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This paper attempts to fill out what we can know from the textual and place-name evidence we have about St Donnan: about his martyrdom, his monastery and the saint’s cult that grew up after his lifetime. Much of what is said about Donnan takes its starting point from quite late traditions. This paper seeks instead to build up what we know from the earliest evidence on.

First of all, we have to admit that there is a lot we will never know. We have no genealogy or other personal details for Donnan, as we do for many other early Gaelic churchmen, like Columba or Brendan, and we do not know where he came from, when his monastery on Eigg was established, or other basic facts. But we have a variety of sources that are, in their way, informative, and taken together we can do a fair amount with them. First and foremost is the account of Donnan’s death, in the Iona Chronicle, a lost record of events that underlies the Annals of Ulster (AU) and other Irish annals:

Annals of Ulster 617.1
Combustio martirum Ega,—combustio Donnain Ega h-i .xu. kl. Mai cum .cl. martiribus; & occisio Torche, & loscadh Condiri.
“The burning of the martyrs of Eigg [the burning of Donnán of Eigg on the 15th of the kalends of May (= 17 April) with 150 martyrs] and the ravaging of Tory Island, and the burning of Connor.”

The actual AD date that AU617 is equivalent to is a bit uncertain: perhaps 619 or 620, on one calculation (Fraser 2009, 343; Evans 2010, 241). Also, the strongest traditions suggest that only 52 monks died, not the suspiciously round number of 150. Fundamentally, though, this is all we know about Donnan’s life: this bare account of his death, and that of his companions. A number of things are significant. For starters, we can dismiss later accounts of beheadings and the like: this contemporary account makes it clear that they were burnt to death. Already Donnan’s death, and that of his companions, is being viewed as a martyrdom. This is almost unique in the Irish Annals, where even later on during the Viking age, the death of clerics was not usually described as martyrdom. There was something significant about Donnan’s death.

It is also worth noticing that it is one in a series of burnings and ravagings in AU 617 (and also 616, where we find Combustio Benncoir “The burning of Bangor [Co. Down]”. Whether these are all related or not is difficult to say; but it is worth considering that the attach on Eigg belongs to the same context—perhaps a campaign of destruction by a war-band hostile to the church?

We should consider where Eigg was in 617: situated, as far as we can tell, on the borderland between Pictish and Gaelic territory. Scholars have often been tempted to put the blame for the martyrdom on pagan Picts (see Smyth 1984, 108)—but we should remember what Adomnán tells us in the Life of Columba, written ca.700, about Ioan son of Conall son of Domnall of the Gaelic royal dynasty of the Cenél nGabráin, a persecutor of churches, who lived in Ardnamurchan, and who came to a watery end within sight of Eigg (cf VC ii.22, ii.24). You did not need to be a Pict, or even a non-Christian, in 617, to be hostile to the church.

It is clear that either there continued to be a monastic presence on Eigg even after the massacre, or that a monastery was begun afresh after this. (There have been stronger statements about this, but we just do not have evidence.) A list of clerics whose death is recorded in AU725 includes Oan princeps Ego ‘Oan the princeps of Eigg’. This entry tells us more than just that there was a monastic community on Eigg in the early 8th century. The term it uses for Oan is significant. The Latin term princeps only starts to appear in Irish annals around this time. It seems to be a monastic office invested with the government of ecclesiastical resources—it sometimes goes with role of abbot, sometimes bishop, sometimes neither, and was often, later, hereditary within families (Picard 2000). Oan of Eigg is one of the first instances—and occurs in AU not long after a series of Iona clerics are described holding the principatus there. So, princeps, as used to describe Oan of Eigg, is probably using a current term adopted by the Iona Chronicle. From Iona’s viewpoint, the monastery on Eigg in the early 8th century was substantial and important enough to be governed by a princeps.

The name of this princeps is significant too. Different scholars have taken different views on it. Prof. Thomas Charles-Edwards has suggested that “Oan probably stands for the British name Owain; he is thus likely to have come from the British kingdom of Dumbarton” (2006, 1, 198 n.5). He probably has in mind here the spelling of the name of Owain, king of Dumbarton in AU 642.1 as Hoan. Lest we think it odd that the princeps of Eigg would be British, we should remember that the 4th abbot of Iona was Virgno ‘the Briton’ (†623); and also that Oan could plausibly be a Pictish, rather than a British name.

There is another possibility though. Oan may be a misrepresentation of the somewhat unusual name Ioan. A Ioan is found as one of the ecclesiastical guarantors of the Law of the Innocents in 697, a law crafted by Adomnán of Iona to protect women and non-combatants from violence (see Márkus 2008). Prof. Máirín Ní Dhonnchadha has suggested (1982) that this Ioan is Oan, princeps of Eigg, and it is an attractive suggestion given (as we will see) other links between Eigg and Iona during this period.

The last Annal entry related to Eigg is in 752, which records the death of Cumméne the descendant of Bécc, a religiosus (religious man). But we know some of the other personnel of early medieval Eigg from other sources. The Irish martyrologies, which incorporate many entries derived from a martyrology on Iona, had a particular interest in Eigg. Whilst only Donnan fnds his way into the versified Martyrology of Oengus from ca. 830 (Stokes 1905), commemorating cona cléir, cain dine, /Donnán Eca húarae “with his followers, a fair assembly, / Donnán of chilly Eigg”, in the contemporary Martyrology of Tallaght (c.830), as well as Donnan and his 52 companions, we hear of Conán of Eigg (January 12th); Berchán of Eigg (April 10th) and Congalach of Eigg (Dec. 22nd) (Best and Lawlor1931) . A further cleric, Énán, looks like he belongs to Eigg (April 29th). So Eigg was prominent enough for its clerics, most probably its abbots or principes, to claim the notice, probably of the monks of Iona, in their liturgical commemorations.

There is more, however. The Martyrology of Tallaght also records the celebration, on April 20th, of:

Communis sollemnitas omnium sanctorum et vriginum Hiberniae et Britanniae et totius Europae et specialiter honorem sancti Marini episcopi, et familae Ego elivatio.
‘The communal solemnity of all the saints and virgins of Britain and Ireland and Europe and especially to the honour of the holy bishop Martin [of Tours], and the elevation of the monastic community of Eigg.’

This last could perhaps refer to the elevation of their relics to a free-standing reliquary or to an altar. This peculiar “Feast of All the Saints” grabbed the attention of John Hennig (1946). He argued that Iona is the probable vector for the emergence of this feast day. There is a corollary to this, in an addition to the feasts for April 17th: Zephán 7 Lurint 7 Geurgii 7 na naidin i mBethil 7 Petar decoin 7 Donan Ego co n-ulib martirib in domuin hoc die commemorantur, “Stephen and Lawrence and George and the babies in Bethlehem, and Peter the Deacon, and Donnán of Eigg, with all the martyrs of the world, on this day they are commemorated.” The cult of St George first appears in Britain in the works of Adomnán of Iona, who also championed the rights of children to be protected from violence (Clancy 1999, 12, 20). It seems fairly likely that Adomnán, or at least the community of Iona, lies behind this commemoration.

The April 17th entry is notable for one other reason. It records the names of Donnan’s companions. Although the list has been adapted for the spelling and language of the 9th century, there is little reason to doubt this is substantially a list of the names of those killed in 617 with Donnan. Here is the list—the names are in Latin form, and in the genitive:

Aedani. Iarloga bis. Mairic. Congaile. Lonain. Meic Laisre. Iohain bis. Ernain. Ernini. Baethini. Rotain. Andrelis. Carilis. Rotain. Fergusain. Rectaire. Connidi. Éndae. Meic Loga. Gurentii. Iuneti. Corani. Baetani. Colmain. Iernlugi. Lugaedo. Luctai. Grúcind. Cucalini. Cobrain. Conmind. Cummini. Baltiani. Senaig. Demmain. Cummeni. Iarnlugi. Finain. Findchain. Findchon. Cronani. Mo Domma. Crónain. Ciaráin. Colmain. Nauermi. Demmani. Ernini. Ailchon. Donnani.

In itself this is extraordinary. Although these are “bare names”, the list deserves to be better known, particularly on Eigg. From no other monastery in Scotland do we have such a substantial roll-call of its inhabitants at one moment in time.


Gaelic names (in restored nominative form)

Aedán, Iar(n)log /Iarnlug (x3) Congal, Lónán, Mac Laisre, Ernán, Erníne (x2), Baethíne, Rótán (x2), Cairell, Fergusán, Rechtaire, Connid, Énda, Mac Loga, Corrán, Baetán, Colmán (x2), Lugaid, Luchta, Grúcind, Cú Cailini, Cobrán, Conmind, Cummíne / -éne (x2) ,Senach,Demmán (x2) Fínán Findchán Findchú Crónán (x2) Mo Domma Ciarán, Ailchú, Donnán, + Iohán (loan name from Latin)

non-Gaelic names 


Mairic (cf. W. Meurig) Gurent?

Old English?
Baltiani (cf. names like Balthere)


Iuneti, Nauermi. ? mistake for Nainnine?

If we accept that these are the names of Donnan’s monks, what can we tell from them? The main thing is that the bulk of his monks were Gaels, over 80%. This is interesting, given Eigg’s “borderland” position between Gaelic-speaking territory and that of the Picts, in the early 7th century. There are a few names that are not Gaelic, but it is hard to know what is mangled and what not. A couple of names may be Brittonic, and one may be Old English (Baltianus: consider Old English names such as Balthere), which is not that strange if we remember that Columba had two English monks on Iona, one of them the baker (cf. VC iii.22 for Pilu saxo).

Before moving on, it is worth commenting briefly on the evidence that the substantial sculptural record from Eigg bears to ecclesiastical continuity. The many small crosses are increasingly bearing witness to the nature of this early Christian community, but the relief-carved cross slab now housed in St Donan’s Church has a particular tale to tell (see Gondek & Jeffrey 2003). Its Pictish associations have been noted, and also the stylistic features which date it to the 9th century. The Pictish dimension should not surprise us: even Iona was capable of being described as in the lands of the Picts in the 840s (Clancy 2004). But of course the 9th century was the high- water mark of punitive Viking raids on the Hebrides. The apparent continuity of Eigg amidst this is striking (considering the evidence for a Viking presence through important graves, on the doorstep of Kildonnan). Even more so the evidence of the inscription on the cross face. This reads IHU XPI , that is “(the cross) of Jesus Christ” (Fisher 2001, 92-4 gives an incorrect translation). The calligraphic style of the inscription is significant, especially the double downstroke of the capital I, which seems to imitate manuscript initials. It suggests the presence of an active scriptorium on Eigg at the time of the creation of the cross side of the monument. If this is in the 9th century, we may be seeing active continuity of a Gaelic / Pictish Christian community within a Scandinavianised political world.

So: what we can tell from sources from the 7th, 8th and 9th centuries is that Eigg was a prominent church community, that it either remained or re-established after the massacre of 617, and that Iona kept a keen interest in it during these centuries, recording the deaths of some churchmen in its Annals, and others finding their way into liturgical celebrations, noted in the Martyrologies. It is probably Iona which seems to have singled out the cult of Donnan as particularly special, linking his death to other iconic martyrdoms, and proclaiming April 20th as the feast of all the saints of Europe.

It is worth bearing this in mind when we think about the later sources relating to Donnan. here we find story traditions about the massacre of the monks, such as that in Latin from the 12th- century Book of Leinster (p.371b):

And there Donnan with his community endured martyrdom. It happened thus that a certain rich woman dwelt there before Donnan, and there her sheep used to be fed. For the ill-will therefore which she had against them she persuaded certain robbers to slay Donnan with his followers. But when the robbers came there, they found them in the oratory, singing psalms; and there they were not able to kill them. But Donnan said to his disciples, “Let us go into the refectory, that these men may be able to kill us where we used to live after the flesh; because so long as we are where we have endeavoured to please God, we cannot die. But where we have favoured the flesh we shall pay the debt of the flesh.” And so they were killed, on the night of Easter in their refectory. And they that suffered with Donnan were fifty four in number.

or in Gaelic from the 14th-century Leabhar Breac:

This Donnan is he who went to Columcille, to take him for his confessor (anamchara, lit. “soul- friend”). And Columcille said to him, ‘I will not be a confessor,’ said he, ‘to people who are to suffer violent martyrdom; for thou shalt enter violent maryrdom, and thy community with thee.’ And that is what was fulfilled. Donnan went after that among the Gall-gaidil, and took up his abode in the place where the queen of the country’s sheep used to be. This was told to the queen. ‘Kill them all’, said she. ‘That is not devout’, said the others. Thereafter men go to them, to kill them. The priest was then at mass. ‘Grant us peace till the mass is ended,’ said Donnan. ‘We will’, said they. Thereafter they were all killed, as many as were there. (Stokes 1905)

One interesting feature of these notes is that in Ireland they seem not to have been certain anymore where Eigg was, or indeed what it was. The Book of Leinster note is preceded by this:

Ega nomen fontis in Aldasain //.i. carrac eter Gall Gaedelu 7 Cend Tiri ina camair immuich, // i Cattaib i tuaisciurt Alban.

“Eigg, the name of a spring in Aldasan // i.e. a rock between Gall-Ghàidhil and Kintyre out to sea// i.e. in Sutherland in the north of Scotland”.

Aladasan here, elsewhere All-Saxan is ‘the rock of the English’, later Carraig Alasdair, and later still Ailsa Craig. The apparent confusion in this note conceals genuine reference points: these are places where the cult of Donnan was known by the 12th century.

The cult of St Donnan is attested by many places round about Scotland (and none that we know of in Ireland, interestingly). Most of these are in the form of Kildonan or Kildonnan, that is Cille Donnàin ‘the church of St Donnan’. There are other place-names though, such as Chapel Donnan and Eilean Donnan. These place-names are hagiotoponyms, place-names containing the names of saints, and you can explore the names relating to Donnan, and other saints, in Scotland on the Database of Scottish Hagiotoponyms (DoSH), based on research frunded by The Leverhulme Trust, by Rachel Butter, Gilbert Márkus, and myself, to be found here:


Donnan’s details are here: http://saintsplaces.gla.ac.uk/saint.php?id=88

The distribution of places culting St Donnan is very interesting. We need to rid ourselves of the notion that these represent anything to do with Donnan’s own activities (Smyth 1984, 107 is wrong in this respect); rather these churches belong to a later period, perhaps from the 8th century on, when Donnan became a particularly important and popular saint to commemorate in local churches. (For more on Kil- names and their dating and significance, see Clancy 2014).

Why? Two possibilities present themselves (see Butter in MacQuarrie 2012, 352-4). One is to look to the linkage of Donnan to all saints and martyrs, as we have seen in the Irish martyrologies. If this were the motivation, though, we would perhaps expect to find some commemoration of Donnan in Ireland. Instead, we might look to the fact that the distribution largely corresponds to areas of Scotland which in the 9th, 10th and 11th century fell under Scandinavian power. The Vikings colonised these regions, and alter became Christian. It has been suggested, very plausibly, that they adopted the cult of Donnan (Rekdal 2004, 264-69). This may have been as an “expiation cult”—a saint who died a martyrdom much like the deaths the Vikings had inflicted on many churchmen in the first onslaught of the Viking age. The parallel is the cult of St Edmund in England—martyred by Vikings, but mere years later commemorated in Christian coinage as a saint by Scandinavian rulers in England, and later venerated especially by Danish king of England, Cnut.

One way or another, in the centuries before 1100, Donnan of Eigg had become a prominent saint within the community of saints in Scotland.

data from Saints in Scottish Place-Names resource: http://saintsplaces.gla.ac.uk/saint.php?id=88

AU = Mac Airt, S. and Mac Niocaill, G. 1983 The Annals of Ulster to 1131, Dublin
Best and Lawlor 1931 The Martyrology of Tallaght, London.
Charles-Edwards, T. 2006 The Chronicle of Ireland, Liverpool.
Clancy, T.O. 1999 ‘Adomnán and the cult of saints in Scotland’, in Broun, D. & Clancy, T.O. Spes Scotorum,

Hope of Scots. Saint Columba, Iona and Scotland, Edinburgh, 3-34.
Clancy, T.O. 2004 ‘ Iona in the kingdom of the Picts: a note’, Innes Review 55, 73-76.
Clancy, T.O. 2014 ‘Saints in the Scottish landscape’, Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium 33.
Evans, N. 2010 The Present and the past in Medieval Irish Chronicles, Woodbridge.
Fisher, I. 2001 Early Medieval Sculpture in the West Highlands and Islands, Edinburgh.
Fraser, J.E. 2009 From Caledonia to Pictland. Scotland to 795, Edinburgh.
Gondek, M. & Jeffrey, S. 2003 ‘The re-use of a figurative panel from Eigg’, Medieval Archaeology 47, 178-85. Hennig, J. 1946 ‘A feast of all the saints of Europe’, Speculum 21, 49-66.
MacQuarrie, A. 2012 Legends of Scottish Saints in the Aberdeen Breviary, Dublin.
Márkus, G. 2008 Adomnán’s Law of the Innocents, Kilmartin.
Ní Dhonnchadha, M. 1982 ‘The guarantor list of Cáin Adomnáin, 697’, Peritia 1, 178-215.
Picard, J-M 2000 ‘Princeps and principatus in the early Irish Church: a reassessment’, in Smyth A.P. 2000,

Seanchas, Dublin, 146-60
Rekdal, J-E 2004, ‘Vikings and saints: encounters Vestan um Haf’, Peritia 17-18, 256-75. Smyth, A.P. 1984, Warlords and Holy Men. Scotland AD80-1000, London.
Stokes, W. 1905 The Martyrology ofOengus, London.
VC = Vita Columbae, see Sharpe, R. 1995 Adomnán of Iona, Life of Saint Columba, London.


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