Was Kildalton the Site of a Bloody Viking Ritual?

Those seeking to imbibe Islay spirit of a less liquid kind might like to visit the roofless church at Kildalton, deeply numinous with its ancient crosses and figured mediaeval graves. Sweep past the casks and pagodas of Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg, traverse dark woods inhabited by fairy folk and spotted deer, skirt bright bays studded with seal-draped skerries; a few miles of peat bogs and hazel groves and draw up beside the church, gaunt and roofless beneath a grove of Plane trees.

There is uncertainty over the saint who is commemorated, but the name is generally held to be derived from the Gaelic ‘Cille Daltan’: church of the fosterling; the fosterling in question was Saint John the Evangelist, and it is also said to be associated with Baithéne mac Brénaind, a cousin and disciple of St. Columba and perhaps his ‘fosterling’, who in 563 AD had crossed the North Channel from Ireland in a wicker and hide boat.

Early Christian missionaries took to living as hermit monks in very small ‘beehive’ cells, such as can still be seen on the Garvellach islands which can be glimpsed on the horizon north of Islay. Some of these cells developed eventually into religious settlements and it’s not difficult to imagine one such at Kildalton, sheltered beneath an elevated ridge overlooking fertile ground and accessible for sea travel. That must remain speculation, as other than the spectacular wheel cross there are no discernible features of a monastery here. Such settlements form a pattern of havens stretching across the Hebrides and western mainland of Scotland, where sea travellers could rest and take on provisions on their voyages between the mother monasteries in Ireland and the important satellite communities in such places as Iona and Applecross. St Baithéne succeeded Columba as the Abbot of Iona, and died around the year 600. Continue reading...

The earliest historical reference to the church itself dates to 1425, a time when the Lordship of the Isles was at its apogee under Alexander MacDonald, though the building is thought to have been built a century or more earlier. Like many other parishes, the priestly charge of Kildalton was in the gift of the Lordship, affording influence over clerical careers and “significant scope to reward kindreds” as one writer puts it. After several hundred years of worship, the building was last in use as a parish church in the late seventeenth century following which services were transferred to the church at Lagavulin. The wall around the graveyard dates from the 1770s. Subsequent restorations of the building have been carried out with varying degrees of finesse.

Beside the church is the wonderful late 8th century wheel cross, an evocative relic of the early Celtic church. This cross is the only complete example to survive in Scotland, and is beautifully carved from a single piece of epidiorite thought to have been quarried at Port na Cille, half a mile to the east. It stands to a height of almost nine feet and is sculpted on both faces with scenes from the Bible on a sacrificial theme, including the murder of Abel, Abraham about to slay Isaac, and David killing the lion. The cross might have been intended to illustrate biblical stories of sacrifice to an illiterate flock, but later visitors to the site put it to an altogether darker purpose. The story goes that during an excavation beneath it in 1882 the remains of two bodies, a male and a female, were found: the male skeleton was reported to bear evidence of the Viking ‘blood eagle’ ritual described in skaldic poetry:

“they caused the bloody eagle to be carved on the back of Ælla, and they cut away all of the ribs from the spine, and then they ripped out his lungs”.

It has been suggested that the ‘blood eagle’ victim lying under the Kildalton cross may have been the abbot of the monastery. Sustained Viking attacks on the religious houses led to the retreat of the churchmen to Ireland, leaving the islands as a valuable prize to their new Norse overlords.

Among the best of the carved mediaeval grave slabs, some within the church and others in the graveyard, are a mail-clad MacIan with a fully rigged birlinn, the clinker-built sailing craft of mediaeval days, and a hunting scene with stag, hounds and a huntsman with horn. A slab dated 1696 is carved with a highland long gun, powder horn and hound, the memorial of Charles MacArthur of Proaig. Outside the bounds of the graveyard is the Thief’s Cross, a plain mediaeval cross surrounded by metal railings that some say marks the resting place of a criminal; others say that this cross marks the extent of a lost monastery vallum.

Ardtalla Estate, within whose bounds Kildalton church lies, is co-operating with Historic Environment Scotland (HES) to improve the stewardship of the buildings and historic grave slabs.

Written by Malcolm Younger and published with kind permission of the Ileach