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 ([simple_tooltip content='Fleming, A. & Woolf, A. 1992. ‘Cille Donnain: A late Norse church in south Uist’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 122, 329-350.']1992[/simple_tooltip]). The association with St Donnan also survives in local folklore and [simple_tooltip content='Carmichael, A. 1870 (2006). The Carmichael Watson Project (Coll-97/CW150/82) <http://220.127.116.11/cwatson/en/catalogueentry/5063/1/5/donan/donan/ALL>.']Carmichael (1870)[/simple_tooltip] records various sites associated with Cille Donnain, including Taigh-Dhonnain, stating that ‘St Donan is said to hve[sic] lived here’. According to the [simple_tooltip content='OS Name Books, Inverness-shire Ordnance Survey Name Books, 1876-1878. ScotlandsPlaces <https://scotlandsplaces.gov.uk/digital-volumes/ordnance-survey-name-books/inverness-shire-os-name-books-1876-1878>.']OS Name Books (OS1/18/12/25)[/simple_tooltip]: ‘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 [simple_tooltip content='Fleming, A. & Woolf, A. 1992. ‘Cille Donnain: A late Norse church in south Uist’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 122, 329-350.']Fleming and Woolf (1992)[/simple_tooltip] 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) ([simple_tooltip content='Fleming, A. & Woolf, A. 1992. ‘Cille Donnain: A late Norse church in south Uist’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 122, 329-350.']Fleming and Woolf 1992, 343[/simple_tooltip]).
[simple_tooltip content='Rekdal, J E. 2003-4. ‘Vikings and saints—encounters vestan um haf’, Peritia 17–18, 256–275.']Rekdal (2004, 268)[/simple_tooltip] 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. [simple_tooltip content='Thacker, M. 2015. ‘Cille Donnain Revisited: Negotiating with Lime Across Atlantic Scotland from the 12th Century’, Journal of the North Atlantic, special volume 9, 45-66.']Thacker (2015, 45)[/simple_tooltip] 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. ([simple_tooltip content='Thacker, M. 2015. ‘Cille Donnain Revisited: Negotiating with Lime Across Atlantic Scotland from the 12th Century’, Journal of the North Atlantic, special volume 9, 45-66.']Thacker 2015, 57[/simple_tooltip])
More recently, [simple_tooltip content='Parker Pearson, M. (ed.), 2012. From machair to mountains: archaeological survey and excavation in South Uist (Oxford).']Fleming (ch. 3)[/simple_tooltip] 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 ([simple_tooltip content='Fleming, A. & Woolf, A. 1992. ‘Cille Donnain: A late Norse church in south Uist’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 122, 329-350; Cant, R.G. 1984. ‘Norse Influences in the Organisation of the Medieval Church in the Western Isles’, Northern Studies, vol. 21, 1-14.']Fleming and Woolf 1992, 347; also see Cant 1984[/simple_tooltip]); 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 [simple_tooltip content='Clancy, T.O. 2015. ‘St Donnan of Eigg: Cult and Context’, Eigg History Society, <http://www.spanglefish.com/eigghistorysociety/index.asp?pageid=616291>.']Clancy 2015 for a full discussion of St Donnan and Eigg[/simple_tooltip]). 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.
([simple_tooltip content='Martin, M. 1703. A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland (London).']Martin 1703, 88[/simple_tooltip]): ‘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.’
[simple_tooltip content='OPS = Origines Parochiales Scotiae: the Antiquities Ecclesiastical and Territorial of the Parishes of Scotland vol.2, 1854. (Edinburgh).']OPS (366)[/simple_tooltip]: ‘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
[simple_tooltip content='Scottish Gaelic']G[/simple_tooltip] cill ‘a church, chapel, churchyard, burial ground, hermit’s cell’ + [simple_tooltip content='personal name']pn[/simple_tooltip] Donnán (of Eigg)
(‘St Donnan’s Church’)
[simple_tooltip content='RMS 2 = Paul, J.B. (ed.) Registrum magni sigilli regum Scotorum: The register of the Great seal of Scotland, A.D. 1306-1668, vol. 2 (Edinburgh), 518.']1498 RMS 2[/simple_tooltip] Kildonan
[simple_tooltip content='Pont, T. ca. 1583-96. ‘South Uist; Inverkeithing’ (NLS National Library of Scotland) <https://maps.nls.uk/rec/299>.']ca. 1583-96[/simple_tooltip] Pont Kildonnen
[simple_tooltip content='Blaeu, J. 1654. ‘Atlas of Scotland’ (NLS National Library of Scotland) <https://maps.nls.uk/atlas/blaeu/graphic_index_west.html>.']1654 Blaeu[/simple_tooltip] Kildonnen
[simple_tooltip content='Dorret, J. 1750. ‘A general map of Scotland and islands thereto belonging.’ (NLS National Library of Scotland) <https://maps.nls.uk/joins/703.html>.']1750 Dorret[/simple_tooltip] Kildonan
[simple_tooltip content='Ainslie, J. 1789. ‘Scotland, Drawn from a Series of Angles and Astronomical Observations’ (NLS National Library of Scotland) <https://maps.nls.uk/joins/807.html>.']1789 Ainslie[/simple_tooltip] Kildonin
[simple_tooltip content='Campbell, R. 1790. ‘A new and correct map of Scotland or North Britain, with all the posts and military roads.’ (NLS National Library of Scotland) <https://maps.nls.uk/joins/723.html>.']1790 Campbell[/simple_tooltip] Kildonin
[simple_tooltip content='Huddart, J. 1794. ‘A New Chart of the West Coast of Scotland from the Point of Ardnamurchan to Cape Wrath’ (NLS National Library of Scotland) <https://maps.nls.uk/coasts/chart/827>.']1794 Huddart[/simple_tooltip] Kildonnin
[simple_tooltip content='Heather, W. 1804. ‘A New and Improved Chart of the Hebrides. Or Lewis Islands and Adjacent Coast of Scotland…’ (NLS National Library of Scotland) <https://maps.nls.uk/coasts/chart/828>.']1804 Heather[/simple_tooltip] Kildonnin
[simple_tooltip content='Bald, W. 1805. ‘Plan of the island of South Uist’ (NLS National Library of Scotland) <https://maps.nls.uk/counties/rec/657>.']1805 Bald[/simple_tooltip] Kildonan
[simple_tooltip content='Arrowsmith, A. 1807. ‘Map of Scotland Constructed from Original Materials’ (NLS National Library of Scotland) <https://maps.nls.uk/joins/747.html>.']1807 Arrowsmith[/simple_tooltip] Kildonan
[simple_tooltip content='Thomson, J. 1832. ‘John Thomson’s Atlas of Scotland’ (NLS National Library of Scotland) <https://maps.nls.uk/atlas/thomson/494.html>.']1832 Thomson[/simple_tooltip] Kildonan
[simple_tooltip content='Six-inch 1st edition Ordnance Survey Maps of Scotland, 1843-1882 <https://maps.nls.uk/os/6inch/index.html>.']OS 6-inch[/simple_tooltip] Cille Donnain (Burial Ground (Disused))