Monastic settlement on St Columba's IslandThe ruins on the "island" in the "loch" at Kilmuir were described by a 19th Century archaeologist as the finest example of an original Celtic monastic settlement on the British mainland. Had the loch not been drained in the early part of the 18th Century the buildings would certainly have been much better preserved than they are today. Some of the older residents of Kilmuir
recall the ruins standing over ten feet high where now, some seventy years on, little remains but outlines of the original structures. The writer and traveller Pennant who visited Skye in 1772 wrote, "Beneath the house of Monkstadt was the lake of St. Columba, now drained, once noted for a monastery of great antiquity. The ruins evince its age being built of great stones without mortar. The cells and several rooms are still very distinguishable. The chapel is of later date, and built with mortar as are all the other chapels in Skye and in little islands along its shores. These chapels were served by the monks."

Donald MacQueen, Minister of Kilmuir over two centuries ago wrote, "The missionaries from Icolumkill (lona) to the Western Isles, and neighbouring continent were very numerous. There are remains of about thirty places of worship in this, and the two neighbouring parishes (Snizort and Portree) besides monasteries."

Records of the period 600-800 A.D. no longer exist so that now we have to rely on scant archaeological remains, and the surviving names of tiny monastic cells dotted in profusion throughout the island. In the future professional archaeological investigation will enhance our knowledge. However the evangelising strategy of the missions are known, so that we can build a plausible picture of what took place.

The monastery on the island, like its counterparts elsewhere, was a centre for education and agriculture, as well as a focus of Christianity. Leaders in the community were attracted to the "new" rcligion anxious to learn more about it. News of its "miracles" and "mysteries" no doubt filled them with awe, and they readily responded to the monasteries' requests for land to establish outlying cells.

Martin Martin, a native of Skye writing in the 17th Century, mentions a chapel dedicated to Columba on the island of Trodday and also on Fladda Chuain off the north coast of Skye. In the latter chapel the monk O'Gorman is buried. To the south of Monkstadt we find Kilbride, and to the north Kilvaxter, and nearby the location of the present graveyard for the parish Kilmhoire from which the township derives its name. The name suggests a date around the 13th Century when the influence of the Roman church, stemming from lona was being actively promoted. This may have been the site of an earlier Celtic establishment.

The Church on the island formed by the River Snizort dedicated to St. Columba may originally have been a pagan Pictish centre, but by the time of his arrival may have converted to a Pictish Christian establishment. Over the early centuries of the 2nd Millenium it gained importance as the Kilmuir monastery declined and by the 14th Century was referred to as the Metropolitan Church of the Isles.

Some pictures from the church at Skeabost Island in the River Snizort

Church at Skeabost Island, Isle of Skye

Above: ruins of the one-time
"Cathedral of the Isles" at Skeabost.

Gravestone at Skeabost Island, Isle of Skye

Above right: typical "skull and
crossbones" motif found on ancient
Skye gravestones.

Right: the "Crusader's Grave"
at Skeabost

Crusader's Grave, Skeabost Island, Isle of Skye

At Kildonan near Edinbane, down by the shore stands a small chapel ruin called after Donnan whose monastic base was in the Island of Eigg where in 617 A.D. he and 50 of his muinntir were slain. Eigg was occupied by Picts at this time, so it is likely that the perpetrators of this crime were early Viking pirates, forerunners of the Norse hordes who descended on the western Isles towards the close of the 8th Century.

Dr C O MacRae
Photos strictly copyright Patrick Butler

Continued on Early Church in Skye - Part 5


Early Church in Skye - Part 1
Early Church in Skye - Part 2
Early Church in Skye - Part 3
Early Church in Skye - Part 4
Early Church in Skye - Part 5

Trotternish - The Scenery
Walking in Trotternish
Trotternish Ridge Picture Album
Skye Scene Highland Ceilidh
A Short History of Crofting in Skye
The Great Flood of Uig, 1877
Birds of Trotternish
Plant Life of Trotternish
Skye Museum of Island Life
Bed and Breakfast Accommodation
Self-Catering Accommodation

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