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Eigg’s early church archaeology in context

St Donnan’s Seminar, 19-20 April 2015, 

Dr Sally Foster,

 Centre for Environment, Heritage and Policy, University of Stirling, s.m.foster@stir.ac.uk 


The aim of this illustrated presentation was to reflect on what is known of the early church archaeology of Eigg — ‘the focus of one of Atlantic Scotland’s most significant native cults’ (Fraser 2009, 343) — in the light of key developments in church archaeology elsewhere in the Isles of Britain and Ireland.1 This summary highlights some of the key points and directs the reader to further reading, the bibliographies of which will in turn prove useful.

What do we actually know with any confidence about the early monastery that Donnan established? As Professor Clancy’s talk at the seminar emphasised, from the documentary sources it is clear that the monastery that Donnan founded, and where he and 52 followers were slaughtered in 617, was certainly a very important foundation in the 8th century, but how the establishment fare between 617 and the 8th century, and what was the impact of Vikings activity? (We know Iona continued to operate).

The monastery is assumed to include the area of the circular churchyard and 19th-century church at Kildonnan (Donnan’s church), the general area in which a series of early medieval sculptures, mostly gravemarkers, have been found since the 19th century. Notably, this includes a slab with a hunting scene reused as a cross-slab, with a very fine Latin inscription; Fisher (2001, 92-4)suggests both phases of the use of this cross-slab may be late 9th century, but the rationale for this is not clear. If Gondek and Jeffrey (2003) are correct that the slab was originally part of a composite shrine monument, then it is one of a small number of related high-status monuments found mainly on the eastern coast of Scotland; the blank area to the right of the hunting scene is, however, difficult to explain in the composite monument model but its alignment is certainly odd if part of the original scheme for the cross-slab.

Geophysics and small-scale excavation by Professor John Hunter and his team (Hunter et al 2008; Hunter 2012) have demonstrated that there is prehistoric and later activity in this general area but, strictly, have not demonstrated that this is the location of the early medieval monastery.

Archaeologically speaking, there is therefore still much to learn about the location and nature of the monastic establishment at Kildonnan, and the form this took around the 9th and 10th centuries when Donnan’s cult was popular elsewhere in Scotland, which would have emphasised the significance of his relics and Eigg.

The key archaeological developments that may help us to rethink what could be at Kildonnan and how to approach finding out more include the recently published large-scale excavations of church sites. We can only learn so much from small excavation trenches, as the many decades of work at Iona illustrates. Particularly useful too are O’Carragáin’s 2010 review of church architecture in Ireland and O’Sullivan et al’s 2014 analysis of what we know from archaeology about the early church in Ireland. What we find, for example, is:

  Monastic sites are more diverse in their form than the standardised, traditional models have permitted, with an over-reliance on certain types of (Irish) examples, which are not necessarily typical of Ireland either

  We should expect regional diversity, and that this builds on local prehistories (we now know more about Iron Age pre-Christian ritual practices from sites such as Rhynie, Mine Howe and High Pasture Cave)

  We should expect a combination of native and external influences, as we readily see in the sculpture of this period

  ‘Monasteries’, which can also be called church settlement or ecclesiastical settlement, have a wider range of social, economic and ideological functions than previously appreciated. In Scotland such sites have now produced good evidence for literacy and schooling, vellum manufacture, manufacturing ecclesiastical metalworking, as well as highly organised agricultural production. However, it can be difficult on archaeological grounds to distinguish ecclesiastical and high-status secular sites — Flixborough in Anglo- Saxon England is the classic example — and elites may anyway have co-existed.

 While stone buildings may not be the norm, there is important evidence for architectural innovation, such as the 8th-century shrine chapels that probably originated on Iona, built in the graveyard over the body of the saint.

The direct implications for Kildonnan include:

  Most churches in the early medieval period were timber and, other than by serendipity, we stand no chance

of locating the fragile archaeological evidence for these unless large-scale excavations can take place in burial grounds and in and around church buildings. But we have under-estimated what the complexity and sophistication of these buildings might involve (see for example the evidence from Whithorn).

  The visible sub-circular enclosure at Kildonnan could be one of several burial grounds / church foci within the overall early church settlement complex. It is too small to be the important monastery that the sources indicate; it could have been where the saint was buried and any subsequent architecture directly associated with his cult was to be found. Might there be some parallels with what we now know of the development of the Pictish and Norse church and graveyard complex at St Ninian’s Isle, Shetland?

  No-one has yet found any evidence for an encircling monastic enclosure. These are not necessarily required for monastic sites, particularly where the topography lends itself to definition of spaces; where such boundaries are found elsewhere they are not necessarily primary. Might the ecclesiastical settlement at Kildonnan have also lacked the resources and/or need to build such monumental architecture at the period when building such enclosures was popular elsewhere?

  Literacy and by implication manuscript production was clearly present.

  The monastery will have been well connected through ecclesiastical and secular networks.

  In the 8th century, if not before, we must assume that the monastic site was being favoured by a local wealthy dynasty. A great unknown is how and if contemporary secular and ecclesiastical settlements were in anyway co-located.

  We need to think about the wider monastic landscape / estate, within and beyond the island?

Note: with apologies, copyright issues prevent the author from making her powerpoint slides, which made extensive use of the work of others, available for online publication.

Select further reading

CARVER, M., GARNER-LAHIRE, J. and SPALL, C., forthcoming. Portmahomack on Tarbat Ness. An Iron Age Estate, Pictish Monastery, Scots Trading Farm and Medieval Township in North-East Scotland. Edinburgh: Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.

FISHER, I., 2001. Early Medieval Sculpture in the West Highlands and Islands. Edinburgh: Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.

FOSTER, S.M., forthcoming a. "A bright crowd of chancels": whither early church archaeology in Scotland? In: A. BLACKWELL, ed, Scotland in Early Medieval Europe. Edinburgh: Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.

FOSTER, S.M., forthcoming b. 'Physical evidence for the early church in Scotland'. In: P. BARNWELL, ed, Buildings for Worship in Britain: Celtic and Anglo-Saxon. Donhead: Shaun Tyas.

FOSTER, S.M., 2014. Picts, Gaels and Scots: Early Historic Scotland. 3rd edn. Edinburgh: Birlinn.

FRASER, J.E., 2009. From Caledonia to Pictland. Scotland to 795. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

GONDEK, M. and JEFFREY, S., 2003. The re-use of a figurative panel from Eigg. Medieval Archaeology, 47, pp. 178-185.

HUNTER, J.R., COLLS, K. and COLLINS, P ., 2008. Locating the Monastery of St. Donnan on Eigg. Unpublished report, University of Birmingham.

HUNTER, J., 2012. Excavations at Kildonnan, Eigg 2012. Unpublished report, University of Birmingham.

MACDONALD, A., 1974. Two major early monasteries of Scottish Dalriata: Lismore and Eigg. Scottish Archaeological Forum, 5, pp. 47-69. Ó CARRAGÁIN, T., 2010. Churches in Early Medieval Ireland. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

O'SULLIVAN, A., MCCORMICK, F., KERR, T.T. and HARNEY, L., eds, 2014. Early Medieval Ireland, AD 400-1100. The Evidence from

Archaeological Excavations. Dublin: Royal Irish Academy. Chapter 4: The Early Medieval Church, pp. 139-78. 


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