The site of Teampull Orain is located on the small tidal island of Orasaigh off the northern coast of Bhalaigh in North Uist. According to Beveridge (1911, 297) and RCAHMS (1928, 50) the foundations of a rectangular structure are still visible, but no date is given.
Although Teampull Orain certainly reflects a religious dedication, the name Orasaigh is more problematic, and consequently the dedication for the chapel site itself may be more complex than might initially be expected. Teampull Orain probably commemorates St Oran of Iona and it would be tempting to associate the island name Orasaigh with the same saint (giving pn Oran + ON ey ‘island’). However, the island name more likely reflects ON örfiris-ey, commonly used to denote islands ‘which, at low-water, are joined to the mainland by a reef which is covered at high-water’ (Cl.-Vig.). The name appears to occur in several places in the Hebrides, including Oronsay NG315361 connected to Ullinish on Skye and Oronsay NR353886 south of Colonsay (the existence of a chapel dedicated to St Oran on Colonsay should be noted here). Further strengthening this interpretation is the early form Orwansay which lends support to an original f being present since this is pronounced as v when in a medial position.
An interpretation of the island-name as ‘tidal island’ would be consistent with its topography. The difficulty lies in exploring the relationship between the island-name and the name of the chapel and determining any possible influence the island-name might have had on the church-dedication. A similar pattern might be seen in the case of the chapel dedicated to St Columba on Eilean Orsay, Islay NR163515. Although it has been proposed that the island name *Orsay indicates a dedication to St Oran, as argued by MacDonald (2010, 116): ‘The chapel on Eilean Orsay was dedicated to St Columba, and so it is unlikely that the name of the island itself is derived from St Oran, as suggested by Maceacharna; a much more likely derivation is, as MacNiven proposes, from the ON *Áróssey, “the island by the mouth of the river”’ (also see MacNiven 2015, 146-7). Unfortunately, in the case of Teampull Orain, we lack the same historical evidence for the site and it is very difficult to determine how the name was coined.
Ultimately, the several instances in Scotland where an association is made between St Oran and Norse island-names (that can generally be explained by topographically appropriate words such as ‘tidal island’) mean that the possibility of the Norse coining giving rise to the dedication to St Oran should be considered for at least some of the sites. This does not necessarily mean that Teampull Orain was founded after the Scandinavian period, but we should not automatically assume that the dedication to St Oran was the original one since a re-dedication is possible.
It is worth noting that St Oran appears in the folklore of the Outer Hebrides in a tale (recorded in Scottish Gaelic by Father Alan Macdonald, a native of South Uist) where:
Collum Cille began to build the church. He gathered together many people. But that which he built by day was knocked down during the night. He began to send men to watch the church. Each morning they would be dead at the foot of the church (wall). [Colum Cille eventually decides to watch the church himself and encounters a sea-monster who informs him that a man has to allow himself to be buried alive under the earth in order for the church to go forward] On the next day he put the question to the great company as to whether any one of them was willing to be buried alive, on condition that his soul would be safe in heaven. No one at all was willing to take the pit though it was told that his soul would be safe by God’s ordinance […] Poor Dobhran [Oran] his brother was on the outskirts of the crowd. He moved across and stood behind Collum Cille, and he said that he was quite willing to be buried all alive under the earth [the tale goes on to recount how Oran was buried alive in a pit] They put earth on him, and they returned to their work. And nothing went against Collum Cille after that until he completed the church. (Macleod Banks 1931, 56-8, where the full translation of the tale can be found).
Although this does not necessarily indicate a direct association with the site discussed here, it does show the existence of the saint in local folklore.
Beveridge 1911, 297: ‘Near the west side of Oronsay are the foundations of a rectangular structure standing E and W, its walls nearly 4ft thick, built without lime, and the interior of which is 24ft by 17ft. The dedication of this chapel is not known. Adjoining it, to the south, is what appears to be a semi-circular enclosure, and many large stones lie scattered at the west.’
RCAHMS 1928, 50: ‘On the west side of the peninsula of Oronsay are the foundations of a rectangular building lying east and west. The walls are dry built and about 4 feet thick, while the whole structure measures 24 by 17 feet internally’