Cladh Chothain

Context
Cladh Chothain refers to the site of a burial ground which in the early 20th century, according to Beveridge (1911, 292), consisted of ‘a walled enclosure containing a group of small cairns’. Watson (2004 [1926], 281), identified the saint commemorated here as St Comgan, referring to it as ‘Cladh Chomhghain, “Comgan’s cemetery”’ and identifying him as the patron of Loch Alsh. The OS Name Books (OS1/18/6/134) provide an interesting etymology which almost certainly is a later invention:

This name signifies “Choan’s burying place” and is said to be the site of an old burying place, but there is nothing on the ground to show that it is such. There is a small hollow, which appears to be the site of a hut, and it is said, that it was the habitation of an old poet called “Choan”.

Discussion
Although it has been suggested that a dedication here may predate the one at Kilmuir (Papar Project), there is no concrete evidence to support this (see Kilmuir). It is a possibility which should not entirely be discounted, but the presence of a native saint does not necessarily indicate an early date. As an alternative explanation a late medieval date should be considered. This primarily stems from the identification of the saint in question as St Comgan who according to the Aberdeen Breviary (2012, 245) was the brother of St Kentigerna and the uncle of St Fillan. In the same source we are told that:

Leaving behind his father’s kingdom and its vainglory, he entered religion; and with his sister Kentigerna, a matron most devoted to God, and her sons Fillan, Fursey and Ultan, men most dear to God, and seven other clerics, he came to Scotland by ship and [came] to the place called Lochalsh in northern Argyll, where he led a very rigorous life […] For this reason, St Fillan built a church soon after in that place in his honour, on account of his uncle’s sanctity; and there St Comgan is revered and venerated by the local inhabitants down to the present day (Aberdeen Breviary (2012, 247).

Taylor (2001, 182) argues that the basis for the connection between these saints ‘may be geographical rather than historical, having its origin around the shores of the three splendid interconnected sea lochs in Wester Ross, Loch Duich, Loch Alsh and Loch Long’. Whatever the historical basis of St Comgan’s activities in the area, there is certainly proof that the cult of St Comgan was prominent in Wester Ross, as attested by the onomastic evidence. The names of at least four church-sites likely dedicated to the saint survive in or near the Loch Alsh area, two of which are located within the lands of the lordship of Sleat:[1] Teampull Chaon (Srath, NG617161), Teampull Chaon (Sleat, NG618132), Kilchoan (Knoydart, NM779991), and Kilchoan (Lochalsh, NG829272) (for more information about these sites, see DoSH).

However, in a Uist context, based on the available evidence, his cult does not appear to be as firmly established as evidenced by this seemingly being the only surviving place-name with a direct dedication to the saint in question. The potential connection lies in the fact that The MacDonalds of Sleat were granted ownership of North Uist and the lands of Sleat in the late 15th century. These lands were granted to Hugh, the illegitimate son of Alexander, Lord of the Isles, by John, Lord of the Isles, probably in 1469 and confirmed in 1495 (ALI, 152-6; RMS 2, 484-5). It might therefore be viewed as suspicious that a dedication to St Comgan appears in North Uist which in the later medieval period formed part of the lordship associated with Sleat. This is especially the case considering the absence of his cult in the place-names of the Outer Hebrides. Whether such a dedication could be the direct result of secular patronage by local kindreds is open to interpretation, but it is worth noting that the MacDonalds of Sleat were benefactors of the church, as attested by the obligation of ‘James MacDonald of Castell Cames to the Bishop of the Isles’ in 1575-6 (Collectanea). We should also consider the fact that the nearby parish church of Kilmuir was potentially the only church in Uist which was not directly associated with Iona by the time of the Reformation. In light of this, the secular lords of the lands of Sleat and North Uist could have viewed patronage of a local saint such as Comgan, who was favoured in their heartlands, beneficial. Thus, this could also provide a late medieval counterpoint to the hegemony of Columba and Iona in this time period.

Alternatively, a more general connection between Uist and the area around Loch Alsh in the medieval period could account for a dedication to St Comgan. It should be remembered that both areas were under MacDonald lordship during the Lordship of the Isles and travel between Uist and the Inner Hebrides would have been frequent. It is possible that the popularity of the cult of Comgan in the Inner Hebrides could account for his dedication in Uist. For example, as argued by Butter (2007, 333) ‘veneration of St Comgan seems to have been persistent around Lochalsh. Some time after the Reformation a John MacKenzie brings evidence against a member of the Glengarry family – “he proved him to be a worshipper of St Coan, qlk image was aft. ward brought to Ed[inbu]r[gh] and burnt at ye Cross” (Highland Papers, vol. ii p 40)’.

The fact that the lesson of St Comgan in the Aberdeen Breviary (see above) gives St Ultan as the brother of St Fillan may be of importance here. In reality, it seems likely that there has been a confusion with three other saints (Fillan, Fursu, and Ultán) who ‘flourished in the mid-seventh century and were active first in East Anglia, then on the continent’ (Taylor 2012, 346). Nevertheless, the account in the Aberdeen Breviary indicates that by the 16th century such a link had been made, either based on earlier sources or as a direct result of the compilation of the breviary. The relevance lies in the fact that Martin (1703, 67) vaguely refers to an otherwise unattested dedication to ‘St. Ulton’ on Bhàlaigh (see Teampull Mhuir). This sheds no further light on whether such a chapel ever existed, but it might offer an explanation as to why this saint would be mentioned in a Uist-context.

A consideration of Cladh Chothain demonstrates some of the difficulties in tracing dedications to saints and the complex interplay between ecclesiastical and secular patronage. Although it has not provided any firm dating for this site, several possible scenarios can be proposed, with dates ranging from the early Middle Ages to the Reformation.

[1]Map of the clans of Scotland with the possessions of the Highland Proprietors according to the Acts of Parliament of 1587 & 1594’.

Other Resources
Canmore ID 9756
Saints in Scottish Place-Names (DoSH)‘Cladh Chothain, cemetery, North Uist’