OS Grid Reference: NG 4177 4852. On the little island of Skeabost in the Snizort river, near Ken-saleyre, Isle of Skye, Highland Region, are the ruins of St Columba’s Chapel, an 11th century building, and there is a cemetery with interesting 16th century gravestones. Near the ruined chapel is St Columba’s Rock from which the saint is said to have preached. The first chapel here at Eilean Chaluim Chille (St Columba’s Isle) on the Snizort river was founded in the 6th century by St Columba (521-97) whilst visiting Pictish settlements, and probably after founding his famous monastery at Iona (563 AD). He also founded a chapel at Kilmuir a few miles to the north. The larger ruined chapel at the eastern side of the island was known as ‘Skeabost Cathedral’. However, St Columba’s Chapel was partly destroyed in the early 16th century after which it fell into ruin – although the graveyard has been restored. The A850 from Portree to Uig runs just southwest of the island, which is 6 miles northwest of Portree. You can take the car ferry from Fort William or Mallaig to Armadale to reach Skye, or by car on the Skye Road Bridge from Kyle of Lochalsh to Kyleakin. A footbridge over the river Snizort gives the visitor or pilgrim access to this “holy” island.
There are two medieval chapels on the island, the 11th century chapel at the western side lies in ruins, whereas the other chapel ruin over to the east has a large rectangular enclosure surrounding it; this was probably the old parish church or Cathedral and of a 14th-15th century date? There is a third building at the southeast which was an enclosure. The ruined chapel of St Columba, with its roughly built walls is now roofless, but its end gables still stand up to 11 feet high, and the building’s inner space measures 16 feet in length and 9 feet in width. The walls in between are 6-7 feet high. Only one window remains; and 13th century carved stonework can be seen higher up in the walls. There might have been a monastery here at some point, but more likely a bishop’s residence; the little island apparently being the seat of ‘the bishops of the Isles’. The larger chapel and its associated buildings in their heyday would have been the size of a small cathedral – hence the name Skeabost Cathedral. We know the first chapel here was established by St Columba (Columcille) after 563 AD, but the chapel that we see today was built either in the late 11th or the early 12th century. Columba was thought to be visiting Pictish settlements on Skye around this time and no doubt on a mission to Christianise them; the saint apparently preached from a large rock near his chapel.
Jonathan MacDonald tells us more about the place saying that: “On an island in the Snizort river is an ancient cemetery and site of Saint Columba’s Chapel, which is believed to have been built by Saint Columba during his visit to Skye and to have been the first Christian church on the island followed by the chapel at Eilean a’ Loch in Kilmuir. The biographer Adamson records how Saint Columba saw a vision before arriving in Skye of being greeted by an old man who would ask for baptism and on receiving it would die. The story goes on to tell how the Saint and his monks were met on landing near Skeabost by a group of men carrying an old and feeble man called Artbrannan who had heard of Columba’s message of Christianity and who was determined to be alive until he could meet the saint. Saint Columba duly took water and with the assistance of his monks baptized Artbrannan who, as soon as the sacred water touched his forehead, fell dead at the saint’s feet. His body was soon carried on a bier to the little island on the river and buried there by Columba and his men. It is said that this was the first Christian burial in Skye. Today, through the efforts of local people and organisations the old churchyard where countless local people including many chiefs of the Nicolson clan lie buried has been brought into a presentable appearance thus making it possible for people to visit this sacred and historical spot.”
Norman Newton (1992) tells us about St Columba’s monasticism on offshore islands. He says that: “Many traces of early Christian monasteries survive on our offshore islands, which were established by Columba and his contemporaries, for he was only one of many men who were spreading the Christian message. Undoubtedly, he was the most charismatic of the early English saints and, from the point of view of posterity, the most fortunate, because it was one of his successors at Iona, the abbot Adomnan, whose Life of St Columba, written in the 680s, is distinguished from all the other lives of early saints by its racy style and fascinating detail of the people and places of Columba’s time. Adomnan was supremely skilled in public relations, for he purveyed a heady mixture of fact and the supernatural which is compelling reading even in these skeptical times.”
There are some interesting graves in the ‘now tidy’ churchyard on St Columba’s Isle, but those in St Columba’s Chapel which was put in to use as a Mortuary Chapel, are of the clan chiefs MacNicol (MhicNeacail) or Nicolson, 28 of whom apparently lie here in what has been called ‘The Nicolson’s Aisle’. Most of the graveslabs, some of them having carved effigies, are probably of the 16th century. There are said to be gravestones here that date from earlier times maybe the 11th century? And there are are other clan graves out in the cemetery and in the second ruined chapel although these are probably not of the clan Mac Nicol.
Sources and related websites:
MacDonald, Jonathan, Discovering Skye – A Handbook of the Island’s History and Legend, J. MacDonald, Upper Duntulm, Kilmuir, Skye.
Newton, Norman, The Shell Guide To The Islands Of Britain, David & Charles, Newton Abbot, Devon, 1992.
The AA, Illustrated Road Book Of Scotland, The Automobile Association, 1963.
Photo (top) by Gordon Hatton: https://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/3956554
Photo (middle) by John Allan: https://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/4844681
© Ray Spencer, The Journal of Antiquities, 2018.