Saturday, January 7, 2017

Cashels of the Hebrides

Monastic Cashels are interesting structures. They are small, round or oval enclosures, 120 to 200 feet in diameter. Inside is usually a church and several small cells where the monks lived. Some even had mills and bathhouses.

My interest in Celtic Christian Cashels began during my first visit to the west of Ireland in 1988. I tried to get out to see the cashel on the tiny island of Inishmurray, which lies off the coast 12 miles northwest of Sligo. But I was unable to find a boatman to take me. I tried again in 2013. It was easy enough to find a boatman that time, but the weather was atrocious and he could not sail out. I do plan to try again someday, as it looks like an amazing place.

Inishmurray Cashel
Not all cashels are as hard to get to as Inishmurray. There are five that I know of in the Hebrides, but even those require a bit of effort to get to. The easiest to see, Cladh a' Bhearnaig, requires getting yourself to Kerrera, and then making a two mile hike to the north end of the island. 

Cladh a' Bhearnaig
Cladh a’ Bheàrnaig is a nearly circular enclosure split in thirds by low walls. Inside sit the remains of several buildings; one that looks like a beehive cell, and two that are rectangular structures with walls three feet thick. Even though I visited the site in early spring, when the bracken was just starting to sprout, it was difficult to examine the structures under all the vegetation. If you're ever in Oban for a day, and want to get away from the tourists, there's no better way than paying a visit to Kerrera, and making the hike to its north end to see Cladh a' Bhearniag. 

Cladh a' Bhearnaig
The second Scottish cashel of interest is Sgoor nam Ban Naoimh on Canna. It is only reachable by a precarious sheep track that traverses down the cliffs. (The track starts at NG 2328 0460.) Inside the cashel walls you'll find an amazing set of ruins; beehive cells, an oratory, a chapel, and what may have been a bathhouse. I was able to descend the path down to the cashel in 2002, but when I tried again in 2016 it was so undermined by rabbit warrens that it did not look safe to use. Unless you are with a group, and roped up, I would not recommend using the path.

Start of the eroded path down to the cashel
Sgorr nam Ban-naomha
The third Scottish cashel that I'm aware of is on Nave Island off the north tip of Islay. Aside from an expensive day charter, the only way to visit it (that I know of) is as part of a southern Hebrides cruise such as those offered by Northern Light Cruising Company or Hebrides Cruises.

Nave Island - Cashel wall marked with arrows
I was fortunate to have landed on Nave Island in 2016 (see the June 8th post). It's most striking feature is its chapel with a chimney. The chapel dates to the 13th century, and was built on the site of the cashel's original church. The chimney was added in the 1700s when they processed kelp here. Cross-fragments found on the site date to the time of St Columba, so the monastery here may have been founded at the same time as the one on Iona, which is just 30 miles to the north. See this CANMORE page for more on the Nave Island monastery.

Remnants of the circular enclosure wall can be seen in the foreground

Inside Nave Chapel
The most visited of all the Scottish cashels is on the island of Eileach an Naoimh of the Garvellachs. Unfortunately, there's not much, if anything, left of its enclosing wall, as it was pillaged to build several structures after the site ceased to be a monastery. The Historic Scotland reader-board at the site has an evocative drawing showing what they think the original enclosure looked like.

Historic Scotland display on Eileach an Naoimh

Chapel at upper right, once within the cashel enclosure
The penultimate Scottish cashel, and the hardest to reach, is on far off North Rona. The cashel's enclosing circular wall, 120 feet in diameter, still survives, albeit cloaked in thick grass and moss.

North Rona Cashel
Standing inside the enclosure is St Ronan's Chapel and cell. The rest of the space is filled with ancient graves. The only legible tombstone, and barely legible at that, is the memorial to Murdo Mackay and Malcolm MacDonald, who died in 1885 (see chapter 29 of Book 2, and the final photo below).

North Rona Cashel - St Ronan's cell and chapel to the left

The remains of the cashel wall can be seen behind St Ronan's Church
It's intriguing to speculate what life was like in these cashels 15 centuries ago; the monks going about their everyday tasks, interrupted every now and then by raiding Ragnars. Iona was pillaged several times, so it's probable that Nave Island, Canna, North Rona, and Eileach an Naoimh suffered similar fates. If you want a day to remember, make a solitary wander to one of these sites. While there, let your thoughts drift to times long past, and try to sense the lingering presence of all the souls who once toiled, and found joy, in a life of contemplation and work.


  1. David & Margaret GartsideJanuary 8, 2017 at 1:00 PM

    Great post Mark - maybe your best yet - absolutely fascinating - thanks