‘Island of the saints’
Eileach-an-naoimh means ’Island of the saints’, although doubt exists as to which saints lived on this remote island in the Garvellachs. Tradition identifies it with Hindba, another island monastery founded by St Columba of Iona, and states that Columba’s mother, Eithne, was buried here.
More recently the island has been identified as Ailech, documented as the island monastery set up by St Brendan of Clontarf (Brendan the Navigator) in AD 542. The monastery was probably abandoned in the 9th century because of repeated Viking raids, but in the later Middle Ages became a focus of pilgrimage and burial.
The physical remains on the island show it to be one of the best-preserved early Christian monasteries in Scotland. Of particular interest is the unusual, beehive-shaped double cell, still standing over 3m high.
The other remains are more difficult to date and interpret. They include a curious underground cell and a chapel measuring 6.6m by 3.6m. Some structures clearly belong to a later period in the island’s history.
Island of the tenants
By the early 1600s the island was inhabited by tenants of the Duke of Argyll, and some of what survives dates from their time. Structures include a possible farmhouse, a byre, a barn, a corn-drying kiln, field walls and traces of ‘run-rig’ cultivation.
Even after 1700, when the island became uninhabited once more, the tenants of neighbouring Garbh Eileach continued to graze their beasts here. In 1926 the island came into State care.
- The solitude – exploring the island offers a unique opportunity to experience at least one aspect of the hermit’s life.