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Uamh nan Cailleach, Nuns’ Cave, Carsaig

A Scheduled Monument in Oban South and the Isles, Argyll and Bute

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Latitude: 56.3114 / 56°18'41"N

Longitude: -6.0057 / 6°0'20"W

OS Eastings: 152355

OS Northings: 720435

OS Grid: NM523204

Mapcode National: GBR CDK1.1XH

Mapcode Global: WGZFK.QMBF

Entry Name: Uamh nan Cailleach, Nuns’ Cave, Carsaig

Scheduled Date: 21 September 2017

Source: Historic Environment Scotland

Source ID: SM13674

Schedule Class: Cultural

Category: Ecclesiastical: cave

Location: Kilfinichen and Kilvickeon

County: Argyll and Bute

Electoral Ward: Oban South and the Isles

Traditional County: Argyllshire


The monument is a natural cave known as Uamh nan Cailleach (also called the Nuns' Cave)  which features a number of incised carvings dating from the early medieval, medieval, post medieval and modern periods. The cave is located on the south coast of the Ross of Mull and is situated above the high water mark on a rocky shore. The entrance to the cave is obscured by a mound covered in vegetation, probably formed by rock-fall.

The cave is roughly triangular on plan and the roof and sides taper to a point around 30m deep. The entrance is around 20m wide and 5m high. The sides of the cave have been marked with a variety of incised carvings. The carvings are primarily located on the western wall and are positioned 0.4m to 1.3m above the present floor level of the cave. Most are readily visible but a few examples are very faint.

The earliest carvings are a number of incised crosses with relatively simple forms that are thought to have been made as early as the 6th century AD. There is an encircled cinquefoil and double 'V' marks, which may date to the late medieval or post medieval periods. There are several inscriptions that date to the 17th to 19th century including a carved impression of a sailing ship and masons' marks. There are also modern incised and painted initials, dates and images.

The scheduled area is rectangular on plan and includes the cave, the remains described above and an area outside the entrance of the cave within which evidence relating to the monument's use may survive, as shown in red on the accompanying map. It does not include ground above the cave.

Source: Historic Environment Scotland

Statement of Scheduling

Cultural Significance

The cultural significance of the monument has been assessed as follows:

Intrinsic Characteristics

The monument includes a cave whose walls have been incised with carvings, which survive in relatively good condition. The carvings include 11 crosses, a sailing ship, a cinquefoil, a trident and two masons' marks all which were surveyed in 1976 (RCAHMS 1980, 159). Some crosses with expanded ends have been dated to the early medieval period (6th to 9th century AD). The cinquefoil is later medieval, and the masons' marks and ship are likely to be 18th or 19th century. There is also a pecked basin carved into a boulder near the cave entrance that is of unknown date.

There are a number of other inscribed marks that were not depicted on the survey drawing from 1976. These include up to 17 simple incised crosses as well as dates (the earliest '1633'). There are also two double 'V' marks, short for 'Virgo Virginum'  refering to the Virgin Mary. These are likely to be late medieval or post medieval in date and are interpreted as apotropaic markings (also known as witches' marks) which were made to protect against malevolent spirits. There are various modern carvings of initials and symbols as well as painted graffiti (the latest '2012').

Much of the carving is likely to have been connected to use of the cave as a shelter when adjacent sources of sandstone were being  quarried. Some of the post medieval carvings, in particular the masons' marks and sailing ship, directly illustrate this activity.

The ground surface of the cave is being raised by the accretion of guano from feral goats and there is potential for archaeological remains related to the cave's use to survive beneath this. The condition of the carvings appears relatively stable with only one being rendered unidentifiable because of vegetation since the survey in 1978.

Contextual Characteristics

Natural caves with carving on the walls are found along Scottish coasts but are not common. The features within each monument vary widely, some caves are associated with built masonry or rock-cut features as well as carvings. Others have extensive archaeological deposits. A sub-set of caves are associated with early Christian carvings. A few kilometres to the west, also on the south coast of the Ross of Mull, is Scoor Cave (scheduled monument  SM9470, Canmore ID 21977). Scoor has a number of inscribed crosses that are comparable to those in Uamh nan Cailleach.

Archaeological research (Campbell 1987) has linked the crosses with expanded ends found in the cave with six other sites in Argyll, the most important being the early medieval monastery founded by St Columba on Iona some 24km to the west of Uamh nan Cailleach. It has been suggested that Uamh nan Cailleach, and nearby Scoor Cave, were retreats used by clerics from Iona.

Uamh nan Cailleach is adjacent to quarries described in 1790 that exploited sandstone on the foreshore and cliff face. Scientific study has provided evidence that stone from these quarries was used to build parts of the medieval nunnery founded on Iona in the early 1200s (British Geological Survey 2015). Sandstone from the Carsaig quarries was used as dressing stone, for example around windows and doors, in all phases of building and repair at the nunnery. There is similar dressing stone used in the medieval monastery on Iona and it seems very likely that the quarries also supplied this.

The masons' marks in the cave provide a strong link between the quarry and the cave and it is probable that masons working in the quarry used the cave for shelter in the medieval and post medieval periods. It is also possible that exploitation of stone at Carsaig occurred in the early medieval period. Quarries near both Scoor Cave and Uamh nan Cailleach have been suggested as sources for stone used for some of the early medieval crosses of Iona (Campbell 1987).

Associative Characteristics

The crosses in the cave form part of a tradition of early Christian carving associated with Iona, which is of international renown. The later carvings represent more secular traditions and vernacular expressions of faith. A notable example of this is the carving of apotropaic marks, which is not a well-studied phenomenon in Scotland and their occurrence in a cave alongside other Christian carvings may be rare.

The name (and its English rendering as the Nuns' Cave), and other nearby place names, such as Nuns' Pass, provide an oral tradition that may link the cave to Iona Nunnery. This is also transmitted in traditional stories about the cave, which relate that nuns sought refuge in it during the reformation.

There is no firm evidence to support this tradition and the reformation is not thought to have been accompanied with violence on Iona. However, there are links between the Carsaig quarries and the Nunnery and stories linking the cave with the nuns are an important associative characteristic. The name Uamh nan Cailleach means cave of the old woman or hag/witch, refering to a mythological figure. The name may therefore relate to an older tradition which then became associated with the nuns of Iona.

Statement of National Importance

The monument is of national importance because it makes a significant contribution to our understanding of early Christian carving and the network of sites associated with the monastery on Iona. It demonstrates the influence of Iona throughout Argyll and the possible exploitation of quarries at a considerable distance from Iona to obtain suitable stone for carving. The cave contains a wide variety of inscriptions that were created over a period of up to 1500 years from the early medieval to modern period. The carvings include informal expressions of faith over a long period of time and reflect different facets of Christian belief, including the role of hermitages in the early Christian period. The carvings also reflect secular activity, in particular working of the Carsaig quarries.The popular association of the cave with 'cailleach' and 'nuns' is an example of oral traditions and place names potentially preserving medieval, and perhaps older, associations. This example is of particular significance as these associations have been shown to have factual origins.

Source: Historic Environment Scotland



Historic Environment Scotland reference number CANMORE ID 22229 (accessed on 13 July 2017).

West of Scotland Archaeology Service Historic Environment Record Reference 612 (accessed on 13 July 2017).

Printed Sources

Fisher, I. (2001) Early Medieval sculpture in the West Highlands and Islands, RCAHMS/SocAntScot Monograph series 1. Edinburgh. P124.

Campbell, E. (1987) 'A cross-marked quern from Dunadd and other evidence for relations between Dunadd and Iona' in Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 117, 105-117.

British Geological Survey (2015) A building stone assessment of sandstone in Iona Nunnery and at Carsaig quarry on Mull.

RCAHMS (1980), The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland. Argyll: an inventory of the monuments volume 3: Mull, Tiree, Coll and Northern Argyll (excluding the early medieval and later monuments of Iona). Edinburgh, 159.

Online sources

Mull Historical & Archaeological Society Website: (accessed on 13 July 2017)


Source: Historic Environment Scotland

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