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Ashaig, remains of church and burial ground, shell midden and Tobar Aiseig well

A Scheduled Monument in Eilean á Chèo, Highland

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Coordinates

Latitude: 57.2504 / 57°15'1"N

Longitude: -5.8362 / 5°50'10"W

OS Eastings: 168691

OS Northings: 824264

OS Grid: NG686242

Mapcode National: GBR C9ZK.FJL

Mapcode Global: WGZ96.B133

Entry Name: Ashaig, remains of church and burial ground, shell midden and Tobar Aiseig well

Scheduled Date: 4 September 2019

Source: Historic Environment Scotland

Source ID: SM13720

Schedule Class: Cultural

Category: Ecclesiastical: burial ground, cemetery, graveyard; Prehistoric domestic and defensive: shell midden

Location: Strath

County: Highland

Electoral Ward: Eilean á Chèo

Traditional County: Inverness-shire

Description

The monument comprises the remains of an early medieval church, burial ground, shell midden and holy well, likely dating from the 7th-13th centuries. The monument is situated at the east end of a crofting township, approximately 70m from the shore of Ob Breakish, a tidal inlet. The area is known as Ashaig or Aisig which means 'a ferry' in Gaelic.  

The church, Cill Ashik or the church of the ferry, survives as a grass-covered raised platform up to 0.8m in height located on the highest point of the burial ground. Aligned east-west, it is rectangular in plan with external measurements of approximately 9m by 7m transversely. The curvilinear section of the burial ground's rubble-built wall is likely to indicate an earlier oval burial ground enclosure which is typical of early medieval church and cemetery sites. Immediately east of this wall, the shell midden survives as a large mound with exposed sections of shell visible. The midden measures 17m north-south by 7m transversely, sloping down to the east. The well known as Tobar Aiseig, also named Tobar Ashik (well of the ferry), survives as the foundation stones of a well house or paved area around an earlier stone lined spring that is also visible. Orientated north-south, this area measures 5m by 3m transversely.

The scheduled area is irregular and includes the remains described above and an area around within which evidence relating to the monument's construction, use and abandonment is expected to survive, as shown in red on the accompanying map. The scheduled area excludes the following: all post and wire fencing; any active burial lairs; all grave markers and memorials post-dating 1850; the modern stone wall enclosing Tobar Aiseig, and all signage and interpretation panels.

Source: Historic Environment Scotland

Statement of Scheduling

The national importance of the monument is demonstrated in the following way(s) (see Designations Policy and Selection Guidance, Annex 1, para 17):

a.     The monument is of national importance because it makes a significant contribution to our understanding of the past as a group of early ecclesiastical sites associated with the missionary activities of St Maelrubha in Skye in the late 7th century. 

b.     The monument retains structural, architectural or other physical attributes which make a significant contribution to our understanding or appreciation of the past. In particular, the church platform is likely to preserve buried features and deposits, including architectural remains and burials. Such     remains can contribute to our understanding of early church construction, burial practices and the nature and duration of use of early ecclesiastical sites. The associated holy well retains early medieval fabric.  

c.     The monument is a rare example of a grouping of interrelated ecclesiastical sites. The church is an uncommon example of an early Christian church with a clear link to a holy well. The well is a rare example as investigations have demonstrated that there was a structure, perhaps a well house, enclosing it. The shell midden is also rare: there are only six other recorded shell middens on the Isle of Skye and these are likely to be prehistoric. This example has been dated to the medieval period when the church and holy well would also have been in use. This increases the rarity and significance of this example.

d.     The monument is a good example of a well preserved early medieval church, shell midden and holy well that have the ability to enhance our understanding of dating, form and function of early ecclesiastical sites. They are therefore important representatives of their monument types both within the region and Scotland as a whole.

e.     The monument has archaeological, historic and scientific research potential which could significantly contribute to our understanding or appreciation of adoption and spread of Christianity in Scotland, as well as medieval settlement, subsistence and related activity around the midden, well and church.

f.       The monument makes a significant contribution to our understanding of the historic landscape due to its locally prominent coastal location and the link to the tradition of St Maelrubha's landing on Skye. Nearby contemporary sites increase its significance as does the link to the monastic site at Applecross, 19km to the north.

g.     The monument has a significant association with important historical events, social movements and figures. The monument is associated with the tradition of the arrival of St Maelrubha, who according to tradition brought Christianity to the Isle of Skye and represents the spread of Christianity in northwest Scotland.

Assessment of Cultural Significance

This statement of national importance has been informed by the following assessment of cultural significance:

Intrinsic characteristics (how the remains of a site or place contribute to our knowledge of the past)

Remains of the church appear to have been visible as late as 1840 when it was record in the New Statistical Account (NSA 1845, vol. XIV, p305) while an early 20th century account records that the foundations of the church were uncovered when a grave was being dug (Lamont 1913, pp33-5). The church is now visible as a turf covered platform surviving in good condition, indicating that significant buried remains survive. Excavations at similar early church sites in Scotland have revealed varied and often rich archaeological remains.  The site has potential for buried archaeological remains of the church and other possible earlier structures.  Approximately 10m northeast of the church there is evidence of a possible circular structure underneath the cemetery boundary wall (Canmore ID 331658), predating the wall. This could be the remains of a structure pre-dating or contemporary with the church.

The monument has potential to contribute to our understanding of early church construction, ecclesiastical architectural details and features, burial practices and the origins, nature and duration of use of early ecclesiastical sites. Any skeletal remains could reveal evidence for health, diet, illness, cause of death, local demography and possibly occupational activities. There is also potential for the survival of carved stones within buried deposits. These could help us to refine the dating of the site, as well as contribute towards our understanding of early Christian art and sculpture.

Archaeological test pitting undertaken on the shell midden has radiocarbon dated the feature to the 13th century AD (Hardy and Wickham-Jones, 2009). The results of the test pitting approximated that 90% of the midden is composed of periwinkle shell. Research at other contemporary sites on the western coast of Scotland have demonstrated that periwinkle shells are commonly associated with early monastic and religious sites. Remains of iron working slag were also recovered during the investigations potentially demonstrating that iron working was being carried out in the vicinity. The site has further research potential, as the test pits have demonstrated that there is potential for further midden material at the site. This can enhance our knowledge of settlement, subsistence and activity, both around the well and church during the early medieval period. Non-prehistoric shell middens have been subject to less detailed studies than prehistoric examples increasing the research potential of this example.

Excavation and conservation work undertaken at and around the well revealed that the well house was fed by a channel from an earlier stone-lined spring. This work recovered a range of artefacts which demonstrates a potentially extensive period of use. The artefacts include a Neolithic polished stone axe, worked flints and a range of coins. Wells associated with ecclesiastical sites in the early medieval and medieval periods were often associated with a saint and were attributed healing properties. The discovery of artefacts indicate votive activities by people who visited the well. The holy well at Ashaig is a rare example of this monument type as excavation has demonstrated a built structure around it and it has a clear association with an early medieval church site. There is the potential for further deposits to be present which can inform us of the role holy wells played in ecclesiastical sites.

Ecclesiastical use of the site could date from as early as the 7th-9th centuries as demonstrated from a cross-incised slab found adjacent to the well (Fisher 2001). The cross-incised slab is a roughly rectangular block of limestone, measuring 0.29m by 0.15m and incised with a simple cross measuring 0.19m by 0.11m. A medieval ornamented bronze strap-end was discovered in the burial ground and probably dates to the 11th century. These artefacts, alongside the shell midden deposits radiocarbon dated to the 13th century, indicates that the site was used over several centuries. The survival of further artefacts and ecofacts is to be expected around the monument, providing information on the nature and use of this ecclesiastical site during and after the arrival of Christianity in the area. Scientific study of the monuments would allow us to develop a better understanding of the chronology of the site, including its date of origin, state of completeness and any possible development sequence. Further investigation could provide additional information of how the three monuments and their features relate to each other, providing a clearer development sequence in the area. The monuments help to demonstrate the spread of Christianity throughout Scotland.

Contextual characteristics (how a site or place relates to its surroundings and/or to our existing knowledge of the past)

The church, burial ground, midden and well are situated in close proximity, representing remnants of a wider early medieval landscape. Located approximately 50m northeast of the well, is Creag an Leabhar (Canmore ID 331659), the pulpit rock, which is a natural limestone outcrop from where St Maelrubha is reputed to have preached when he was beginning his missionary work on Skye.

The church is located on a prominent high point in the local area, enhancing its visibility from the sea to the north and providing extensive views of the surrounding area including across to the mainland and to Applecross, an early monastic centre believed to have been established by Maelrubha. Located on the southern coast of the Isle of Pabay (Priest's Island), approximately 2.6km north-northwest of the monument, is the remains of a chapel (Canmore ID 11569) with an associated oval shaped burial ground. The chapel may be contemporary with the monument at Ashaig and these sites can potentially inform us of early religious activity taking place within the wider landscape. There is potential to compare this monument, with other churches known in the vicinity, looking at changes in worship and burial over time, increasing the significance of the site.

There are only six other identified shell middens on the Isle of Skye, with radiocarbon dating placing some of these sites between 5,500BC – AD 1600. Shell middens are more commonly found elsewhere in the region compared to the Isle of Skye, increasing the rarity of the example at Ashaig. This example is significant as a relatively rare medieval example with scientific dating demonstrating that it is within a contemporary grouping of sites. It therefore has the potential to contribute to our understanding of the development of the ecclesiastical landscape. This shell midden can be compared to other examples in the locality and outside the region to help inform our understanding of economy and society.

Associative characteristics (how a site or place relates to people, events, and/or historic and social movements)

The site is associated with the 7th century St Maelrubha who is believed to have carried out missionary work on Skye, founding a number of churches on the island. The area where these sites are located is known as Ashaig or Aiseig which comes from 'Askemorruy', a name recorded in the 17th century. This place name is translated as Ferry of Maelrubha and refers to the traditionally identified landing place of St Maelrubha.  It was not uncommon in the medieval period to found churches or chapels at ferry points particularly when associated with pilgrimage routes.

St Maelrubha was an Irish priest, born around AD 642. He was an abbot of Bangor before travelling to Scotland in AD 671 where he founded a monastery at Applecross in AD 673.  Located approximately 19km north of Ashaig across the Inner Sound of Skye, Applecross monastic settlement and church (scheduled monument SM2802) is a significant early ecclesiastical site. St Maelrubha is one of the early saints most widely commemorated in church dedications and place names across northwest Scotland, indicating the reach and influence of Applecross. His influence across Skye is reflected by the remains of a church dedicated to him at Loch Eynort (SM5665), approximately 32km west of Ashaig. 

Source: Historic Environment Scotland

Sources

Bibliography

Historic Environment Scotland http://www.canmore.org.uk reference number CANMORE ID 11571 (accessed on 8th May 2019)

Historic Environment Scotland http://www.canmore.org.uk reference number CANMORE ID 331658 (accessed on 8th May 2019)

Historic Environment Scotland http://www.canmore.org.uk reference number CANMORE ID 331633 (accessed on 8th May 2019)

Historic Environment Scotland http://www.canmore.org.uk reference number CANMORE ID 1157989 (accessed on 8th May 2019)

Historic Environment Scotland http://www.canmore.org.uk reference number CANMORE ID 319477 (accessed on 8th May 2019)

Highland HER Reference MHG35894 (accessed on 8th May 2019)

Highland HER Reference MHG5226 (accessed on 8th May 2019)

Highland HER Reference MHG55544 (accessed on 8th May 2019)

Highland HER Reference MHG42225 (accessed on 8th May 2019)

Blaeu, J. (1654) Skia vel Skiana, [vulgo], The Yle of Skie/Auct. Timotheo Pont., map, Blaeu Atlas of Scotland, Blaeu: Amsterdam

Lamont, D. (1913) Strath: in Skye. pp.33-5

Fisher, I. (2001). Early Medieval sculpture in the West Highlands and Islands, RCAHMS Monograph series 1. Edinburgh. pp.102

Hardy, K. (2016). Variable use of coastal resource in prehistoric and historic periods in Western Scotland, The Journal of Island and Coastal Archaeology, 11(2): pp.264-284

Hardy, K., and Wickham-Jones, C. (eds). (2009) Mesolithic and later sites around the Inner Sound, Scotland: the work of the Scotland's First Settlers project 1998-2004 [online] http://www.sair.org.uk/sair31 [accessed 24th May 2019]

Miket, R., and Wildgoose, M. (1989). Survey. Strath parish , Discovery and Excavation in Scotland, pp.43-4

NSA .(1845) The new statistical account of Scotland by the ministers of the respective parishes under the superintendence of a committee of the society for the benefit of the sons and daughters of the clergy, Vol 14. Invernesshire 305.

Noble, G., Turner, J., Hamilton, D., Hastie, L., Knecht, R., Stirling, L., Sveinbjarnarson, O., Upex, B., and Milek, K. (2018). Early Medieval Shellfish Exploitation in Northwest Europe: Investigations at the Sands of Forvie Shell Middens, Eastern Scotland, and the Role of Coastal Resources in the First Millennium AD, The Journal of Island and Coastal Archaeology, 13(4): pp.582-605

Reeves, W. (1862). Saint Maelrubha; his history and churches , Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 3: pp.290-1

Canmore

https://canmore.org.uk/site/331659/


HER/SMR Reference

MHG55546

Source: Historic Environment Scotland

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