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Chapel (Medieval), Cross Slab(S) (Early Medieval), Midden (Period Unassigned), Pictish Symbol Stone (Pictish)

Site Name Pabbay

Classification Chapel (Medieval), Cross Slab(S) (Early Medieval), Midden (Period Unassigned), Pictish Symbol Stone (Pictish)

Canmore ID 21384

Site Number NL68NW 2

NGR NL 6072 8745

Datum OSGB36 - NGR


Ordnance Survey licence number 100057073. All rights reserved.
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Administrative Areas

  • Council Western Isles
  • Parish Barra
  • Former Region Western Isles Islands Area
  • Former District Western Isles
  • Former County Inverness-shire

Recording Your Heritage Online

The nearby hillock has been identified as the site of a prehistoric midden, Early Christian burial ground and medieval chapel. Surviving monuments here include several weathered slabs, 6th-9th century, with Christian crosses superscribing earlier pagan markings. Most important of these is the Pabbay Stone, probably 6th century, the only Pictish symbol stone still to be seen in the Western Isles, and one of only five in the Hebrides. It is marked with a V-rod, lunar crescent and flower (a lily?), over which has been added at some later date a crude cross, possibly coinciding with its move to this site as a grave marker. These markings are now badly eroded, their damage exacerbated by the stone's present horizontal position in the sand.

Taken from "Western Seaboard: An Illustrated Architectural Guide", by Mary Miers, 2008. Published by the Rutland Press


Field Visit (11 June 1915)

Chapel and Sculptured Stones, Bagh Ban, Pabbay.

On what is now a mound some 10 feet high, on the south-western border of the sandy slope running up from Bagh Ban on the eastern shore of Pabbay, about 150 yards from the high-water mark, are the indistinct foundations of an oblong church of stone and lime measuring about 31 feet in length and 14 feet in breadth externally, and orientated slightly north of west and south of east. Great quantities of human bones are reported to have been found here from time to time as the sand drifted away.


The symbol stone described in Early Christian Monuments of Scotland, p. 111, and Proc. Soc. Ant. Scot., Vol. XXXI., p.300, lies on the side of the mound. It is a much weathered rough slab 4 feet long and 1 foot 3 inches broad. At the top is a cross, side arms potent, resting on a crescent with divergent floriated rods symbol, and the lily symbol underneath the latter.


There are also three slabs of gneiss, each bearing an incised cross, on the mound. The largest is a prism roughly square in section, and measures 4 feet 4 inches in height and about 1 foot square. On one face is a cross potent within a larger cross, the top arm of which is potent. The outer cross measures 11 inches in length and 8 inches in breadth, while the inner cross is 7 ¾ inches long and 6 inches broad. (Fig. 175)

The other two cross stones are of very small dimensions. Both are regular, natural prisms of rectangular section. One measures 14 inches in height above ground, 5 inches broad, and 2 ½ inches thick. The small Latin cross incised at the top of one face measures 4 inches long and 2 ¾ inches broad. The other stone, which was lying on the surface of the ground, is 14½ inches long, 4 inches broad, and 2 ½ inches thick. The cross faintly cut at the top of one face is 5 ½ inches long and 2 ¾ inches broad.

RCAHMS 1928, visited 11 June 1915.

OS map: Barra lxix.

Field Visit (21 May 1965)

All that remains of the chapel on top of a grass-covered sand dune are vague traces of dry-stone walls and a scatter of stone slabs on the slopes of the dune. Near the summit of the mound and just on the SW slopes are 2 upright, incised cross-slabs, measuring (A) 0.3m x 0.3m x 1.3m high, and (B) 0.1m x 0.1m x 0.5m high. A further cross-slab (C) measuring 0.2m x 0.5m x 0.8m lies broken at the base of the dune close to the symbol stone, which is as described by RCAHMS. A shell midden is exposed in the lower E slopes of the dune. No human remains were seen at the time of investigation.

Surveyed at 1:10,560.

Visited by OS (N K B) 21 May 1965.

Reference (2001)

This island measures 3km from E to W by 1.6km and rises at the SW to a summit of 171m. Most of its surface is composed of exposed gneiss and the shores are rocky, but at the NE there is a beach backed by sand-dunes, and areas of blown sand which afforded some cultivable soil and supported a small population. The only settlement was located about 180m from the head of the beach, and immediately to the NE there is a grass-covered sandy mound on whose summit a chapel was situated. The area between the settlement and the shore, and the E slope of the mound itself, have yielded extensive shell-midden material, and artefacts including an enamelled 'hand-pin' of early medieval type. The mound, which is up to 7m in height, appears to owe its form mainly to wind-erosion, although there are some remains of drystone revetments on its sides. The summit is not now large enough to preserve the chapel measuring about 9.5m by 4.3m whose 'indistinct foundations' were visible in 1915, although some scattered stones remain on the summit and the S and E slopes. Some of these stones appear to have been gravemarkers, and they include a symbol-stone (no.1) and another cross-marked stone (no.2), both near the foot of the S slope, while two other cross-marked stones stand near the S edge of the summit.

(1) Slab of local gneiss, uncovered by drifting sand some time before 1889. It is roughly rectangular, measuring 1.23m by 0.39m and 0.14m thick, but the top edges are damaged. The surface is worn and lichen-stained and the lower part, which evidently formed a butt for the stone to stand upright, is flaked. In the centre of the slab there is incised the 'flower' symbol, a tapering stem whose upper part splits into two branches, both curving to the right and ending in broad terminals. Above this there is a crescent-and-V-rod symbol of the 'dome-and-wing' type, ornamented with two small circles. The right terminal is effaced and the other is much worn, but appears to incorporate a circle. At the top of the slab, rising from the upper curve of the crescent just right of its apex, there is an incised Latin cross, 0.21m in height and span. Its side-arms have barred terminals, but the top arm, which appears to be complete despite damage to the edge of the slab, is plain. The cross is more deeply incised than the symbols, and its position appears to be chosen to make the best use of available space, suggesting that it was an addition to the slab. (E Beveridge 1922, 2, pl.303; J Anderson 1897, 299-300; Allen and Anderson 1903, 3, 111-13; RCAHMS 1928, No.438; R B K Stevenson 1955, C11; M A Edwards 1981, 16, 27-8; A Mack 1997, 135).

(2) Slightly tapered pillar of gneiss, much worn and lichen-stained, broken across about 0.15m below the top and lacking the upper left edge. It measures 0.79m by 0.15m to 0.19m, and is 90mm thick. It bears a sunken cross with expanded terminals, 0.19m high and having a 100mm transom at about mid-height.

(RCAHMS 1928, No.438; M A Edwards 1981, 16, 29-31).

(3) Irregular earthfast pillar of gneiss, 1.32m in visible height by 0.33m by 0.3m. On the W face there is a cross with barred terminals, 0.19m high and 0.15m across the transom, which is at mid-height. It is executed with a shallow sunken groove of U-section and is set in an incised cruciform frame, 0.29m high and 0.21m across the arms. The top arm of this outer cross has a constriction which gives it the form of a cross-potent.

(RCAHMS 1928, No.438 and fig.175; M A Edwards 1981, 16, 29-31).

(4) Earthfast pillar of gneiss, 0.49m in visible height by 1.35m square at base and tapering to 0.1m on the E and W faces and 0.12m on the sides. On the E face (a) there is a sunken Latin cross, 0.31m high and 95mm across the arms, executed with a U-section groove about 25mm wide. On the W face (b) there is a similar cross, 0.36m high, whose top and side-arms extend to the edges of the pillar.


(i) For the settlement history of the island see Buxton, op.cit., 150-7; M A Edwards 1981; Branigan and Foster 2000, 81-92, 234-77.

(ii) J Wedderspoon 1915, 325-7. For the hand-pin (now in the Museum of Scotland), see PSAS, 35 (1900-1), 278-9.

(iii) RCAHMS 1928, No.438; photograph, 1895, in E Beveridge 1922, 2, pl.302.

RCAHMS 1928, No.438; M A Edwards 1981, 16, 29-31.

I Fisher 2001, 106.

Conservation (27 August 2008 - 29 August 2008)

NL 6072 8745 This Pictish symbol stone has lain on the side of the chapel and graveyard mound for over 100 years. Concerns have been voiced by the community about the safety of the stone since the 1990s. Upon acquisition of the three southernmost islands in the Western Isles, the NTS made a commitment to erect the stone to ensure its long-term protection.

A small trench 0.7 x 0.45m and 0.3m in depth was excavated towards the edge of the mound, through windblown sands that contained a couple of pieces of broken china, sea shells and three pieces of unarticulated human bone. The latter were replaced in the bottom of the trench. The stone was then prepared for erection and moved to an upright position, protected by a sleeve from the lime concrete setting. This work took place 27–29 August 2008.

Archive: NTS, SMR and RCAHMS (intended)

Funder: The National Trust for Scotland

Jill Harden (The National Trust for Scotland), 2008

Desk Based Assessment

NL68NW 2 6072 8745.

(NL 60728745) Chapel (NR) (Site of).

OS 6"map, Inverness-shire, 2nd ed., (1904)

Indistinct foundations of a chapel, of stone and lime, about 31' x 14', orientated WNW and ESE on a mound 10' high on the south-western border of the sandy slope running up from Bagh Ban on the eastern shore of Pabbay, about 150 yds. from the high water mark. A symbol stone, about 4' x 1'3" lies on the side of the mound, where there are also three cross slabs. Great quantities of human bones have been found.

RCAHMS 1928; J Anderson 1897.

Wedderspoon (J Wedderspoon 1915) describes the burial ground at Pabbay, within a few yards of the dwelling houses, as conical in shape, about 30 yards in circumference, within a ring of boulders, and about 15' high. It is covered with graves, but "the top is narrow, affording space for one grave only". He thought it the site of a prehistoric midden. Although these accounts are at variance Wedderspoon can hardly be referring to a different site.

J Wedderspoon 1915; Proc Soc Antiq Scot 1901.

Information from OS.


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