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Eigg, Kildonnan

Cross Slab(S) (Early Medieval), Monastery (Early Medieval)

Site Name Eigg, Kildonnan

Classification Cross Slab(S) (Early Medieval), Monastery (Early Medieval)

Alternative Name(s) Kildonan

Canmore ID 22158

Site Number NM48NE 24

NGR NM 48 85

NGR Description NM c. 48 85

Datum OSGB36 - NGR


Ordnance Survey licence number 100057073. All rights reserved.
© Copyright and database right 2017.

Digital Images

Administrative Areas

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


Kildonnan 7 (St Donnan), Eigg, Skye & Lochalsh, cross-slab

Measurements: H

Stone type: pink Torridonian sandstone

Place of discovery: NM 4885 8536

Present location: upright in Kildonnan churchyard to the south of the church.

Evidence for discovery: found during clearance work in Kildonnan churchyard in 2012, lying face down.

Present condition: broken at one end and some flaking at the sides.


This slim tapering slab bears a simple equal-armed cross within a circle which spans the width of the stone. It is carved by pecking and smoothing wide grooves.

Date range: seventh or eighth century.

Primary references: Hunter 2016, 134-5.

Compiled by A Ritchie 2016


Desk Based Assessment (17 March 1972)

NM48NE 24 c. 48 85

See also NM48SE 15 and NM48SE 25.

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.

Information from OS (ES) 17 March 1972

Source: W J Watson 1926

Field Visit (9 May 1972)

No further information (but see NM48SE 15).

Visited by OS (AA) 9 May 1972.

Reference (2001)

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 (i).

The monastery was probably in the same area as the ruined medieval church 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 (ii).

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 (NM 4790 8420). A fine cross-shaft of late medieval date has been re-erected in the burial-ground S of the church, 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 (iii).

(1) Tapered slab of dark grey mica-granulite, broken at the head and foot and measuring 0.39m by 0.29m and 50mm in thickness. It bears the shaft and part of the transom of what was presumably an outline Latin cross, having a grooved cross superimposed on it. The outline and the inner cross are defined by U-section grooves. The transom is incomplete, but it may have been thicker than the shaft since the groove of the upper arm is not visible. The outline cross has square pellets in the lower angles, and below the foot of the shaft there is a chape-like expansion with an incised spike. There are triangular groups of small hollows flanking the shaft, but other similar hollows appear to be of natural origin.

(NMS cast, X.IB 221; PSAS 1933, 66, fig.5; S Wade Martins 1987, 21)

(2) Rectangular slab of mica-granulite, broken at the head and foot and measuring 0.39m by 0.28m and 50mm in thickness. It bears the firmly grooved outline of a cross-shaft 80mm wide, flanked at the top by rectangles which may represent pellets in the angles of the cross-head. These in turn are enclosed by stepped bands which return to flank the shaft for 80mm and are open at the lower ends. The shaft is set left of the central axis and the left edge of the slab may have been trimmed for re-use.

(NMS cast, X.IB 222; PSAS 1933, 66, fig.6; C Dressler 1998, pl.2).

(3) Triangular slab of buff flagstone, found in Kildonnan churchyard about 1987 (iv). It is broken into five pieces and lacks parts of the top, measuring 0.55m by about 0.33m in original width at the top and 25mm to 35mm in thickness. It bears an equal-armed outline cross, 0.15m across the arms, with small circular armpits and central hollows in the top and bottom arms. This is set in a cruciform outline, 0.19m across the arms, with a pointed foot reflecting that of the slab. The outlines have been defined by pecking and roughly polished.

(4) Fragment of a slab of pink Torridonian sandstone which was found near the W end of the church in 1931 (v). It is broken across and preserves no original edges, measuring 0.31m by 0.29m. It has been carved by shallow pecking to expose a darker layer, and bears an equal-armed cross with rounded armpits within a circle which was 0.2m in original diameter. The arms have expanded terminals and axial grooves which bifurcate at the terminals and link at the centre of the cross-head to enclose a lozenge (vi). The angles of the cross contain triquetra knots but one of these, which is enclosed by a moulding continuous with the adjacent cross-arms, is not correctly interlaced.

(NMS cast, X.IB 220; PSAS 1933, 66, fig.4).

(5) Cross-slab of grey Torridonian flagstone, set in a modern concrete base in the church. It tapers slightly from an irregular top, measuring 0.86m in visible height by 0.42m in maximum width and 60mm in thickness. The E face bears in false relief an equal-armed cross-potent 0.31m across the arms, within a broad circular margin 0.39m in overall diameter. The cross has square and slightly raised terminals and a square central expansion, and its edges are neatly bevelled down to a flat field.

(T S Muir 1861, 160; T S Muir 1885, 32 and pl.2; C Dressler 1998, pl.2 ).

(6) Two fragments of a cross-slab of reddish Torridonian flagstone, lacking the central portion, which has been made good with concrete, and slightly damaged at the edges. The sides are tapered and the original height can be estimated as about 0.95m above a narrower butt which is set into a modern sandstone base. The slab tapers in width from 0.36m at the slightly rounded top to 0.31m and is 75mm in thickness. On one face (a) there is carved in false relief a ringed cross-potent whose short narrow shaft, now entirely lost, rose from a wide base-panel. At the top and sides there is a plain margin, 25mm to 30mm in width, into which the top arm of the cross and the sides of the ring are inset. The top margin is 40mm deep and flanking the cross-arm in incised half-uncial letters with pronounced serifs there are the Latin abbreviations: IHU XPI ('O Jesu. Of Christ'). The spandrels of the cross-head are plain, showing pocked tooling, and this technique of carving can be identified in other areas. The cross is defined by bead-mouldings with bevelled edges, which at the top and sides of the head merge with the margin. It has a ring 50mm wide and 0.35m in height but only 0.32m across the side-arms, which do not project. The top and bottom arms project 30mm beyond the ring, the return of the latter being visible at the left just above the break in the slab. The cross is of cross-potent type with a square central expansion, and is filled with double-beaded interlace which merges with the twist-pattern of the ring. The interspaces are sunk to the same 50mm depth as the spandrels, and are outlined with bead-mouldings. The interlace of the bottom arm ran into the lost shaft, which was about 75mm wide. The panel of diagonal key-pattern forming the base (variant of RA 974) measures 0.25m in width by 0.27m in incomplete height and appears to have lost only a few millimetres at the top left edge of the fragment. It is separated from the margin by a 10mm pocked groove which merges at the foot with the outline of a 'tenon' 70mm high and 50mm wide, terminating in a spike (cf. no.1). On the tenon itself and in the spaces flanking it there are three triangular groups of small pock-marks.

The back of the slab (b) is carved in low relief with a hunting-scene running down its vertical axis. The carving fills the width of the slab without any margin and has been about 0.72m long, a straight edge defining a plain area of 0.22m above the butt. The figures are formed by the smooth surface of the flagstone, with lightly pecked detail, and the background has been pecked with bevelled edges to a depth of no more than 3mm. At the left of the panel there is a bearded rider on a rearing horse. His right arm is outstretched behind him but there is no evidence of any weapon, and no horse-harness is shown. Above and below the horse's head there are dogs, the upper one pursuing a large ?bull whose head is lost at the break in the slab. The lower dog stands looking at a bird, probably an eagle, which turns its head to the left, and an animal with a curled tail, probably a boar but lacking its head, occupies the space below the ?bull. On the lower fragment there are parts of two animals, the upper one, a lion with mane and open jaws, being almost complete. Below it there is the head of a ?deer with two short antlers. On the vertical axis, filling the space between the horse and the two large animals, there is an incised cross with expanded terminals and an open central lozenge. It is 70mm high with the side-arms, 60mm in span, at mid-height, and the forked lower terminal is set on a shaft or pedestal 75mm high which rises from the angle of the ?bull's hoof. The cross is of an early form and resembles that at Bagh na h-Uamha, Rum (No.26), but it has presumably been added to the hunting-scene, which has strong Pictish connections.

The form of the cross-head on face (a) also has unusual features which are paralleled on symbol-less cross-slabs in eastern Scotland. The side-arms contained within the ring are found on a late cross-slab at Invergowrie, and interlace running into the ring without break on a cross-slab at Meigle (vii). A late 9th-century date is likely for the cross, and probably for the hunting-scene which appears to be carved in a similar technique and conforms to the taper of the slab (viii).


(i) Annals of Ulster, s.a. 617, 725, 752; A O Anderson 1922, 1, 142-5; N MacPherson 1878, 577-8; A Macdonald 1974, 58-60, 67-9.

(ii) Macdonald, op.cit., 59-64, 69-70; N MacPherson 1878, 589-92; S Wade Martins 1987, 13-15; NMRS database NM48SE, nos.2 (burials) and 15 (fort). The location of the burial containing a fine sword-hilt (NMS X.IL 157; N MacPherson 1878, 586-9) is uncertain, but it was probably in the Kildonnan area (NM48NE 21).

(iii) Name Book, Inverness (Hebrides), No.13, pp.2, 16; NMRS database NM48NE, nos.23 and 25.

(iv) The Commissioners are indebted to Mr D Campbell, Eigg, for information about this discovery.

(v) Information painted on wooden frame of fragment.

(vi) Cf. Inishmurray (W F Wakeman 1893, pl.5).

(vii) Allen and Anderson 1903, 3, 255-6 (Invergowrie 1), 297-8 (Meigle 2).

(viii) D MacLean (1997, 181) suggests that the hunting-scene is earlier than the cross-face.

(NMS cast, X.IB 219; PSAS, 67 (1932-3), 65 and fig.3 on p.66; J S Richardson 1964, pl.9 (face b); S Wade Martins 1987, 16 (face a); D MacLean 1997, 181; C Dressler 1998, 1 (face b) and pl.2 (face a)).

I Fisher 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.


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