Baillvanich (monks’ town) on the north west coast on a small island in a lake are remains said to be those of a monastery, but probably the remains of a chapel belonging to the monks of Iona.’