by Kris Erskine

Fair Isle, seen from northeast on flight from Lerwick to Fair Isle

Eilean Neave is the northernmost nemeton (a clearing within a grove, originally a place for tribal meetings and celebrations, later a little sacred enclosure) that is still identifiable in the place name landscape. Despite having no freshwater sources there are traces of enclosures with two specific sites known respectively as St Columba’s Chapel (from which the alternative name, Coomb Island is derived) and a monastery dedicated to St Bride.

St Columba is considered the father of Pictish Christianity and dedications to him are scattered across Scotland.

The name has been translated as Island of the Saints but WJ Watson, the author of the definitive work on Scottish place names, suggested that it should be more correctly identified as Island of the Nemeton and later onomasticians have strongly supported this.

The other notable feature is a narrow channel on the south end of the island ending in a hole the shape of a full moon, through which the sea ‘spouts up into the air, sometimes to a height of thirty feet’. Following this, a few seconds later ‘there is a discharge of water from the east side of the island with a noise resembling the explosion of a cannon. The Ordnance Survey visit in 1960 found no trace of structures or foundations in the traditional locations but the 1978 OS visit noted two enclosures a little askew to the conventional sites.

On the mainland, just south of the village of Tongue, a hill, Cnoc Phobuill, stands 460m directly opposite the traditional site of St Columba’s chapel on the island. The two sites are both situated at the same elevation. The name of the hill translates from the Gaelic to Hill of the Assembly (Phobuill is a Latin derived word that indicates it is a later entry into the landscape). Its convenience for assembly and vantage point to view the level area mentioned suggests that its name arose from its use as a safe point for large scale communal participation in ceremonies and rituals. Support for such a practice comes from Lammana in Cornwall which looks out onto Looe Island. Records from 1290ce describe the founding of a mainland chapel:

A certain sea-girt island in which a certain chapel of Saint Michael use to be kept up where the monks of Glastonbury, time out of mind, had monks celebrating Divine Service. And, Because of days of old many of those people who through devotion would have wanted to visit the said chapel on Saint Michael’s day often lost their lives in the stormy sea, a certain chapel of Saint Michael was constructed upon the coast opposite the said island’

The results of a 1994 excavation of the mainland site appear to corroborate the account. A similarly practical decision could have been made centuries early by the Picts of Tongue.

And finally, the lack of freshwater on the island nemeton as well as the blowhole begs comparison with the Tech Donn (House of Donn), an island off the southwest coast of Ireland which is nothing more than a rock, but has a natural archway under which the sea flows with tremendous force. Medieval Irish texts mention the idea of an offshore island where the Lord of the Dead resides and that the ‘heathen’ believed their souls would go there to Donn.

 

Barrow G 1994 “Hidden Scotland 1: Religion in Scotland on the Eve of Christianity”; unpublished paper presented 1994.

New Statistical Account 1845 Edinburgh: William Blackwood & Sons.

O’hOgain 1999 “The Sacred Isle Belief and Religion in Pre-Christian Ireland” Wiltern, Co.Cork: The Boydell Press.

Old Statistical Account 1791 – 9 Vol 13.

Olson 1994 “Lammana, West Looe; C.K. Croft Andrew’s excavations of the chapel and Monks House, 1935 – 6”. IN Cornish Archaeology 33: 96 – 129.

Picken 1985 “Light on Lammana” IN Devon Cornwall Notes and Queries 35, pt 8: 281 – 6.

WJ Watson 1926 The Celtic Placenames of Scotland. London: Routledge

From Groves to Churches: Sacred Sites in Pictland, by Kristen Erskine, Centre for Celtic Studies, University of Sydney, August 2002.

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Kris Erkine is an archaeologist, Celtic Studies scholar, story teller and writer. Currently she’s drafting her post graduate thesis into publishable form as a guide book to Celtic Sacred Sites of Northern Scotland, finishing up a book on European festival traditions in the Southern Hemisphere and learning the skills needed to write short stories. She’s worked as admin staff for NGOs, an archaeologist, bar staff, waitress, and Adult Education teacher. She is also the Tasmanian Sponsorship coordinator for Transportation.

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