As with a number of other saints discussed here, it is not entirely certain that St Barr is commemorated in Uist, although he is of course the patron saint of the neighbouring island of Barra, where his name is incorporated both in the island’s name, an Old Norse name *Barr-ey, ‘St Barr’s island’ (though see Stahl 2000, 139 sn Barra who doubts this derivation); and in the Gaelic name for the parish church, Cille Bharra or Kilbarr. In Uist, we only find his name potentially in Cnoc Bharr, potentially ‘St Barr’s hill’, a landscape feature on na h-Eileanan Monach / the Monach Islands.
St Barr was commemorated in Scotland, not only in Barra, but on the east coast as well, dedications being found in Dornoch and Tarbat, Easter Ross (shown in the inset).
For all this, Barr is a highly problematic saint. As it stands, both in Barra and in Caithness, we seem to see in Barr reflections of the Irish saint Fionnbarr or Bairre of Cork (Butter, DoSH ‘Bairre’; Ó Riain 1994). But this is deceptive. Churchmen in the middle ages seem to have built their understanding of their local saint Barr on the Cork saint, largely because his written Life was known and influential (MacQuarrie with Butter 2012, 361-2). The names Barr and Fionnbarr belong to a cluster of names and forms of names that seem to all seem ultimately to be linked: Finnian, Finnio, Uinniau, and even Bairrfhind (DoSH; MacQuarrie with Butter 2012, 362). All seem to go back to an original primitive Gaelic name *Uendubarros ‘white crest’. Inside this Russian doll of saints’ names and nicknames probably lies the man who Adomnán tells us was Columba’s teacher. Adomnán calls this man Uinniau, Finnio and Findbarr. Adomnán recounts a number of stories from the time when Columba studied under him (Sharpe 1995, 317-18, n.210). In one, he is referred to as ‘sanctus Finnio’, ‘Saint Finnio’, making clear that Iona was already promoting him as a saint.
Various scholars have been reasonably confident to connect this Uinniau (as he tends to be called in the scholarly literature, as a sort of compromise name) with the Vinnian who wrote a Penitential, and seems to have been influential in mid-6th century Ireland. For all this, Uinniau, because of the form of his name, was probably originally a Briton, a speaker of the Brittonic language which later gave rise to Welsh, Cornish., etc. We do not know where he originated from, though south-west Scotland has been one suggestion (Clancy 2002, 411-13; Clancy 2001, 12-20).
It is likely, in any case, that the Scottish commemorations in fact reflect this saint, Columba’s teacher, and not the saint of Cork. The most likely way to understand this in the Hebrides is that a cult of St Columba’s teacher grew up, promoted by Iona, and this is what we see in Barra, and perhaps in Cnoc Bharr. Importantly, we know that there was devotion to this saint already before the Scandinavian settlements, since they named the island for him, a sure indication that his church was already there.
Stories from Adomnán’s Life of St Columba involving St Finbarr / Uinniau:
‘At another time, in his youth, when the blessed man was in Ireland, living as a deacon with the holy bishop Findbarr, and the necessary wine for the most holy mysteries was lacking, by virtue of prayer he changed pure water into true wine.’ (Anderson & Anderson, 1991, 13)
‘At one time the holy man, a youth, went to the aged man, the venerable bishop Finnio, his master. When Saint Finnio saw him coming towards him, he saw likewise an angel of the Lord, accompanying him upon his way. And as we are told by men with knowledge of it, Finnio exclaimed to some brothers who were standing by: “Look, behold now the holy one Columba comes, who has deserved to have as his travelling companion and angel of heaven.”’ (Anderson & Anderson, 1991, 187)