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St Columba's Cave, Ellary

Cave (Period Unassigned), Cross Incised Rock (Early Medieval), Midden (Period Unassigned), Balance

Site Name St Columba's Cave, Ellary

Classification Cave (Period Unassigned), Cross Incised Rock (Early Medieval), Midden (Period Unassigned), Balance

Alternative Name(s) Loch Caolisport

Canmore ID 39012

Site Number NR77NE 10

NGR NR 7512 7679

Datum OSGB36 - NGR


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

  • Council Argyll And Bute
  • Parish South Knapdale
  • Former Region Strathclyde
  • Former District Argyll And Bute
  • Former County Argyll

Archaeology Notes

NR77NE 10 7512 7679

(NR 7512 7680) Cave (NAT)

OS 6" map, Argyllshire, 2nd ed., (1924)

St Columba's Cave: There is a strong local tradition that St Columba came here on his way to Dunadd and Iona. The main cave has a shelf on its E side on which is built a drystone altar, with above it on the rock a small cross with an expanded shaft, another to N marked by five pits in the rock, and still further N, a faint cross only visible in certain lights. Beam-holes in the W wall of the cave suggest a lean-to roof to protect the altar. An oval rock-basin is in the floor of the shelf near the altar. The cave was cleared up at the end of last century. Excavations are currently being carried out here.

Two shallow graves, containing extended inhumations, lying E-W, have been found at the foot of the bank outside the cave, and against the foundation of a boulder wall. A "stone coffin", containing an inhumation, is reported to have been found inside the main cave in the 19th century 'excavation', but no information is available as to size or depth in cave-deposit. Material of all periods from the Mesolithic has been found during the current excavations. Now at Kilberry, it is to be given to the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland [NMAS] at the end of the work. A stone basin, now the font at Achahoish parish church (NR 781 776) is said to have come from this cave.

A small cave to the W has entrance steps and bar-holes, indicating use as a dwelling. A quartz block at rear has been used as a polisher or strike-a-light.

The cave was excavated several years ago to the depth of 3 1/2' by the proprietor (Donaldson 1930).

M Campbell and M Sandeman 1964; M E M Donaldson 1930.

Excavations caried out since 1959 by the Mid-Argyll Arch Soc have discovered occupation levels to at least 3 1/2 feet below the remaining surface, ie a total depth of 8 feet; as well as recovering many unstratified small finds from the 19th century spoil-heap. These include a Viking-type, 8-9th century, bronze balance, and Samian ware; and a midden whose upper levels contained 12-14th century pottery. The material from the spoil-heap has now been returned to the cave bringing the floor up to its mid-19th century level - a process which has exposed at the mouth of the cave a cross-wall with entrance and doorstep. A thin surface of broken schist covers the areas above and below this wall, and may mark the base of the 19th century tip. Iron slag protruding through this surface suggests a post-medieval lay use of the site.

M Campbell 1959; M Campbell 1962; M Campbell 1973; M Campbell 1975.


Field Visit (18 June 1973)

St Columba's Cave (information from name board) is generally as described. It measures 5.0m across and 18.0m deep. There are up to 11 beam holes in the W wall and 1 in the E. The small cave measures 4.0m across and is 13.0m deep.

Surveyed at 1:10,000.

Visited by OS (IA) 18 June 1973.

Field Visit (27 January 1977)

No change to the report of 18 June 1973.

Visited by OS (BS) 27 January 1977.

Field Visit (June 1985)

Two caves penetrate the base of an old sea-cliff l00m N of the shore of Bagh Dalach Duibhe, an inlet of Loch Caolisport which is sheltered by Eilean na h-Uamhaidh ('Island of the Caves'). Excavations in the larger or E cave have found evidence of repeated occupation, including ecclesiastical use in the Early Christian and medieval periods. The ruin of a 13th-century chapel stands some 35m S of the cave, and in the late medieval period it was probably served by the chaplain or hermit who also ministered at Eilean Mor (No.33). The lands of 'Sanct-Colme-coir (St Columba's cave) were associated with Eilean Mor in a charter of 1574 toDonald MacNeill of Taynish, and the township of Cove remained in MacNeill ownership until the middle of the 19th century (en.1).

CHAPEL. The chapel measures 10.9m from E to W by 5.2m transversely within 0.8m walls of lime-mortared rubble slabs and boulders disposed in frequent regular courses. The walls are now fragmentary, and the external facework has been robbed from the S wall, but the W gable survives almostintact. Although the dressed stonework of the quoins andopenings was removed in the 19th century (en.2), the circular bases of the S doorway, carved from a buff Carboniferous sandstone, remain in situ. These display a water-holding-profile of 13th-century character and are socketed for nook-shafts, and the W base preserves a mason's mark. A gap in the N wall may mark the position of a second doorway, but this is uncertain. The chancel, which was lit by an E window and opposed openings towards the E ends of the side-walls, retains a roughly-paved floor with a loose setting of stones marking the position of the altar.

The area W of the chapel is partially enclosed by a curving drystone wall, but is much overgrown and disturbed by later field-drainage. The vertical slabs in a supposed burial ground on the rocky ridge W of the nearby stream, about 60m W of the chapel, appear to be of natural origin, but several inhumations have been excavated near the entrance to the cave (infra).

CAVE. The two natural caves occupy the head of a gully in cliffs of contorted chlorite-schist. The larger one measures about 14m from SW to NE, tapering in width from about 12mto 4.5m, and has a maximum height of about 5m; an inner cave, extending a further 6m to the NE and floored at a lower level, may not have been accessible during the medieval period.

The SE half of the main cave is occupied by a level shelf of rock, probably improved artificially, on which stands an altar of rubble pointed with lime-mortar. An area of the wall above the altar has been cut away to leave in low relief a Latin cross 0.l7m in height and 0.l4m across the arms. Its frame encroaches on an earlier equal-armed cross, much weathered and now represented only by four circular depressions at the terminals (en.4). At the SW angle of the rock-shelf there is an oval basin 0.3m deep, which shows no evidence of having been used as a mortar. A shallower basin near the mouth of the cave may, if of artificial origin, have been designed as a water-catchment for drips from the roof.

Two massive blocks of fallen rock fill the E side of the cave mouth, forming a high ledge which appears to have been reached by steps from both the exterior and the interior, and preserves remains of a transverse drystone wall. This was probably on the same alignment as the wall across the mouth of the cave, described by White as less than 1m high, but shown in a drawing of 1833 by James Skene as containing a lintelled doorway (en.5). Sockets cut in the W wall of the cave in this area may have held strengthening timbers for this wall, but others in the cave are probably related to its use for drying fishing-nets during the 19th century.

The floor of the W half of the cave, formed of accumulated soil almost to the same height as the rock-shelf, was cleared in the 1870s and dumped in a spoil-tip outside the cave. In a series of excavations between 1959 and 1976 this material was examined and replaced in the cave, under the direction of Miss Campbell of Kilberry and Dr C J Young. Finds from this unstratified spoil ranged from prehistoric bone and antler tools, and a rim-sherd of Samian ware, to a folding balance-beam of Norse or medieval date, late medieval coins and 19th-century clay pipes (en.6). The spoil-tip overlay remains of probable metal-working, an E-W drystone wall with entrance, and rough cobbling of probable late-medieval date. Several extended inhumation-burials have been identified, both within the cave and immediately outside it (en.7A) second smaller cave immediately to the W shows no clear evidence of early use.

RCAHMS 1992, visited June 1985

Reference (2001)

Two crosses are cut on the wall above a rubble-built altar in this cave, which has produced evidence of occupation over a long period. A 100mm equal-armed cross (1) is now represented only by its circular terminals. It is encroached on by the frame of a Latin cross in low relief (2), 0.17m by 0.14m. A series of pit-marks (3) one metre N of the altar may define a 100mm equal-armed cross with sinkings in the armpits.

I Fisher 2001.


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