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Eilean Fhianain, St Finnan's Chapel

Church (Medieval)

Site Name Eilean Fhianain, St Finnan's Chapel

Classification Church (Medieval)

Alternative Name(s) Loch Shiel, St. Finan's Chapel; St Finnan's Church

Canmore ID 22686

Site Number NM76NE 1

NGR NM 75204 68276

Datum OSGB36 - NGR


Ordnance Survey licence number AC0000807262. All rights reserved.
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Administrative Areas

  • Council Highland
  • Parish Arisaig And Moidart
  • Former Region Highland
  • Former District Lochaber
  • Former County Inverness-shire


Field Visit (3 June 1970)

St. Finan's Chapel (locally accepted name) is oriented E-W and measures 21.0m by 5.6m within a wall which is 0.9m thick and c. 2.8m maximum height. In the N wall are the lower halves of four windows, and near the E end is a square-headed aumbry. In the W wall is the lower part of a window and in the S wall the lower part of three windows, and towards its W end a doorway. The altar and bell remain intact at the E end.

The interior has been used for burials.

Visited by OS (R L) 3 June 1970.

Desk Based Assessment (1970)

NM76NE 1.00 75204 68276

NM76NE 1.01 Centred NM 75224 68301 Burial-ground

(NM 7520 6827) St. Finnan's Church (NR) (Remains of)

Burying Ground (NAT)

OS 6" map, Inverness-shire, 2nd ed., (1901).

Little is known of the early history of the chapel of Eilean Fhianain. It is perhaps built on the site of a cell which St. Finan had upon the island in the 7th century and the builder is believed to have been Alan MacRuaridh, one of the early Clan Ranald chiefs. The island was the burying place of the Clan Ranalds until the end of the 16th century.

The chapel became a ruin by the mid-17th century. The altar, however, remains, and on it stands a 6" high D.A. bell.

A circular brass brooch found in the burial ground was donated to the NMAS in 1896.

Information from OS.

Sources: Proc Soc Antiq Scot 1896; M E M Donaldson 1923; W J Watson 1926; S Gordon 1935.

Non Invasive Techniques (1973 - 1974)

Iain Thornber visited Eilean Fhianain in 1973 and 1974. The collection includes original drawings of the church and Cross No. 1, historic images from his collection and a series of original photographs of the church, late medieval stones etc.

Contour Survey (1992)

A contour survey of Eilean Fhianain was undertaken after the clearing of the thick scrub that has obscured the island in recent years. In consultation with Dorothy Low of Highland Regional Council a number of gravestones, crosses, the chapel and other monuments were mapped.

Sponsor: Highland Regional Council

CFA 1992.

Reference (2001)

This island, which takes its name from one of the saints bearing the Irish name Finan (a), is situated about 200m from both the N and S banks of Loch Shiel. It measures about 200m from N to S by 180m and has steep sides rising to an undulating summit-area which has been extensively used for burials by the adjacent Protestant and Roman Catholic communities of Sunart and Moidart respectively (b). The ruined medieval church near the W edge of the summit contains a cast bronze bell of Early Christian type (c), as well as a graveslab and cross-head, both of late medieval date. A female effigy of the same period lies near the N end of the summit, close to a group of large simple cruciform stones which are probably of 18th-century date (d). A cross-marked gravemarker (no.1) stands in the same area, and a small cruciform stone of uncertain period (no.2) was recorded in 1974 but has since disappeared (e).

(1) [NM76NE 1.02] Tapered slab of local flagstone, 0.7m in visible height by 0.35m at the head and 55mm thick. On the E face there is incised a Latin cross, 0.17m high and 0.14m across the arms, set on a pedestal formed by a slightly curved horizontal bar 100mm long and two vertical bars 70mm high.

(2) [NM76NE 1.03] Cruciform stone with tapered shaft and side-arms, about 0.52m high by 0.22m across the arms. At the centre of one face there is an incised Latin cross, 48mm high and 20mm in span.


(a) W J Watson 1926, 285-6.

(b) The monuments in the S part include an early 18th-century slab with skeleton, bearing the initials D MD. These cast doubt on its traditional identification as the grave of the Rev Alexander MacDonald ('Maighstir Alasdair', d.1724), father of the celebrated Gaelic poet of the same name (C Macdonald 1997, 123).

(c) C Bourke 1984, 464-8, citing Irish parallels of c.900. See idem 1997, Columba, 175-6, for the drop of a 12th-century crosier, found on the N shore of Loch Shiel near the island and now displayed in the Museum of Scotland (H.1993.634).

(d) For the tradition that the crosses were quarried by Donald Mor MacVarish, see A Cameron 1957. One of these is illustrated in T S Muir 1885, 77.

(e) The Commissioners are indebted to Mr I Thornber for depositing photographs, on which the drawing is based, in the NMRS (IN/1802-3).

I Fisher 2001.

Publication Account (2008)

Chapel, c.1500 Believed to have been built to replace a wooden structure by Allan MacRuari, 4th Chief of Clanranald, "the dread and terror of all neighbouring clans". Abandoned 17th century, since when all dressings have been robbed. The rubble walls still enclose a stone altar slab, with a seamless bronze bell of Early Christian type (possibly 10th century), a small cross in a niche, plus various important graveslabs, including one much weathered example of the Iona School, c. late 15th century, depicting a sword and foliage scrolls. Among the many monuments scattering Eilean Fhianain in the shelter of hawthorn, larch and Scots pine are several late medieval graveslabs and a group of weathered cruciform stones, probably 18th century.

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

Measured Survey (22 March 2017 - 6 September 2017)

HES surveyed Eilean Fhianain between 22-24 March 2017 producing a site plan at a scale of 1:500. The site plan was created using RTK GNSS data, an image-based 3D model, vertical aerial photography and ground observation. The plan was amended on site 6 September 2017 before being redrawn in vector graphics software.

Field Visit (September 2017)

The roofless shell of the old parish church at Eilean Fhianain stands in a commanding position a little to the SW of the centre of the island. The building is mainly a reconstruction of 19th century date but evidently incorporates within its ENE end an earlier church dating to the medieval period, formerly the parish church of Sunart.

The church now measures 21m from ENE to WSW by 4.8m transversely within walls that average 0.6m in thickness and only 1.2m in height. The late masonry is of a poor quality, roughly coursed and mortared and capped with cement, but it has evidently re-used stone from the earlier church. The doorway is located towards the WSW end of the SSE wall, and there are three window openings in both side-walls, all of which appears to be modern work that was never intended to hold a window. A further opening is provided in the WSW gable, while the ENE gable contains a niche and is abutted by a large altar, both relatively recent features. The altar, a thin slab supported on rough masonry, is mentioned in Muir’s account from 1857 (1885, 76).

The surviving medieval fabric is limited to sections of the side-walls which indicate that the earlier church has measured at least 9.7m in length and 4.8m in breadth within a wall 0.8m in thickness which survives up to 2.7m in height. The masonry is of good quality incorporating split boulders bonded with an abundance of small pinnings, and a small socket hole in the SSE wall probably reflects the position of an earlier timber screen separating the chancel and nave, similar to features seen in the church at Kilvickeon, Mull (NM41NW 1).

A talus of rubble that surrounds the church, particularly on the NNW and SSE sides, appears to be a product of the collapse of the original church and its subsequent clearance, but supplemented by the gathering of stone from the shore for burial markers. This talus has been disturbed along the SSE wall in an attempt to reveal the line of the medieval building.

The evidence that the building has been heavily restored is not limited to the character of the stonework and openings but is also suggested by the fact that this church appears to have been lengthened. In its current form it is longer than any other in the area (c.f. RCAHMS 1980, Fig. 6). In 1838, the church at Arisaig (NM68NE 1) was described as being of ‘larger size’ but now measures only 14.2m in length (New. Stat. Acc. v7, 148). That said, the church on Eilean Fhianain seems to have reached its current length before 1857 (Muir 1885, 77; White 1874).

The altar is the location for the early medieval bell, as well as a collection of architectural fragments (including a fragment of a late medieval slab) which support an interpretation of the building as a medieval parish church (NM76NE 1.10). An early medieval cross stone (NM76NE 1.04) is situated at the W end of the church, and an earthfast late medieval graveslab at its E end (NM76NE 1.06).

The church at ‘Swynort’ (Sunart) first comes on record in 1392 and a succession of rectors to the island are recorded in the 16th century (OPS 1854, 198). The graveslab of one such, Roderick McAlestir, survives at Ardchattan Priory (RCAHMS 1975, No. 217 (12)). The parish of Sunart was combined with Arisaig and Kilchoan to form Ardnamurchan sometime after the Reformation and possibly after 1630 (Stat. Acct. v20, 287), but the church may have been used for services as late as the 1730s (J Kirkby pers. comm.).

Visited by HES Survey and Recording (GFG, ATW) September 2017.

Measured Survey (5 September 2017 - 6 September 2017)

HES surveyed St Finnan’s Chapel, Eilean Fhianain with plane-table on 5 September 2017 at a scale of 1:100. The resultant plan was redrawn in vector graphics software.

Note (9 January 2018)

The structure of the archaeological records for Eilean Fhianain is as follows:

NM76NE 1 Church (Medieval)

NM76NE 1.01 Burial Ground(S) (Period Unassigned), Gravestone(S) (19th Century), Gravestone(S) (20th Century), Gravestone (First World War), Brooch (Brass)

NM76NE 1.02 Cross Slab (Early Medieval)

NM76NE 1.03 Cross Incised Stone (Period Unknown)

NM76NE 1.04 Cross (Medieval)

NM76NE 1.05 Grave Slab (Medieval)

NM76NE 1.06 Grave Slab(S) (Medieval)

NM76NE 1.07 Grave Slab(S) (18th Century)

NM76NE 1.08 Burial Enclosure (Post Medieval), Grave Slab (19th Century), Grave Slab (20th Century)

NM76NE 1.09 Cross (19th Century)

NM76NE 1.10 Bell (Early Medieval)

NM76NE 1.11 Burial Aisle (19th Century), Commemorative Monument (19th Century), Grave Slab (19th Century)

NM76NE 1.12 Architectural Fragment(S) (Medieval)

NM76NE 1.13 Burial Enclosure (Post Medieval), Cross (19th Century), Grave Marker(S) (Post Medieval), Lazy Beds(S) (Post Medieval)

NM76NE 1.14 Building(S) (Post Medieval), Grave Marker(S) (Post Medieval), Gravestone (19th Century), Hut (Post Medieval)(Possible), Platform(S) (Post Medieval), Settlement (Post Medieval)

NM76NE 1.15 Building (Post Medieval), Platform (Post Medieval), Slag(S) (Post Medieval)

NM76NE 1.16 Grave Marker(S) (Post Medieval), Gravestone (19th Century), Platform(S), Slag

NM76NE 1.17 Grave Marker(S), Platform(S), Slag

NM76NE 45 Crucible (clay)

NM76NE 46 Jetty (19th Century)

NM76NE 47 Jetty (Post Medieval)

NM76NE 48 Bait Hole (unknown date)

Information from HES Survey and Recording (GFG) 9 January 2018

External Reference


National Library, Country Life 26 December 1941 - photograph


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