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Eilean Mor, ‘the big isle’ at the south end of Loch Sween, has three ancient monuments – a cave, a chapel and a cross. Together, they tell the story of Christianity in this corner of Scotland.
The cave is known as St Cormac’s Cave, after the Irish saint Cormaig, legendary founder of nearby Keills Chapel, who is reputed to have used the cave as his hermitage, or retreat. It is now entered through a fissure in the rock face, but was originally reached along a 3m-long tunnel. The cave itself, around 3m long, 1m wide and 2m high, contains little other than two incised crosses on its east wall, dating to around AD 700 judging by their style.
A ruined drystone structure nearby may have been a later ‘ticket office’ for controlling medieval pilgrims heading for the saint’s abode.
This little chapel stands close to a natural landing place at the north-east end of the island. It has had a chequered history. The simple rectangular structure was built in the 13th century. It was extensively altered in the 14th century, when John MacDonald, 1st Lord of the Isles had the chancel upgraded. It was finally converted into a dwelling house around 1700, for use by a tenant of Macneil of Gillchoille, the island’s owner. The effigy of a late-medieval cleric, richly attired in his vestments but now headless, is still preserved here.
Beside the chapel stands St Cormac’s Cross, believed to be of 10th-century date. Only the shaft and lower part of the ringed cross-head survive, and much of the decoration on the west face is damaged. The east face, though, is still festooned with monsters wrestling and gripping snakes, and a hooded rider astride an oversized horse. The disc-headed cross on the island’s highest point is a replica of the late 14th-century cross erected by Mariota de Ros, wife of Donald MacDonald, 2nd Lord of the Isles. The original was taken for safe-keeping to the National Museum of Antiquities in Edinburgh in 1937.