Na h-Eileanan Monach

The names of the five islands located ca. 10km west of the North Uist coast have a considerable number of early forms which are not always consistent. At least two different names have been used for this group of islands (Theisgeir and Na h-Eileanan Monach) in addition to the names used for the individual islands. These are: Siolaigh NF593627 Ceann Iar NF613624, Sibhinis NF628619, Ceann Ear NF641619, and Stòcaidh NF660630. A disused burial ground by the name of Cladh na Bleide NF644623 is located on Ceann Ear. In 1856 a ‘Curious Brass Pin’ found in the burying-ground was recorded to be of ‘a similar character’ to pins found in tumuli in Orkney.

According to Beveridge (1911, 291) there used to be a monastery on Siolaigh and he records the names of several supposed sites of crosses (*Crois Leandal, *Crois Shivinish, and *Crois na Cuaig), but since no traces remain it is impossible to determine their date. He also records that Cladh na Bleide was probably associated with a former chapel, but that only a slight wall is now visible (Beveridge, 1911, 291).

The archaeological evidence for any early Christian presence on Theisgeir/Na h-Eileanan Monach is meagre. However, linguistically and contextually the situation is very different, demonstrating the importance of considering place-name evidence to improve our understanding of early Christianity in Uist. Theisgeir and Na h-Eileanan Monach respectively reflect the two main surviving linguistic layers visible in the place-names of Uist: Old Norse and Scottish Gaelic. The name Theisgeir is of Norse origin and contains ON sker, ‘a skerry, an isolated rock in the sea’ as its second element. Gammeltoft (2006, 82) proposes that the name should be read as *Hellusker with ‘ON hella f. “flat rock, flagstone”’ as its first element. Another possibility is a development similar to Thèisgeir in Lewis for which Cox (1987b, 227) proposes ‘ON heið-sker “heath-skerry” with stem-form of heiðr f. and nom./acc. of sker nt.’, but considering the number of early forms with an l present, this may be unlikely. Carmichael (c1875) states that the name ‘evidently means “the ocean rock.” Haw Norse for ocean’, but this seems highly unlikely considering its spelling and pronunciation.

Carmichael’s (1884, 464-5) account of Theisgeir (different from the 1875 account, see below) is problematic since his assertion that the first element is G aoidh ‘an isthmus, ford’ is almost certainly inaccurate considering there are more plausible interpretations in Old Norse, as discussed above. However, if there is any truth in his account of the islands, it would imply a close relationship between Na-Eileanan Monach and the western coast of North Uist. A link with Paible has already been proposed by Crawford and Simpson (2008) who bring attention to the proximity of adjoining islands to papar-locations:

The quality of the land in most of the papar locations in the Hebrides certainly points to the choice of these islands and Paible places for purposes other than eremitical retreat and reflection. However, some of the sites do have adjoining islands or islets which could have served as hermitages for a resident community on the larger island […] The Monach islands lying opposite Paible in North Uist (H8) would have been a most suitable off-shore refuge for members of a monastic community in that location.

It is possible that the links between Paible and Na h-Eileanan Monach were even more prominent than has previously been suggested. Could an early permanent monastic community have been located on one of the islands with the fertile lands near Paible filling an agricultural function? If this was the case, Ceann Ear, the fourth island from the west, would perhaps be the most likely candidate, considering the possibility of a chapel being located near the now disused burial ground.

The earliest form of the name Theisgeir is given by Monro (1884 (1549), 50) who refers to the island group as Helsker Nagaillon, stating that ‘It perteins to the Nuns of Columnkill’. The etymology of the second element is not entirely clear, but the form recorded in 1575-6 (Halskienagallechie) may indicate that the second part of the name refers to G nan Cailleach (‘of the nuns/old women’). This would be similar to Blaeu’s spelling of Baile nan Cailleach as Ballinnagallach. Additionally, Buchanan’s (1582, 25) form with Vetularum ‘of old women’ supports that the association with the nuns of Iona being present in the name (MacDonald 2010, 227). On the other hand, G gailleann ‘a storm, tempest’ (Dwelly) may be more consistent with the spelling of the early forms and would semantically make sense when describing the unsheltered islands the name refers to. Ultimately, there can be no doubt that there was an association with the nuns of Iona and that the qualifier has been interpreted by various sources as G cailleach, but this may reflect a re-interpretation of an original G gailleann.

If the 17th century History of the MacDonalds is correct, the islands had been in the ownership of the nunnery for a considerable time period when the place-name was first recorded, having been granted by Dòmhnall MacRaghnall at some point before his death in 1289: ‘He mortified 48 merks land to that Monastery [Sadell in Kintyre], and the Island of Heisker to the Nuns of Iona’. However, it has been argued that it could not have been Dòmhnall who made the grant since it is believed that he was dead by c1249 and that the grant may have been made in the 14th century (MacDonald 2010, 226; HP 1, 14).

The earliest form showing the use of monach as a qualifier is provided by Blaeu who gives Helskyr na Monich. Here, it is attached to the existing name Helskyr, the importance of the qualifier is evident since it is used to distinguish it from the nearby islands of Helskyr Egach and Hayelskyr na Meul on Blaeu’s map (now Heisgeir Eagach NF595808 and Eilean Hasgeir NF615820 respectively). The interpretation of the qualifier as G manach ‘a monk’ is problematic; it first appears relatively late, in NSA (1845) and is inconsistent with the early forms. The qualifier may originally have been G monadh ‘a heath, heathy expanse, moor range’ which would be more consistent with the spelling of the early forms. The obvious Christian association with the islands could account for the re-interpretation of monadh to manach.

In addition to the evident connection with Iona through the historical sources and early forms, another place-name may further demonstrate an Iona association; Cnoc Bharr, found on the island of Ceann Iar most likely contains a dedication to St Barr (mac Amairgin of Cork), a saint with clear links to Iona. The same saint is commemorated in the island name Barraigh, a rare example of a hagiotoponym coined in Old Norse, which indicates a continued reverence for a Gaelic saint throughout the Norse period (also see Jennings 1998, 51). If we wish to highlight a potential connection between Na h-Eileanan Monach and Paible a dedication to St Barr may be important.

The lack of a clearly defined ecclesiastical site on Theisgeir/Na h-Eileanan Monach makes it difficult to identify any early church or monastic community with any certainty. However, the place-name evidence and geography both indicate a Christian presence potentially dating to the pre-Norse period. In particular, further intensive survey investigating the links between Theisgeir/Na h-Eileanan Monach and the area surrounding Paible may provide additional clues to the Christian origins of these islands.

Other Sources
Carmichael (1884, 464-5): ‘Heisgeir is a low-lying sandy island in the Atlantic […] The island is variously called Heisgeir, Teisgeir, and Aoisgeir […] Aoi is a Gaelic name for isthmus. An isthmus, Aoi, connected the island of Heisgeir with the mainland of North Uist.

The isthmus was called Aoi, as similar places are still called. But, partly through the gradual subsidence of the land, and partly owing to the gradual dislodgment of the friable sand forming the isthmus, the isthmus by degrees gave way to fords, and the fords broadened into a strait four and a half miles wide and four fathoms deep. Tradition still mentions the names of those who crossed these fords last, and the names of persons drowned in crossing […] The island of Heisgeir is called Heisgeir Nan Cailleach–“Heisgeir of the “Carlins.” A community of Nuns lived here in connection with Iona. These good nuns lived there far into Reformation times, and only died out from natural decay […] Divided by a strait a third of a mile wide, and beyond Heisgeir Proper, is Heisgeir Nam Manach–“Heisgeir of the Monks.” The whole extent, rocks included, is half a mile long and half a mile wide. A monastery stood in the olden times where the lighthouse now stands [NF592627].’

OPS (371-2): ‘There appears also to have been a chapel on one of the islands now styled Na Monich, the Helsker Nagaillon of Archdeacon Monro, and Helskyr na Monich of Blaeu, which belonged to the nuns of Iona […] In 1574 Mary Nikillean, prioress of the monastery of Saint Mary the Virgin in the island of Yona, granted to Hector M’Clane of the lands of Hellsker in the isle of Ewyast.’

NSA (169): ‘In some of the burying-grounds, particularly in the island of Husker, (anciently named Iollen na Moinoch, or Island of the Monks,) are found several crosses rudely cut on stone.’

MacFarlane (1906 (d. 1767), 181): ‘There is ane Illand pertaining to the Superior and Lord of this Countrie which is called Heysker’

Martin (1703, 59-60): ‘The inferior Island is the Island of Heiskir, which lies near three Leagues Westward of North-Vist, is three miles in Circumference, of a sandy Soil, and very fruitful in Corn and Grass, and black Cattle […] About three Leagues and a half to the West, lie the small Islands call’d Hawsker-Rock and Hawsker-Eggath, and Hawsker-Nimannich id est, Monks-Rock, which hath an Altar in it. The first call’d so from the Ocean, as being near to it; for Haw or Thau in the antient Language signifies the Ocean’.

Monro (1884 (1549), 50) Helsker Nagaillon: ‘Be aught myle of sea frae this ile, towards the west, lyes ane ile four myle and haff myle braid, laiche maine land, callit Hesker Nagaillon. It has abandance of corne, and elding for fire. It perteins to the Nuns of Columnkill.’

Other Resources
Canmore ID 9701, 9750