St Columba’s Chapel

Above: Clach an t-Sagairt.

Located in the township of Clachan Shannda in the northern part of North Uist, the OS Name Books (OS1/18/6/87) record that it is:

said to be the remains of a Chapel built by St Columba. 15 feet of what appears to be the west gabel is all that remains of the edifice, but a portion of one of the side walls can be traced running into the face of the Knoll forming the burying grounds. It appears to have been built with lime and mortar and flatish moor stones.

One of the earliest mentions of the site in question comes from Monro (1884 (1549), 49) who likely refers to this church as one of the two parish churches in North Uist at the time (OPS, 376), when he writes: ‘the north head of Ywst, whilk termis twa paroche kirks.’ Unfortunately, he does not specify who the church is dedicated to. As recorded by OPS (376), by 1561 ‘the parsonage belonged to the abbot of Iona’ (also see MacDonald 2010, 250).

There is an early medieval cross incised stone located at the nearby site of Clach an t-Sagairt NF876760 (‘the rock of the priest’, according to Carmichael (1887, 243) also known as Crois Aona'ain or Crois An'adhan ‘the cross of Adomnán’). There is also a well dedicated to St Columba 1.5km to the south, undoubtedly associated with the church (see Tobar Chaluim Chille). Other place-names, including Lòn a’Chlèirich (‘The Pond of the Clergyman’, NF876762), Druim na Croise (‘The Ridge of the Cross’, NF873765), and possibly Bodha an t-Sagairt (‘The Sea-rock of the Priest’, approx. NF874782) in the vicinity similarly attest to the ecclesiastical landscape surrounding this site.

It has been suggested that the site marked on the modern OS and OS 6-inch maps may not in fact be the original one and Beveridge (1911, 277) gives Hornais, about half a kilometre to the north, as the original location for St Columba’s Chapel.

Considering the imprint Christianity has left on the surrounding landscape, it would be tempting to associate this site with Iona from the early medieval period. Additionally, 18th- and 19th-century traditions asserting the antiquity of the site would support this, but they unfortunately provide little concrete evidence and must be treated with caution. This especially includes the account in the OS Name Books (OS1/18/6/87) which asserts that the church was said to have been built by St Columba and is almost certainly not true. Although the onomastic evidence is substantial with several place-names that have ecclesiastical connotations surrounding the site in question, as is often the case in the Western Isles, the forms are all relatively late. Combined with a relative lack of archaeological evidence for early Christian activity on the site itself, it is difficult to firmly date the church.

Similarly, Clach an t-Sagairt provides a focal point for folklore. Martin (1703, 59), referring to this stone, writes that: ‘There is another [stone] about eight foot high at Down-rossel [Dun Rosail, NF878795], which the Natives call a Cross.’ According to Carmichael (1887, 243) local informants told him that:

The ice-block was spoken of by the old crofters of the district under various names, as, Clach mhor Guala Chlachain, the big stone of the Clachan shoulder; Clach na h-Ulaidh, the stone of the treasure--from a tradition that treasure-trove is buried near it; Crois Ard, the upper cross, in contradistinction to crosses lower down at the sand-buried ruins of Saint Columba's church and burying-ground; Crois an t-Sagairt, the cross of the priest; and, most interesting of all, Crois Aona'ain or Crois An'adhan, in either case an evident corruption of Crois Adhamhnain, the cross of Adamnan.
The old cottars said that a tradition descended amongst their crofter forefathers of Clachan that the cross had been cut in the stone either by or in commemoration of the first priest who preached the Gospel in the place, and that the people of the period raised the stone on edge and placed it in position where the preacher stood, as a visible memorial of the event. Ever since then that stone has been to me more than a stone upon a lonely hill, and that cross more than a cross traced on a rock by idle hands.

Similar to the tradition of St Columba building the church here, it is unlikely that St Adomnán, abbot of Iona (d. 704), was ever here, but it is impossible to say if it was ever used as a site of preaching.

North of St Columba’s Chapel, the tidal island of Lingay provides yet another instance of a site of interest. OPS (376) records that ‘There was a church or chapel in Lingay dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and styled by Martin “a parish called Kilmoor”’. However, although Martin (1703, 69, 77-8) writes that: ‘This Island [Lingay] was held as consecrated for several Ages, insomuch that the Natives would not then presume to cut any Fuel in it’, his description of the ‘parish called Kilmoor’ almost certainly refers to the parish associated with Kilmuir Church. Nevertheless, the indication is that the island of Lingay had some religious significance. In his survey of the names of rocks and skerries in the sounds of Harris and Uist MacKillop (1989, 464) writes of Bodha an t-Sagairt:

E. of the isle of Lingay, near the shore. Sea-rock of the Priest. It is alleged that all dignitaries (who died in the area north of Eigg) of the old Celtic Church were buried in the isle of Boreray which is west of this rock and this skerry is in the route taken, hence the name.

On the other hand, he goes on to write that ‘Neil MacKillop, Borve, Berneray, 1838 to 1928, owned a boat called “Sagart”, and it is said that this rock was only known by this name after Neil struck it with his boat’. However, when considering the wider context of this area, an intriguing possibility is that Lingay represents a connecting point between St Columba’s Chapel and Cladh Manach on Boraraigh.

Importantly, when consulting maps which pre-date Blaeu (Pont’s surviving maps not covering this part of Uist), a confusing pattern emerges. Maps from the late 16th/early 17th century all give the name of this site as a variant of S. Patricius (see full list of forms below). If there was an early site of importance dedicated to St Columba here it seems highly unlikely that these cartographers would not have included it. Thus, the implication would be that an early dedication, probably to St Patrick, had been superseded by a St Columba dedication. Further evidence of a potential association with St Patrick in North Uist may be found in two other place-names: Airigh Phàdruig (NF757685, ‘the shieling of (?St) Patrick’, a doubtful dedication according to the Saints in Scottish Place-Names database) and Loch Vik-Phatrick (approx. NF931753). The latter is only recorded by Blaeu (1654) and presents somewhat of a conundrum. After this, the same site may be recorded by Moll (1745) as L. Patran, after which point the bay in question is recorded as Loch Mhic Phàil (its current name). If Blaeu’s spelling is correct, one possibility is that *Vík Phatrick was coined in Norse (as an inversion-compound, not following the standard word order in Norse). More likely, the name probably reflects an original *Mhic Phatrick, coined in Gaelic with mhic (from G mac ‘son’) in which case it is unlikely to reflect an association with the saint.

The matter is further complicated when viewing the relevant maps in their wider Hebridean context. When comparing the shift from S. Patricius to Kilchalmkil in Uist, a parallel pattern can be found for a site in north Lewis, now known as Teampull Pheadair (NB508637). All forms before the 18th century shows the site as a variant of S. Columba, but in the following centuries are replaced by a dedication to St Peter (see inset picture and map forms below). Thus, it is possible that the pre-Pont/Blaeu cartographers got Lewis and Uist mixed up, so that the early form for St Columba’s Chapel (Uist) should in fact be S. Columba. It is worth pointing out that these early cartographers generally lacked first-hand knowledge of the Western Isles of Scotland and often used shared sources in their mapping of these (to them) remote areas.

In conclusion, despite its long and complex history, there is very little actual concrete evidence for pre-Norse Christianity at this site. The meagre archaeological evidence includes the early medieval stone of Clach an t-Sagairt which indicates an early Christian presence here, but it provides no conclusive evidence regarding the existence of a church in the early medieval period. Although an early dedication to St Patrick seems unlikely in light of the discussion above, a connection to Iona cannot be firmly established before the 16th century. Similarly, folklore reflects a belief that the church has early roots, but it is very difficult to ascertain the historicity of such stories as they are only visible from the 18th century onwards. Additionally, several of these traditions tend to associate the site directly with prominent figures such as St Columba and St Adomnán and are almost certainly inaccurate. Ultimately, the presence of an early medieval church here cannot be excluded, but it is necessary to treat the post-medieval evidence with considerable caution.

Other Sources
St Columba’s Chapel OS Name Books (OS1/18/6/87) ‘These remains are situate at the above mentioned burying place [Clachan Shannda], and are said to be the remains of a Chapel built by St Columba. 15 feet of what appears to be the west gabel is all that remains of the edifice, but a portion of one of the side walls can be traced running into the face of the Knoll forming the burying grounds. It appears to have been built with lime and mortar and flatish moor stones.’

Clach an t-Sagairt OS Name Books (OS1/18/6/90) ‘Is applied to a large boulder stone standing in a field 28 chains south west from Goulbay. It is 9 feet in height 12 feet broad and 3 feet thick, and has a rude cross cut on its eastern face about one foot in length. It is said to be the site of a general meeting place of the Picts for worship. Signification “Priests Stone”.’

Clach an t-Sagairt, North Uist (Fisher 2001, 112): ‘A large cross-marked boulder stands on a NW-facing hillside in the township of Clachan Sand, 1km SE of Hornish Strand and about 100m N of the slight remains of Dùn Rosail […] The cross-marked stone is a massive slab of gneiss, similar to others which are partly detached from a rock-outcrop about 40m to the NNE. It has been set on edge and measures 3.8m from E to W by 3m in height, tapering in thickness from 0.9m at the base to 0.4m. The S face is almost flat, and high up towards the E end there is a Latin cross, now worn and lichen-stained. It measures 0.32m by 0.28m across the arms, and the lower part of the shaft is wider and more deeply sunk than the other arms, but all have slightly expanded rounded terminals. The shaft is extended for about 70mm by a narrower spike or pedestal to the right of its central axis.’

Other Resources
Canmore ID 10318; 277830; 10312; 10302; 10313; 10299
Saints in Scottish Place-Names (DoSH) ‘St Columba’s Chapel, Sand SXD (North Uist)’; ‘Tobar Chaluim Chille, (SXD) North Uist’; ‘Airigh Phàdruig, North Uist’

Early map-forms for St Columba’s Chapel, North Uist and Teampull Pheadair, Lewis
St Columba’s Chapel, North Uist
1578 Leslie S. Patrice
1580 Ortelius S. Patricius
1595 Mercator St. Patricius
1607 Hole St Patricius
1610 Speed S. Patricius
1635 Blaeu S. Patricus
1636 Hondius S. Patricius
1654 Blaeu Kilchalmkil
1750 Dorret Kilcolmkil
OS 6-inch St Columba’s Chapel (In Ruins)

Teampall Pheadair, Lewis (Ness)
1578 Leslie [Only records St. Patrice in Uist, but here it is worth noting that Lewis is located in a different part of the map, making Uist appear to be the northernmost island in the Hebrides]
1580 Ortelius S. Columba
1595 Mercator St. Columbanus / S. Columban
1607 Hole St. Columbanus
1610 Speed S. Columban
1635 Blaeu S. Columban
1636 Hondius S. Columban
1654 Blaeu
[After this the church does not appear on any maps until the OSA account/OS 6-inch]
1797 OSA St Peter’s
OS 6-inch Teampull Pheadair (in Ruins)

Ortelius, A., 1580. ‘Scotiae tabula’ (NLS National Library of Scotland) <>.