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Eigg, Kildonnan, St Donnan's Church And Burial-ground

Burial Ground (Medieval), Cemetery (Modern), Church (16th Century), Sheela Na Gig (Possible)

Site Name Eigg, Kildonnan, St Donnan's Church And Burial-ground

Classification Burial Ground (Medieval), Cemetery (Modern), Church (16th Century), Sheela Na Gig (Possible)

Alternative Name(s) Kildonnan Church; St Donnan's Chapel; St Donan's Church; Old St Donnan's Church; Kildonan

Canmore ID 22152

Site Number NM48NE 19

NGR NM 48855 85362

Datum OSGB36 - NGR


Ordnance Survey licence number AC0000807262. All rights reserved.
Canmore Disclaimer. © Copyright and database right 2023.

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Digital Images

First 100 images shown. See the Collections panel (below) for a link to all digital images.

Administrative Areas

  • Council Highland
  • Parish Small Isles
  • Former Region Highland
  • Former District Lochaber
  • Former County Inverness-shire

Recording Your Heritage Online (2008)

Kildonnan Church, 16th century A typical post-Reformation rubble oblong (east gable collapsed), occupying the site of St. Donnan's 7th century monastery [see NM48SE 24]. It is believed to have been built by John of Moidart (Eoin Muirdeartach), who died in 1584 and to whom is also attributed Kilmory Church at Arisaig. Some say, however, that it was his son Allan (9th Clanranald chief, d.1593) who was responsible for carrying out his father's vow to build a church here, that it was never roofed or consecrated and used only as a burial ground. Certainly the Franciscan missionary, Fr. Ward, found it a roofless ruin in 1625. A 16th-century tomb recess guarded by nettles on the inside north is said to contain the body of the celebrated piper Raghnall Mac Ailein Oig, who died in Eigg in 1641 . It bears a Clanranald armorial shield of the type found at Kilmory, Arisaig and Howmore, South Uist, inscribed 1641 with initials 'DmR'. The graveyard has yielded some important finds: a cross shaft, late 14th century, ornately carved with Iona craftsmanship of highest quality; Kildonnan Cross, 8th century, a pinkish slab with Pictish hunting scene carved on one side, incised Christian cross and key pattern on the reverse. Found in the early 20th century, this now stands with other rare Early Christian crosses in the Lodge porch.

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

Archaeology Notes

NM48NE 19.00 48855 85362

(NM 4884 8538) Ruins of Chapel (NR) (Burial Ground)

OS 6" map (1903)

NM48NE 19.01 NM 4887 8533 Cross-shaft

For Eigg, Old Manse (NM 4822 8518), see NM48NE 29.

See also NM48NE 24 for monastery and early medieval cross slabs.

Church and burial ground at NM 4885 8536. Casts of cross and cross-slabs in the Royal Museum of Scotland (RMS). Cross-shaft at NM 4887 8533.

(Undated) information in NMRS.

Architecture Notes

Non-Guardianship Sites Plan Collection, DC28518- DC28523, 1929 & 1932 - 1933.


Field Visit (8 July 1925)


The ruin of St Donnan's Church, a post-Reformation building, stands on the east side of the island at the head of the bay Poll nam Partan. It is a stone and lime building constructed with local rubble and is oblong on plan, measuring 50 feet 11 inches from east to west by 18 feet 3 inches within walls 3 feet 3 inches thick. There is a small rebuilt, lintelled window at the east end of the side walls. The entrance is in the south wall towards the western end.

In the north wall is a tomb recess, merely 5 feet 4 inches in length, with a moulded archivolt of freestone. In the back of the recess are two freestone panels. The upper bears the date 1641 and initials D R linked by a Y-shaped ligature. The lower panel is armorial. Centred in the upper part is an eagle, flanked on the dexter side by a hand grasping a wheel cross. On the sinister side is a lion rampant. In the lower dexter corner is a galley, and a triple towered castle fills the sinister corner. The church is utilised as a burial ground, and some of the modern graves are provided with cover slabs and headstones removed from earlier interments. Of these are the following:

(a) [NM48NE 19.01] Figs. 302-3. A cross-shaft of slate 6 feet 1 inch in length, 1 foot 1 inch wide at top and 1 foot 5 inches wide at bottom by 4½ inches thick. The front bears a finely executed debased vine pattern terminating at the foot in opposed winged animals; and on the back is a scrollwork similar in detail, though differing in arrangement, while the terminal animals are not winged.

(b) [NM48NE 24.05] A fragment of a cross-shaft 2 feet 9 inches in height, 1 foot 4 inches in breadth by 2 ½ inches thick bears a Greek cross, with widened ends, in a circle 1 foot 2 inches in diameter

(c) A cross-shaft of slate, very weatherworn and fractured, measures 5 feet 7 inches by 1 foot 8 inches. On the upper surface are traces of scrollwork with animal figures.

(d) A fragment of a cross-shaft of hard freestone, 1 foot 9 inches by 1 foot 1 inch, bears a panel inscribed with a late key pattern.

John Moydartach, Captain of Clanranald in the second half of the sixteenth century, is said to have erected the church at Kildonnan (Book of Clanranald in Reliquiæ Celticæ, ii., p. 171).

RCAHMS 1928, visited 8 July 1925.

OS map: Island of Eigg (Inverness - shire) lxxiii.

Desk Based Assessment (13 January 1966)

St Donan's Church (Kildonnan) is said to have been erected by John Moydartach, Captain of Clanranald in the 16th century, and is certainly mentioned by Monro in 1549. Now in ruins, the church is utilised as a burial ground, and some of the modern graves are provided with cover slabs and headstones removed from earlier interments. The building was 51' E-W by 18' within walls over 3' thick.

Casts of 4 cross-slabs and a late 14th century cross shaft at St Donan's are in the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland (NMAS) together with that of parts of a head and shaft of another cross featuring a hunting scene.

Information from OS (BRS) 13 January 1966

Sources: D Monro 1549; OPS 1854; RCAHMS 1928, visited 1925; M Martin 1934; Proc Soc Antiq Scot 1933; Proc Soc Antiq Scot 1934.

Field Visit (8 May 1972)

St Donnan's Church is roofless, and the E gable has fallen to below the wall head. The church measures 15.4m E-W by 5.4m within a wall 0.9m thick. Almost centrally placed inside, is a horizontal grave slab 2.0m E-W by 0.5m N-S, bearing traces of an incised pattern, which is probably a cross slab. The stone has been broken, and is repaired with recent mortar. At its W end stands an upright slab 0.9m high by 0.4m broad bearing an incised cross set saltire-wise within an incised circle on its E face.

The 14th century cross-shaft is mounted on a modern base on a rise to the S of the church, and the head and part of the shaft of another with similar decoration lies against it.

The four cross slabs are preserved in the porch of Galmisdale House (NM 479 842). The burial ground is extended and still in use.

Visited by OS (AA) 8 May 1972

Field Visit (5 July 2001)

St Donnan’s Church is as described (OS 1972).

A supposed sheela-na-gig is housed within a frame affixed to the W wall.

(EIGG01 733)

Visited by RCAHMS (SDB) 5 July 2001

Note (9 November 2009)

A number of carved stones, probably discovered in the vicinity of St Donnan's Church (NM48NE 19), are now displayed in the porch of The Lodge, Galmisdale (NM48SE 25).

Information from RCAHMS (LMcC), 9 November 2009.

Archaeological Evaluation (June 2012 - July 2012)

Archaeological excavations were carried out in June-July 2012 by John Hunter in an attempt to identify the traditional site of the early Christian monastery on Eigg reputedly founded by the monk St. Donnan in the early part of the 7th century AD. It was also intended to provide a deeper insight into the nature and continuity of worship and burial in that area, and to present a small sample of the island’s archaeology through time. Work undertaken was non-invasive (geophysics) and invasive (excavation) and followed from survey previously conducted in 2008.

The area under investigation had clearly been subject to intense activity over time, not only through burials, but also through robbing, re-use of materials, runrig, and ploughing. The depth down to hard bedrock varied considerably; in places it was less than 0.2m entailing considerable mixing and disturbance of existing archaeological deposits, especially by post-medieval burials. As a result many of the archaeological features are likely to have been lost; those which had survived had done so on the basis of lower bedrock depth in certain places, and through the substantial nature of some of the larger earthfast stones. Most archaeological features had been decimated, or had simply not survived, and the finds (on the basis of pottery at least) were mixed.

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. Pottery in the west is notoriously difficult to date in view of its conservatism, but the occurrence of rim forms argued to lie from c. 250 AD (see Pottery Appendix) provide a useful terminus post quem for types that may have persisted for centuries. Further excavation in this largely vacant area between the Catholic and Protestant graves would almost certainly produce more evidence of occupation work in this period as well as earlier activity, but the evidence would inevitably be fragmentary due to the shallow soils and later cultivation. The ditched enclosure was elliptical in shape and lay directly below the same oval outline of a 19th century 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. These ecclesiastical boundaries were normally of stone (Church Island) or of earth (Iona) – a ditch would have provided a similar method of symbolic demarcation in the absence of other materials.

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. Ecclesiastical sites traditionally develop within a common area, by utilisation of existing buildings, superimposition, or an adjacent new-build – a ‘special place’ which often stretches further back in time than Christianity itself. Kildonnan provided outstanding evidence for this with the remains of a Neolithic cairn located between the oval burial ground and the standing chapel (Trench 8). This was located on the highest ground; it probably represents 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.

Other than the interpretation of the pottery, there is little to link the vast period of time between the Neolithic and the advent of Christianity, but the excavations were essentially ‘keyhole’ and, like most archaeology, inevitably raise more questions than they answer. Interestingly, continuity from the later Iron Age onwards is evident not only from the standing 14th century cross shaft located in the centre of the site and the later standing roofless chapel, but also by a general smattering of medieval and post-medieval pottery from the excavations, and by the two Viking burials nearby. Moreover, the excavations around the chapel (Site A) identified earlier stone-built structural remains lying below, and projecting from under the chapel itself. Once again this indicates the extent of structural continuity in the area as a whole. Exactly what this walling represents will be difficult to establish in view of the concentration of burials.

Perhaps more perplexing, however, are the remains of a substantial building of unknown size, constructed of mortared foundations and 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. Further excavation work in this area would be fundamental to its proper understanding, and might be tied in with additional work on the ditched enclosure (above). The building’s position implies social stature and, if not a church, is a monument of a type of and magnitude more normally associated with a laird’s dwelling of even a castle.

Overall, the excavations have presented a dynamic new insight into the history of activity on Eigg and, without doubt, Kildonnan was (and is) a ‘special place’. In its history some events are archaeologically more visible than others: the evidence pertaining to St Donnan sits within the shadows, but this is just one part of a tangible tradition of burial and worship reaching back over five millennia.

Project (2013 - 2015)

Project SAMPHIRE was designed to bring professional marine archaeological expertise into local maritime communities. The central focus of the project was to record the unique knowledge of maritime cultural heritage sites on the seabed (and intertidal zone) that is held within local communities. This was done through a programme of face-to-face community engagement, allowing knowledge exchange in both directions. The reported sites were then investigated by the SAMPHIRE Project team with the maximum involvement of local community members at every level, including fieldwork and desk-based research. The project aimed to foster a wider understanding of and interest in local maritime heritage and to promote the stewardship of this valuable local resource.


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