The name Eilean Chirceboist (‘Kirkibost Island’), refers to a tidal island off the coast of North Uist. Although the name now only survives as part of a Gaelic formation with eilean ‘island’, the early forms indicate that *Kirkibost as a name existed for a considerable time-period, at least until 1832 when Thomson records it as Kirkibost. Claddach Kirkibost NF781657 (‘Kirkibost Shore’) containing the same Norse formation is located on the North Uist coast, adjacent to Eilean Chirceboist.

There is little evidence of an early church or other Christian site on the island of Kirkibost, with the possible exception of the vague statement that ‘A chapel is said to have stood upon the smaller Kirkibost Island. The site is doubtfully given near the west side of the island, a few yards south of the old cattlefold containing an earth-house’ (Beveridge 1911, 291).

There can be little doubt that the place-name in question represents an original Old Norse coining with kirkja ‘a church’ and bólstaðr ‘a farm’. Gammeltoft (2001, 162-3) in his study of the element bólstaðr in the North Atlantic area concluded that its earliest application in Scotland is most likely towards the end of the 9th century and it probably ceased to be productive in the course of the 12th century in the Hebrides. Thus, *Kirkibost can be roughly dated to this period, but it is difficult to say whether it is more likely to have been coined early or late in that time span. Cox (2005, 3) notes the proximity of *Kirkibost and Paible and suggests that ‘if these names are connected, it may be chronologically significant.’

The question of what the kirkja denotes and the location of the original settlement are more problematic matters. Although the name Eilean Chirceboist is now firmly associated with the tidal island it denotes, the settlement in question would not necessarily have been located on the island, if indeed the island was distinctly separate from the mainland at the time the name was coined. The many forms in Kirkbost/Kirkebust/Kirkibost etc. mapped on the island may indicate that the site was located there, but on the other hand, the earliest form recorded by Blaeu also gives Yl Kirk Bol ‘The Island of Kirk Bol’ and it is difficult to determine at which point the distinction between the island of *Kirkibost and the settlement of *Kirkibost was made.  It is worth noting that no identifiably Norse sites of settlement have been found on the island. The existence of Claddach Kirkibost on the mainland might suggest that the original association was not specifically with the island itself. Additionally, the surrounding landscape may once have been considerably different. As highlighted in the Papar Project ‘the nature of this landscape has dramatically changed over the last few centuries’. MacDonald (2010, 88) argues that the fact that the rental of the Iona abbacy records *Kirkibost as being ‘in Eillera’ (Iolaraigh NF788633, originally referring to the island now known as Baleshare (see Fraser 1973)) may lend support to the possibility that ‘the island was once joined to its neighbour, Baleshare.’ Another possibility is that the settlement in question was located on the Uist coast overlooking the island and thus gave the island its name.

If the assertion that a chapel once existed on the island was correct, one interpretation would be that the farm of *Kirkibost formed part of the immediate land holdings of that church. However, although the absence of archaeological evidence in itself does not mean that it never existed, taken alongside other types of evidence *Kirkibost may be best viewed as reflecting the wider sphere of Christianity rather than indicating an actual site of Christian worship. The fact that the island was ‘at one time of considerable value’ (McRae, 1854, 163) may be of importance here.[1] Viewed in this context, it is possible that the original Norse *Kirkjubólstaðr reflected the land holdings of one of the other churches in Uist during the Scandinavian period of settlement. If we consider *Kirkibost in the wider context of early Christianity in North Uist, there are several sites of interest. The geographical proximity of Paible (and by extension *Kirkibost) to Kilmuir and other nearby sites such as Cladh Chothain has already been noted by the Papar Project and a connection is possible. However, it is perhaps more likely that *Kirkibost should be viewed as part of the continuum of Christian sites found along the western coast between North Uist and Benbecula. This particularly includes Teampull Chriosd since by the 16th century both sites formed part of the lands of Iona (MacDonald 2010, 161-3). Whether or not the lands of *Kirkibost and Teampull Chriosd were originally connected, it seems probable that an association had emerged by the later Middle Ages, if not earlier.

Other Sources
Cox (2005, 3): ‘However, the lack of any evidence of a church on KIRKIBOST ISLAND, which lies to the south of the PAIBLE on North Uist, leads to conjecture that there may have been a connection between KIRKIBOST and PAIBLE (§H8 below). If this can be shown to have been so, it raises the possibility of a doublet: ON Papýli ‘the residence of the clerics’ and ON Kirkjubólstaðr “the farm of the church”. If these names are connected, it may be chronologically significant.’

McRae, (1854, 163): ‘This island [Kirkebost] was at one time of considerable value. It is composed of the fine sand already described, and being exposed to the western gales, a great part of it was literally blown away, and the sea now occupies fields which formerly produced fine crops of bear or barley. This destruction took place before a process now practised to obviate such as misfortune was known, to which we shall in the proper place advert.’

[1] According to the Scottish soil survey, there are three types of soil found on the island: 4.2, 5.1, and 6.1 where 5.1 (Land capable of use as improved grassland. Few problems with pasture establishment and maintenance and potential high yields) indicates a high capacity for agriculture.

Other Resources
Canmore ID 10010