St Donnan of Eigg


A recent visit to Eigg by a librarian with an interest in Scottish saints sparked an investigation into the role played by St Donnan in bringing Christianity to Scotland.

There are names associated with the early Christian church in Scotland with which most people are familiar – Ninian, Kentigern, and Columba for example. They are well known and their contribution recognised and renowned. However, there are a number of other individuals who, though less prominent, were instrumental in planting the seeds of the Christian faith on the mainland and islands of Scotland. One of these was St Donnan – or Donan – an Irish monk of the 6th/7th centuries. A glance at some of the place names associated with him demonstrates the extent of his travels and influence: Kildonan on Uist; Kildonan in Kintyre; the parish of Kildonan, Sutherland; and Eilean Donan castle near Loch Alsh on the west coast, amongst others. However he is most closely associated with Eigg, one of the islands known as the Small Isles on Scotland’s west coast, where he is reputed to be buried.

It is not known where and when Donnan was born, but it is presumed he was Irish. The Martyrology of Donegal refers to him as coming from Erin1. He is thought to have travelled to Scotland in the late 6th century accompanied by a group of companions. It is probable he spent some time working in the south west of Scotland: there are place names linked to him in Ayrshire, Arran and Kintyre. He then made his way northwards heading for Iona, where Columba was based.

There is a tale that while on Iona, Donnan asked Columba to become his Anam Cara, his soul friend or confessor. Columba refused on the grounds that he did not want to become the soul friend of someone who was destined for red martyrdom. Red martyrdom meant death for the faith; white martyrdom referred to someone who lived a life of asceticism, solitude and penance. The entry in the Martyrology of Oengus the Culdee states:

Tis this Donnán that went to Colum cille to get him for a soulfriend, and Colum cille said to him, ‘I will only be soulfriend,’ quoth he, ‘to folk of whit martyrdom. I will not be (thy) soulfriend, for thou and the whole of thy community with thee will go to red martyrdom’. And this was fulfilled.2

From Iona, Donnan then travelled north. For many years, his missionary work took place among the Picts of northern Scotland and he appears to have travelled extensively in Sutherland and Caithness. His muinntir – his community – is thought at this time to have been established around the area of the Strath of Kildonan in Sutherland. Then he seems to have moved westwards. There are foundations bearing his name near Ullapool, Loch Alsh, Skye and Uist. From there it is assumed Saints of the islands A recent visit to Eigg by a librarian with an interest in Scottish saints sparked an investigation into the role played by St Donnan in bringing Christianity to Scotland. HONOR HANIA St Donnan of Eigg The ancient graveyard and church of Kildonnan, Eigg, on the east of the island. October 2014 OPEN HOUSE 11 he travelled to Eigg which was to be his last home.

On Eigg he set up his muinntir on a fertile slope on the east of the island, facing the mainland. It is estimated that in this community he had over 50 companions.

However, the establishment of the monastery on Eigg was not welcomed by the Queen of Moidart who was the ruler of the island. Several reasons have been advanced for her hostility – possibly she did not approve of the new religion, she may have resented the influence of the monks, or, as suggested by a note in the Martyrology of Oengus (quoted below), they may well have appropriated her grazing rights. Whatever the reason, in 617, as legend has it, she ordered the islanders to kill the monks. Newly converted to Christianity, they refused, so she then sent her own warriors to the island. According to one account, when they arrived, it was a Sunday and Donnan and his community were at Mass. Donnan asked the warriors to wait until the liturgy had finished, and as they left the church he and the rest of the monks were beheaded one by one. They were then burnt.

Donnan then went with his people to the Hebrides; and they took up their abode there, in a place where the sheep of the Queen of the country were kept. This was told to the Queen. Let them all be killed, said she. That would not be a religious act, said her people. But they were murderously assailed. At that time the cleric was at Mass. Let us have respite till Mass is ended, said Donnan. Thou shalt have it, said they. And when it was over they were slain, every one of them3

Another account has them being marched to the refectory which was then set on fire.

Whatever the manner of their death, Donnan and the names of his companions are listed in the Martyrology of Tallaght.4 Their entry reads:

Donnani Ega cum suis id est LII. Hi sunt Aedani, Tarloga, Mairic, Congaile, Lonain, MacLasre, Iohain, Ernain, Ernini, Baethini, Rotain, Andrlog, Carillog, Rotain, Fergusain, Rectaire, Connidi, Endae, MacLoga, Guretii, Luncti, Corani, Baetani, Colmain, Ternlugi, Lugedo, Luctai, Gracind, Cucalini, Cobrain, Conmind, Cummini, Baltiani, Senaig, Demmain, Cummeni, Tarlugi, Finani, Findchain, Findchon, Cronani, Modomma, Cronain, Ciarian, Colmain, Naummi, Demmani, Ernini, Ailchon, Domnani. In the Martyrology of Oengus, the entry for 17th April states:

At the feast of Peter the Deacon, who advanced to victorious martyrdom, with his followers, a fair assembly, Donnan of chilly Eig.5

It is said that the islanders buried the saint’s ashes and bones in a mound which was for a long time known as Cnoc Dhonnain. Despite the tragedy, however, the monastery Donnan founded seems to have remained functioning; the Annals of Ulster notes that one Oan, abbot of Eig died over a hundred years later in 7256.

Recent excavations carried out on Eigg have revealed evidence of the oval enclosure of Donnan’s 7th century monastic settlement. Today the site is occupied by the ruins of a 16h century church and graveyard.

The current Catholic Church, built at Cleadale on the west of the island, is called St. Donnan’s, and is served from St Marys, Arisaig. Erected in 1910 it had fallen into disrepair before being restored and rededicated in 2012.

In addition to this church on Eigg, there are, according to the Oxford Dictionary of Saints7, at least ten other churches named after St Donnan in Scotland. He was canonised by Leo VIII in 1898. His feast is 17th April, the date of his death. A song of the Hebrides commemorates him:

‘Early gives the sun greeting to Donnan,

Early sings the bird the greatness of Donnan,

Early grows the grass on the grave of Donnan,

The warm eye of Christ on the grave,

The stars of the heavens on the grave. No harm, no harm to Donnan’s dust.’ 8

Honor Hania is a librarian at Glasgow University whose responsibilities include Celtic and Gaelic studies.

1. O’Clery. M. The Martyrology of Donegal: a calendar of the saints of Ireland. Irish Archaeological and Celtic Society, 1864.

2. Stokes, W. (ed). The Martyrology of Oengus the Culdee. London: Henry Bradshaw Society, 1905.

3. Stokes, W. (ed). The Martyrology of Oengus the Culdee. London: Henry Bradshaw Society, 1905.

4. Best, R. and Lawlor, H. (ed). The Martyrology of Tallaght. London: Henry Bradshaw Society, 1931.

5. Stokes, W. (ed). The Martyrology of Oengus the Culdee. London: Henry Bradshaw Society, 1905.

6. Mac Airt, Seán and Mac Niocail, Gearóid Mac Niocaill (ed). The Annals of Ulster (to A.D. 1131) Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1983.

7. Farmer, David Hugh. The Oxford Dictionary of Saints. Oxford University Press, 5th ed. 2003.

8. Mcleod, K.(ed). Songs of the Hebrides, and other Celtic songs from the Highlands of Scotland. London: Boosey & Co, 1909. Vol.2.


Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.