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There are numerous religious sites in Colonsay and Oransay although some of the dedications are to religious figures who may not have visited the island, but for whom great reverence or affection was felt. Others are to individuals who are personally linked to these islands in some special way, and whose connection should be remembered.
Christianity will have reached Colonsay at a very early date, through trading contacts. A glance at a map will show that Mediterranean traders could send ships past the Pillars of Hercules and across the Bay of Biscay, or send goods over the neck of the Iberian peninsula and re-embark them from some more convenient port. Either way, their onward choice lay between the English Channel and the Irish Sea. In one direction lay the shoal banks off the Thames, the lee-shores and difficult navigation of the Netherlands and a trading area perhaps better served overland along the Danube and the Rhine. In the other direction lay the gold and tin mines of Cornwall, Wales and Ireland, with rich trading opportunities and safer waters. It is no wonder that we have the tradition that Joseph of Arimathea, a tin-trader, founded a church at Glastonbury - if he did not come in person, some or other of his ships will have carried his goods and his message to Britain in the first century A.D. Such trading vessels may have sailed up as far as Scotland and beyond, but in any case the trade goods themselves and certain traders will have done so, as is known from the archaeological record. The trade route will have crossed the North Channel, passing through the Sound of Islay and along the Firth of Lorne, then along the Great Glen and from there across the North Sea. Thus Colonsay was a crucial point upon a vital trading route and will have been exposed to many cultural influences.
In Ireland, there is the tradition of Artus, an Irishman in the service of Rome, who was present at the Crucifixion and was so affected by his experiences that he came home to preach the Word. The annalists mention three waves of Christianity before St. Patrick's arrival: "Cormac [i.e. the grandson of Conn of the Hundred Battles] had the faith of the one true God, according to the law; for he said that he would not adore stones, or trees, but that he would adore Him who had made them, and who had power over all the elements, i.e., the one powerful God who created the elements; in Him he would believe. And he was the third person who had believed in Erin before the arrival of St. Patrick. Conchobor Mac Nessa, to whom Altus had told concerning the crucifixion of Christ, was the first ; Morann, the son of Cairbre Cinncait (who was surnamed Mac Main), was the second person; and Cormac was the third; and it is probable that others followed on their track in this belief."
Whatever the truth, a passing knowledge of the growth of a new religion does not mean that the Iron Age inhabitants of Colonsay unreservedly embraced it... we cannot usefully speculate upon the early years, but we can be reasonably confident that Christianity was already well-established in the island of Colonsay before the arrival of St. Columba c. 565 A.D. (Bede). Our confidence in this is strengthened by the knowledge that in 574 Áedán mac Gabráin insisted that Columba consecrate him as king of Dalriada; this was the first such religious ordination of a temporal ruler in European history and indicates that Christianity was by then very firmly established within his kingdom . All the same, instead of St. Columba, it was an earlier and somewhat enigmatic figure who may be accepted as our first saint in Colonsay.
1. St. Odhran, the Apostle of Colonsay c. 515? - 548 AD Feast: October 27
This was Odhran of Leitrioch Odhran, now Latteragh, in County Tipperary, whose death was recorded as on 2nd October 548 ( Annals of Ulster ). Sadly, copies of his "Life" have not survived, but he features in a Colonsay tradition that has been echoed in a distorted tradition about Iona. It is a rare example of a British foundation sacrifice, and is an unusual story. Fortunately the elements of the story are such that one can be reasonably confident that Colonsay is the correct location.
St. Odhran flourished rather earlier than St. Columba, and had laboured long in the islands before St. Columba and his missionary band commenced their journey to Iona (563 AD). In fact, St. Odhran had died some fifteen years before they arrived there, and he is believed to have established the first religious house in that island. In that way, St. Columba's mission was based upon St. Odhran's foundation, giving rise to a later, garbled story that St. Odhran was literally buried alive in the footings. St. Adomnán makes no reference to the story in his Life of St. Columba and we may be forgiven for thinking that this subsequent (and rather more lurid) version of St. Odhran's death was entirely derivative.
The simple tradition in Colonsay is that St. Odhran and St. Catan were brothers, whether in fact or in faith, who both had arrived from Ireland. Catan selected and consecrated a pre-existing pagan burial-ground, and began to build a chapel with his brother's assistance; obviously enough, this became known as Kilchattan. In due course, St. Odhran began to build a cell or chapel of his own, at Kiloran; whilst he was still at work upon it, the island was visited by a serious drought. St. Odhran devoted himself to prayer and fasting and apparently lapsed into a catatonic state; thinking that he had died, normal obsequies were observed. It would seem that, during his interment, he must have rallied in his coma and muttered some sort of incoherent sounds. The shocked mourners believed that something supernatural was happening, and that perhaps he was in danger of returning from the other life.
In Symington Grieve's account, before he had finished building his chapel, "Oran took ill and was laid up for some time, gradually getting worse, until he fell into a state of coma. After waiting twenty-four hours his attendants thought he was dead, and sent for Catan. He came and arranged for the burial. No coffin was provided, perhaps none could be obtained. The body was laid in the grave upon its back, and immediately began to quiver and shake. Then it turned upon its side and began to speak.
"Oran said:" I am to part with my work, but another man will not finish it, because all the stones will be put into the building after this face up."
"One of Catan's masons, named Brini, said he could finish the building if he was allowed to place the stones upon their edge with their sharpness down.
When Catan heard what his mason said, his orders were: "Earth upon Oran's eye before he says the next word."
These words were carved upon a stone, which was placed at the head of Oran's grave. The tradition is that this stone remained until Kiloran House was built, when it was thrown away."
In the Iona version, St. Odhran says "There is no wonder in death, and hell is not as it is reported". Either way, the response was the same : "Uir, Uir, air sùil Odhrain! mun labhair e tuille comhraidh. "
The story may well have some basis in fact, since intense fasting and prayer could in themselves have led to the loss of vital signs; and of course St. Odhran might have had some medical condition to trigger the event. It is interesting to notice that the story has been adorned as time went by, so as to introduce obviously biblical themes. Thus we note that St. Odhran is seen to have prepared the way for a greater one, as did St. John the Baptist; he became the foundation of St. Columba's church, as did St. Peter for Christ's church upon earth; he seemed to come back from the grave, as did Christ at the Resurrection; and it appears that his church was to be built without further dressing of the hewn stone, as was the case with the Temple of Solomon. Oddly enough, the (much later) mediaeval chapel associated with St. Catan is built with many of its stones lying edgewise.
St. Odhran's holy well ( Tobar Odhran ) may still be seen, in the gardens of Colonsay House, but the magnificent 8th century cross beside it is not original to the site, having been brought up from Riasg Buidhe for safe-keeping. Incidentally, St. Odhran was chosen as patron saint of Waterford by the Vikings, in 1096.
2. St. Catan, ca. 500-570; Feast: May 17th
Apart from knowing the name of his mason, Brini, which is recorded in the above tradition, we have a number of place-names which commemorate St. Catan. A late 14th century chapel in Colonsay, sadly now a ruin, is dedicated to him and may well mark the site of his original cell (Cille-Chatan). Nearby, in the face of the raised beach at Drumclach, is Tobar Chatan, his holy well, and some fifty feet behind the former bookshop lies Cuidh Chatan (St. Cattan's heel-mark), a stoup for divination of wind and weather, closely associated with the MacMhuirich or Curry family. We also have Slochd Chatan (St. Catan's Hollow), Glaic nan Eibhrionn (Mass Dell), Geadhail Ghille Naoimh (Field of the Servant of the Saint), and Carraig Chatan (St. Catan's Fishing-rock), all within a few hundred metres of the chapel.
Of all these sites, the most evocative would have been his well, but its exact location had been forgotten until recently, when there was preparatory excavation work in connection with a proposed new house. An archaeologist was in attendance and identified rough rubble infill, including an apparent marker stone. Originally merely phallic, it had been crudely worked to create a rudimentary cross and so to Christianise a pagan totem. Perhaps it was mere coincidence that the modification may also have served to circumcise the stone, in accordance with God's injunction to Abraham (Genesis 17: 10-14). Even Our Lord was circumcised and although the early church regarded the practice as entirely optional, remote and relatively unsophisticated preachers may have followed biblical precepts. This very interesting relic was declared treasure-trove and is now in the parish church, on permanent loan.
St. Catan was well-connected, since he was the son of Áedán of Dalriada (anointed as king in 574 by St. Columba) and his sister Ertha was the mother of St. Blaan, the founder of Dunblane. Apparently the two saints came across from Ireland together, and in due course it was St. Blaan who consecrated his uncle Catan a bishop (or vice versa ??). By this time, St. Catan was established at Kingarth in Bute, known as Suidh Chatain; although he is today most famously associated with Bute, his missionary work is remembered by foundations in Lismore, Gigha, Luing and elsewhere. Whether or not he was an actual or merely spiritual brother to St. Odhran, there seems no reason to doubt that they worked together to spread the Gospel and that St. Catan continued that work in Colonsay after the death of St. Odhran and until the arrival of St. Columba and his companions. St. Catan died after 560 and it is believed that he was buried in Bute, but it is possible that his remains were later translated for safety to Tamlacht, near Derry, where there is a tomb bearing his name. There was also a tradition that his relics had been revered in Lewis.
One of his namesakes was Gilliechattan Mor ("follower of St. Catan"), whose descendant line became Clan Chattan.
3. St. Ciaran of Clonmacnoise c. 516 - 548; Feast: September 9
It is curious that St. Ciaran's dates so closely echo those of St. Odhran, and that the lengths of their earthly careers (32 years) echo that of Our Lord. Nonetheless, St. Ciaran was a very real historical figure, famed in Scotland as The Apostle of Kintyre. Indeed, he gave his name to Kilkerran (the old name for Campbeltown), where he is still held in great affection. In Ireland, he is of outstanding importance as, in his 28 th year, he was the founder of the important Abbey of Clonmacnoise, one of the most celebrated of Irish religious houses. Not surprisingly, he is included therefore amongst that select band known as "The Twelve Apostles of Ireland". Interestingly, he was the contemporary and tutor of St. Columba, and is said to have brought him to visit Kintyre some 15 years or more before St. Columba embarked upon his journey to Iona. Hearing of his death at such an early age, St. Columba penned a hymn in tribute, of which only a fragment survives:
"Quantum Christe! Apostolum
Mundo misisti hominem?
Lucerna huius insulae, lucerna mirabilis..."
Rather freely taken to say:
"So great a follower of Christ! An unremitting apostle to mankind -
bringing light to these isles, a marvellous light..."
One writer remarks that "the estimation in which St. Ciaran was held in his life time, may be judged of from the vision of St. Baithen, who dreamed that he bad seen three splendid chairs prepared in heaven, one of gold, one of silver, and one of glass; and agreed in the interpretation of their being intended for Ciaran, Laisran, and Columba".
The writer continues "There is also extant a beautiful Irish ode of his, being a farewell to his monastery in Ireland, when he set out for Scotland. The imagery of this piece is singular; seven angels, Uriel, Ithiel, etc. are represented as having their charge of this monastery, each his own day in succession throughout the week, and then returning to give the recording angel an account of what passed in the cathedral: an idea well calculated to excite in the monks the strictest attention to conduct, and the strongest desire to excel."
St. Ciaran was the son of a carpenter, the chariot-maker of the King of Tara, and it is as Mac an t'Saoir that he is the champion of all McIntyres. He was noted for his piety, for his knowledge and for his charity - indeed, so great was his generosity that he was expelled from one religious house for fear that he would reduce it to beggary.
We do not know if he ever visited Colonsay - it is certainly not impossible. The chapel dedicated to his memory is Cille Chiarain, very close to the 5th green on the golf-course which is known as the "Viking's Grave". (The Viking in question was buried there because it was a sanctified spot, and it is interesting to note that he was buried with his faithful companion, an aged and arthritic dog, not unlike a modern Corgi.)
The saint's memory is also preserved in the name of Eilean Cill Chiarain, the small tidal island at the mouth of Port Lobh. As a child, he kept a pet fox which used to carry his satchel, and when he left home to join a monastery, a family cow followed him faithfully. For years, the cow provided milk to the community, and after death it provided the cover for Lebor na h'Uidre (The Book of the Dun Cow), one of Ireland's oldest surviving manuscripts. Many miracles are said to have been performed through the intercession of St. Ciaran. He was reputed to be able to travel swiftly across long distances over land and sea, "without recourse to boat or ferry"; thus he seems to be a very appropriate patron for Colonsay Aerodrome.
The Vision of the Great Tree
"While in the Aran Islands with St. Enda, both monks saw the same vision of a great and fruitful tree growing on the banks of a stream in central Ireland. This tree sheltered the entire island, its fruit crossed the sea surrounding Ireland, and birds came to carry off some of that fruit to the rest of the world. Enda interpreted this vision for his friend by saying, "The great tree is you, Kieran, for you are great in the eyes of God and all people. All of Ireland will be sheltered by the grace in you, and many will be nourished by your fasting and prayers. Go to the centre of Ireland, and found your church on the banks of a stream.""
4. St. Columba c. 521 - 597 A.D.; Feast: June 9
The outline of St. Columba's life is readily available from the writings of St. Adomnán, although it is an unfortunate fact that small but important details have often been distorted. As it happens, there are surviving traditions in Colonsay which, although incapable of actual verification, sit very comfortably within the known facts.
As far as we know, St. Columba left Ireland two years after the battle of Cúl Drebene, in 563. He had a simple mission - "to be a pilgrim for Christ", i.e. to spread the knowledge of the Gospels beyond the Christian realm of Dalriada and into the pagan territories of the Picts. Any talk of his being banished from Ireland is the merest nonsense - without his reliable base and powerful connections in Ireland, his ministry could never have achieved such outstanding success.
His mission was, of course, well planned and he had already obtained the consent of the then ruler of Dalriada, King Conall, who had his seat at Dúnadd; very likely this consent was obtained during his earlier visit to Kintyre in the company of his tutor, St. Ciaran. Thus at the start of his actual mission, he was able to make his way directly to Dún Cholla, in Colonsay, seat of the king's governor on the important trading route and not far from the Pictish border to the north. Once again, one should not underestimate the importance of this trade route, dating back to the Bronze Age and extending from the Mediterranean along the Irish Sea, along the Great Glen and across into Scandinavia.
St. Columba was not alone in his mission - for doubtless symbolic reasons, he was accompanied by twelve disciples:
Baithéne, known also as Conin, his first cousin and sometime successor b. 536
Cobthach, brother of Baithéne and therefore another cousin
Ernán, St. Columba's maternal uncle
Diarmit, St. Columba's servant
Rus, son of Ruadán
Fiachnae, another son of Ruadán
Scandal mac Bresail main Énda main Néill
Lugaid moccu Temnae
Tochannu moccu Fir Chete (an Irish prince)
Carnán mac Branduib maic Meilgi
At that time, Colonsay had not gained its modern name and it is identified by St. Adomnán only as "Hinba" ("inlet island"); Oransay seems to have been called "Hinbina" ("pendicle of inlet island"); and the Strand is described as "muirbolc" ("sea-bag"). In local tradition, the little group landed at Traigh nam Barc, on the Garvard side, in a tiny sandy bay known as Port na h'Iúbhraich ("barge harbour"), which is a short distance to the west of Loch Breac. Having beached their boat, the party is said to have made its way across the level ground between An Dúnan and Cuirn Mhóra, around the point of Garvard and then onwards to Dún Cholla, where they presented their credentials. Later that day, St. Columba celebrated Mass for the first time on this missionary journey and it is said that the existing late 14th century chapel of Teampull na Ghlinne, now in ruins, stands upon the very site.
St. Columba is said to have stayed a full year in Hinba before setting out once more, to complete his journey to Iona. The holy well at Balnahard, Tobar Chaluim Chille, preserves his memory and it is possible that the island gained some precursor of its current name in tribute to him, since Maghnus Barelegs later adopted the names of Kolso, Orso and Djuro in memory of islands in modern Lake Vanern. Perhaps the name by then sounded something like "Kolso" - but any such change must have been rather later, since Adomnán always refers to Colonsay as Hinba.
During his stay in Hinba, St. Columba established a religious community or monastery on this, his vital communications route with Derry and the mouth of the river Foyle. It seems that St. Baithéne took responsibility for this establishment, and also for a later one, in Tiree. Famously, Hinba had a special place in St. Columba's affections and it is apparent from his "Life" that he was a regular visitor.
Many incidents are recorded. It was in Hinba that a penitential monk refused an indulgence, whereupon future want was prophesied for him. It was to Hinba that St. Columba sent his uncle Ernan to be prior in his old age. On one occasion, while visiting Hinba, St. Columba was favoured with heavenly visions and revelations which lasted three days and nights - presumably the basis for his Prophecies, although the saint himself admitted that without the aid of his clerk, Baithéne, he was unable to make accurate notes.
It was in Hinba that St. Columba was on retreat when the angel of the Lord appeared to him and commanded him to ordain Aedan as king. Four most famous saints once gathered there with St. Columba, and asked him to celebrate the Mass - these were Saints Comgall, Cainnech, Brendan and Cormac - during the Secret of the Mass, St. Brendan was astounded to observe "a radiant ball of fire" around St. Columba's head, which shone upwards like a column of light. And it was to Hinba that St. Fergnae retired many years later, a man who had been in the company of Lugaid Mac Tailchain on the day that St. Columba died; Lugaid was a seer and had experienced a vision of St. Columba's death and reception by a host of angels which he described in detail to St. Fergnae. This vision was frequently recounted to the community in Hinba.
Although the monastery in "Hinba" is assumed to have been in Oransay, it could perhaps have been in Colonsay. The little-visited site of An Dúnan would seem to fit the known criteria, but there are intriguing soil-marks to be seen from the air, about 200 metres south of Teampull na Ghlinne. In Oransay itself, Cnoc an t'Aoraidh ("the hill of worship") might be a possibility, and resonates with another Columban foundation, that of Tory island.
After his death in 597, St. Columba's tomb in Iona became a place of pilgrimage and was richly endowed, but the increasing frequency of the Viking raids forced the community to remove the remains to a safer location. Very probably it was to the saint's beloved Derry, but it is not impossible that a secret location in Hinba was chosen, and which may yet become apparent.
5. St. Ernan ca. 510 - 580 Ferial day: 22 December
He was an uncle of St. Columba, and one of the twelve who accompanied him from Ireland to Iona . He was the brother of Ethna, St. Columba's mother, whose grave is said to be in Eileach an Naomh, Garvellochs. Towards the end of his life, St. Columba appointed him as abbot of the community in the island of Hinba. He should not be confused with another St. Ernan who was St. Columba's cousin (his father's nephew) and who is commemorated at Kilearnadale in Jura. Our St. Ernan died after just a brief period as the abbot of Hinba, which had been founded by St. Columba "years before", presumably ca. 565.
On his departure from Iona St. Columba had blessed and kissed him, prophesying "I do not hope to see again in this earthly life this friend of mine now setting out on his journey". Adomnán records that St. Ernan fell ill soon afterwards, and asked to go back to Iona, where St. Columba hurried down to meet him at the harbour. "But, when there was less than fifty yards between them, death suddenly caught up with Ernan. He fell to the ground and breathed his last before the saint could set eyes on his face alive. Otherwise the saint's words would have proved false."
6. The Anchorites of An Fhaoghail
It seems that St. Columba's particular affection for "Hinba" made it especially attractive to other deeply religious individuals and an interesting passage by Adomnán gives confirmation. St. Fergnae ("Virgno") of Cluain Finchoil had been permitted to share the vision vouchsafed to Lugaid mac Tailchain at the time of St. Columba's death and it is recorded that "Fergnae soon afterwards left Ireland and sailed to Hinba, where he spent the rest of his days. Here he used often to tell the monks of St. Columba this story, which he had learnt, as we have said, directly from the lips of the aged saint to whom the vision was itself disclosed. Fergnae remained for many years in obedience among the brethren and lived faultlessly. For a further twelve years he withdrew to live in isolation at the place of the anchorites in Muirbolc Mar, and died a victorious soldier of Christ."
The reference to Fergnae would seem to be to the period ca. 600 - 625, but Admonan's reference to "the place of the anchorites" suggests that it was still in occupation during his own time, as Abbot of Iona 679 - 704. Sadly, an anchorite is not likely to have left much trace, but a close inspection of Muirbolc Mar ("the great bag of the sea", the strand between Colonsay and Oronsay), does reveal four or five quite feasible dwelling sites.
7. St. Cainnech of Aghaboe (Kenneth) c. 521 - 599; Feast: October 11
Like St. Columba and St. Ciaran, St. Cainnech is regarded as one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland and, like them, he devoted much of his life to missionary work in Scotland. He was born near Dungiven, and died and was buried at Aghaboe, Co. Laois - where his shrine and relics were desecrated in 1346 by a local warlord, Diarmaid Mac Giollaphádraig. He is most famously remembered as the founder of Kilkenny, but he is also remembered at Inch Kenneth, in Tiree and in many Scottish placenames, including Cille Choinnich here in Colonsay.
St. Cainnech's father, Lugadh, was a bard, originally from Waterford but who had eventually settled under patronage in Derry; the saint's mother, Maul, is herself recognised as a saint, and there is a chapel in Kilkenny with her dedication.
Like the other "Apostles", Cainnech studied at Clonard under St. Finian, but that community was scattered due to plague in 544 and in the following year he was ordained at Cadoc, in Wales. Subsequently he visited Rome, then returned to Derry and it was only in 565 that he commenced his work in Scotland - possibly whilst St. Columba was still in Colonsay. Certainly the two men worked closely together, and there are numerous references to St. Cainneach in Adomnán's "Life of St. Columba"; clearly they were devoted friends and colleagues.
One of the most intriguing incidents described by Adomnán could very easily be associated with Colonsay. It concerns an incident when St. Columba found himself in great danger out at sea, and sought St. Cainnech's aid. By extra-sensory means, St. Cainnech perceived the crisis and rushed from his table, wearing only one shoe in his haste and, through grace and prayer, saved his friend. It is a nice coincidence that a person at Cille Choinnich would be finely placed to give guidance to a vessel in distress in the dangerous reefs to the west of Oransay - in fact to provide a lead along the only safe line, into Traigh nam Barc. Which, as may be recalled, is regarded as the site of St. Columba's original landfall and may perhaps have featured regularly on the route between Iona and the Derry, by way of The Strand, Loch Gruinard, Loch Indaal and the Foyle.
8. St. Maelrubha 642 - 722; Feast: August 27
Famously, St. Maelrubha was the founder of the important monastic community at Applecross and he is of outstanding significance to the Scottish church. He was descended in the paternal line from Niall of the Nine Hostages, and his mother was the niece of St. Comgall. He was born in Derry, educated at Bangor and in 671 he made his way into Scotland with a group of associates, where he spent two years working in Argyll and strengthening the foundations of the church. It was only in 673 that he moved onwards to Applecross, to work amongst the Picts of western Ross.
His chapel in Colonsay at Cill a' Rubha is actually within sight of the present Abbey in Iona, but the remains (if any) are restricted to a circle of bluebells that possibly mark the outline of an ancient thorn-dyke. It is, however, clear that St Maelrubha chose a pre-existing sanctuary for his foundation, because there are three surviving cist-graves dating back to the Bronze Age - thus the site may well have been in use for some fifteen hundred years or more before he Christianised the spot.
9. St. Buon Bardus, died ca. 900; Feast February 5
On page 203 of that magisterial work, Colonsay and Oronsay in the Isles of Argyll, Loder quotes extracts from "Scotia Sacra" by Fr. Hay, a Latin manuscript of 1700 in the collection of the National Library, Edinburgh. In a footnote, Loder tells us that Fr. Hay was a canon of St. Genevieve at Paris, and Prior of St. Pierremont.
The following translation is given from page 596 of the manuscript:
"Ornesay: A Priory of Canon regulars in the Western Isles. Here the body of St Buon surnamed Bardus and his works were preserved with divine care, and his name chanted in festal song."
So, who was he? "Bardus" will have been the latinised form of a Gaelic appellation - almost certainly "bard", from which we derive the modern surname of Ward. Dwelly defines the role of the bard in some detail and mentions that "The Celts, being passionately fond of poetry, would listen to no instruction, whether from priest or philosopher, unless it were conveyed in rhymes. Hence the word "bard" meant also a priest, philosopher or teacher of any kind".
"Buon" is the Latin form of a Gaelic name, Buo. In The Saints of Ireland by Mary Ryan D'Arcy, we read that the Feast Day of St. Buo is February 5, and she quotes from an Icelandic writer, Angrim Jonas:
"In the 9th century, a northman, Helgo, received an Irish exile Ernulph with his religious family and gave him welcome and permission to build a church dedicated to Colmcille in a village called Esinberg. He states that a holy Irishman by the name of Buo while yet a young man became a distinguished missionary in that same province."
Ryan reminds us that "when the Norwegians "discovered" Iceland in 860, they found Irish books, bells and staffs on the island". Irish monks, including possibly St. Brendan, had been sailing to the Faroe Islands and to Iceland in the 7th and throughout the 8th century, and Irish place names survive there yet." In 825, the Irish geographer Dicuil, in his De Mensura Orbis Terrae , mentions, concerning the summer solstice, "certain clerics who remained on the Iceland Island from the first of February until the first of August"."
There is ample reason to suppose that the Vikings of Colonsay had close contact with Iceland and it seems possible that St. Buo was as important to them as (say) St. Columba to ourselves. Thus perhaps St. Buo was persuaded to accompany the Christian Viking settlers in Colonsay, or perhaps he had died and they brought his relics instead. Either way, his memory was preserved and even survived the 14 th c. re-dedication in the time of John the Good.
The 9th century statue now sited beside St. Odhran's well is contemporaneous with St. Buo; it comes from Riasg Buidhe which - in one's imagination - might even commemorate "the hermitage of St. Buo".
Incidentally, the name Mac Ghille Bhuide ("son of the devotee of St. Buo") was quite prevalent in both Jura and Colonsay as seen in the Vatican records of the early 1620s, and still survives as Buie.
10. The Culdees, 8th - 10th century
The so-called Culdees were early Christian ascetics who lived in remote communities, the Céli Dé or "Companions of God". The concept originated in Ireland and it is believed by some scholars that the first inhabitants of Iceland, the "papar" who are recorded in so many placenames, were in fact Culdees. Famously, when the Norse first discovered Iceland, they were surprised to find traces of these Irish pioneers ("bells, books and staffs"); at a later date, although the Vikings wreaked havoc upon so many religious communities, they seem to have spared those of the Céli Dé - perhaps consciously out of affinity or respect, but perhaps merely on account of their material poverty and asceticism.
The late 8 th century divine, St. Maelruan of Tallaght, developed a model "rule" for the Céli Dé and clearly influenced the movement. It is especially interesting that St. Maelruan, whose foundation was dedicated to St. Michael the Archangel, was believed to have had a personal archangelic sign, in the form of a clod of earth and a bible delivered from on high, to assist in his foundation. Note that St. Michael is associated with desert places (St. Michael's Mount, Skellig Michael etc.) and also that he was highly esteemed by the christian Vikings. His symbol is a balance and he weighed the merits and demerits of the dead before determining their entry to heaven or hell.
The obvious link between the vikings, Iceland and St. Buo (discussed above) is matched by a link between St. Michael and the famous Viking grave at Kiloran. This is the only known example of a ship-burial with christian overtones, and gravegoods included a balance with weights, the symbol of St. Michael, special patron of the Céli Dé . There is also a supposed Culdee origin to the chapel-site at Balnahard, formerly known as Cille Cairine, and I like to think that Dún Tealtaig is another such site. Originally it was spelled as Dún Ceilte, which I suspect is a simple corruption of "Dun Céli Dé" - dwelling-place of the Companions of God. My notion was independently supported by at least one archaeologist who looked at the site.
We come now to three additional dedications, honouring saints who had no direct contact with the island:
11. St. Bridget 451 - 525; Feast February 1 ("Imbolc")
The dedication of Cille Bhrìde is supposedly to St. Brigid of Kildare, a reasonably authenticated abbess known as "the Mary of the Gael" and, together with St. Patrick and St. Columba, a patron-saint of Ireland. Allegedly, her mother was a slave in the court of Dubhthach, king of Leinster (and one of this writer's forebears). In mediaeval times, she was adopted as the patron of the House of Douglas, but it is possible that her veneration began at an earlier date in Colonsay since there is no doubt that St. Bridget forms a link between Christianity and Druidism. Thus she is the goddess of spring, fount of fertility, the patron of music and poetry, one who dwells in the twilight world between formal religion and more ancient beliefs.
Until comparatively recent times, here in Colonsay, the last of the harvest would be saved as a corn-dolly and to this day in Ireland her cross, made of corn-stalks, is made annually and preserved until it can be dressed on her festive day. Her cross is quite distinctive and is used for the logo of House of Lochar; it can also be seen in the ragged cross outlined in black-and-white upon an oyster-catcher, which is known a Gille-Brid ("Servant of St. Bridget"). On old charts, Eilean Treadhrach is marked as Eilean Brid.
Symington Grieve believed that Cille Bhride was one of the many chapels founded by St. Brendan of Clonfert in her honour; Brendan, known as "the Navigator" died in May 576, and it is well known that he worked closely with the three other Apostles of Ireland more closely associated with Colonsay. St. Brendan was educated under St. Ita, "the Brigid of Munster", so may well have had a special affection for St Brigid. That he was active in the vicinity of Colonsay seems well-attested, not least in the neighbouring Garvelloch Isles, where A'Chuli (Cuil-i-Breannan) was his place of spiritual retreat.
Martin Martin, in the 1690s, mentions Colonsay: "Another ancient custom observed on the second of February, which the papists there yet retain, is this - the mistress and servants of each family take a sheaf of oats and dress it up in woman's apparel, put it in a large basket, and lay a wooden club by it, and this they call Briid's bed; and then the mistress and servants cry three times, "Briid is come! Briid is welcome!". And this they do just before going to bed, and when they arise in the morning they look among the ashes, expecting to see the impression of Briid's club there; which, if they do, they reckon it is a presage of a good crop and prosperous year, and the contrary they take as an ill omen."
12. The Virgin Mary; Feast: May 1 (May Day)
There are two foundations called Cill a' Mhoire or "Lady Chapel" in Colonsay, one beside the road to the Priory and the other beside the Baptist chapel. Very little is known about either - the slight remains in Oransay do include a grave, and are close to a recorded Viking grave; also, the site appears to have been a resting-place for pall-bearers en route to the Priory.
The other chapel, in Upper Kilchattan, will have served the inhabitants of that community and it is remembered as having been a burial ground for still-borne or unbaptised children up until the 19 th century. The dedication has been challenged, as the Hebrides allegedly had little devotion to the Mother of God; without getting into a great debate the evidence is quite to the contrary. As we all know, the name Mairi is gaelic for Mary, but this name is never used in reference to Our Lady, for whom the special name "Moire" is reserved. Prosaically, one might hear a gaelic-speaker invoke "A Mhoire" in a situation of stress, but never "A Mhairi" in the same circumstances! In the same way, one could list a litany of names that refer to our Lady, as in plants, flowers, boats and even the sea itself.
So one must assume that these two Colonsay dedications post-date 1431, the date of the earliest recorded Marian dedication in Scotland. The name Mac Ghille Mhoire (son of the devotee of Our Lady) is now anglicised as Morrison, but may also have become MacGilvary in some instances.
13. St. Katherine of Alexandria, early 4th century; Feast: November 25
The chapel at Balnahard is regarded by some as having once been a nunnery, founded by Amie MacRuari and dedicated either to the Holy Trinity or to St. Katherine (the two names being virtually indistinguishable in Gaelic).
Amie MacRuari was a direct descendant of Somerled and eventually (1346) inherited many territories, especially in Lorne. In ca. 1337 she had married a distant relation, also a descendant of Somerled, John MacDonald of Islay, or "John the Good", who was the first to claim the title of "Lord of the Isles" and who is the putative founder of the existing priory in Oransay. She gave him three children before he divorced her in 1350 (apparently with papal consent), so as to make a new marriage with Margaret Stewart, daughter of the designated heir to King David.
Amie was rather better than her "good" husband and is remembered for a pious lifestyle and the construction of a number of churches and chapels. It seems to be a tradition that she founded the chapel at Balnahard, sometimes known as Cille a' Trina (The Chapel of the Holy Trinity). More usually it is called Cille Chatriona (the chapel of St Catherine), supposedly established as a nunnery. There seems to be no evidence of the nunnery, but the site does neighbour a bronze-age cist grave and standing stone so it is evidently of ancient significance. The dedication to St. Catherine of Alexandria seems plausible, not least because that saint is commemorated in a surviving carving on Oransay. St. Catherine (ferial day 25 November) was supposedly martyred in the early 4th century by the emperor Maxentius; he tried to break her upon a spiked wheel, but this was miraculously destroyed and she was eventually beheaded.
By the time of Amie MacRuari, a significant cult surrounded the legend of St. Catherine, who was regarded as an exemplar of Christian virtue and of particular relevance to females. In view of Amie's ill-treatment by her errant husband, one might wonder if the foundation took place in the early 1350s. At some point, Cill Chatriona seems to have become a centre for healing and various stones were kept there for use as catholicons - most of these have now been lost, but one of the "priest's feet" survives at Colonsay House.
In addition, however, Symington Grieve recorded a tradition that the original name of the chapel at Balnahard was Cille Cairine, and that it had been at the heart of a Culdee community. There is no doubt that it had that name on early maps, and in 1880 people still knew it as such. Symington Grieve believed it to have been named for St. Cairine, a Culdee son of King Donald Brec, who reigned ca. 627 to 642. I have been unable to identify this son, but I noticed a Cairine is mentioned in the Life of Bairre of Cork . Symington Grieve dwells upon the subject at some length and it might be that archaeology may eventually date the site, or that modern access to source material will support or confound his position.
If St. Cairine did exist, he would have been a great-grandson of King Aidan, who was anointed by St. Columba himself in 574, enthroned upon the Stone of Destiny. St. Columba had not been too keen on the affair, and was visited three times by an angel, who was most insistent and physically chastised him; eventually St. Columba went ahead with the ceremony.
Note to "An Original Collection of the Poems of Ossian..." McCallum etc, Oxford 1916
"Life of St.Columba" tr. Richard Sharpe
Obviously, the demise of a very holy man would have consecrated the place of his interment, and it must be remembered that in Iona that honour fell quite naturally to St. Columba. Unfortunately, his relics were of such importance that they had later to be removed from the later Viking threat, and secretly re-interred at his beloved Derry (or perhaps even in his equally-beloved Oransay?). This left something of a lacuna in Iona , and perhaps the burial-story of the most significant competing figure, St. Odhran, was transposed to compensate? It would have been hard to accept that Colonsay still held the earthly remains of a saint of such importance, and to recognise that Iona was similarly bereft.
A version in Wikepedia is attributed to MacLeod Banks, M. (1931). "A Hebridean Version of Colum Cille and St. Oran". Folklore 42 (1): 55-60. JSTOR 1256410 St. Oran was a druid living on the Island of Iona in Scotland 's Inner Hebrides . He became a follower of St. Columba , who brought Christianity to Iona (and mainland Europe) from Ireland in 563 AD. When St. Columba had repeated problems building the original Iona Abbey , citing interferences from the Devil , St. Oran offered himself as a human sacrifice and was buried alive. He was later dug up and found to be still alive, but he uttered such words describing what of the afterlife he had seen and how it involved no heaven or hell, that he was ordered to be covered up again. The building of the abbey went ahead, untroubled, and St. Oran's chapel marks the spot where the saint was buried.
It was there that Aud seated herself upon the High Altar and uttered her pagan prophecies, when her husband and his Viking raiders had put the community to flight. This same Aud later became a Christian and at one stage lived for a year in Balnahard, "the richest woman in the world", before moving on to Iceland and a truly glittering career.
St. Columba returned to Dunadd in 574, to crown King Aidan, seated upon Liath Fail , the Stone of Destiny
The above article prepared by Kevin Byrne, March 2015