Although the presence of medieval ecclesiastical activity in this area is evident in the place-name evidence, the physical church was not (re)discovered until 1989 by Andrew Fleming and Alex Woolf, who subsequently published a seminal article on the site (1992). The association with St Donnan also survives in local folklore and Carmichael (1870) records various sites associated with Cille Donnain, including Taigh-Dhonnain, stating that ‘St Donan is said to hve[sic] lived here’. According to the OS Name Books (OS1/18/12/25): ‘This name applies to the ruins of an old burying ground, situated on the South-west end of “Loch Kildonan” and about one mile to the South of St Mary's R.C. [Roman Catholic] Chapel, Nothing is known in the district of what time this burying ground became disused, On the property of John Gordon Esquire, Cluny Castle.’
The name Cille Donnain has given rise to several other place-names in this area, including Sligeanach Kildonan NF726287, Gleann Chill Donnain NF751278, Kildonan River NF739282, Loch Chill Donnain NF734281 and Clachan Kildonan NF734281.
Cille Donnain is perhaps the only church-site in Uist that has received considerable scholarly attention; unlike most of the sites discussed in this project this entry, to an extent, serves as a historiographical overview of scholarly thinking surrounding Cille Donnain. Most notably, the publication by Fleming and Woolf (1992) set the standard for thinking about its historical context. Based on the archaeological evidence, they argue that Cille Donnain and Eilean Mór NF732283 (ca. 200m north west of Cille Donnain) were most likely a Norse political centre in the 12th century, drawing parallels with other sites of significance in the Hebrides:
Together, Eilean Mor and Cille Donnain can be compared with the traditional seat of the Lords of the Isles at Finlaggan on Islay (RCAHMS 1984, 275-81). There is now a profusion of late medieval building ruins at Finlaggan. But it is arguable that the basic core of the site at Finlaggan consists of a prestige residence and a church, on an island, with a causeway leading to a much smaller island 30 m across with three buildings on it - Eilean na Comhairle (Council Island) (Fleming and Woolf 1992, 343).
Rekdal (2004, 268) draws further attention to the Norse dimension of St Donnan dedications in the Outer Hebrides by pointing out that both Cille Donnain in Uist and St Donnan’s Chapel on Little Bernera in Lewis ?NB150407 are located in areas that were heavily populated by the Norse. Thacker (2015, 45) further places Cille Donnain in its wider archaeological context through a survey of ‘evidence for lime mortars within 12th-century bicameral chapels of Atlantic Scotland and pre-Reformation chapels of the Western Isles’, concluding that:
The generic technologies associated with lime mortar suggest it was an agent for sacred universality: plastering over different geologies to create a glowing white specifically Roman gaze which, like the priest who performs within, might be found right across Europe; and, indeed, lime was soon to be active right across Atlantic Scotland—an agent for conquest and a powerful new negotiator for the “new” religion. (Thacker 2015, 57)
More recently, Parker-Pearson (ch. 3) has further argued that:
The church must have been built within the first century or so after Christianity became established among the Norse communities of the Western Isles and, in these circumstances, it is more likely than not that it started life as a private church belonging to a high-status individual, rather than as a community or district church.
The evidence overwhelmingly points to a Norse date for the physical remains at Cille Donnain, but can anything be said about the possibility of pre-Norse Christianity in this area? The impact of the Norse settlers on church organisation and the likelihood that the surviving evidence is more reflective of the later Middle Ages than ‘the era of Colum Cille and Donnain themselves’ in the Hebrides has been pointed out (Fleming and Woolf 1992, 347; also see Cant 1984); however, this does not necessarily exclude the possibility of an early medieval Christian presence at Cille Donnain. Although the story recorded by Carmichael which asserts that St Donnan lived here can of course not be taken as historical evidence, it is worth pointing that the cult of St Donnan appears to have been ‘well established by at least the early 10th century’ (DoSH ‘Donnán of Eigg’) and is therefore not exclusively reflective of a late Norse world. In particular, a potential link between Eigg and Uist may be important considering that we know with certainty that St Donnan himself led the monastic community on Eigg before his martyrdom in 619 (see Clancy 2015 for a full discussion of St Donnan and Eigg). There is a possibility that the saint and the monks of Eigg were indeed present in Uist in the early medieval period (see Donnan for a fuller discussion of the cult of St Donnan). Having said that, any conclusions regarding the pre-Norse era in this area must be tentative, being largely based on contextual evidence. However, although the Vikings left a permanent mark on the ecclesiastical structure of the Hebrides, we should not discount the possibility that individual church-sites such as Cille Donnain have ultimately pre-Norse roots.
(Martin 1703, 88): ‘The Churches here [South Uist] are St. Columba and St. Mary’s in Hogh-more, the most centrical place in the Island; St. Jeremy’s Chapels, St. Peter’s, St. Bannan, St. Michael, St. Donnan.’
OPS (366): ‘There were chapels at Kilbride in Boisdale, and at Kildonnan and apparently also at Clachan of Branagh, Clachan Cuay, and Kirkidale, in the other and larger portion of the parish.’
Canmore ID 9844
Grid reference: NF731281
G cill ‘a church, chapel, churchyard, burial ground, hermit’s cell’ + pn Donnán (of Eigg)
(‘St Donnan’s Church’)
1498 RMS 2 Kildonan
ca. 1583-96 Pont Kildonnen
1654 Blaeu Kildonnen
1750 Dorret Kildonan
1789 Ainslie Kildonin
1790 Campbell Kildonin
1794 Huddart Kildonnin
1804 Heather Kildonnin
1807 Arrowsmith Kildonan
?1825 Bald Kildonan
1832 Thomson Kildonan
OS 6-inch Cille Dounain (Burial Ground (Disused))