Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Cara's Chapel of St Fionnlugh

My favorite island souvenirs are the little history books about an island that I find on the island. One of these was The Antiquities of Gigha, by the Rev. RSG Anderson. The book has been very popular. Originally published in 1936, a second edition came out three years later. The copy I bought on Gigha in 1992 is a reprint published in 1978.

I had come to Gigha back then to see if I could find someone to take me to the tiny isle of Cara, which lies a half-mile off the south tip of Gigha. I mainly wanted to sit in Cara's famous Brownie's Chair, but Anderson's little history book also led me to spend some time taking a close look at another of Cara's attractions: the chapel of St Fionnlugh; also referred to in a 17th century document as Cella Sanctissimae Trinitas - the Cell of the Holy Trinity.

The Chapel
The 6th century St Fionnlugh (the fair-haired hero), that the Cara chapel is dedicated to, was associated with a monastery on Eilean Mor, an island in Loch Finnlagan, 20 miles to the northwest on Islay. Saint Fionnlugh was a contemporary of St Columba, and is said to have saved Columba from a spear-wielding assassin on the island of Hinba. Fionnlugh is also known as the Hermit Saint of Islay, and so perhaps when he needed a break from the hustle and bustle of Islay he escaped for a little contemplative R&R on Cara.

Cara House and the Chapel seen from the south
In the 18th century the chapel was used as a kitchen for Cara House, which is only 20 feet away. The house itself dates to the 1730s, and many of the missing stones from the chapel probably form some of the substance of the house.

Cara House and the Chapel seen from the north
Cara is a beautiful name for an island. But it may not have a beautiful derivation. Alasdair Alpin Macgregor, in his Skye and the Inner Hebrides, says the name means corpse, and its profile seen from the mainland does resemble a prone body. Along those lines, TS Muir, writing in 1885, says the locals called it Dead Man Island. But I prefer a different derivation, one I found in a book on place names that says Cara means 'Dear One'. Another similar definition comes from Dwelly's Gaelic Dictonary, which lists C├ára as a Gaelic word for friend. 

If you ever get the chance to go to Cara take it. I found it to be, like its name, a friendly island that likes to be visited.

Cara (looking slightly corpse-ish) seen from Gigha

The boatman awaits - Gigha seen from Cara


  1. David and Margaret GartsideJanuary 1, 2017 at 4:16 AM

    Thanks for another fascinating year, Marc. Best wishes for 2017