Above: Teampall Naomh Mhìcheil or St Michael’s Chapel, located on the island of Griomasaigh.
Early Christianity in Uist: An Introduction
In the resources gathered on this website, we have tried to make it possible to think about early Christianity in Uist. By ‘early’ here, we are taking as our objective to see what can be said about Christianity prior to Scandinavian settlement in Uist, and so roughly speaking from the 6th century (when we know Christianity to be making its impact elsewhere on the western Scottish seaboard) until the 10th century, by when Scandinavian settlement will have been in full swing.
This area of Scotland--not just Uist, but the whole of the Outer Hebrides, and much of the north-west mainland-- is at a profound disadvantage for understanding anything of its early medieval history, and particularly its religious history. While archaeology has provided some insights into daily life in the pre-Viking period at some sites in Uist, as at Dùn Mhùlan or Bornais, material traces of early medieval religious activity are much scarcer here than elsewhere in Scotland. As well as lacking textual history, the Outer Hebrides also lack the sort of supplementary resources, such as the pictorially rich sculptured stones, which help make, for instance, the early Christian history of the Northern Isles easier to interpret. This lack has led to the early Christian history of the region being told essentially as an extension of Iona’s, where we have good, clear evidence, and this is unsatisfactory.
What Uist potentially has by way of evidence is place-names, some of which certainly were coined in the Viking Age, and others potentially coming from the earlier period. What we have assembled here are a collection of sites (North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist) which, by virtue of their names or sometimes the material found at the sites might suggest they have something to do with early Christianity in Uist. Many of these names contain the names of saints, and we have also assembled evidence relating to these saints, examining them for what they can tell us about the evolution of Christianity on the islands.
Gaining an understanding of early Christianity on Uist has proved to be a two-stage process. First, we need to think backward. Where we can, we need to strip out from our understanding those sites and saints which prove to relate to later periods. While on the face of it a negative exercise, this is particularly important in allowing us to see what probably can and what probably can’t be evidence of the early period.
Having done this, we are free to examine the smaller collection of evidence which could relate to the early medieval period. As we will see, this evidence presents a multitude of ways of reading it, and none of these can be definitive. We will present a series of possible ways of understanding the evidence, and thinking about the nature of early Christianity in Uist.
1. Thinking backwards
The case studies on this website allow us to gradually exclude from consideration as relating to the early period of Christianity in Uist a number of sites and saints. It is important that in some cases we can be more precise about when particular churches or other sites might have been created, as it allows us to gain a clear sense of an evolving church in the later medieval and even early modern period.
The 19th-century period of folklore collecting represented particularly by Alexander Carmichael’s Carmina Gadelica provides one way in which much of our evidence is covered in a thin topsoil of traditions, not all of them of equal antiquity. So, for instance, although there were undoubtedly in Carmichael’s day traditions relating to celebrations of Là Fhèill Mhìcheil or Michaelmas at Rubh’ Aird Mhìcheil and other locations, Dòmhnall Uilleam Stiùbhart has shown that Carmichael’s famous description of these in Carmina Gadelica (1900, 200-7) is a composite, not a precise reflection of activities he had observed, and certainly not an ages-old, unbroken relic of the past that it has sometimes been taken to be. Time and again in our work on this project we have been confronted with 19th or early 20th century traditions about names which are very hard to substantiate from any other evidence, and which often look like ‘new’ attempts to understand the past, rather than reflecting actual older evidence. For example, according to the OS Name Books (OS1/18/10/84) Cill Amhlaidh is: ‘Supposed to be the burying place of a Danish Princess of the name of Alua or Oloff which was caught in a storm and blown to Uist’. Such traditions and interpretations are interesting in themselves, but do not lead us to the early period of Uist’s Christianity.
To some extent, our evidence of the early past in Uist has been mitigated and adapted through the modern period, and through generations of priests and ministers coming to terms with, and sometimes helping to create, the heritage of the area. In Benbecula and North Uist, for instance (as in Lewis), it is possible that the use of the term teampall rather than cille to describe older churches, which we can see began in the early modern period, was partially a criticism of the pre-Reformation past of many of these buildings. We would need a full study of the use of teampall to be certain of this, however. A number of sites which in the modern period are referred to as teampall can be shown to have been cille at an earlier period, e.g. Teampull Chaluim Cille in Benbecula, first recorded as Kilcholambkil.
The eighteenth-century period of missionary activity to the Catholic islands have also left their mark. Where in the past there has been an openness to the possibility that Caibeal Dhiarmaid in Howmore could refer to a 9th-century saint (Raven 2005, 160-2), it seems clear from the evidence that, on balance, this refers to a Vincentian priest and missionary, the Irishman Dermot Duggan (Diarmaid Ó Dubhagáin), who worked in Barra and Uist, and died in 1757. Contemporary accounts suggest he was treated as a saint after his death. If nothing else, this is a clear cautionary tale in terms of warning that all periods have to be taken into account when assessing evidence as fragmentary as what we have for Uist.
Probably the period which has made the most impact on the landscape of church and commemoration is the later medieval period. For most of the sites where there is evidence of medieval Christian activity, for instance, church sites, the standing buildings and monuments are from this later medieval period, that is from ca.1100 to the 1560s. In some cases we have substantial evidence of the involvement of Iona, the most important Hebridean monastery during this period, and intermittently the site of the Bishops of the Isles also, as landowner and manager of churches--the nunnery as well as the monastery--as in Benbecula at Baile a’ Mhanaich and Baile nan Cailleach (see MacDonald 2010). It may be this involvement, rather than older activity, which has led to the presence of Calum Cille, St Columba, in place-names in some parts of Uist, as at Teampull Chaluim Cille in Benbecula. Iona was not the only distant monastery involved in forming the landscape of devotion in later medieval Uist, however. Inchaffray Priory in Perthshire owned the church of Teampull na Trionaid at Cairinis in North Uist, and the dedication to the Holy Trinity certainly dates from this later medieval period. Having said this, there are traditions that the church was originally founded by Beathag, daughter of Somerled, king of the Isles, who also founded the nunnery in Iona, a reminder that there was a substantial period of renewal of churches during the 12th and 13th centuries, as well as later.
During those centuries, Uist was at least nominally in the jurisdiction of the Norwegian church, under the archbishopric of Nidaros, now Trondheim. It was part of the diocese of the Suðreyar, or “Southern Isles” (see Woolf 2003; Thomas 2014). This is an important reminder that the Christian heritage of the Outer Hebrides is partially Scandinavian--too often it can be easy to forget that though initial Viking raids were destructive of Christian churches, the settling Scandinavians converted to Christianity and there must have been many generations of Norse-speaking Christians in Uist. The evidence of the settlement names of Uist suggests they were overwhelmingly coined originally in Old Norse: Dreumasdal, Ormacleit, Stadhlaigearraidh, Frobost, Baghasdal, Bornais, Dalabrog, to name only ones in South Uist. Although there is yet to be a full survey of the place-names of the Uists, it clearly represents something very like what we see in Lewis (Cox 2002) or what has been posited for Islay (Macniven 2015).
Two sets of evidence stand out here. First are the set of place-names coined in Old Norse but referring to Christian activity. Leaving aside the so-called papar names for the moment, these include for instance a lost original *Circeabost (in Old Norse *Kirkju-bólstaðr) in North Uist, now embedded in the names Eilean Chirceaboist and Claddach Chirceaboist. This “church settlement” may refer to land owned by and managed on behalf of a church, rather than to the presence of a church itself on the site. Which church--perhaps that at Kilmuir--is more problematic. In South Uist, Circeadal, Kirkidale, originally Old Norse *Kirkju-dalr, also probably reflects church ownership from the Norse-speaking period. To this can be added the second set of evidence: one dedication, at least, on South Uist must come from this Scandinavian period. Cill Amhlaidh almost certainly commemorates the king and saint Olaf of Norway, who died in 1030 and was quickly being promoted throughout the Scandinavian territories as a saint (despite his rather chequered career). This church and its dedication may belong to the 11th century, or perhaps to the 12th, if it reflects the period of the diocese of the Suðreyar, under Norwegian control. For Barbara Crawford, the saints’ dedications in the Outer Hebrides as a whole probably stem from “an era of post-conversion church-building by the Norse” (Crawford 1987, 167). And here the fact that the site of Cille Donnain so far seems to date to the post-1100 period must give us pause (Fleming and Woolf 1992; Parker-Pearson 2012).
For all Cill Amhlaidh is dedicated to a Scandinavian saint, and reflects a period when Uist was Norse-speaking and under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of Norway, it is a Gaelic place-name. The only substantial settlement names in Uist which do not derive from Old Norse are church names, particularly those employing the Gaelic element cill “church”. And this seems to suggest something important. Although we have evidence of Old Norse place-names relating to the church, especially church ownership, we have no Old Norse church names themselves, no evidence that churches employed, for instance, the Old Norse term kirkja in their own names (as we do in Scandinavian settlements in England, for instance, such as Ormskirk in Lancashire). (Though both Barra and Taransay appear to contain saints in their names for these islands: see Barr and Torranan under Teampull Chaluim Chille.) This suggests that although Scandinavians converted to Christianity, Gaelic remained the professional language of the church. There is evidence from the wider context to suggest that the Christianity of Hebridean Norse-speakers was largely serviced by Gaels, and evolved under Gaelic influence (e.g. Smyth 1984; Clancy forthcoming; for excellent discussion of Scandinavian conversion in Hebrides, see Abrams 2007).
The importance of this for understanding early Christianity in Uist is that, if the church was one area which remained Gaelic-speaking even during the period of Scandinavian settlement, the names of churches may be one of the few types of Gaelic names to have persisted through from the earlier medieval period. This may be doubly the case if, as is possible, Gaelic was not the language of most of the population of Uist in any case before the Viking Age (see below).
And so, having stripped back other types of evidence, we are left with a series of place-names and sites which could be explained in different ways. Some of these names and dedications, for instance the two sites previously called Cill Choinnich (see *Kilchainie and Beinn Ruigh Choinnich), or Cille Donnain in South Uist, may be easier to explain as having been coined in the earlier medieval period, even if we have no firmer evidence for pre-Viking activity at these sites. A consideration of these sites, place-names, and the saints contained in some of them are our best hope for gaining further insight into early Christianity in Uist.
2. The evidence for the early period.
There are two firm pieces of evidence for the presence of Christianity in Uist before the Viking Age. Here, we have to remember that this is not a given; that, although we would from other evidence in the general context and landscape of early medieval Scotland presume that Christianity had taken root in Uist in the early medieval centuries (say, from the 6th to the 10th centuries), unlike in Iona, Eigg or Applecross, or Orkney and Shetland, we lack much in the way of direct evidence of this. And the paucity of the evidence has been such as to provoke the archaeologists who have been most heavily involved in South Uist in recent decades, Mike Parker Pearson and Niall Sharples, to wonder if Christianity had really taken hold there before the Viking Age (Parker Pearson 2012).
We do, however, have a number of pieces of sculpture which look as if they should belong to the earlier medieval period, at Howmore, for instance, or at St Columba’s Chapel in North Uist (Fisher 2001, 11, 108-12). Such evidence is just about enough in some cases to indicate that these sites were in use by Christians in the early medieval period, but the evidence doesn’t go much beyond this. Still, where such sculpture is present it can often confirm an earlier past for a site which otherwise we might imagine was established in the later middle ages.
Another clear indication of the presence of some Christian activity in Uist in the pre-Viking period comes in the form of two place-names coined in Old Norse. These are the two names in Uist which contain the word papar, thought to refer to the clerics that early Scandinavian incomers found when they first began to raid and settle in the Northern and Western Isles. A deep study of all the papar names and their landscapes (cf Papar Project), while in various ways inconclusive, certainly allows us to see these as reflecting the presence of communities of Christian professionals--whether monks or priests or both--in those places named for them. So, in North Uist Paibil / Paible, “settlement of papar” suggests that there was early Christian presence in this area; so too in South Uist at Pabaigh, “the island of papar” near Lochboisdale. The problem, however, is relating either of these names to the early Christian landscape more widely. Should we see, for instance, Pabaigh as having something to do with the possible early church at Cill Choinnich? Does the name mean “island belonging to papar (who live somewhere else)”, or “island of the papar (who live there)”? If the latter, there is no other trace than the name to indicate their presence, unless recent traces of buildings turn out to be monastic, as posited. (see Papar Project). Similarly, in North Uist, should we envisage a relationship between Paible and one (or several) of the potentially early Christian sites along the western coast to the North (including Kilmuir and St Clement’s Chapel). In either case, these names do seem to bear witness to the presence of Christian communities in the islands when Scandinavians first began to apply names to them.
A significant issue here is who was in Uist before the Scandinavians. That the church had a strong Gaelic dimension to it, at the very least, seems clear from the evidence. But it is less clear that the bulk of the pre-Norse population were Gaelic speakers. If sculptural traditions are a sufficient reflection of linguistic and/or ethnic affinity, the people of Uist were likely Pictish, and that, certainly, is how archaeologists working on South Uist in recent decades have described this period. A stone with Pictish symbols was found near Sunamul, Benbecula, and another at Pabaigh south of Barra. A number more are on Skye, where additionally Adomnán’s Life of Columba implies the saint needed an interpreter to speak to locals (VC i.33). It has generally been thought that north of Ardnamurchan in the 6th and 7th century, at least, the west coast and the Hebrides were probably Pictish-speaking. Aside from sculpture, there is no direct evidence on the matter, however. The relevance for our purposes here may be that both in the pre-Norse period and also in the Scandinavian period, if the church was Gaelic in language, it was not the language of the local population. The story of the conversion to Christianity here, and the development of the church, then, probably follows a different trajectory to the Gaelic-speaking southern Hebrides and Argyll.
One piece of evidence for that trajectory in South Uist may be the burial from what archaeologists have called the Pictish period, dating to ca. 700, at Cille Pheadair (Parker Pearson et al. 2018, 21-4). Nicknamed ‘Kilphedir Kate’, the body seems to have been that of a high status female, and she was interred in a manner which is certainly not explicitly Christian, even if there is nothing diagnostically non-Christian about it. In some ways, though not in all, the burial conforms to practices seen elsewhere in the Pictish zone of Scotland, and hence can be taken alongside the sculpture as evidence of where Uist belongs. A simplistic reading, then, might allow that ca.700 leading members of society in South Uist had not completely converted to Christianity. But this burial may never have been typical.
The second half of the 7th century may be the period in which we could perhaps provide some sort of context for social and religious change in Uist. A destructive event is described in AU 672.2 ‘The Ibdaig are destroyed’ (Deleti sunt Ibdig). It has recently been argued that the Ibdaig here refers to Uist (Clancy 2018). This event, likely the only direct reference to Uist in early medieval historical texts, takes place among a sequence of notices in the Irish annals (deriving ultimately from a chronicle kept on Iona) in which events on the western seaboard north of Ardnamurchan are particularly noticed.
AU 649.4 The war of the descendants of Áedán and of Gartnait son of Accidan
(Cocath huae nAedhan 7 Gartnaith mc. Accidain)
AU 668.3 The voyage of the sons of Gartnait to Ireland with the people of Skye
(…nauigatio filiorum Gartnaidh ad Hiberniam cum plebe Sceth)
AU 670.4 The kindred of Gartnait come from Ireland
(Uenit genus Gartnaith de Hibernia)
AU 671.5 Mael Rubai voyages to Britain
(Mail Rubai in Britanniam nauigat)
AU 672.2 The Ibdaig [Uists?] are destroyed.
(Deleti sunt Ibdig)
AU 673.1 The burning of Mag Lunge [on Tiree]
(Combustio Maige Lunge)
AU 673.5 Mael Rubai founds the church of Applecross
(Mail Rubai fundauit eclesiam Apor Croosan)
AU 677.6 Beccán of Rum dies
(Beccan Ruimm quieuit )
AU 688.2 The slaying of Cano son of Gartnait
(Occisio Canonn filii Gartnaidh)
Notable here is that the ‘people of Skye’ are associated with a kindred whose name invokes an ancestor with a Pictish name, the ‘kindred of Gartnait’, and Gartnait’s son, Cano, also has a name which looks Pictish. This period, then may have witnessed turf wars between the dominant kindred of Dál Riata to the south, the Cenél nGabráin, and the people of the northern Hebrides, including Skye, in which islands and monasteries were destroyed on both sides. In the midst of this, an influential monastic founder came from the monastery of Bangor in Ireland to establish a new monastery at Applecross in Wester Ross: place-names suggest that Mael Ruba’s influence was particularly strong in Skye, but there was also a dedication in Berneray, Harris, just off North Uist (DoSH: Mael-Ruba).
The reason for mentioning this here is to underline that for part of the wider area to which Uist belongs, there are narratives of secular conflict and church foundation traceable in the historical texts, and that these involve church figures other than those associated with Iona. With this in mind, we should turn to two figures who might comfortably fit into this scheme.
Donnan of Eigg is known primarily for the mode of his death, and of his other monks, in a massacre in 617 or 619. But as discussed in Donnan’s entry here, and elsewhere, his monastery at Eigg either lasted or revived, and we find in the early annals and martyrologies numerous individuals linked with Eigg. Was Eigg’s sphere of influence in the later 7th and 8th centuries limited to that island, or was Eigg the spearhead for Christian development in the Outer Hebrides? Uist is visible from Eigg, after all. Likewise, as discussed in Coinneach’s entry, there is ample evidence of his activity as a Hebridean saint, despite his modern association with Ireland. It is possible that he is described in his 8th-century Life as visiting Uist. That Life, while heavily influenced by Adomnán’s Life of Columba, plays with and subverts many of its images, created from Coinneach, a saint who rebukes and supersedes Columba (see discussion in the introduction to his Life). Again, perhaps Coinneach’s, or his successors’, activities included church foundation on Uist.
Despite the evidence relating to these two individuals, however, it must be emphasised that in each case the cult of them, as saints, was promoted by Iona. We know that most church dedications relate, not to the actual activities of the people to whom churches were dedicated (cf. Peter, Mary, Brìde), but to the veneration of those people as saints. So while we cannot rule out the activity of Donnan or Coinneach on Uist, it would be safer to see these dedications as relating to the devotion of later generations, and reflecting the interests of later church founders. But when?
Although some of the evidence of saints and their commemorations in the Uists must be explained as relating to the later medieval period (e.g., Teampull na Trionaid); or to the period in which a Scandinavian church was dominant (e.g., Cill Amhlaidh), neither period seems capable of explaining the full range of commemorations that are on display in these islands, and in particular in South Uist. Instead, we would see three potential scenarios as providing better ways of understanding the evidence we have.
1) Iona influence (Viking Age). There is good evidence to suggest that Iona was influential in the conversion period of the Scandinavian settlers in the Hebrides (on the conversion in general see Abrams 2007). The evidence for this has been bolstered by a better understanding of the continuity of Iona as a working monastery through the 9th and 10th centuries (Jennings 1998; Clancy 2011), contradicting earlier views which saw it as having fallen into abeyance in the early 9th century. When we see Mugrón, abbot of Iona, and “sage-bishop of the three parts” (†980) being part of a network of relationships which includes the chief poet of Ireland and the Viking ruler of Dublin, Olaf, who later died in pilgrimage on Iona, there is clearly scope for viewing the Outer Hebrides through the lens of this later Iona period (Clancy 2011). Historians have called attention to the probable importance of the head of both Columban and Patrician networks of churches, Mael Brìgte mac Tornáin, as potentially pivotal, suggesting him to be the ‘Bishop Patrick’ celebrated in later Norse narratives of conversion in the Hebrides (Smyth 1984, 211; Dumville 2004). The suggestion that Donnan was a potent saint for converting Scandinavians because of his violent martyrdom should be taken into account here (Rekdal 2003-4, 264-9; Clancy 2015). By this token, the landscape of commemoration in Uist would reflect primarily the highly developed framework of saints’ cults on evidence in Iona from the 8th and 9th centuries. This framework would be a good explanation for commemorations of Colum Cille and Barr; for Donnan and Coinneach (remembering there to be a Cill Chainnich on Iona itself); for Mary; and crucially for Michael, whose cult is unlikely to be present here before the later 8th century. Some sense of how many of the saints of Uist could be represented in this early period in a potentially Iona context can be gained from a Gaelic poem, perhaps written in the 8th or 9th century, ascribed to St Adomnán of Iona. In his bag, we are told, he has what must be meant to be relics of the saints, and these include (amongst many others): a garment of Mary’s and her hair; St Brigit’s hair-shirt; the ?knee-cap of St Donnan; the hair-shirt of Colum Cille; the chasuble of St Cainnech (Carney 1983).
What we would picture here is continuing or maybe expanding Iona influence into lands recently settled by Scandinavians in Uist. Converting Scandinavians would have turned to Iona as the major church in the Hebrides, and as such, churches established during this period reflected the interests of Iona and its clergy. This influence could have lasted throughout the early medieval period: the influence of Nidaros/Trondheim does not need to have been a very deep one; and we can certainly see the later Benedictine monastery on Iona, and the nunnery established there in the 12th century, as influential the landscape, particularly in Benbecula and North Uist.
2) Iona influence (early): Much, though not all, of this Christian landscape could be explained by imagining Iona influence in the Outer Hebrides to have been a feature from early on. Certainly we know Iona to have been promoting Coinneach as a saint by the 7th century; to have been circulating stories of the individual who lies behind St Barr at the same time; and Donnan by the 8th. We know there to have been a developed cult of the Virgin Mary there from the late 7th century, something visible in verse and sculpture.
Having said this, there are some considerable problems with this thesis. Adomnán has little specific to say about the Outer Hebrides--Skye is as far north as he seems to have awareness on the west coast. This is not at all suggestive of an Iona active in the northern Hebrides. The run of annals in the second half of the 7th century is also challenging. If Iona dominated the northern Hebrides and western seaboard, why would Mael Ruba, a Bangor monk, be the one who established a new monastery in Applecross? Crucially, also, why is there so comparatively little evidence for early Christianity here? This is not very suggestive of an organised early Iona outreach to these areas.
3) Coinneach and Donnan and the Outer Hebrides. There is good evidence that both Donnan and Coineach were active in church foundation in the Hebrides. In the case of Donnan, his monastery in Eigg either revived or outlasted the tragedy of his death and the massacre of the community in 617/619, and there is ample evidence of Eigg’s importance continuing into the 8th century (Clancy 2015). So, Eigg could have been pivotal in continuing to expand the reach of Christian monasticism into the Outer Hebrides in the later 7th and 8th centuries, prior to the arrival of the Vikings, and this may be what the dedication at Cille Donnain reflects. Likewise, if the analysis of one episode in the Life of Cainnech is correct (Clancy 2018), he was thought in the 8th century as having been active on Uist. Unlike with Donnan, we don’t know where his chief Hebridean base may have been, though it is perhaps unlikely to have been Uist. Rather, wherever Cainnech’s main monastery may have been, it too, like Eigg, may have extended its reach to the Outer Hebrides in the 7th and 8th centuries, resulting in the dedications to him we see there. In part, then, the landscape of Uist may reflect early Christian activity, associated with individuals like Coinneach and Donnan, or their successors at their Hebridean monasteries.
This last option is not incompatible with the first. That is, even if there was an earlier period in which other houses were involved in cementing Christianity in the Outer Hebrides, it may be that this was consolidated under Iona in the Viking Age, and that the dedications of churches on Uist reflect both earlier activities and Iona’s concerns in the 9th century and beyond. We know, of course, that the landscape of saints continued to develop beyond this and throughout the later period, as witnessed by Cill Amhlaidh and Teampull na Trionaid.
In the absence of any definitive evidence, we are reduced, as with religious choices, to belief. What we have tried to set out on this website is the evidence available to assess and understand early Christianty on Uist, and in this introduction we have tried to lay out some potential ways to understand that evidence. These are not the only ways, and we have no doubt that people will need to continue to reflect and reassemble the evidence to provide new insights in the years to come.