Teampull Mhuir

Context
The site of Teampull Mhuir is located on the island of Bhàlaigh in North Uist and contains the traces of a church, a graveyard, and several early medieval crosses. The OS Name Books (OS1/18/6/41) describe the site as follows: ‘The walls of what appears to have been chapel are standing to a height of about five feet, other ruins close by a few inches above the surface. The boundary of Graveyard can be traced and it is still in use.’

The island-name Bhàlaigh is well attested and appears in charters from at least the early 16th century as Wala (RMS 2, 611). It is undoubtedly of Norse origin and most likely represents ON völlr (g.pl. valla) ‘a field, level ground’ + ON ey ‘an island’. The first element might refer to the fertile landscape described by Martin’s (1703, 67) as ‘very fruitful in Corn and Grass, Clover and Dasy’, the flat topography, or indeed both. Teampull Orain is located on the tidal island of Orasaigh, directly north of Bhàlaigh.

Discussion
The most obvious evidence for early Christian activity on the island of Bhàlaigh is the presence of several early medieval crosses. These include a rectangular slab with a Latin cross, the fragment of a cruciform stone, and a cross (Fisher 2001, 110-11). Beveridge (1911, 297-8) argues that the remains of the church indicate that it ‘could not be earlier than the 12th century’ due to traces of nave and chancel, but Fisher (2001, 110) views these traces as doubtful. Additionally, this would not exclude the possibility of an earlier structure on the site.

Although we know that there was an early medieval Christian presence here and most likely a medieval church, dating the dedication to St Mary is more difficult. The earliest certain reference to this site being dedicated to her is provided by Martin’s (1703, 67) who states that ‘It [Bhàlaigh] hath three Chappels; one dedicated to St. Ulton, and another to the Virgin Mary.’ Universally venerated saints such as Mary cover a considerable geographical and chronological span. Thus, her dedications are often very difficult to date and, in this case, could realistically belong to any period between the conversion to Christianity and the 17th century.

One of the three chapels mentioned by Martin was presumably Teampull Orain, but there are no traces of a third chapel existing on Bhàlaigh. This does not necessarily mean that one never existed, but perhaps the possibility that these dedications refer to the same chapel should be considered. However, any discussion of a dedication to ‘St Ulton’ must be treated with considerable caution since it is only mentioned by Martin (also see Cladh Chothain).

If the dedication to Mary is an early one, an original *Cill Mhuire would be likely since place-names with G cille in North Uist and Benbecula were often replaced by G teampull at some point after the Reformation (see Teampull Chriosd for further discussion of teampull).

Other Sources
RCAHMS (1928, 48) Teampull Mhuir, Vallay: ‘Only portions of the foundations remain about three-quarters of a mile east by north of Vallay House. These foundations are confined to what seems to have been a chancel, about 9 or 10 feet square. The walling is 3 feet thick. A depression in the ground probably indicates the lines of a nave some 3 feet wider than the chancel.’

Other Resources
Canmore ID 10055, 10036, 319510, 319512
Saints in Scottish Place-Names (DoSH)‘Teampull; Mhuir, North Uist (Vallay)’