MHG5453 - Monastery - Kildonnan, Eigg


No summary available.

Type and Period (1)

  • MONASTIC SETTLEMENT (Early Medieval to Medieval - 561 AD? to 1559 AD?)

Protected Status

  • None recorded

Full Description

NM48NE 24 c48 85.

St Donnan "in his later days" (W D Simpson 1935) founded a monastery at Kildonnan (NM 490 851) in Eigg, where he and 52 companions are said to have been massacred by pirates on 17th April 617. At least part of the monastery was burnt, but since Oan, who died in 725, is described as "superior of Eigg", the implication is that the monastery continued in existence.
W J Watson 1926

No further information (but see NM 48 SE 15).
Visited by OS (AA) 9 May 1972

The monastery of Eigg was founded by Donnan who, with his companions, was martyred by unknown attackers in 617. The death of a later abbot is recorded in 725 and that of a religiosus or anchorite in 752, and the names of other members of the community are also recorded.
The monastery was probably in the same area as the ruined medieval church (see MHG5687) that is situated 350m NNW of Kildonnan farmhouse. It lies at the W edge of a level area about 35m in elevation, 500m from the E coast of the island and 300m NNE of the tidal inlet of Poll nam Partan. There are no identifiable remains of an enclosure, but a small fort lies on the promontory of Rubha na Crannaig, 0.7km to the SSE, and 250m N of it there are two Viking burial-mounds which were excavated in 1875.
The probable location of the monastery is supported by the number of early carved stones which have been found in or near the church. One of these (no.5) remains inside the building and the others are displayed in the porch of The Lodge at Galmisdale (see MHG44972 and MHG42120). A fine cross-shaft of late medieval date has been re-erected in the burial-ground S of the church (see MHG25041), and the areas known as Crois Mhor, to the E, and Crois Bheag, to the SW, took their names from the tradition that crosses stood there. <1>

The area south, east and west of the chapel ruin was subject to geophysical and topographic surveys by the University of Birmingham in 2008 as part of a project aimed at locating the possible site of the monastery founded by St Donan. Although several resistance anomalies were detected the results were not conclusive and it was considered that only excavation would reveal their true nature. <2>

Excavations in three areas (Sites A, B and C) were carried out in 2012 under the direction of J Hunter and undertaken by students from the University of Glasgow and Cranfield University, accompanied by additional resistivity survey in the area of the oval graveyard to the south (Area C). One of the two main purposes of the excavations was to locate evidence for the monastic community associated with St Donnan (died c. 617) and although this could not be said to have been fully achieved, there was ample evidence to demonstrate the presence of later Iron Age activity on the site, arguably contemporary with Donnan. This was partly on the basis of working cobbled surfaces, burnt daub and sets of post-holes associated with coarse post-broch pottery (notably Site B, Trenches 7 and 8), and partly on the discovery of a ditch and timber enclosure. The ditched enclosure was elliptical in shape and lay directly below the same oval outline of a C19 burial ground at the south of the site which clearly respected it (Site C). The ditch had silted and had been recut. The ditch phase is undated at present and would usefully benefit from future excavation focused towards this end. Nevertheless, there is a strong argument, based on the spatial correlation between the two enclosures, to suggest continuity of place and religious association. Moreover, the shape of the early ditch broadly conforms to the vallum or cashel system of delineation characteristic of Celtic monasticism and likely to have been followed by Donnan. The second aim of the work was to assess the continuity of worship and to test the richness of the archaeology. Here the results were more tangible. The remains of a Neolithic cairn were found located between the oval burial ground and the standing chapel (Trench 8). This was located on the highest ground; it probably represented original activity on the site and is testimony to the subsequent importance of place. The cairn was both robbed and disturbed, although there was some evidence for secondary activity; it may also have exhibited kerb stones, although there was no evidence for overall shape or for a chamber. Pottery found within its construction is of
the Beacharra type, characteristic of cairns of the Clyde group (although somewhat of an outlier), dated according to current views around the middle of the 4th millennium BC. The excavations around the chapel (Site A) identified earlier stone-built structural remains lying below, and projecting from under the chapel itself. The remains of a substantial building of unknown
size, constructed of mortared foundations was exposed lying within the oval burial ground to the south (Site C Trench 5). Foundations of this magnitude represent a structure of significance, and arguably in this location, a chapel or other ecclesiastical building. The fact that this should lie within the confines of the burial ground (i.e. pre-19th century) and within the area of the earlier ditched enclosure speaks volumes for both continuity of place and the building’s importance. It had been drastically damaged by later burials and its nature and function remain open to interpretation. That said, it lay at right angles to, and may have joined, a substantial linear feature lying to the south beyond the burial ground identified on the geophysical survey. <3>

Sources/Archives (7)



Grid reference Centred NM 4887 8531 (150m by 150m) (2 map features)
Map sheet NM48NE
Civil Parish SMALL ISLES
Geographical Area LOCHABER

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Related Monuments/Buildings (2)

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